Labour must go further, faster on welfare reform

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

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17 Responses to “Labour must go further, faster on welfare reform”

  1. Nick says:

    failure to return the economy to growth so businesses can create more jobs


    Ah the fairy tales continue.

    Just why is employment up? That is creating new jobs.

    So come on, tell us what the benefit cap should be on the Wirral, in Toxteth, in Bradford, in other Labour heartlands.

  2. swatantra says:

    The trouble with most Govts and PMs is that they are always looking to the 2nd Term and reelection. It honestly doesn’t matter,let me tell you. Do what you promised to do in 5 years or 4 years and people will remember you, Don’t be cautious; just do it.
    And t can be done. Look at the vast changes and monumental legislation that wasintroduced by the 45 ab Govt, in effect a one term Govt And you could have done that all on a majority of 50 let alone 150. In effect the Blair Govt was a one term Govt, most of the importan work was done in the first 4 years. The rest of the 13 years didn’t amount to a hill of beans.
    In a way Cameron is right. I don’t think he really cares whether he gets a 2nd Term; he is determined to do all he can in 5 years.
    The next Lab PM should also forget about relection nonsense. Can we do it ? yes we can. And we’ll do it all in 5 years.

  3. COMPASSION says:


  4. Gordon MacRae says:

    Excellent article John.

    Labour needs to keep sanctions on the table, communities simply do not accept that it can be right that some people can claim without contributing.

    But we should not lose sight of the responsibility on Government to provide real work and training opportunities.

    The failure of the workfare programme is down to the absence of sanctions against employers who take the free labour but dont play their part with proper training that leaves participants better prepared to remain in the job market.

    Real contributions in return for real training, real opportunities and a real chance of getting on.

  5. oliver says:

    I keep hearing this phrase “trapped on sickness benefit”. Practically every time I hear it, it’s from a politico talking in terms of moving stats from one column to another and the difficulties they have in shunting these stats around.

    Somewhere along the line, politicos and bean counters haven’t taken into consideration that the majority of these people are trapped on sickness benefits because they’re actually trapped in sickness.

    What’s happening in mental health in particular at the moment is genuinely disturbing. Therapy is being slashed and a one size fits all approach (Mindfulness) is the only therapy available to many as slots for CBT &c. are becoming increasingly limited. If a person’s situation hasn’t changed at the end of an increasingly short and increasingly ‘hands-off’ therapy programme, then it’s a case of ‘tough shit’ and the doors are wedged open for work programmes even when it’s been acknowledge that the person has problems and the problems haven’t been alleviated. All that matters is that the programme outlines and limits have been met, a box can be ticked and patronising and insincere ‘we’ve done all we can’ tone can be adopted.

    Subsequently, people with long-term, serious mental health problems, many now without any real support, are being shunted into ‘working groups’ purely as a bean counting exercise having had the piss-taken out of them by the likes of ATOS etc.

    There’s a large amount of people with physical and mental impairments who, under any real ‘normal’ circumstance, would be a class of ‘untouchables’ in a employment sense. Businesses, generally, are (perhaps understandably) pretty uncomfortable with the idea of employing people with histories of long term or severe mental health issues, particularly when these people have to be paid a real wage. In a job market like we have at the moment, where everything is stacked in the employer’s favour, this is magnified.

    Typically, most people with impairments will be less reliable than people without because of their health concerns. That’s the nature of being sick/impaired/disabled/whatever, particularly if it’s a long term condition. Many people learn to manage their conditions to an extent, but if it’s long term and any more than ‘moderate’ then it will still be an issue – especially when compared to someone without these issues. This is an inescapable fact.

    To be focusing on getting sick people into work when so many more genuinely capable can not find work themselves is obscene.

    Yes, undoubtedly, some people can do some work. However, if people feel up to it, traditionally they’ve approached employers with a more flexible out-look, usually charities and similar who can’t afford to pay wages as such but will trade-off with the understanding that they’d have to be more flexible regarding what someone can do and how often they can do it. Perhaps most importantly of all is that the person with the condition has the over-riding say on what they can and can’t do: not someone from the Job Centre with an afternoon’s worth of training and not someone from ATOS who is practically paid to declare someone ‘fit for work’, no matter what.

    If Labour want sick people in work, rather than plan more schemes to drive sick people off welfare, surely it would make far more sense to invest a lot more into therapy and have WELL people looking for work, rather than sick people being forced to work?

    When I read things like “but it could also be simply be addressing a claimant’s barriers to work by encouraging them to smarten up his or her appearance” I despair.

    There’s one line in John Woodcock’s essay that really stands out, or rather the use of one word in a particular line and it’s this: “They would discuss how things were going, talk through what jobs MIGHT be out there and what work-related activity the claimant had undertaken…” What jobs MIGHT be out there – MIGHT. To me, such use of a weasel word sums all this up. All this talk about “something for something” and yet this no one can guarantee this “something” even exists.

    You really can’t see the problem with what you’re saying here, can you? “If Britain is really prepared to break the culture of worklessness that still persists in some of our most disadvantaged communities, we should be prepared to consider rolling out mandatory work requirements far more widely to those able to work.” Communities are generally disadvantaged because they are employment deserts (how many applications for each vacancy in Barrow?) and yet in areas where there’s a lack of work, you want to “roll out mandatory work requirements”? If there’s no jobs, and there’s a massive lack of them, acknowledge that this, stop pushing the blame onto the sick and the unemployed and reframing the discourse as if they’re the issue.

