Welfare as workJuly 21, 2008 at 9:39 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | 4 Comments
Tags: British Politics, James Purnell, New Labour
It’s worth noting, I suppose, that the welfare reforms announced by James Purnell are not quite as brutal as some of the ideas floated in the past; at least Caroline Flint‘s threat to throw the jobless out onto the street was too brutal even for the Department of Work & Pensions. Indeed, I’m sure the proposals offered by Purnell really are the most decent and humane this arch-Blairite could think of – it’s just that Blairites have slightly lower standards of decency than the rest of us.
The most newsworthy proposal in the green paper involves forcing the long-term unemployed to do some kind of community service to ‘earn’ their benefits – have them clearing litter, cleaning graffiti, tidying public spaces etc. For a right-on lefty, I guess there are a number of ways of responding this: ‘what a shabby way to treat the poor’, ‘welcome to the modern-day workhouse’ or ‘why are we treating the unemployed as criminals?’ etc etc. My first response wasn’t any of these. Instead, I just thought ‘hey, that’s the job my uncle does.’
As I wrote earlier, my Uncle Paul has been in low-paid, unskilled manual jobs for his entire working life and currently earns a living doing exactly the kind of ‘community service’ that’s been suggested by the government: clearing litter, cleaning graffiti and tidying public spaces. Thanks to James Purnell, this arduous, thankless, glamour-less job might soon be valued at the level of the Job-Seeker’s Allowance – roughly £60. Thankfully, I’m not the only one who sees a problem with this, so I’ll let Gregor Gall explain:
Bonded labour of the prison or workhouse sort has always been sold at a cheaper rate than free labour so the likelihood is that this cheap claimant labour will be used by unscrupulous private companies to undermine the terms and conditions of others. You could easily imagine a situation of undercutting existing service providers on the wages and conditions front to win the contract to clean the streets or tend the gardens. This would be the ultimate competitive contract tendering (CCT). You could also imagine existing, free workers feeling compelled to take wage cuts and work longer hours to fend off the claimant labour in order to keep their jobs.
I think Gregor’s right to warn of the potential consequences of this policy. For companies given the opportunity to run the programme, the profits could be enormous; they’d be able to employ a (literally) captive workforce for next-to-nothing and my uncle would have to compete with millions of other unskilled, manual workers who would be mandated to do pretty much the same job but for a fraction of the price. What the government is essentially proposing here is a distortion of the jobs market that threatens the employment prospects of millions of those low-paid and unskilled Britons luckily enough to be in a job. Understandably, the TUC isn’t happy about the prospect.
I also worry about whether this would substantially reduce welfare dependency, or just alter the nature of that dependency. Sure, there are some people who are can work but won’t and I suspect they’d find the of motivation to get a ‘proper job’ when faced with the alternative of sweeping streets for £60 a week. But for a great number of those with little education and few skills, being forced to sweep streets will only give you the skills & experience required to be a professional street-sweeper. As I said in an earlier post, “having a job – any job – won’t by itself solve the problem of long-term unemployment; they need to develop their skills and knowledge, too, and that’s difficult to achieve when you’re picking up litter for 8 hours a day.”
Now, I’d be a hypocrite not to accept that all of this could be melodramatic doom-mongering and that the delivery of the policy might drastically reduce long-term welfare dependency with relatively minor negative side-effects. But when the policy is promoted as a headline-grabbing ‘blitz on dole scroungers’, it does rather fill you with dread that the intended beneficiaries aren’t the long-term unemployed, but the tax-payers who don’t wish to fund their existence. Either way, James Purnell has the Labour Party at his mercy. He knows that many of Labour’s supporters will grudgingly accept this, either in hope that it brings a brief round of good press or out of fear that Cameron’s Tories want to do something even more drastic. For someone who quite clearly harbours ambitions of leading the party, he had better hope this works.