IDS’s ‘new’ scheme for free labour

Iain Duncan Smith, British politician and form...
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My weekend was dominated by visits to pubs, X-Factor with the other half and watching my footy team beat Arsenal. After being absorbed in doing very little, I thought I should catch up with the news.  And that’s when I discovered all the hoo-ha about Iain Duncan Smith’s plan to make some jobless benefit claimants perform labour.

Lots of people seemed to voice their surprise at this plan which was one of the first things that stood out for me. These commentators who rush to add their voices to the escalating noise don’t seem to have bothered to think back more than a few weeks. It’s like time in UK politics started at the Comprehensive Spending Review. Osborne said ‘let there be cuts’ and, lo, there were cuts.

Most of the professional commentariat seem to have forgotten that there was life before cuts. They’ve not noticed that this isn’t a new innovation that IDS came up with last Tuesday over a whisky and soda. This was in the Conservative party election manifesto.

[W]ith the Conservatives, long-term benefit claimants who fail to find work will be required to ‘work for the dole’ on community work programmes. anyone on jobseeker’s allowance who refuses to join the Work Programme will lose the right to claim out-of-work benefits until they do.

Apart from the commentators’ reaction about IDS’s ‘new’ policy announcement, I have the usual questions raised by an ill-thought-out Tory announcement. Firstly, while this was in the Conservative manifesto at the general election, it definitely wasn’t in the Coalition agreement on which the government is supposedly based. That means Cameron et al will not necessarily have automatic support from the Lib Dem wing of the Government. A recurring theme in Westminster that I think we’ll see more of as this parliament runs inexorably toward its own collapse.

Secondly, given that there are 1.5 million people on Jobseeker’s Allowance, finding work for all of them and enforcing the monitoring of that work would cost billions at a time when the DWP are trying to cut their spending by the largest amounts ever. Osborne would never allow that to happen, which means the scheme will only be allowed to apply to a small number of people and can  never be more than purely symbolic. This is an appeal to the Tory core vote who love the idea of forcing ‘lazy dole-wallers’ into work, as if people are choosing to be unemployed.

The DWP are also saying this scheme will apply to those who don’t appear to be trying very hard to find a job, and will be purely discretionary for claim advisers. In other words, it won’t even be a compulsory scheme. More evidence that this is nothing but a political symbol.

Next, IDS’s plan is that the work that people will be carrying out will be run by councils, companies, charities and other voluntary groups, but the DWP say no such groups have actually signed up to the plan or even been approached. Given this, it won’t be surprising if this ends up being managed by private companies who signed up to be welfare-to-work providers in the summer.

If this scheme happens at all, it’s going to be very difficult to ensure that the work being performed is economically productive and that the work is being carried out by people with the right skill sets. We could in theory have unemployed nurses working in schools and unemployed teachers working in hospitals. We may also end up with private companies seeing this as an opportunity to get work completed for very little money, exploiting the jobless, and failing to create paid job vacancies.

IDS and Cameron have been making claims at a radical new shift in policy to get a positive spin on the story but claim advisers already have powers in place to make people work. Because not only was the idea mentioned in the manifesto of the Conservative party, but it’s also been in operation since last October as part of the Flexible New Deal. If commentators do indeed bother to look at the relevant website, they’ll see it clearly says

Part of Flexible New Deal includes you doing work experience for four weeks to improve your chances of finding a job. You may also get training and other support to help you find a job.

So the media is likely to be asking Iain and Dave very soon in just what way their announcement is radical.

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