Sunday, November 07, 2010

Liberal Democrat MPs must veto compulsory community service for the unemployed

I am wary about commenting on something that's at the moment only a news report, that we haven't heard from the horse's mouth, but even so, I feel the need to lay down a bit of a line in the sand about this report from the BBC. Apparently, a chosen proportion of the long term unemployed are going to be pulled in for month long spells of full time manual work like gardening or litter clearing.

That sounds spookily like the sorts of things people on community service do. Except those on community service have been through the judicial system and been found guilty of a crime. Their work is part of making good the wrongs they have committed. The charges against them have been either admitted or proven in a court of law after examination of the evidence.

The BBC quotes Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith as saying:
 "One thing we can do is pull people in to do one or two weeks' manual work - turn up at 9am and leave at 5pm, to give people a sense of work, but also when we think they're doing other work.
There is no way on earth that people should be dragged onto a programme which effectively criminalises them
 without proper evidence against them. That is neither fair nor just. The fact that IDS is actually quoted makes me think that the report may not be far off the mark.

My husband spent 10 months of his life without a job in 1994. It was a very worrying time for both of us. He had an exemplary work record over 20 years, but even then, with hundreds chasing every vacancy, finding another job was a tortuous process. It wasn't his fault he was out of a job - it was the Tory Government's, for shutting down the coal mines, and he certainly could not have tried harder to find another one. What helped him was meaningful, structured support. Someone who knew what they were doing to look through his job applications before he sent them, to help him prepare for interviews, and encourage him, giving constructive advice, after yet more rejection.

People who have never worked and are well into their twenties or thirties are going to be regarded with suspicion by employers. I'm not saying that's right, but it's how it will be. The public sector workers filling up the dole queue in the months and years to come will be much more attractive to employers. That's not to say that we just leave the long term unemployed on the scrap heap, as every other government has done. When we look at the cost of welfare, we look at the financial cost. The human cost is much greater.  Our system often keeps people who desperately want to work languishing in isolation on benefits. Those people need urgent help.

I've seen cases where people have had firm offers of long term employment as long as they have a certain qualification being forced to stay on benefits because the qualification needed was not included in the training they paid for. The cost to in terms of the welfare budget was tiny, but it was completely unaffordable to them. What happened in all of these cases is that these people ended up being paid much more in benefits when they could have been fulfilling themselves and paying taxes back to the Government. Those were clear cases of the Government cutting off its nose to spite its face. Much more flexibility needs to be given to front line job centre staff to authorise training which will lead to employment.

I have absolutely no objection to unemployed people being put on work placement schemes, as long as that's mutually agreed as part of a structured programme of support to get them back to work. We need to see a system which treats people as individuals, helps them to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, gives them the training they need and professional help. As part of that process, a good reference from an employer for whom they'd been on placement would be really valuable.

The vast majority of unemployed people who are able to hold down a job would dearly love to do so. For me it makes more sense to target resources on helping them. Wasting public money on a Work Activity programme to pander to the ill-informed prejudices of Daily Fail readers is completely out of order. I do not want to see a single Liberal Democrat MP voting for such a scheme and I hope that enough pressure will be brought to bear behind the scenes to ensure that this never sees the light of day.


John Ruddy said...

A very thoughtful post - and you have hit the nail on the head. For the vast majority of the unemployed, this scheme will do nothing to help them get back into work. If anything, it will hit their self-esteem even further - effectively being treated as a criminal.

What is needed is a structured and personalised way of getting back to work, but also there needs to be the jobs. Currently there are approximately 300,000 job vacancies which the 2.5 million JSA claimants are chasing. And thats before we start on the people who will loose their jobs in the public and private sectors from the Government cut backs.

Anonymous said...

As you said, let's wait and see. But I expect (well, certainly hope) that anything like this would be for a very small number of people where it is felt that it could help them get a job in the future. If it was a blanket thing for the long-term unemployed I hope the Lib Dems would block it.

KelvinKid said...

A great post that says what has to be said. However I am not bating my breath waiting for a backbench rebellion.

"Later [Norman Lamb] is asked why he accepts Andrew Lansley's bolt-from-the-blue health reforms – a shock to all since they were not in the coalition agreement, and the coalition agreement in fact stipulates no top-down reforms. "Inevitably there are compromises," the former health spokesman says."

If they can compromise on that they can compromise on anything.

Unknown said...

