Getting out the big stick

As part of their war against the ‘economically inactive’, the Tories want to scapegoat and harass, writes Eddie Ford

Are you part of the 1.2 million who are officially unemployed? Finding things really tough? Well, your life might get a lot tougher if you are unlucky enough to live in Crawley, Pontefract, Partick or Coalville.

The jobless in these towns will be forced to attend a two-week intensive programme of daily face-to-face appointments at local job centres to help them prepare for a return to work - or so the theory goes. In that sense, you could describe it as a form of ‘workfare’. The new pilot scheme will apply to those who have been out of work for three months. At present, those claiming universal credit normally meet work coaches once a week for the first three months and fortnightly afterwards. With the new regime, those who repeatedly fail to attend or demonstrate a certain level of compliance could lose their entire standard allowance (£334.91 a month) for as long as three months.

So how will they eat or pay the rent? Some of those punished in such a way could turn to crime merely to survive, or become sick. Apart from the cruelty involved, this renders the whole exercise ultimately self-defeating, as keeping someone in prison is hugely more expensive than paying them a pittance of universal credit every month. In prison, of course, you could be locked up in a cell for up to 23 hours a day without any meaningful training or education, nor any real chance of rehabilitation - another cruel exercise in futility. And being too ill to work means you become more of a burden on the poor old British taxpayer than if you had remained signing on.

Apparently, the government believes that the scheme could form part of a “carrot and stick” approach to ‘encourage’ people back into work. Frankly, it is hard to see any carrot - only a very big stick. The new scheme has been launched on the basis that three months is the critical point, after which people’s chances of returning to work diminish significantly, which may have some truth to it. Mel Stride, the work and pensions secretary, has said that those who were “gainfully” self-employed, awaiting work-capability assessments, and were required to undertake less than 35 hours a week of “work search activity” would be excluded, along with those who were already exempt from searching for jobs.

Obviously, the scheme did not come out of the blue. Back in September, former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng - remember him? - unveiled a welfare-to-work programme as a key part of Liz Truss’s supposed plan to boost economic growth and shake up the welfare system (before she was brought down by the markets she adores so much). The plan saw changes to universal credit requiring benefit claimants working up to 15 hours a week to meet regularly with their work coach “to take active steps to increase their earnings or face having their benefits reduced” - which seems like a perverse incentive to become either unemployed or get written off as sick. Why work for next to nothing? In a slightly sinister turn, ministers are now looking at plans to station job coaches in GP surgeries in an unsubtle attempt to target the over-50s, who have left the workforce because of some sort of health condition (or have taken early retirement). Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has appealed to this age group to “get off the golf course” (though most of them could not afford the annual fee charged by the club) and find a second or even third career.

Post-pandemic labour shortages - a subject widely discussed in the media - have been partly driven by the rise in those on disability benefits. Numbers have gone from under 600,000 in the early 1990s to about 2.2 million today, largely thanks to those suffering from a mental health problem. Indeed, Britain is the only country in the developed world with employment still expected to be below its pre-pandemic level at the start of 2023 - having undergone an exodus of about 630,000 people from the workforce who are neither looking for a job nor in work. Meanwhile, job vacancies are close to a record high of around 1.1 million, as employers struggle to find enough new employees.

This has generated fears from the treasury of anaemic growth on a more or less permanent basis and persistently higher inflation. Rather dramatically, Andy Haldane, a former chief economist at the Bank of England, has warned that the worsening health of the British people is holding back economic growth for the first time since the industrial revolution. Talk about being the sick man of Europe!

At the same time, with the government desperate for any solution to the problem of chronic labour shortages, the treasury is also “actively” discussing plans to incentivise people to return to work by allowing them to keep claiming sickness benefits after doing so and offering tax breaks for getting jobs - perhaps by entirely exempting over-50s from paying income tax for six months to a year. The argument goes that the current assessment system is “perverse”, because it positively encourages people to prove they are too ill to work, rather than showing what work they might be capable of taking. About 20% of those claiming disability benefits say that they want to work, but under two percent actually move into employment every month. For Mel Stride, such action is necessary to “rewire” the post-pandemic benefits system.

