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Monday, November 08, 2010 

Workfare then and now.

How times change. A little over two years ago, before it became apparent that there was a recession waiting in the wings, Chris Grayling, the then shadow work and pensions secretary set out his party's plans for how they would deal with youth unemployment. For those few aged 18 to 21 who qualified for jobseeker's allowance, should they have failed to find a job within 3 months they would have found themselves either on a compulsory "community service programme" or a "boot camp" training course. Much about the plan was inadequately sketched out - it wasn't apparent how long these programmes or courses would have lasted, nor how something could be described as both a boot camp and a training course, as the two tend to be mutually exclusive, yet the implications could hardly have been more certain. There was no excuse for being young and unemployed, and if you were, you clearly needed to be shown some very tough love until you stopped being jobless. How you were supposed to find work if you were permanently on a community service programme, as would be the case if you didn't find a job after being on JSA for a year was equally unclear, or perhaps was besides the point. If you hadn't found a job after a year you clearly weren't going to, hence being forced into either permanent "unpaid" labour or into taking no money whatsoever from the state.

The plans for what amounts to something approaching "workfare" mooted by Iain Duncan Smith yesterday are a development on Grayling's original plan. Some of the rougher, sharper edges have been filed down; the "permanent" element seems to have abandoned, while the scheme has been expanded to cover everyone who has been claiming JSA for over a year, not just the young. There's no longer any talk of "boot camps", while rather than community service the four-week placements would be intended to give some experience of work to those who might have got out of the routine. That does however rather mask the fact that the work likely to be carried out - "gardening and litter clearing" - are mainstays of "community payback" schemes and perhaps also that the very same contractors could be involved in both. Add in the notion that such placements could be used to flush out those who are signing on but working cash in hand or just not trying to find a job, which confuses the issue somewhat, and you have a policy which is a mess from the very start.

Coming as it does only a couple of weeks after IDS said that those out of work in Methyr Tydfil (1,670 unemployed; 39 vacancies) should "get on the bus" to Cardiff (15,000 unemployed; 1,700 vacancies) to find work it does suggest that for someone who claims to have studied and understood the realities of living on benefits he could do with some remedial classes. While prior to the recession the obvious Tory assumption was that the young and unemployed were simply scroungers or completely incapable of work for whatever the reason and so needed to be treated relatively harshly, it's difficult to know what the real thinking behind this is now. For one thing, the numbers of those on JSA for over a year are a low percentage of the total currently claiming, at 266,000. The vast majority of those are going to know full well what the world of work is like and will be desperate to get back into it, not least as JSA pays so little. Equally likely is even if they're no longer working, they'll have other responsibilities which mean they keep relatively similar hours to those in work, whether it's getting children ready for school or otherwise, not to mention how being on JSA means they have to be actively seeking work. It's then not just patronising for a politician to suggest that some of them need to be reminded of what it is to clock in at 9 and go home at 5 (as if some of those now unemployed ever kept such hours in the first place), it's actively insulting, as is the idea that the manual work apparently on offer will instantly make the jobseeker more attractive to employers once they've been cutting the grass or picking up crisp packets for four weeks. It completely ignores the individual behind the figure and imagines that a short, sharp shock will have some impact on them.

The intervention of the Archbishop of Canterbury, suggesting that such measures can lead to a "downward spiral of uncertainty, even despair" will hardly be welcomed, not least because his analysis was acute but also because ministers will remember the Faith in the City report and the criticism from Thatcherite true believers which followed the Church of England's intervention in politics. Certainly, that no one from the coalition responded to his critique (as far as I'm aware) seems telling of not wanting history to repeat. It also helps that there's very little arguing with him, as only those few genuinely trying not to work or who are claiming while working cash in hand will despair for the right reasons. For those who have been out of work for a year, finding themselves surplus to requirements, unable to provide for their families as before and forced to rely on the state can be humiliating and depressing enough. To then have to report for manual work for far below the minimum wage in the name of providing you with "skills" employers will want or getting you back used to work could be the last straw.

This isn't to deny that in certain circumstances it could be useful, if given as an option to the employment advisers working for Jobcentre Plus who think it could be applicable. Even then though the problems are still obvious, as Don Paskins has set out: there are plenty who are already employed to do the work that those placed on the schemes are meant to be doing, not counting the others doing community service which can often duplicate it. Fundamentally, the biggest objection should be that this will be punishing the wrong people: if in a year's time the economy is still in the doldrums, the private sector not creating enough new jobs as the public sector cuts start to bite, then it will not be the fault of those who are supposedly too lazy to get off their backsides but rather the politicians who have gambled on introducing austerity measures when stimulus is still what is needed. Iain Duncan Smith is meant to be both cleverer and more compassionate than this, and will have to be if his plans for a universal benefit are going to pay.

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