But will it actually work?

10:07 am - July 23rd 2008

by Dave Osler    

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Just how much bigger will this week’s ‘biggest shake-up of the welfare state since the 1940s’ be than ‘the biggest shake-up of the welfare state for 60 years’ unveiled by David Blunkett in 2005?

Will the impending ‘Labour Blitz on Dole Scroungers’ hailed by the Sun be more or less of a blitz than the ‘Brown Blitz on the Black Economy’ similarly praised in the Murdoch press eight years ago? Luftwaffe, eat your heart out.

Come to that, how is it that those people singled out in pensions secretary James Purnell’s work for dole proposals are exactly the same people name-checked in Peter Lilley’s ‘I have a little list of benefit offenders who I’ll soon be rooting out and who never would be missed’ speech to the Conservative Party conference in 1991?

Those who make up bogus claims in half a dozen names. Young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing list. You know the sort.

No wonder David Cameron has offered the Purnell plan unqualified backing; politicians of all major parties are singing not so much off the same hymnsheet as out of the same Gilbert and Sullivan operetta score. If you get the feeling you’ve heard it all before, that’s because you have.

The unemployed – sorry, I meant to say feckless workshy job cheats, of course – have been a popular target for cheap rhetorical shots since the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1832 and probably even before that.

I am not naïve enough to argue that nobody out there is claiming benefits to which they are not entitled. Nobody can have any trouble with the notion of rooting out systematic deliberate fraud, for instance. However, cutting already pitiful levels of benefit is hardly going to achieve that.

Frankly, one of the main reasons that numbers on incapacity benefit remains so intractable is that generations of the long-term unemployed have been deliberated coaxed onto IB, thanks to a tacit government policy designed to massage the headline unemployment figure ever downwards.

But one question is going unanswered in the current debate. If this problem is truly anywhere near as prevalent as Labour, the Tories and Daily Mail would have us believe, how come none of the huge range of initiatives over the last three decades has made a damn bit of difference?

Interestingly, the Purnell purge comes in the same week as Alistair Darling is set – in the words of the Financial Times – to ‘bow to pressure from business by scrapping contentious reforms to the taxation of foreign profits’. A whole raft of anti-avoidance measures will simply be dropped as a result.

It sometimes seems that New Labour does not push through its crackdowns on those failing to pay their way in society with equal determination in all cases.

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About the author
Dave Osler is a regular contributor. He is a British journalist and author, ex-punk and ex-Trot. Also at: Dave's Part
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Conservative Party ,Economy ,Labour party ,Westminster

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Reader comments

Rights for the rich and responsibilities for the poor, as someone said elsewhere. And this is a LABOUR government?

@ Jennie

Exactly (and it was Polly Toynbee that said it BTW), who would think that the ‘socialist party’ would be cowering to the rich whilst punishing the poor for being unable to get a job.

The thing most people seem unable to understand, is that most people are not unemployed because they want to be. With regard to housing for example, most private landlords will not accept people on housing benefit, that means that people on benefit have to look to council accommodation or extremely expensive social or private accommodation. This means that while housing benefit covers their rent, most would be unable to afford to pay their own rent if they got a job at minimum wage.

Why does the government seem to think that the long term unemployed can simply stroll into a job. Would they employ someone who had been out of work for two years, I think not. How much does the government spend on consultants fees every year, how many experts does it have on retainer. I cannot believe that experts in social policy and employment recommend starving people as a way to get them back into work. I do wonder whether all the governments experts have been replaced with a committee consisting of Paul Dacre, Rupert Murdoch and the Barclay brothers.

You don’t have to have a degree in psychology to understand that the way to get people back into work is through incentives rather than sanctions. The government needs to extend its scheme of giving people £40 per week for a year when they get back into work to everyone who has been out of work for say three or six months or more. At the moment, this excellent scheme has extremely tight criteria and is being applied to only a select few.

They also need to offer free night school courses and training during the first year people get back into work so they can get a pay rise or promotion to compensate the loss of the £40 after a year is up. Finally, they need to provide employers with the incentive to employ the long term unemployed. Giving employers a cash bonus for everyone they employ that had previously been long term unemployed after they have worked there for more than 18 months could work.

