Making the unemployed work: nothing new here

| November 7, 2010
Making the unemployed work: nothing new here

Current suggestions in the media are that in this week’s overhaul of benefits, the long-term unemployed will be made to perform some form of manual labour.

Already objectors are rising up to protest: the Archbishop of Canterbury has already thrown his critical oar in.

However, let’s be clear, this is not a new concept – it’s already been running for the past 15 years in some form or other, and has not worked during this time either.

The Conservatives originally brought in “Project Work” in the mid-1990′s, importing an idea from the USA.

The idea was simple: once someone had been claiming the now equivalent of Job Seeker’s Allowance for more than 2 years, then they would be forced into 3 months of “support” and “work experience”.

This resulted in a mass waste of tax payer money into paying agencies to take on the unemployed, teach them to cold call with a CV, and then put them on some useless work program.

This commonly involved painting fences, clearing cemetaries, or similar activities that could hardly be claimed to be providing any form of real and useful work experience.

Then when Labour came into power they rejigged the system and called it “New Deal”.

The New Deal meaning useless work, OR get training.

The same flaws were retained, but then extended – training companies were provided with cash and incentivised to pass their new students.

The result was that people could be trained up in basic computing skills and similar, for example – but unlike normal education programs, students would be provided with the answers to the questions they failed on. And then presented with the same exam again to redo.

Therefore ensuring that pass rates at these training centres were exceptional, and the training centres earned fat fees.

I know the truth of all this because these were my own experiences as long-term unemployed through the late 1990′s.

And, to make it worse, where disadvantaged areas were identified and the residents offered extra employment opportunities, these rarely materialised.

I still remember being part of a group of people on such a scheme applying for a basic office job with the local council. Despite scoring top for everything, and finishing everything faster than anyone else, I was not even offered the sniff of a job with that council.

Instead, as usual, public money had been thrown away to give every impression of trying to get people into work.

And the continual problem was always that those who devised the schemes at the top hadn’t a clue about the realities on the ground. Living in a world of stats and figures, they could justify themselves on spend, without having to face up to the reality of the public purse being screwed by opportunism.

Will the new plans being suggested by Iain Duncan Smith really make for any kind of change?

Probably not.

While Labour will no doubt chase the easy argument of there being fewer jobs available anyway so the exercise as pointless – while trying to pretend they didn’t steer the UK economy into a clear boom and bust – chances are few will be clued up on the realities of the long term employed.

The first problem was the CSA – Child Support Agency.

While the Conservatives have correctly identified a key problem that it often pays to stay on benefits than work, especially for families, no comment has been made on separated families.

In my time on the dole I met so many men who claimed they could not work because the moment they claimed a wage, the CSA would immediately take their income away for child support.

So it would not be worth their while to take a job unless the wage was ridiculously high, otherwise they would have nothing to live on. At least their dole money was safe and their own.

The second problem was that the work schemes were never orientated towards achieving useful work goals. Clearing a cemetary of weeds is hardly skills training for office work, industrial production, or customer relations.

And training that provides students with the answers during the exam is hardly going to result in proficient and experienced workers.

The third big problem was stigma – once you were on the dole for a while, employers would not take you seriously. It didn’t matter what skills and training you did – the fact you’d been on the dole for so long meant that there was obviously something fundamentally wrong with you as a person.

So getting out became more difficult.

And, fundamentally, the biggest problem of all – was the politicians.

Politicians who dream up grand ideas, and civil servants who implement them, all without any great clue about the realities of life on the dole, the actual reasons for being unemployed.

And, perhaps even worse, thinking that throwing public money into the private sector offered any kind of opportunity for the people it was primarily meant to benefit.

Certainly agencies benefited – a whole string of new companies were formed simply to take government training grants to take unemployed people off the unemployed register for 3 months.

I’m sure the situation has changed over the past ten years, I’m sure some of the flaws have been ironed out, and that there is a better quality assurance in place, not least in terms of spending and training.

Certainly under Labour it become more self-employed friendly: my first business only lasted a short time, but at least New Deal gave me the opportunity to try it out. I learned some valuable lessons from that, and these were invaluable to growing and developing my second business – your reading one of it’s many publications.

And, my business card still carries a photo of myself wearing the same black Burton’s suit paid for by the Job Centre for interviews.

There’s no doubt the benefits system needs an overhaul to become simpler.

But politician’s also need to overhaul their thinking. They need to have a clear understanding of what happens on the ground when they set up any new program.

After all, while it no doubt creates some degree of public satisifaction to be seen to be tacking a problem, that’s no comfort if the reality is that the problem is just beeing smoothed over.

There have been forced work and training programs for the unemployed running for the past 15 years. The important issue now is for Iain Duncan Smith’s team to understand where and why this has not worked before, and where they have succeeded, and work from that.

And for god’s sake, talk to the long term unemployed and stop relying on easily manipulated statistics.

If they are serious about the problems of the long term unemployed, that is.


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