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Welcome to the workfare state

The debate about introducing compulsory 'workfare' schemes for the unemployed has already helped to scapegoat the long-term jobless and undermine the welfare system. Kate Lawrence looks at the coercive drift of policy and attitudes towards the unemployed

The central message of the debate about workfare is that the unemployed are largely to blame for their plight and must take responsibility for their own welfare. Under workfare schemes run in some American states, the unemployed are obliged to take part in non-profit making employment to 'pay off' any welfare benefits they receive.

In Britain it is likely that the cost of running comprehensive work schemes for the unemployed will prohibit the introduction of full-blown workfare for all of the jobless. But the significance of the debate lies in the way that it has helped to shift the responsibility for unemployment - especially long-term unemployment - away from structural factors and on to the shoulders of the jobless themselves. This can only legitimise the use of increasingly coercive measures to 'encourage' the long-term unemployed back to work, and pave the way for further benefit cuts.

John Major gave official approval to a more coercive approach to the unemployed in his Carlton Club speech to the Tory faithful in February. It appears that while the rest of us were wondering how many more people had been turned out of their jobs and on to the streets, Major was wondering 'whether paying unemployment benefit, without offering or requiring any activity in return, serves unemployed people or society well'.

In case that sounded a bit harsh, Major threw in his usual Citizen's Charter style two-way contract: 'Of course, we have to make sure that any conditions imposed improve the job prospects of unemployed people and give good value to the country.' Presumably if the conditions imposed fail to improve the job prospects of unemployed people they can fill in a service complaint form.

In fact the thinking behind the workfare proposals already underpins the government's increasingly punitive policy towards the unemployed.

Just two weeks after Major had been wondering whether the state should hand the unemployed their benefits without 'requiring any activity in return', the Department of Employment revealed that the number of people out of work for over a year had topped one million. The same day, the press reported that the government was due to unveil new compulsory temporary work and training programmes for 18 to 25-year olds who have been unemployed for over a year.

Officially, the unemployed are not required to participate in most of the government's existing training and employment schemes. But the independent Unemployment Unit noted in January that it 'continues to receive information that many individuals are pressurised into joining inappropriate programmes especially during Restart and other "counselling" interviews' (Working Brief, January 1993).

Currently anyone unemployed for two years must attend a Restart course - a week-long programme which teaches the unemployed many useful things including how to write CVs and look for jobs which don't exist. The course comes with a 40 per cent cut in benefit for anyone who fails to attend.

This month, the new Training for Work programmes will bring the date for compulsory attendance forward by a year. Anyone who fails to attend the new Jobplan programme after they have been out of work for one year may forfeit 40 per cent of their unemployment benefit for up to three weeks.

Last summer the Employment Service stopped sending out letters which warned claimants suspected of failing the 'actively seeking work' rule that their benefits were about to be suspended. This means that claimants no longer have the chance to prove they have been looking for work before their money is cut. The Employment Service's own statistics show that up to 90 per cent of claimants suspected of failing the rules were subsequently able to prove, after they received their warning letter, that they had looked for work.

Last November the government introduced new rules allowing officials immediately to withdraw Income Support hardship payments from single adults and childless couples thought to have failed to look for work. Meanwhile, people who 'travel in groups' (New Age hippies, not the royal family) can now lose their benefit for moving 'to an area where they are extremely unlikely to find work' ('ES Circular 83/6', September 1992). Presumably this rules out anywhere in Britain.

Social security secretary, Peter Lilley justified some of the tougher rules as a way of giving 'a short, sharp shock to single claimants or childless couples who have failed to actively seek work' (statement to Social Security Advisory Committee, November 1992, quoted in Working Brief, January 1993). He said that these claimants must 'behave in a more socially responsible manner', and warned that those 'who seek to evade their personal responsibility to look for work, and turn to crime, will face the full force of the law'.

None of this will have come as a surprise to anyone who heard Lilley's remarks to the Tory Party conference a month before he met the Social Security Advisory Committee. There, Lilley entertained his audience with a song - to a tune by Gilbert and Sullivan - about the different kinds of benefit 'scroungers' he intended to seek out and destroy. These included, of course, New Age travellers, errant fathers, benefit 'fraudsters' and 'young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing list'.

By making popular fears and prejudices about New Age travellers, unmarried mothers, 'scroungers' and juvenile criminals the focus of the debate on the direction of social policy, Lilley and his supporters have sought to make unemployment a moral issue.

