Monday, 30 September 2013

What should we make of Osborne's "work for benefits" plan?

George Osborne, a man whose clarity of purpose should never be questioned – even if his grasp of economic reality should – has today given a speech at his party’s conference in Manchester unveiling his plans to extend his “work for benefit” scheme.

Referring to “the long-term unemployed” – yes, he does talk about such people is if they are a single, homogenous group of undeserving parasites – he argued that “no-one will be able to get something for nothing”. It’s such a shame he doesn’t apply the same logic and obvious energy to those avoiding tax using various loopholes, who collectively cost the taxpayer so much more than benefit fraud. Then again, consistency has never been Osborne’s forte, but if he’s genuinely motivated by a desire to ensure that Britain is a meritocracy where the deserving prosper and where the avarice of the “something for nothing” culture is actively and effectively combated by government there might be some more obvious targets than long-term jobseekers.

Attempting to borrow from Nick Clegg’s fairness agenda, the chancellor indicated that his policy would be "fair for those who need it and fair for those who pay for it". Nothing could be further from the truth. There is, of course, a need to positively and responsibly reform the benefits system for exactly the reasons that Osborne states. The welfare system must work more in the interests not only of those who depend on it, but also wider society. However, Osborne’s narrow minded, doctrinaire and simplistic outlook threatens to undermine any fairness that might once have characterised government welfare policy, while simultaneously creating damaging and far-reaching by-products that should concern us all.

The detail of what Osborne is proposing suggests both a crippling intolerance and a politico-intellectual naiveté. His bold determination to shrink the state is unfortunately matched by an equally aggressive resolve to achieve it in the most ham-fisted of ways, widening social divisions and demonising sections of society in the process. What goodwill – and credibility – Iain Duncan Smith once earned the Tories with his apparent willingness to understand and deal with the problems facing inner city communities is rapidly being frittered away in Osborne’s relentless and reckless assault on the welfare system.

What Osborne is proposing is to extend the Mandatory Work Activity to all those who, after two years on the optimistically named “Work Progamme” (in which private contractors are paid to find people a job) will be put onto a new scheme labelled, equally euphemistically, Help to Work. Under this new operation, JSA claimants will have to attend work placements, undertake daily visits to the Jobcentre or attend compulsory training.

The detail about work placements is somewhat lacking in specifics but Osborne did give some examples: “making meals for the elderly, clearing up litter, working for a local charity.” It would seem either he has either limited ambition for those who aspire to find work, is short on imagination or can’t imagine that people who have been unemployed for more than two years may be able to make any other kind of contribution to society. What out of work people need is the opportunity to gain vital skills in order to be able to successfully prepare for the type of work that suits them. They need to be treated as individuals, and invested in accordingly. Furthermore, we should all have concerns about essential services being given to people who will be paid less than the minimum wage – it seems the Tories’ bold vision of a “Big Society” has been reduced to one of slave labour. It also seems self-defeating to combat unemployment by effectively taking away jobs to create these placements: why would, for example, any local authority employ individuals to collect litter when benefit claimants can do it at no cost? Why would a care home employ a kitchen assistant when, similarly, local benefit claimants are standing by to provide their services for nothing?

And who will determine the work placements? Will, as is currently the case, claimants be required to give up potential development opportunities in volunteer work in order to attend placements less geared towards helping them achieve their personal goals? Or will there be a degree of flexibility? Has George Osborne thought this out at all?

The requirement to visit the Jobcentre daily is the obvious sign of how out of touch with reality the chancellor is. Not only does he fail to appreciate that the Jobcentre is somewhat limited in its success at finding people employment (something the government should be aware of, given its belief that private contractors are better placed to find work for unemployed people) it overlooks that for many the cost of doing this would be prohibitive. It also overlooks another painfully obvious fact – that the jobs simply do not exist. At a time of high unemployment, it is unfair on several levels to suggest that those out of work are failing society. As those on the Help to Work scheme must stay on it until they find work, they may (in theory at least) be obligated to attend the Jobcentre every weekday for several months or even years. That’s a lot of bus fare, which isn’t easily affordable on £71.00 a week.

Finally, Osborne refers to compulsory training for those who need help – for example, those who are illiterate. Why such people should have to wait two years before receiving such help is another question. “For those with underlying problems, like drug addiction and illiteracy, there will be an intensive regime of support. No-one will be ignored or left without help” insisted the chancellor. It might not feel that way, however, if such an “intensive regime of support” actively works against the needs of those with, for example, long-standing mental health problems. Osborne also doesn’t make it clear why people with such “underlying problems”, most of who will already be receiving extensive support, require it to be either supplemented or replaced – or precisely what form the promised “support” would take. It is also worrying that, in the case of some of the most vulnerable people in society, he seems to suggest that their mental well-being – and their value to society – is determined by employment status. 

He seems to have as much understanding of complex mental health issues as he does of the damage his short-sighted ideas will ultimately cause.

But this is Osborne’s vision of Britain; one in which the distinction is made between the deserving and the undeserving, and in which those not adhering to the rules face harsh penalties. The first breach results in a loss of four weeks of benefit money; the second three months. Osborne hasn’t intimated what a third breach would lead to, although rumours of an attempted purchase of Devil’s Island have proved to be unfounded.

And so, to address the question posed at the beginning of this piece, what should we make of Chancellor Osborne’s “work for benefits” plan and, in particular, his quest to abandon the Holy Grail of British politics that is the “centre ground” in order to resurrect the Tories’ merited epithet, “the nasty party”? Other than the self-evident power of Tory backbenches and the Conservatives’ fear of UKIP’s electoral prospects, it would appear that Osbornomics represents very little other than an ill-conceived appeal to populism. His shrill speech also gives credibility to the arguments that the government’s previous welfare initiatives to date have been abject failures.

Osborne should instead turn his attention to declaring war on unemployment – not the unemployed. There should be no place in the “Big Society” for requiring people to work for less than the minimum wage. No society, big or small, is successful when it ostracises or demonises its most vulnerable citizens. There should be no place in responsible government for ill-conceived programmes of social engineering, or of ill-conceived schemes that (according to the DWP) have absolutely “no impact on the likelihood of being employed” and actually could increase unemployment.

The chancellor would also be well advised to turn his attentions to job creation. By job creation I do not mean part-time minimum wage jobs for which the only potential applicants would be those who are able to top up their incomes with benefits. If Osborne and the government are serious about breaking the cycle of benefit dependency, they need to be more imaginative and focused on facilitating new jobs that pay well, rather than making life hard for those on benefits. 

If Osborne understood economics as he claims, he would also appreciate that during downturns the best way to stimulate the economy is to encourage spending. Which section of society spends the highest proportion of its income? (Clue: it’s not the middle classes, putting their money in the ISAs for their grandchildren’s university fees).

Osborne’s speech today was as disappointing as it is incoherent. Most obviously, he seems to be labouring under the misapprehension that the economic situation and unemployment is somebody else’s problem. In savagely attacking those who are out of work long-term the chancellor at best avoided the real questions and at worst championed “solutions” that will do little to improve the economy or reduce unemployment while contributing to the social misery that so characterises the “Broken Britain” he claims to aspire to fix.

It would, perhaps, be wrong and overly charitable to consider Osborne as a mass of contradictions. He is simply dangerous; a man whose social reforms even Thatcher would have balked at and a reminder of why the Liberal Democrats are so necessary in government.

1 comment:

KelvinKid said...

I regret to say that your last paragraph is in error. Apparently senior Lib Dems have signed off Osborne's scheme, yet again making our Party complicit in Tory brutality. We are not a brake on anything: we are facilitators.