However, there has already been a bit of a backlash to the proposals. There are concerns from some government sources that offering tax breaks to people returning to work could alienate those who already have a job. You work flat out for your entire career and then someone waltzes in and is given preferential treatment. The politics of resentment goes deep into the Tory Party.

Clearly, the pilot ‘workfare’ schemes have to be seen in the larger context of the government drive against the “economically inactive”. Overall, there is a fairly staggering nine million people missing from the job market in official labour market estimates, including students, adults with caring responsibilities, people retiring early, those experiencing ill health, and so forth. It is also worth noting that as part of this nine million, though the official unemployment rate is 1.2 million, more than three million working-age adults could be added to the official jobless figures - an army of the so-called ‘hidden unemployed’. Essentially, they are people who could be considered “involuntarily” inactive because they could or would work if they felt they had enough support. Or, in a classic chicken-and-egg situation, because they had underlying health problems that were not being addressed properly.

Predictably, Jeremy Hunt’s approach to the “economically active” involves scapegoating and a good dose of dishonesty. He has announced £280 million of fresh investment to crack down on benefit fraud and errors in the next two years - even though that accounted for just 4% of total benefit expenditure last year. This appears to suggest that benefit claimants were among the key reasons behind the lack of available workers. But that is obviously not the case - the numbers taking early retirement or on long-term sick leave are far higher. Not to mention Brexit, which has drained away a significant chunk of the workforce, especially when it comes to social care. In turn, this feeds into the ongoing NHS crisis with bed blocking, as patients cannot be discharged, because there is nowhere suitable for them to go.

Hunt is quite happy to treat various groups very differently. Older workers will be coaxed back to work using financial incentives and possibly tax breaks. Yet many workers with long-term health disabilities like long Covid, or those who have caring responsibilities, will be harassed by ‘work coaches’ to increase their hours. There are now reports about ministers planning to target the partners of people on benefits to push them into paid work.

Naturally, the rightwing press is doing everything it can to stir up anti-claimant sentiment. The Sun wants the government to “drag them off benefits” and the Daily Mail scares its readers about an “epidemic of inactivity” - whilst The Spectator recently paraded “proof” that more than five million people are now on out-of-work benefits, as if it were actually evidence of mass idleness or the end of civilisation. The message is totally explicit: being too ill to work is a ‘lifestyle choice’ and therefore cannot be tolerated. Given such a toxic atmosphere, we can expect the introduction of further workfare measures.

Of course, recent notions of welfare-to-work or “active labour market policies” go back to the early 1980s (when the ‘never again’ mass unemployment of the 1930s returned with a vengeance). A form of workfare did exist in the 2000s under the Tony Blair government, but very few people knew about it and it was rarely used. It was not until the Tory-Liberal Democratic coalition of the early 2010s that it started to become widely deployed.

In November 2011, measures were introduced under which Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants who had not found a job once they had been through a work programme would do a 26-week placement “in the community” for 30 hours a week - including at “profit-making businesses” - in order to keep their benefit. Thankfully, this sparked off a storm of protests around the country that forced many businesses to withdraw from the workfare scheme - Maplin, Waterstones, Sainsbury’s, and many others. As for Tesco’s, when an advert appeared on the Jobseekers’ Plus website in which the supermarket sought permanent workers in exchange for expenses and Jobseeker’s Allowance, the subsequent resistance forced the temporary closure of one of its stores near the houses of parliament - plus a grovelling apology for its “mistake”, claiming that the advert was intended to be “for work experience with a guaranteed job interview at the end of it as part of a government-led work experience scheme”. If you believe that, you will believe anything.

In an ironic twist of the tale, after examining the international evidence available from the US, Canada and Australia, an analysis carried out by the department for work and pensions in 2008 concluded that there is “little evidence” that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work. Indeed, it can even reduce employment chances by “limiting the time available for job search” and by “failing to provide the skills and experience valued by employers”. Not that it prevented the coalition government from trying to force it upon the working class or Lord Digby Jones, former head of the Confederation of British Industry, telling the BBC in 2010 that Britain needed to adopt American-style workfare - the unemployed should not have the right to refuse any paid work and still expect to receive benefits.

They will never give up attacking the unemployed or the ‘unworthy poor’.