Merryn's Blog

Why 'workfare' is a step in the right direction

The government's proposed workfare scheme isn't perfect, but it is a step in the right direction.

Prospect magazine has just carried out a poll with YouGov on welfare in the UK. The result? 74% of people think that "Britain spends too much on welfare and should cut benefits." 70% of people also agreed with the statement that "Our welfare system has created a culture of dependency. People should take more responsibility for their lives and families."

Bronwen Maddox, the magazine's editor, thinks this is "astonishing". But to anyone regularly reading this blog it probably isn't.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Become a smarter, better informed investor with MoneyWeek.

Ten months ago, I looked at another report (also from YouGov) which made it clear that people have a very defined sense of what is fair and what is not fair and they considered the UK benefits system to have crossed the line a long time ago. The Prospect report shows much the same thing.

People want the very poorest and weak in society to be protected; they want the old and the disabled to be kept safe; and they want a safety net that prevents people falling into destitution. Of course they do. But they have also begun to lose faith in the idea that our politicians, as Maddox puts it: "are giving the right money to the right people for the right reasons".

Advertisement - Article continues below

They've had enough of a system that traps people in benefit dependency for decades; they've had enough of the non-working getting more in housing benefit than the average wage even before tax (you need to make £35,000 a year to even get enough post-tax income to match the new cap); and they are irritated by the "workshy," the "feckless", and the "scroungers".

The Prospect survey didn't ask people about workfare. But if it had done, my guess is they would have got the same answers as the earlier survey did: most people think that those who won't work should have their benefits cut. 20 odd percent of people think that if you won't work, you shouldn't get a penny from the state.

But most interestingly of all in the context of the current row over workfare, 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 general feeling? No one should get something for nothing. Fair is a reciprocal concept. If you get you should give back something for something. I wrote about this last year, suggesting a more 'conditional welfare' system in the UK, and I can't see any reason to change my mind on this.

The type of workfare currently being imposed by the government isn't exactly what I had in mind. My thought had been that people would work for the community in return for minimum wage pay up to current benefit levels, not that they would work full-time in the commercial sector in return for benefits.

Our supermarkets in particular are already heavily subsidised by the welfare state, so I am not convinced that chucking more free resource at them really works for the common good.

But while I can't wholeheartedly embrace the new workfare, I am not sure I can criticise it either.

Advertisement - Article continues below

First, because employing the unemployed, whether you pay them or not , involves expense (training, training and more training), so we should thank our companies for taking that on at least.

Second, because to get a job you need to have had a job before. Any kind of workfare counts as a step on this ladder.

Third, because this kind of system makes welfare seem reciprocal which is what people say they want.

And fourth, because, as Jackie Ashley, says "work is a habit" and one that everyone who wants to end up in work needs to learn.

I'd prefer my original scheme we dump JSA and guarantee everyone a community-related part time job but maybe this will end up being a step in that direction. I note that several other commentators are now suggesting it too.




How long can the good times roll?

Despite all the doom and gloom that has dominated our headlines for most of 2019, Britain and most of the rest of the developing world is currently en…
19 Dec 2019

Beyond the Brexit talk, the British economy isn’t doing too badly

The political Brexit pantomime aside, Britain is in pretty good shape. With near-record employment, strong wage growth and modest inflation, there is …
17 Oct 2019

Rishi Sunak: the maharaja of the Yorkshire Dales

Rishi Sunak is taking the reins of the world’s fifth-largest economy at a crucial juncture. The unflashy but likeable youngster may be just the man fo…
20 Feb 2020
UK Economy

What is Britain’s new economic policy?

At the moment, Britain doesn’t seem to have an economic policy. But radical-seeming announcements and the surprise ousting of the chancellor portend m…
20 Feb 2020

Most Popular

Stocks and shares

Do you own shares in Sirius Minerals? Here’s what you need to do now

Mining giant Anglo American has proposed a cash takeover of Yorkshire-based minnow Sirius Minerals. Unhappy shareholders must decide whether to accept…
20 Feb 2020

Gold is at its highest level in years – here’s how to invest

Gold's rise at a time when the dollar is unnervingly strong isn't unheard of – but it is curious. John Stepek explains what's going on, and what it me…
21 Feb 2020
Share tips

Share tips of the week

MoneyWeek’s comprehensive guide to the best of this week’s share tips from the rest of the UK's financial pages.
21 Feb 2020

Why investors shouldn’t overlook Europe

SPONSORED CONTENT - Ollie Beckett, manager of the TR European Growth Trust, tackles investor questions around Europe’s economic outlook and the conseq…
6 Nov 2019