Pooper store?

On the day Tesco reacted to allegations that it was taking part in a government "slave labour" scheme, ministers have come out fighting.

They believe that a small, unrepresentative protest group is trying to make big companies lose their nerve and withdraw from a scheme which allows people up to eight weeks' work experience without losing their benefits (in the past only two weeks was allowed).

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg told me: "I think it is ridiculous when people condemn a programme of work experience which is helping hundreds, if not thousands, of young people to get into work. I think anyone who wants to condemn a scheme that helps people into work at a time of high unemployment really needs to think hard about their priorities. It is not slave labour. It is not compulsory. It is entirely voluntary."

He added: "It is very simple. We say to employers, 'Please take on these young people. We will pay them, through benefits, but could you please keep them on for a few weeks because it increases their chance of finding work?' Fifty per-cent of youngsters on the work experience scheme so far have found permanent work. That is something that I celebrate. Other people might choose to condemn it. I don't."

Asked if he had any concerns about young people being asked to work for example a night-shift stacking shelves in a supermarket for free, Mr Clegg said: "I have absolutely no qualms at all about the idea that rather than have a young person sitting at home, feeling cut off, lonely and getting depressed because they don't know what to do with their lives.

"It is better to give them the opportunity for a few weeks to actually work, and of course retain their payment through their benefits".

The anti-cuts pressure group Right to Work occupied a Tesco branch in Westminster at the weekend and bombarded its HQ and that of other big high street names with demands that work be paid the minimum rate.

Today Tesco said it would offer young unemployed people four weeks' paid work or the opportunity to take part in the existing scheme. A no-brainer you might think.

But ministers believe that many will prefer the certainty of staying on benefits to the uncertainty of coming off it without knowing they're going to get a job at the end.

What may unnerve ministers most is that Tesco has come out against the government's welfare rule which states that benefits can be cut for people whose work experience placements do not proceed well.

Right to Work spokesman Mark Dunk welcomed the move by Tesco but warned that the group might now target other high street names.

One minister told me that he believed that the protesters were the "usual suspects" who'd got hold of and used other people's e-mails to write protests.

One of those who appeared to have written to Tesco was a government minister.

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