Anon, I don't see how sending someone to do a month's manual work because some bureaucrat makes a decision that they're not trying hard enough to get a job is actually going to improve their long term employment prospects.

In fact, could having been part of that programme not create a stigma which puts off a potential employer?

Unknown said...

Flippin' eck, KK, it's been a long time since I said something that's pleased you. That's made my day:-)

Anonymous said...


I knew you'd come out on the side of the angels here.

Now where are the other LibDems speaking against IDS's appalling community service scheme for people whose only "crime" is to be unemployed? From there it's but a short step to Serco-administered workhouses. If the majority go along with this, I cannot stay in the party any longer; there's no way I can continue to work with collaborators.

Unknown said...

I hope it's not true but have a suspicion that it is. It has elements of Community Service but it is also vaguely similar to slave labour. I am finding it diffcult to stay with the Party at the moment this would make it impossible.

Gryff said...

Glad you have picked up on this. I was so annoyed by the reports.

If this was really about helping people get back into work it would be an option for people to volunteer for, not a punishment.

Actually the system, as it currently stands prevents jobseekers from improving themselves. There is only a very limited amount of time for which you are allowed to do unpaid work during the week.

When I was claiming JSA, I started doing a morning a week volunteering for a small charity. I then applied for an internship at the Church of Scotland, which was, all credit to them, excellent experience. BUT in order to do the internship, I had to stop volunteering at the Charity. I could only do the internship for one day a week - massively limiting the opportunities for development in that role.

Had I wanted to do, say, three days a week, I would have either had to lie, or give up my benefits. I would have loved to do three weeks full time work to improve my job prospects. In the new system someone like me could want to do this, and be denied, but others will be forced to do it as a punishment.

You can probably tell, but it makes me livid.

Neil M said...

In the 1980s my late father spent some a period organising projects for the what was then the DSS for the long term unemployed. I can't remember what they were called but it was an adult version of the then Youth Unemplyment Scheme. It took men in their 40s and 50s who had not worked for several years and set them to work on a project for a few minths. These projects included jetty building, dry stone walling and rebuilding old drovers paths. They learnt some valuable skills, got into the habit of goinf to work and created useful community ammenities that you would never find the funding the pay to get done. I don't see a downside here. Nor do I see any reason why it could not be compulsory. We are talking (hopefully) about people who have been long-term unemployed (not people in your husbands position) who will clearly need a lot of help to get back into the workplace. It won't be suitable for everyone but it can be a useful tool and should not be dismissed as out of hand as this.

Anonymous said...

If this scheme was genuine and was offered on a voluntarey basis then it could be helpful for unemployed people who want to work by giving them a bit of a toe in the door.

But I think we have to be realistic about how poor the chances currently are for anyone trying to find a job.

But I really have doubts that this is anything more than sabre-rattling to frighten those who have a job on-the-side into coming off benefits.

I don't believe this coalition government really gives a stuff about the unemployed and wonder who is going to supervise and organise this army of conscripts.

But if I'm right then it will be just penny-packets of people round the UK with the attendant fanfare of publicity as 'proof' that the scheme is working.

I just wonder how long it will be till the return of the workhouse which my grandparents suffered along with the means test.

What a brave new society the Libdems are building with their Tory pals - I'll stick with Jerusalem.

Jen said...

What seems not to be being talked about is that some very similar stuff already happens - it's just not physical work based.

A few years ago, I had a job running one of the jobclub/restart/whatever type courses for people who'd been signing on for 6 or 12 months, or who the benefits agency staff thought needed a bit of a shakeup.

Every couple of weeks we'd have a new bunch of 15 people assigned to us. From 9 to 5 each day they sat in a room and we told them about looking smart for interviews, honing your CV etc. And then after a couple of weeks they returned to their normal doley lives.

Typically 14 of the 15 would be from brickie type labouring backgrounds, and the recession of the time meant they weren't getting new work. Some had literacy issues, and few had qualifications to pad out a CV. Both sides grinned and bore it as we went through the hoops but most of it was completely irrelevant to any work they might be likely to get.

The other one participant would often be a person who was sitting out time between e.g. finishing A-levels and going to uni in a flat jobs market, who might have benefited from a course with more people in a similar situation to them.

I look at what's proposed, beyond the headline, and it looks like this will really be another option at that 12 month line - do this training, do this course, or do this manual work programme. And for a lot of the people I saw go through that course, this would fit them an awful lot better.


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