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Sunday, 27 June 2010

Coalition plans relocation of long-term unemployed

In plans reminiscent of Norman Tebbit's "on your bike" solution to unemployment, Iain Duncan Smith has outlined proposals to make Britain's workforce "more mobile".

According to today's Sunday Telegraph, Duncan Smith's ideas include "encourag[ing] jobless people living in council houses to move out of unemployment black spots" to new homes in areas of higher unemployment. This follows last week's announcement of a major shake up of housing benefit and the government's pledge to reduce welfare spending.

Labour's Ed Balls has already publicly criticised the proposals. And those criticisms, which I will come to shortly, are in some respects more than justified. However, there is some substance in what Duncan Smith has to say and it is facile to simply disregard his thinking as outdated Tory dogma.

What he is trying to do is to deal with the problem of poverty and alleviate the social consequences of long-term unemployment. He talks about people who are "trapped in estates where there is no work" and of depressed "areas [which are home to] over five-and-a-half million people of working age who simply don’t do a job." His language is undoubtedly unhelpful, but he is trying to get to grips with an undeniable reality and looking for solutions.

He also makes some sensible suggestions, such as making it easier for tenants of council and social housing to relocate. As a council tenant myself, I understand what Duncan Smith means when he says that too often it's "too much of a risk to move [to a new area to work] because if you up sticks and go you will have lost your right to your house...the local council is going to tell you that you don’t have a right to a house there...we have to look at how we get that portability, so that people can be more flexible, can look for work, can take the risk to do it.” As someone with instinctively liberal instincts, I would support this increased "portability" to allow tenants to move more freely across the UK, for employment or other reasons. The social housing system definitely needs to be liberalised.

Where I part company with him is when he talks about providing incentives to "encourage jobless people...in council houses...to move [to] other areas." This is dangerous rhetoric and can't simply be explained away by suggesting it is in some way about empowering individuals. It is a thinly disguised attack on the unemployed. It is shrouded in prejudice and ignorance. Sadly, the only solutions that are forthcoming are not only simplistic but based on patronising and evidence-lacking assumptions about what the problems actually are.

In fairness to Iain Duncan Smith, I suspect that - unlike me - he hasn't actually lived in a council estate, and that his experiences of poverty and its associated social ills are somewhat different to my own and those of my fellow Inverclyde residents. It's easy for him to talk to Sky News about "ghettos of poverty" but it's a little more difficult to propose something that will actually help some of the communities in our area (and others) that need and deserve it.

He quite simply has not thought through the practical difficulties of what he is proposing. Unlike the Conservatives, the Lib Dems have historically understood the meaning of community. We're liberals after all. We appreciate the emotional importance of remaining close to families and communities and recognise that good communities nurture and develop individuals' potential. We realise that, where there is social deprivation and unemployment, solutions lie not in drawing out talented people to work elsewhere but in investing in those individuals and communities and revitalising local industries. We also know that solutions to the wider problems require initiatives to improve the communities themselves, including modernising, improving and expanding social housing stock. All this unfortunately seems to have escaped Iain Duncan Smith's attention.

He also ignores the fact that many unemployed people are not only "trapped" by their housing, but by the benefits system itself. Many of the unemployed people in Port Glasgow and Greenock will hardly feel empowered by a proposal to allow them to move somewhere else to claim their Jobseeker's Allowance. Many long-term unemployed are without either the skills or the experience to simply relocate and take up gainful employment. Rather than "incentivising" relocations that would leave places like Greenock bereft of some of its more ambitious citizens, the government should instead be looking at means of providing unemployed people with opportunities to develop modern skills and the necessary abilities to succeed in rewarding careers. It is simply absurd to think that a man from Greenock who has been unemployed for ten years could simply walk into a job in, say, Chingford.

The government should also recognise that it isn't just council tenants who require support. There are many private tenants and home owners who also have to be supported into work, and wouldn't be eligible for council accommodation elsewhere. In any case, moving house can be very expensive. This is why Duncan Smith's proposals are so glib, and are likely to be interpreted as simply an attack on council tenants.

You see, Mr Duncan Smith, it's not quite as easy as that for council tenants to go out and get a job. Many people I know would love to be independent of the benefits system, if only they knew how. Inverclyde is hardly an employment hotspot and since the 1980s has seen the decline of the shipyards and IBM, with devastating social consequences. There simply aren't the jobs, and those that there are are often taken by people more than qualified to do them (my friend has an MA in History and works in Greggs on the minimum wage; my wife, who is qualified as a graphic designer has been unemployed since being made redundant last year). The local low-wage economy is itself a disincentive to work as many jobs don't pay better than our benefits system. At least you recognise this, Mr Duncan Smith, but why do you think we should all up-sticks when alternative solutions should be found to regenerate our area? And why do you refuse to see any value in the communities you are so keen to label "ghettos" and "traps"? Some of us know our areas and estates are far from perfect, but there is often real community spirit to be found - we can be very tight-knit here in the West of Scotland and there are some incredible social projects being undertaken here, if you'd only care to look.

One problem Mr Duncan Smith clearly fails to appreciate is one of housing. Places of high employment tend not to have much in the way of surplus social housing stock. If there is a lot of work in one area, surely it will be necessary to build a huge number of new council houses and/or social dwellings to accommodate this influx of eager workers. This would, of course, cost a significant amount of money and would result in huge numbers of empty council dwellings across places like Inverclyde, Glasgow, South Wales, etc. And wouldn't this simply be shifting a problem from one area to another?

Another problem he doesn't get to grips with is job creation. It's as if he can't be bothered with actively looking at ways to stimulate job production, which could benefit places like Inverclyde. Regrettably, Iain Duncan Smith appears to be living in some strange parallel universe, such are his unrealistic perceptions. His Thatcherite strategy is not only unworkable but completely discredited: the migration of unemployed people into areas of high unemployment would be socially irresponsible and would have potentially destructive ramifications.

Ed Balls, keen as ever for an opportunity to criticise his opponents has said that Duncan Smith's solutions would be "profoundly unfair and the wrong way to deal with the unemployment problem...the idea somehow that the only solution to unemployment is to cut benefits and say to people, 'go and do it yourself'. We know that does not work." He adds that the key is to "bringing more investment into unemployment blackspots to create jobs." Quite. However, Mr Balls did not explain why in thirteen years the Labour government did nothing in terms of providing any significant investment to stimulate job creation in deprived areas such as Inverclyde.

There is obviously not much Lib Dem thinking behind Mr Duncan Smith's plans. Of course, I have no knowledge of how much his ideas actually reflect the government position. What I do know is that - while the government has to find effective ways to positively combat the social problems forged by a combination of benefits dependency, poor housing, unemployment, a skills shortage and lack of opportunity - the Lib Dems must distance themselves from this unhelpful and frankly insultingly simplistic remedy.

We have enough good liberal ideas of our own which will build up communities rather than break them up. For example, our own manifesto for the general election committed us to an economic stimulus and job creation package, sustaining growth in the long term by setting up an Infrastructure Bank to finance essential long-term projects. We also pledged to spend £660million to tackle youth unemployment, bring 250,000 empty homes back into use and free councils to build a new generation of council homes. All of these measures would be far more effective than anything being proposed by Iain Duncan Smith today. The Lib Dems in government have to promote realistic, workable and innovative liberal alternatives to both Duncan Smith's shortsighted approach and Labour's historic inactivity.

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