‘Raising expectations’

December 10, 2008 at 11:27 pm | Posted in British Politics, Working Class Britain | 1 Comment

I know I said I wouldn’t be around much for the next few days, but I do have some time left before my eyelids stop functioning, and thought it’d be better to make some barely-lucid comment on the welfare white paper before sleep banishes everything I’d considered writing about. So here it is (prepare to be bored):

1) The white paper isn’t quite as drastic as some of the newspaper reporting has made out, which suggests an effort on the government’s part to brief the press using tabloid-pleasing slogans and sanctions which are at the more extreme end of the government’s plans. As Chris Dillow notes, this may have been done to distract conservatives from the fact that these reforms should actually entail giving some of these ‘scroungers’ more money.

2) The government’s argument about why they should press ahead with these reforms even in a recession is a fairly good one:

Some people have argued that now is not the time to press ahead with welfare reform. We believe the opposite is true. The current economic climate means we must step up both the support we offer to people on benefits and the expectations of them to get themselves prepared for work. To do otherwise would be to repeat the mistakes of the past, writing people off and encouraging the long-term benefit dependency that still scars too many of our communities.

In a job market that is becoming more competitive, everyone needs to build their capabilities and update their skills. When the downturn ends, as it will, and the jobs market strengthens, we want people to be ready to take up the opportunities that will arise. That means putting in place the reforms now to get the system into shape for the future.

All of which is sensible enough, as is the extra £1.3 billion they’re pumping into Job Centre Plus & its private/third sector affiliates. But its success in getting recession victims back into work shouldn’t be what it’s ultimately judged on; the ultimate metric for measuring its success is whether it can find work for those who were long-term unemployed before the recession. Labour will no doubt claim any future fall in unemployment as proof of these reforms’ success, and we should treat such claims with scepticism.

3) Despite being a good 200 pages long, there are a few important judgements which have either been outlined only partially, or deferred entirely. For one, the white paper signals an intent to eventually simplify the welfare system into a single working-age benefit, but so far doesn’t include definite plans on how or when that might happen. Reform of housing benefit has also been delayed until next year, and both of these will have considerable impact on welfare claimants.

4) Another deferred judgement is on the controversial (and rather ugly) area of ‘Work for your Benefit’, whereby after a year on the ‘Flexible New Deal’, you’re expected to complete a period of work or work experience in order to qualify for your benefit. At the moment, the plans are only to pilot this programme in 2010, and the government still seems open for ideas about how you could ‘incentivise’ it. The obvious answer, you’d hope, is ‘pay them the minimum wage’. You can either have workers or welfare claimants, not some army of people who’ll do a week’s worth of menial labour out of fear of losing their benefit.

5) The government doesn’t seem clear yet about how it will ensure private companies don’t simply ‘park’ and ignore those who’re more difficult to employ, whilst making easy money off the ‘low-hanging fruit’ (i.e. people who are ready & able to work). These reforms will be doomed from the start if the companies government uses don’t have a sufficient incentive to help those who will need the most guidance, training & education.

6) For all the talk of greater flexibility, there aren’t many practical indications of how the reforms will allow for greater staff/claimant agency. As it is now, the process of ‘signing on’ every fortnight is so heavily mechanised that some of us would be able to do it ourselves, like a self-service supermarket checkout.

7) Unless I’ve missed something, there’s hardly any mention of how they’re going to get prisoners into this system and prevent them from re-offending, which seems a quite extraordinary oversight.

Bored yet? Sorry, I’m done. I’ll try to get interesting again by the weekend.

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  1. […] particular interest should be the idea of devolving the welfare state to a local level. Having been unimpressed by proposals for reforming the benefits system, the possibility of localisation is one I’ve […]

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