If every time you tighten the benefit system you raise the spectre of 'criminals' and 'deviants', eventually the message gets through that a lot of unemployment exists because scroungers, single mothers and juvenile delinquents exist, rather than because of any fundamental flaws in the economic and social system. Hence instead of unemployment having something to do with the structure of society, the blame for lengthening dole queues is placed fair and square on the shoulders of the jobless.

Linking unemployment to a variety of social problems such as illegitimacy, petty crime, violence, joyriding and drug abuse has become a popular pastime among commentators increasingly concerned with issues such as long-term unemployment and urban decay.

The consensus of today's commentators is that there is a behavioural link between different social problems which can be explained in terms of the moral shortcomings of those at the bottom end of society. At the heart of their concern lies the fear that a demoralised and dangerous layer of people, or 'underclass', is growing at the outskirts of British society.

The thrust of the current debate on workfare is that, unless something is done about the long-term unemployed, more and more of Britain's housing estates will sink into a state of 'welfare dependency' where crime, illegitimacy and other kinds of 'deviant' behaviour become the norm.

This is a view broadly shared by commentators across the political spectrum. 'The state has become passive, both in providing jobs and pastoral care', argues the former editor of the now defunct Marxism Today, Martin Jacques, proposing workfare schemes in the Sunday Times (24 January 1993). 'The unemployed, especially the long-term unemployed, respond in kind, with declining morale, sullen resentment and a frequent willingness to beat or fiddle the system', he added.

Attitude problem

Much of this discussion about workfare assumes that the major difficulty with long-term unemployment is not that it reduces people to dire poverty, but that it encourages 'declining morale' and 'sullen resentment'. For these commentators, it seems, the most serious problem among the long-term jobless is not the shortage of a decent income, but the lack of a proper attitude. The solution proposed is an invigorating and disciplinarian dose of forced labour.

Few contributors to the workfare debate have asked how much people would be paid on such schemes. All appear to have assumed that the unemployed would be working for their miserly giros. The stream of proposals for workfare ignore the real problem of poverty among the unemployed, and concentrate instead on broadcasting a modern equivalent of the Victorian moralists' warning that 'the Devil makes work for idle hands'.

Far from improving the economic circumstances of the long-term unemployed, the debate about workfare points towards things getting worse. Behind the attempt to associate Britain's long-term unemployed with a variety of social problems lies an attack on the welfare state, which 'underclass' theorists and others deem to be responsible for encouraging the bad behaviour of the poor.

'Underclass' community

At the Tory conference in October, social security minister Lilley made a direct link between the availability of benefits and the 'break-up' of the traditional family unit. 'Now is the time to pursue our Conservative vision for the future....a Britain where we help families to grow together, not pay them to split asunder', he told the conference. In other words, the existence of the welfare state has encouraged individuals to reject traditional family values. For Lilley and others, this rejection lies at the heart of the 'underclass' community with its single mother households and jobless, joyriding, juvenile delinquent offspring.

In his Carlton Club speech, Major attacked the welfare state for undermining personal responsibility: 'it is where, over many years, the state has intervened most heavily, that local communities have been most effectively destroyed. It is where people feel no pride in ownership; where they are stripped of responsibility for the conditions in which they live.'

Hostility to the welfare state informs many of the suggestions for workfare schemes. And, ironically, that same hostility lies behind the resistance of many Tories to compulsory workfare.

In a parliamentary debate on workfare in November, Tory MP and former director of the Centre for Policy Studies David Willets said the state should not be responsible for making 'idle hands meet...unmet needs'. He argued that Britain needed a 'free economy', not 'an enormous command economy directing people into jobs that politicians decide are useful'.

Meanwhile, ministers rejected a workfare plan presented by consultants Full Employment UK in January on the grounds that it was too expensive and that it implied that the unemployed had a 'right to work' and a right to receive a minimum statutory wage - both outrageous proposals, of course.

Blaming the poor

While commentators tie themselves in knots over how to get tough on the unemployed without losing the Conservative Party's vision of a new Britain free from 'welfare dependency', the debate on workfare is serving as a focus for shifting the responsibility for unemployment and poverty on to the backs of the poor. The unchallenged assumptions behind the debate that unemployment means crime, delinquency and depravity are already assisting the introduction of more draconian measures in the treatment of the jobless.

The desperation of establishment commentators in the face of persistent mass unemployment shows through their attacks on the jobless. Everyone knows that for all the Jobclubs, Jobplans, Restarts, youth training schemes, skills choices, workfare and endless other schemes dreamed up by the government, nothing has made the slightest difference to the growing tide of unemployment. The renewed talk of compulsory workfare confirms that the only thing the people who are to blame can do is try to point the finger at those at the rough end of British society.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 54, April 1993

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