by John Woodcock
The workfare row of the last few days may have exposed the shambolic nature of the government’s work experience scheme, but Messrs’ Cameron, Duncan Smith and Grayling may nevertheless view the fury it is generating as manna from heaven.
For the heated debate over whether or not placements in supermarkets were voluntary or obligatory, permanent or temporary, and exploitative or not, risks giving a false impression that there is a substantial and coherent government programme to tackle unemployment.
There is not. It is right to be angry about the millions out of work who are being failed by this Tory-led government; but so far, what ministers are failing to do should make us angrier than the schemes, however flawed, they are attempting to establish.
Welfare minister Chris Grayling was clearly delighted to take to the airwaves and wind up the rhetoric in the knowledge that every protest he provokes diverts attention from the real scandal: namely, that this Tory-led government is doing far too little to get people back to work, not too much.
The charge sheet of inaction on welfare is growing longer alongside the spiralling numbers of jobless and continued failure to return the economy to growth so businesses can create more jobs. Ministers have set their face against financing extra job opportunities for young people by repeating the tax on bankers’ bonuses; they axed the future jobs fund and have belatedly replaced it with something less extensive; and there are already dangerous signs that their flagship work programme could fail to help sufficient people off the sick because of problems in the contracts agreed with private and voluntary sector providers.
In assessing what is happening now, it is worth dwelling on just how much damage to families and whole communities was inflicted by the last Conservative administration’s failure to act on welfare.
On top of the appalling legacy of long-term youth unemployment, areas like Barrow and Furness still bear the scar of welfare dependency inflicted when Conservative ministers tried to mask the true level of joblessness by parking many thousands of able people on the sick and leaving them to rot. Nothing was asked of them, and no help was given to get back to work. Those people dumped on incapacity benefit were the forgotten millions, sentenced by the Tories to a life of quiet despair.
But in truth, Labour let them down too; we should have spoken up for people trapped on sickness benefit sooner and asked more of them alongside increased offers of help.
Ministers took action after grasping the appalling fact that claimants were more likely to die or retire than ever get a job again after languishing without support on incapacity benefit for more than two years. There were of course people whose serious conditions would always inhibit them from working; but for many more, it was the very fact of sitting at home without help, obligation, or even contact that had created lasted problems such as depression and mental health conditions. The onset of those problems made it that much harder for people to get back into the mindset of working.
That is why we know we must not be diverted by the inadequacies of one particular scheme into stepping back from the principle of increasing obligations placed on benefit claimants as we increase support available to them.
The lesson of the Tory failure in the 1990s is that a firm approach is even more important in a time of job scarcity, not less. The principle problem in today’s labour market may be the lack of opportunities for people who are desperate to work, just as it was back then. But now, as then, long periods stuck inactive on benefit will take its toll on people’s employability and life chances if the government fails to find ways to enable them to stay in touch with the world of work, and if necessary to compel them.
As I argued in an essay on welfare for the Social Market Foundation last year, in future we will need to take to a whole new level Labour’s rights and responsibilities approach, which began with the introduction of the new deal and was developed by a succession of Labour welfare secretaries from Alan Johnson to Yvette Cooper. Far from coming to believe that the threat of sanctions in that landmark New Labour scheme was a step too far, we now need to recognise that the new deal’s shortcomings actually stemmed from the fact it did not push reluctant participants hard enough in key areas, just as much as failing to offer some people sufficient support.
For some, focusing on how best to strengthen Labour’s “something for something” commitment on welfare may not have the immediate appeal of protesting outside certain high street stores that sign up to a government scheme. But it is the only way we will counter what the Tories are doing to write off another generation and blight our communities all over again.
John Woodcock is Labour and Cooperative MP for Barrow and Furness and a shadow transport minister