It may not seem to be a very important measure, but a very important principal was at stake. The government have reversed a key of part of their welfare reform programme. The defeat was inflicted, not in the Commons, or in the Lords, but on the streets. I am talking about Iain Duncan Smith’s proposal that young, unemployed claimants should be required to undertake work experience in return for their benefit.
It was surprising, too, that all too few Tory MPs were prepared to come out and defend the measure. Why, I wondered, was this? Was it because they didn’t understand the conditionality change that the government was making? Was it that they simply disagreed with the measure? Or was it that they felt apprehensive in making a defence which might dub them the ‘nasty party’?
The government was, in truth, ham-fisted. Younger people who had already held down a job, but for one reason or another have lost it, should have been exempted from any compulsory measure. Many of these young people would, of course, have opted voluntarily and should have been allowed to do so.
So where did the reform go wrong? Let me declare my position. I would adopt the same policy that Mr Attlee adopted when he first introduced the great welfare reform measures in the 1945 parliament. Welfare was made conditional on contributions. There were a comparatively small number of pensioners who would gain, as of right, means-tested top-ups on the basis of need. But for the rest of the population, welfare was conditional.
A few Fridays ago I asked in to the academy where I am the chair of governors, 20 or so employers asking them if they would help the academy ensure that our school leavers, seeking work, were in pole position. I wouldn’t have asked these employers for an hour of their time if I thought we didn’t have a problem, but I was simply floored by their responses.
One after the other presented the same picture. There was a huge gap between pupils leaving school having the qualities needed to hold down a job – presuming that a job was available.
Each of the employers was not only concerned with the inability of many to turn up on time, every day, and not just on those days that the future employee thought they would appear. It was the lack of any idea of working in a team, of being flexible enough to help a colleague or cover when other staff members were absent, that each of the employers stressed. Likewise, there was unanimity that new recruits had little idea that their goal was to add value to the firm rather than simply take value out.
Employers view getting most new recruits up to speed on these most fundamental aspects of working life as a significant cost to their business. It is at this point that we should consider what the government’s scheme was.
I see nothing wrong with asking young unemployed claimants, who have never worked, and do not have the personal skills to win a job, to undertake work experience for their benefit. The employers made it plain that such a proposal still costs them but they were prepared to do this as one of their duties.
Some employers go further, although I have no idea how significant this group is. The best ever organisation in Birkenhead helping people find jobs was A and L Training, but they lost out to the big contracts that we offered, let alone the mammoth ones the present government has embarked upon. They have now returned to Birkenhead. This organisation, which places young people on work experience programmes, reports that they have some success in employers making the temporary jobs permanent, even though at the start of the operation the employers had no vacancies.
Of course there will be employers that try to exploit this situation for ‘free’ labour, and this will require attention, but providing such employment genuinely helps to get young people ready for the job market. I do not see this as a bad deal.
And shouldn’t we be defending such schemes instead of sitting on the sidelines and allowing the Socialist Worker an undefended goal?
Frank Field is MP for Birkenhead and former minister for welfare reform
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