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.

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.

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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".

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.

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.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.