Thursday 24 July 2008

Jobs and Benefits

It is hard to argue with the basic premise behind Labour's proposed changes to the benefit system for the unemployed, namely that it was never the intention of the architects of our system of benefits that people should be able to choose to live on benefits rather than to work. And that remains as true today as ever. But it doesn't mean that the proposed reforms are right or fair, or even that they address the basic point.

I think that there would be almost universal agreement that there should be a proper system of decent benefits for those who are unable to work, and one aspect of the proposed changes which I welcome is the increase in the level of benefits for those in greatest need. I think that there is probably also agreement across the spectrum that it is right and proper for the government to be actively encouraging those who can work to seek and find employment, and even to make it clear that 'choosing' to stay on benefits is not an option. Although the tabloids significantly overplay this aspect, I think we all know that there are a minority of people who just don't want to work, and are happy to live on the benefits paid for by the rest of us.

Having said all that, I am deeply unhappy with some aspects of the proposed changes. It seems to me that, on the back of an attempt to be seen to be tackling the workshy, the government are in danger of transferring the blame for unemployment entirely onto the backs of the unemployed themselves.

I have some direct experience of the unemployment benefits system. A few years ago, after being gainfully employed continuously for over 30 years, I was made redundant, and looking for a new job. I found the so-called Jobcentres less than helpful. They weren't in the least interested in what experience I had or whether any job was relevant or suitable; only in why I hadn't applied for any and every vacancy advertised in the Jobcentre. It was clear that they were target-driven - and that their targets were more to do with reducing benefits paid than with matching people to jobs.

There is a valid question to be raised, of course, as to what extent people receiving benefits should be allowed to pick and choose which jobs they do – and I'm well aware that there are some who will find the flimsiest reason for rejecting any and every job. But surely we should at least make some sort of effort to put round pegs into round holes, rather than drawing a simplistic straight line between an unemployed person and a vacancy?

The idea that people should be forced to do 'useful community work' to earn their benefits sounds oh so logical; but it leaves me more than a little uncomfortable, especially since it seems that the government is planning to contract this aspect out and allow private companies to make a profit from this unpaid work. If this is work that needs to be done, why not call it a job and pay a wage, rather than paying private companies to manage people doing what looks like some sort of 'compulsory voluntary work'?

Another specific proposal which leaves me cold is the idea that lone parents should be forced back to work when their children reach the age of seven. Given all the government emphasis on the issues arising from alienated youth, is this really a sensible thing to be doing at so young an age?

So, should the government do nothing at all? No, of course not – but I think that there are other things that could and should be looked at.

We could end the scandal by which unscrupulous employers hide behind 'agencies' who supply them with workers, usually from overseas, who, when their 'rent', 'fees' and other charges are deducted, end up working for less than the minimum wage. For all the government denials, I have no doubt that, as well as exploiting the 'agency' staff, this has directly reduced the number of jobs available to local people in a number of areas.

Let's look at the reasons which keep those who want to work out of work – lack of availability of jobs, mismatch between skills and jobs, poor public transport to get them there and back, wages which, after paying for transport (and possibly childcare), leave them worse off than they are on benefits.

And we could implement the 'living wage' concept which Plaid have argued for in the past, rather than depending on the minimum wage legislation.

I accept that we need to change the culture of benefit-dependency into which some have fallen. It was a mistake for the government, a few years ago, to actively encourage people onto Incapacity Benefit, sometimes needlessly, in order to 'hide' them from the unemployment figures. Stigmatising all those who are out of work – including those on Incapacity Benefit – by implying that they are all workshy may buy a few headlines in the Daily Mail, but it doesn't solve the deep problems faced in some of our communities.


Anonymous said...

good post, very much agree with you about the Job Centres and staff having had experience of it myself.

Edward ap Sion said...

I must admit you had me sweating when I read the first paragraph of this post. I didn't have any difficulty in being opposed to Labour's premise behind their proposals on Welfare reform. Although you clarify some points later on in the post I think it's high time your party started championing the cause of those who live on and below the breadline. This stunt was just another attempt by Brown to gain favourable headlines in the Daily Mail.

How could anyone argue that forcing say a labourer who has been laid off because of the crumbling construction industry, to do community-sentence-style work in order to get job seekers allowance? Call me old-fashioned, but I'm a 'cradle to grave' kind of guy.

John Dixon said...


I don't think we're a long way apart on this issue. We have been campaigning for the replacement of the minimum wage with the 'living wage', and will continue to do so. I support the concept of 'cradle to grave' support for those who need it in society, but I really don't think that Beveridge or any of the others involved in establishing the welfare state started with a belief that people would be able to 'choose' to live on benefits.

Now I think that the number making that 'choice' is actually a great deal smaller than the tabloids would have us believe, and tarring all unemployed people with the same brush is disgraceful politics. But trying to deny that such a minority exists at all is futile, and they present a real challenge for those of us who believe passionately in the welfare state. Treating them in a way which is similar to the treatment of offenders is certainly not the right way.

Anonymous said...

I so agree, I just cannot comprehend why Labour is going down this root, a party of social justice- they have lost the plot.
I go back to my mantra, get decent jobs available for people with a living wage , very few would choose to stay on benefits.
And yes lets get back to staff who care about their clients and are encourgaed to help and support them not villefy them

Anonymous said...

This debate has been skewed by the red tops and government to focus on the able but workshy. What it has failed to address is that Labour wants to take people on disability - i.e. people who have been assessed by experts as being suitable for that benefit - off benefits and into work.
Most importantly they're looking to privatise this aspect of the benefits by rewarding private companies who get people off benefits. Nothing to do with ability, the quality of the job or the length people stay off benefits - simply get them off our hands and we'll give you wads of cash. Deeply disturbing devlopment.

John Dixon said...


I agree. And it's no surprise that the Tories' reaction has basically been to accuse Labour of 'stealing' their policy.

Once again, the policy of the Labour Government is being driven by what they think buys favourable headlines in the tabloids rather than by the needs of people and communities.