An interesting little article appeared in The Telegraph this weekend. It turns out that the majority of voters have a very low tolerance for the welfare state as it stands.
A YouGov survey on “fairness” found strong backing for some kind of welfare sanction scheme against those who are drug users or have criminal records; that a large majority think that child benefit should be capped after a family has three children; and that the state should “actively discourage” people from becoming single parents.
The poll also makes it clear that most people think that those who won’t work at all should have their benefits cut – 21% of people even said that if you won’t work you should lose all your benefits. People also think that fairness is more about everyone getting what they deserve, rather then just getting the same as everyone else: only 26% said that “fairness is about equality.”
But most interestingly of all, the poll found that 80% of voters – an overwhelming majority – think that those who have been out of work for 12 months and are physically and mentally capable of working should do something for the community in return for benefits.
The fact is that – whatever the government might like to think – the general population clearly believes, as the report with the poll puts it, that fairness is “strongly reciprocal”. You shouldn’t get “something for nothing”. If you get you should give back – “something for something”.
Clearly the state has to strike a careful balance between promoting and allowing personal responsibility, and helping those in need. But given that feelings on this issue are so very strong, why don’t we have a more ‘conditional welfare system’ in the UK? One where if you won’t (not can’t, but won’t) make yourself available for work, you don’t get all your benefit. And in particular, given that 80% of those polled favour one, why don’t we have at least a gentle workfare system?
Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) comes to £67.50 a week in the UK. The minimum wage is £5.93 an hour. So surely it makes sense to ask those who are up to it to work in the community somehow for, say, 11 hours a week in exchange for JSA? We could even reframe the whole conversation so that we don’t say we give out JSA anymore – just that we guarantee everyone a state-sponsored part-time job at the minimum wage, until they find a better option.
This would have many benefits. It would seem fair to taxpayers. It would go some small way towards preventing one of the main problems the long-term unemployed have – the fact that they are long-term unemployed and therefore unfamiliar with the way work works.
As Jackie Ashley pointed out in the Guardian last year “if people who are unemployed can be found socially useful community work to keep them busy while they are waiting for jobs during a period of very slow economic growth – or perhaps no growth at all – then that seems fair enough. Work is habit. Getting up in the morning and turning up at the right time is a routine people can easily fall out of, or never learn. The left should never champion a welfare system which does not expect self-discipline or effort.”
Indeed it should not. It wouldn’t be too onerous for anyone – 11 hours a week still leaves three and a half working days a week to look for a real job – so it is much less harsh than the 30-hour-a-week placements suggested by Ian Duncan Smith last year. And if managed properly it could produce huge benefits for more than just its participants. What if workfare provided free universal childcare, for example?
There’s huge devil in the detail of all this (who arranges the work, who stops it from being all about picking up litter, what will it cost, should there be training, who is exempt and why, etc) but given the massive support for some kind of workfare across the political spectrum (even Ken Livingstone is into it), I can’t understand why, the odd outbreak from Lord Digby–Jones aside, it is so rarely discussed anymore.