Tuesday, 29 June 2010

War on Welfare

Another day and another attack on the welfare state. Within days of the coalition agreement, all initiatives aimed at encouraging the employment of the long-term unemployed had been scrapped – the Young Person’s Guarantee, the Future Jobs Fund and employment subsidies. The coalition claimed they were costly, but when you consider the comparable cost of someone claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance and Housing Benefit, these ‘wasteful’ Labour policies actually seem quite cost effective. Not to mention the disposable income employees have to reinvest in their local communities – and the associated increase in self-esteem it has on individuals, families and communities.

In recent days, however, the coalition’s assault has become much more directed at the recipients of benefits. Firstly Iain Duncan-Smith pledged to reassess all those on Incapacity Benefit and Employment Support Allowance (which could see unemployment figures hit four million) and then, in a hideous echo of Norman Tebbitt’s “on your bike” speech, he’s proposing relocating the unemployed to areas with a job surplus. Where he thinks this magical place is, I’ve no idea. North Korea? If, as is more likely the case, he’s talking about Southern England, then I’m afraid there’s not enough jobs there either and – with the government slashing housing benefit (not to mention landlords and second-home owners pushing up the prices) – there’s no way they could afford to relocate. All it would do is create ghettoized communities and more social division.

Today it was the turn of Labour turncoat Frank ‘Poverty Tsar’ Field to attack shirking fathers who would rather stay on benefit than take employment.

The core principle underlying Field’s article is sound – people who are capable of working should work – but the tactics Field champions, and the ill-informed and reactionary rhetoric he employs, are totally counter-productive.

Firstly, Field’s article itself is grounded in an old fashioned and outdated idea of the nuclear family. He claims that “unemployed fathers will not accept offers of work for less than £300 a week since they feel it is not worth their while.” I’d like to see what research this is based on. An unemployed person over 25 receives just £65 JSA a week (£10 less if they’re under 25). Someone earning the current national minimum wage (£5.80 per hour) would need to work only 11.3 hours a week to be “better off” than that pitiful level of benefit. Hence, whilst Field’s aspersions may be correct (please provide the evidence) is it irresponsible to make such hyperbolic statements – anyone who doesn’t know about benefit levels would think they all receive £300 a week!

Field also suggests “that men who refuse to take up a government offer of work should have their benefit removed altogether, a far tougher sanction than they face under the current benefits regime.” Firstly, this already happened under the Labour government. Secondly, there is no such thing as a “government offer of work” because all the schemes aimed at encouraging employers to recruit long-term unemployed have been scrapped.

Field is right to champion “the unmarried father who is often young, unemployed and often unemployable and who is unskilled” but this requires state intervention, not state inaction. Employers won’t employ these types of people without incentives or re-education, and the young people won’t gain necessary skills without resourced training (which has been scrapped following the cancellation of the Young Person’s Guarantee) or a robust and effective apprenticeship strategy. It seems somewhat contradictory that Field criticises Labour’s spending on welfare, but supports a reinstatement of their jobs fund.

The type of rhetoric which Field employs – along with the constant demonisation of benefit claimants – is profoundly undemocratic because it is fundamentally misleading. The message coming from the coalition suggests there is no alternative to acting ruthlessly but this quite simply untrue. The welfare system does need reform, but it doesn’t need ripping apart. People should work if they are capable and they should be penalised if they reject the offer of work. But you can’t create a draconian welfare system based on penalties and sanctions when there are no jobs available to take. Neither is it progressive of left-wing, however, to have millions of people claiming benefits. We need a proactive and dynamic welfare system that encourages employers to recruit through the Jobcentre and that makes it worthwhile and straightforward for people to accept work.

Finally, here's a party political broadcast on behalf of the ConDem Coalition:

No comments:

Post a Comment