GB & Co need to stop chasing headlines and start legislating based on evidence and results. This is yet the latest example of cannabis reclassification and 42-day detention: ignoring the experts in pursuit of nice words from the right-wing press.

Nobody can have any trouble with the notion of rooting out systematic deliberate fraud, for instance.

That’s a bit sweeping, Dave. I and others can and do have trouble with it:

People who work and claim benefits do so often because they are in dire financial trouble, a Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) study has said. Many claimants took illegal cash-in-hand jobs to pay for food and heating or to make debt repayments.

Faced with breaking the law or being hungry and cold, what would you do?

If New Labour were at all interested in solving of why a lot of people do this, rather than treating them like a serf who just shot one of the king’s deer, we wouldn’t need ‘rooting out’ and crackdown after crackdown after crackdown.

All this talk about rights and responsibilities is misconcieved – when the system is working nobody cares, but when it starts cropping up as a topic of discussion it is a distraction from the fact that the government of the day is failing: its the governments fault – it is always the governments fault and it is only ever the fault of the government.

The government organises the system, but if the system doesn’t work and isn’t seen to be working it can’t accept the political damage it would do to to accept the party of government has got it wrong, so it blames the people – just wait til it starts blaming voters (as the former leader of the Labour group on my local council did when he lost his seat)!

The fact is that people make choices, and we will do so according to the situations which face us and the according to the way they are presented to us. We will decide what is best in our own interests. Governments organise choices – it creates the situations which we have to face and it tries to manage the way it presents those choices.

Then government falls back into the habit of trying to influence our decisions in our ‘best’ interests, according to what is in its interests. At this juncture government stops being by the people for the people, but by the party for the party, on behalf of the people over the people.

The original misconception is the result of confusion of purpose.

So, here: ‘Welfare’ – is it for those at the bottom of the pile, or is it for those who would otherwise be headed downwards towards the bottom of the pile? Or both? Or all?

However you answer this question (and it is an entirely subjective question) the simple fact that Purnell has piped up on the subject shows (if additional evidence were required) that the plot has well and truly been lost.

5. Mike Killingworth

[3] Justin asks faced with breaking the law or being hungry and cold, what would you do?

Well, what do people in other countries do? They turn to their families or to private charity if they can; they leave the country if they can; they live on the proceeds of petty crime in neighbourhoods which are at best sporadically policed; and some of them die.

In the 1920s an Irish Minister of Finance said people will die in this country and die of starvation – so far as I know, no one of any political compexion has said that Fine Gael should don sackcloth and ashes in remorse for this remark.

A thought experiment: a soup kitchen serves poisoned soup, and a few of its clients die. Do we really suppose that not a single “shock jock” or tabloid commentator wouldn’t suggest that the kitchen had performed a public service?

The only thing that will prevent Labour in opposition from seeking to outflank the Tories to the right will be its need to keep itssouth Asian fat-cats on board as a counterweight to Union funding. And they too may be quite comfortable with this sort of thing which is after all commonplace enough on the sub-continent.

The Party’s next Mandelsonic fixer, circa 2018, won’t be content with telling his ambitious members not to read the Grauniad (or LC, if it’s still going) – there will be hints and nudges to prefer candidates who lived in secure, gated communities as part of the image. Councillors for such places as Hackney will qualify by virtue of employment, not residence, and restrict their surgeries to the internet.

Humanite, I totally agree. The increase in ‘responsibilities’ to look for work implies that people are not working because they lack individual motivation, when actually for single parents it’s more about lack of childcare and flexible working. And when they do find work, they are more likely to lose their jobs than others. In fact, over half of job seekers allowance claims are now from repeat claimants. How about using the model from the Portland Programme, where those who are skilled are referred to job search provision and those who aren’t are advised not to take the first job available and go for education and training? They could extend the £40 week allowance that Humanite suggests.

Isn’t also about time that we recognised contributions to the society outside the labour market, like caring for children?

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