    If you can’t supply proper, meaningful work, you have no moral or even logical ground to demand it of anyone.

    Create real jobs first before any of this. Stop pandering to floating right wing voters with illogical attacks on the sick and the unemployed as a means to securing votes for your next election. Here’s an idea: if you can create jobs first, those floating voters (the only voters Labour seem to care about these days) will vote Labour anyway without having to try and out-Tory the Tories. I say that because all I read from Labour is ‘we need to be more Tory than the Tories to beat the Tories’.

  6. Tim says:

    What Mr Woodcock appears not to have grasped is that the move to ESA is weeding out not just those fit for work but many people who are not. So please stop going on about there being a load of people on sickness benefits who ought not be and spend a bit more time complaining how low the bar has new been set for declaring sick people fit for work.

  7. Dr Alan McCowan says:

    Oliver: I agree with every single word you say, but you’re wasting your breath. Labour are fully signed up to the “undeserving poor” witch hunt – in fact, they started it. They unleashed ATOS on the sick, Cameron is only turning the screw.

    People are fit to work, are they? Well, that’s all just fine and dandy, isn’t it? Because there are millions of jobs out there waiting to be filled by both the able-bodied and the challenged, and – oh, right.

  8. Tony Holden says:

    As one of your constituents, I really do despair at my own MP carrying on the Conservative game of blame the claimants. Of course Labour started it when they brought in a flawed, and unfit for purpose, WCA for ESA in an attempt to out tory the tories, and you’re still trying to do that.

    It is this sort of behaviour that feeds fuel to those who see the government demonising the sick and disabled, and emboldens them to harangue and even physically attack disabled people. Something I’ve experienced in Barrow, your constituency, with someone shouting abuse at me for walking with a crutch.

    It’s a sad indictment of the Labour party, and its values, when a working class person, who became disabled through an accident at work, feels that the only people who are trying there best for him, are unelected peers in the House of Lords.

  9. Oliver says:

    Regarding ‘out Torying the Tories’: I really think there should be some kind of amnesty scheme where, no questions asked and no danger of reprisal, MPs can cross the floor en masse and sit with the parties they’re more accurately aligned with.

    Maybe a cross between Mike Reid’s ‘Runaround’ from the 1970s and the sorting hat out of Harry Potter? If we’re lucky, it might mean mainstream politics wouldn’t be taken-up with three variations on a Tory theme.

  10. Les Abbey says:

    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.

    I just don’t understand why beating up the unemployed is more important to Woodcock when there are no jobs. Is there any logic in this. Didn’t he watch Boys from the Blackstuff first time around.

  11. Mike Homfray says:

    Why do people with views like this see the Labour party as a suitable vehicle for them when the Tories already exist?

  12. Emma says:

    So what did labour do apart from make it worse to be sick? This didn’t just happen. Yes there will be people who abuse the system, just like not all MPs screw their expenses but we are all being made to pay. I have ME who will employ me? How is cutting my treatment and bullying me into work helping my mental and physical health?

    Labour have done nothing for me, and your article compounds that they never will.

  13. Bill MacLeod says:

    I am horrified to think that the person who wrote this article is a member of the Labour Party.

  14. Shaw Green says:

    This article and other noxious policies is why I left the Labour party after over 20 years of active support.

    The issue on workfare is simple. There should be no sanctions involved and the companies involved should pay the people on the work placement at the minimum wage or above.

    Anything less than this is blatant exploitation of a vulnerable group for the purposes of profit and is either illegal under the National Minimum Wage leglislation or else under the human rights legislation under the clause on coerced working.

    That Labour refuses to condemn these policies tells me all I need to know about its bankrupt agenda and this MP makes me ashamed I once supported them.

  15. David Parker says:

    I came across this by accident. Unbelievable. What a gift to the Tories who are hell bent on making the most vulnerable and powerless pay for a crisis created by the rich and powerful. With views like this you have no chance of recovering the support that was lost between 1997 and 2010.

  16. jim says:

    im sitting here reading the comments,i have to go for a a capability test im blind in one eye ,have barrets esophagus also diverticulites where i have dificulties with bowl especialy when i get stressed , i feel ashamed that i have been on the sick for so many years . i feel like ending my life this is just to let people know that we all have feelings-will someone tell this goverment

  17. Landless Peasant says:

    Despite being a Working Class Socialist from a family of (old) Labour supporters, the main reason I will NOT be voting Labour in future is because of the painful memories I have of being forced to endure the sheer mental torture of the thoroughly soul-destroying and utterly futile ‘New Deal’ programme, by which Labour first introduced us to Benefit sanctions. That and the fact that Labour allowed the Tories to get away with implementing ILLEGAL Work Programme regulations by back-dating the Law (!) and swindling many claimants out of sanction refunds. Only about 30 Labour MPs signed EDM 1072. Disgraceful. I will not vote for any party that supports Workfare/New Deal type back-to-work scams and Benefit sanctions. I’ll be voting for either Respect or Green, but NOT Labour!

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