Workfare is, truly, the political idea that refuses to die. Here’s a 1996 article from The Independent announcing the policy under the then Conservative government. Here’s a 2008 article by the BBC announcing the policy under the then Labour government. Here’s an article from last Sunday’s Observer announcing the policy under the current Con-Lib government. It’s the number one go-to policy for the welfare minister who thinks s/he is being perceived as a ‘soft touch’. I can’t think of another policy that’s been consistently announced over so long a period of time without ever actually being implemented.
So what is workfare?
Put simply, it’s the idea that benefit claimants should be required to work in return for their benefit. All kinds of advantages are claimed for the policy, from instilling the concept of ‘work discipline’ in the supposedly feckless unemployed, via reforming the alleged ‘something for nothing culture’, to rooting out fraudsters (the argument being that people who are working and claiming aren’t able to turn out to do their ‘community work’, and so lose their benefit). The major advantage of the policy, however, is political, which is why it’s routinely announced as a bold new initiative and then quietly abandoned a few months later.
The idea is wildly popular among the kind of people who like to believe that long-term unemployment is caused by something other than the actual, rather mundane, causes: a shortage of jobs in the areas the long-term unemployed can afford to live in or travel to, and the fact that most employers regard the long-term unemployed as a bad risk, and will always appoint other applicants when they have the choice. Previously, the announcement has been made by ministers at the fag end of deeply unpopular governments who were desperate to curry favour with newspaper editorialists. On this occasion, I would guess the intention is to throw a bone to the hard right of the Conservative party, who have been discomfited by the lack of full-bore attacks on the poor and vulnerable – the Lib Dems may not be having much effect on policy in most areas, but they seem to be responsible for a distinct softening in government rhetoric.
There are a number of objections to workfare. Traditionally one of them has been concern over what happens to the workers currently paid a proper wage for doing the public gardening and street-sweeping jobs that will instead be done by benefit claimants. Cleverly, the coalition may have managed to sidestep this particular difficulty by arranging for all the workers concerned to be sacked first; possibly this is an early demonstration of what the Big Society means in reality. Other objections remain, however.
For example, the aim of the scheme is supposedly to enable the long-term unemployed to rediscover and develop the skills they need to hold down a job. Why, then, are the proposed workfare tasks always things like litter picking, when the majority of jobs are actually based on construction sites, or in offices, warehouses, factories and shops? The insistence on drearily repetitive manual labour performed in public is more suggestive of a chain gang than it is sensible job-skills training. Of course, this isn’t a surprise, since the idea of punishing the unemployed for their lack of a job is hugely popular among the kind of people who like to imagine that unemployment is a symptom of personal laziness, not a consequence of economic collapse. No doubt some would like the unfortunate litter-pickers to be forced to wear special orange jumpsuits reading ‘Workshy Layabout’.
For me, another of the fundamental objections to workfare has always been that, if there is work that needs doing in the community, and if there are unemployed people who need work, then surely the best way to resolve both problems is to create proper, wage-paying jobs to do the work that needs doing. It would be possible, I’m sure, to stipulate that these jobs could only go to the long-term unemployed. (If the government are desperate for a stick to go along with the carrot, they could make use of the existing JSA penalties, which allow for the withdrawal of benefit from anyone unemployed for longer than 3 months who refuses a job they are capable of doing.) This seems like the best solution to me; not only does it avoid the ritual humiliation of the chain gang and the resentment that will cause, it also gives the unemployed a significant boost in their income, which is of benefit not just to them and their families, but also to businesses in the area.
That said, I’m not averse to the idea of making it easier for benefit claimants to do voluntary work. The current JSA rules require claimants to provide evidence of jobs applied for. In periods of high unemployment, such as now, this doesn’t significantly increase the chances of securing employment, since every position advertised is oversubscribed, sometimes by a ratio of hundreds to one. In times like this it would seem sensible to allow JSA claimants to show evidence of voluntary community work they’ve done as proof they remain entitled to their benefit instead. Or, better yet, the government could offer a modestly enhanced level of benefit to people who chose to spend their time volunteering in their local communities; that would have the effect not just of benefiting the wider community, but also be a way for unemployed people to try and acquire a little public respect, even admiration – things they’re unlikely to find on a workfare chain gang.
That won’t happen of course. The purpose of this announcement – the purpose every time this policy is announced – is to generate a quick hit of positive coverage in certain sectors of the press, not to do something constructive. My guess is that, under the coalition, this policy will be dead in the water before it’s even formally announced. During the Lib Dem conference (which took place before the announcements about tuition fees and nuclear power; it would have been a different story otherwise, I’m sure), there was plenty of low-level and slightly disguised grumbling among party members, but the only time I saw real anger break out on the floor of the conference was when several delegates stood up to object to the demonisation of the unemployed by their Conservative coalition partners. I would look for this part of the welfare white paper being quietly dropped during its passage through parliament, or the compulsory aspect being abandoned, or the whole thing being kicked into the long grass with a feasibility study, then maybe a small-scale trial, then a lengthy delay in publishing the report, and then – oh dear, it’s election time, we’ll have to lose the policy in the wash-up.
It’ll inevitably be announced again, though, whenever a government of any colour or combination of colours thinks it needs to conciliate opinion on the right. That’s what happens with this policy, time after time: loudly announced, quietly withdrawn; loudly announced, quietly withdrawn; loudly announced, quietly withdrawn…