Fair Deal?

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It is the ever-fresh suggestion for a government wanting to sound as if it is being tough on the unemployed, whilst ignoring the realities of existing schemes: make the unemployed work for their benefits. Well, if we ignore the oxymorons of making the unemployed work (surely they would then be employed?) and of compulsory voluntary work (surely that which is compulsory cannot be voluntary) and the generally-offensive waffle about laziness and the workshy (sometimes leavened with references to giving the unemployed focus or structure, as if jobhunting doesn’t concentrate the mind on an aim and is something pursued haphazardly), we get down to a single simple proposition: should people on benefits give something back in return for receiving aid?

I have no problem with that. I think it is fair to suggest no-one should get something for nothing (although, let us not enquire too deeply about all the tax paid when they were working). I have absolutely no problem, as one of the long-term unemployed, with the government asking me to ‘give something back’. What I do have a problem with is the way such schemes are posited to work.

Firstly, I have a huge problem with any talk of such schemes that equates ‘giving back’ with being some sort of penalty or punishment as if those out of work are there voluntarily or through some sort of their own, or would rush out and get a job if only things were made hard for them. I daresay it is true that there are plenty of fraudsters claiming benefits whilst working, but on that basis, we should have the entirety of the Houses of Parliament out in the streets litter-picking for the sins of those who made false expenses claims. The unemployed should not be harassed and humiliated for their misfortune.

Secondly, I have a major problem with being treated as slave labour (especially for councils and private companies that should be paying employees). I fully understand the concept that such a scheme shouldn’t pay as well as work, in order to maintain an incentive to get off of benefits, but the ‘pay’ per hour should not be ridiculously low. With the current minimum wage at £6.19, a per hour equivalency of say £5 or even £4.50 would be fair, whilst maintaining the incentive to get a ‘real’ job, yet the proposed thirty hours a week (excluding the additional ten hours jobsearch) would work out at around £2.50 per hour for me. Which flags another problem – not everyone receives the same benefits, yet everyone would do the same hours, meaning someone getting a lot more benefits than me would be ‘earning’ a higher hourly wage. To be fair, either I should do less hours than them or my benefits should be increased to recompense me for the work I would be doing; otherwise, I am being penalised for costing the country less!

Related to that last point, any such scheme should also take into account factors preventing someone from getting a job. It seems unfair that someone with the odds stacked against them because of disability, location or age should be treated in the same way as someone young in perfect health who is ideally positioned to get work yet is unemployed. All the more so if such schemes are to be presented as a ‘punishment’ for idleness, those of us who have more to overcome to get a job should not be punished for the hand that life has dealt us.

Thirdly, I have a problem with any scheme that exists purely to give the unemployed something to do. Such schemes should be properly tailored to ensure that they make proper use of the jobseekers’ skills and provide some degree of ‘work experience’ that can be parlayed into getting a real job, rather than being meaningless exercises in filling time. It is all very well to talk about making sure the unemployed are literate and numerate, but what about those with an education, especially older people facing age discrimination? What help will be in place to ensure that they are not left on the scrapheap? Even if there are not the jobs immediately for people to move into, such schemes must work to place people ready to take on real work as it becomes available; otherwise they are a complete waste of time.

Lastly, I have a problem with the presentation of such schemes as a panacea to unemployment when the underlying problems are not being tackled. The government must ensure that jobs are being created in the places where there is unemployment. And, they should also prevent discrimination against the long-term unemployed. Fail to secure a job early on in your search and the odds against you gaining employment drop rapidly as you are pushed to the back of the queue by those looking to change jobs and the newly unemployed, who are seen as being more willing to work. The long-term unemployed need to be helped to the front of the queue to end this ridiculous vicious circle of being repeatedly overlooked whilst languishing ever longer in the desert of unemployability.

As I stated at the start of this piece, I have no problem with being asked to ‘give something back’, but I will not sit back and allow myself to be taken advantage of or kept down by the very schemes purporting to help me. Assistance for jobseekers in the UK is abysmal and needs to be vastly improved. But, it won’t be improved until it is acknowledged that most people who are unemployed want to work and that treating like criminals is no answer to their situation.

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