Alliance Boots will no longer offer unpaid work placements under a government scheme after it said it accidentally broke its own policy, Retail Week can reveal.

The pharmacist said it will no longer offer any new placements for the Work Programme to get the long-term unemployed back to work after head office bosses realised work experience staff had been placed by external work placement providers.

Boots moved to clarify its position after the work experience row that has erupted over the last two weeks. Retailers including Argos, Superdrug and Matalan are due to meet with employment minister Chris Grayling tomorrow to discuss the issue.

The Work Programme compels the long-term unemployed to go on mandatory placements, it differs from the government’s voluntary Work Experience programme which both sit within its Get Britain Working initiative.

Sainsbury’s chief executive Justin King called for the “noisy” debate to be moved on and “properly-structured work experience” with the “prospect of a real job” to be offered.

Writing in The Telegraph, he said: “Given our current ecnomic and social challenges, it has never been more important to provide the right kind of opportunities for the young and unemployed of today.”

King said business should work with government to find a voluntary solution. He said: “It would be nothing short of a travesty if the real casualties of the heated debate raging about work experience and big business end up being the very people many of these schemes set out to help in the first place.”

Boots said its policy is not to “participate in schemes which compel people to work on a mandatory basis or use people on work placement to replace paid employment”.

Alliance Boots health and beauty division HR director Stephen Lehane said: “Having established that some stores, on a localised basis, have been approached by work placement providers, we are now aware that there are a small proportion of individuals for whom we have provided work experience outside of policy.

“We can confirm that we will no longer be offering any new placements. Our ambition is and has always been to provide positive opportunities for people and to make a real difference for young people in the UK, this will continue to be our priority and focus.”

Boots said it provides a “significant number” of work placements through its own schemes. It employs 65,000 people across 2,500 stores.