Some time ago, around the inaugruration of the ConDem coalition, I wrote about the the potential of the new governments Universal Credit scheme and the looming Workfare programme. Well, finally I have got round to continuing the analysis now that we have had a couple of years to see how it has all panned out. Shockingly enough the answer is: not very well.
The coalition’s workfare scheme has been one of the government’s most high profile policy directives since they came to power. On the face of it, the idea sounds great. For those long term unemployed, why not get them back into the practice of working for hard earned money. A way to end the culture of welfare dependency and preventing benefits fraud at the same time – not to mention discouraging the
proliferation of so-called benefits tourism which has apparently plagued our nation since the introduction into the EU of countries filled to the brim with lazy do-nothings. What could be a more sensible method to kick start the Big Society? This is no new idea, implemented in the United States, Australia and Canada to name but a few. What self-respecting Daily Mail reader could possibly disagree with such a scheme?
Sarcasm aside, to that end the coalition has introduced a plethora of schemes, all with different sets of qualifying attributes which mean that almost anyone can be referred to these ingenious ‘hand-up, not hand-out’ contrivances. The Work Programme, the Mandatory Work Activity and Back-to-Work are but a few of the programmes which fall under this umbrella scheme – which ultimately provide free labour to large businesses who do not have need of it. There have even been well publicised cases of individuals losing their jobs only to be then forced by the programme to work the very same job, only this time without the benefit of being paid for their effort.
Perhaps justifiably, the implementation of this policy has come under a great deal of criticism from those liberal socialists whose agenda wishes only that the state provide all things for nothing to everyone. So much so that the government has had to continuously reimagine the policy in response to legal challenges which assert that the policy is needlessly punitive and does in fact not attain its stated objective – to help people back into paid employment and provide training – whilst instead driving many into a form of unpaid ‘forced labour’ and leaving those unwilling to play ball in destitute poverty through sanctions. The backlash to the plain defectiveness of the programmes has been such that a large number of companies have disengaged with the workfare system fearing the justified damage it has done their ethical reputation.
In the last week, an important judgement has been handed down which may pave the way to rescinding (or once again restructuring) the workfare programme. Cait Reilly, a 24 year old geology graduate with ambitions to work in museums, had found herself a voluntary position working at a museum in order to provide herself with the work experience necessary to gain a foothold in an industry befitting her training. The Jobcentre was fully aware that she was doing this voluntary work, but decided that it would be a far better expenditure of her time to send her on a ‘mandatory’ scheme to stack shelves unpaid in Poundland. Quite apart from the fact that the Jobcentre had done nothing to help her find relevant work, Ms Reilly already had plenty of experience in shelf stacking. Furthermore, it turns out that the placement was in fact not mandatory at all and that she had either been deliberately misled or that the regulations concerning these workfare schemes are so convoluted as to render Jobcentre staff incapable of making appropriate referrals. The judgement held that the scheme had breached Ms Reilly’s human rights protecting her from forced labour. The implications are that all those who have lost benefits through sanctions for not taking part in workfare are entitled to their money back. However, a spokesman for the Department of Work and Pensions has said,
“We have no intention of giving back money to anyone who has had their benefits removed because they refused to take getting into work seriously. We are currently considering a range of options to ensure this does not happen,”
In a typical display of the Old Boys Club mentality of conservative party thought, Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, attacked her as a ‘job snob’ and dismissed critics of the scheme as a ‘commenting elite…[with] an unjustified sense of superiority’. Apparently, Duncan Smith has no sense of irony. For her part, Ms Reilly has stated publicly that “I don’t think I am above working in shops like Poundland. I now work part time in a supermarket. It is just that I expect to get paid for working.” As noted by Tom Walker, employment law partner at Manches,
“This judgment upholds what is perhaps the key tenet of employment, namely the ‘work wage bargain’…If someone gives their labour to a company, they should be paid for it. However well intentioned a workplace scheme may be, it is very dangerous to introduce compulsory unpaid labour into the UK employment market”.
Prior to the implementation of the workfare policy, the government commissioned its own report into the likely effectiveness of the scheme, including data from similar schemes in other countries. The conclusions were not promising:
“There is little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work. It can even reduce employment chances by limiting the time available for job search and by failing to provide the skills and experience valued by employers… Workfare is least effective in getting people into jobs in weak labour markets where unemployment is high.”
In a government which had any interests in facts, this would signal a necessary rethink of policy, but in time-honoured tradition, the coalition ploughed forward (similar intransigence was seen late last year with the cross-party report on drugs policy). Recent figures from the ONS show that the discrepancy between the number of unemployed and those claiming out-of-work benefits is now at its highest since 1992, when there was virtual parity. So how are those unemployed who are not claiming jobless entitlements providing for themselves? In a system that favours cutting welfare costs over increasing employment numbers, it seems that the coalition is working not to help the citizens who voted them into office, but instead to ‘boost’ the economy by helping large corporations to lower their costs with free labour in the hope that GDP figures will convince us that their policies are having the desired effect, whilst ignoring the fact that those in poverty are rising and income inequality is at its highest in years.
Perhaps it is too much to hope that a Conservative led government may one day learn that ‘trickle down’ economics has been both discredited and led to some of the worst social mobility that our nation has seen.
Next time, we’ll see how the coalition could better spend their time saving vastly greater sums of money from fat corporations and individuals rather than picking on the least fortunate in the country.