The Coalition's welfare reform programme made an important breakthrough last week, as the DWP released the startling results from its first pilot scheme for workfare. The 'mandatory work activity' scheme requires claimants to carry out work on community projects in return for receiving unemployment benefit. As the Telegraph reported, half of the claimants covered by the pilot came off unemployment benefit rather than carry out the work offered. Confirming the suspicions of many jobcentre staff, it seems that many claimants are not in fact available for work at all, often because they are active in the cash economy. In the pilot, around a fifth of claimants signed off as son as they were referred for mandatory work; another third agreed to the work placement but then simply failed to show up and so had their benefits docked. This will give welfare reform a significant boost as the scheme is expanded in the coming months. If results across the country come anywhere close to replicating this pilot, the government can anticipate big savings on welfare bills.
Acknowledging that workfare is the key to successful welfare reform is a hugely important step, and one that is long overdue. The success of Bill Clinton's welfare reforms in the mid-90s, which reduced welfare rolls by more than 50%, owe much to the use of mandatory work requirements. Despite Gordon Brown's alleged admiration for the way in which Clinton (with Republican support) tackled the dependency culture in the US, the Blair and Brown governments allowed welfare costs to soar and refused to countenance workfare schemes. As the Coalition presses ahead with the new work requirements, it will be interesting to see if the tentative cross-party consensus on welfare reform holds. Ed Miliband says he wants to 'favour the hard-working majority' with a responsible approach to welfare allocation; Liam Byrne has declared he wants a a 'something for something' culture. So will they back Chris Grayling and come out in support of workfare? They should do. Working in return for benefits is surely 'something for something'?
The reasons why Labour should back this scheme run much wider than saving money, important though that is. I can think of at least three powerful arguments for asking claimants to work in return for payments. First, the fairness argument. Ever since the welfare state began, politicians have worried about making the system fair, and voters have expressed resentment when welfare payments run too far out of line with social justice. The more generous the payments, the more resentment grows. As Ed Miliband seems to acknowledge, the notion of a welfare state cannot retain popular support if transfers from working to non-working families are seen to benefit the idle (or worse still, the fraudulent), rather than the truly needy. Participation in community work schemes is a great opportunity for claimants to show they are willing to play an active part in the society that is providing them with a living.
Secondly, the use of mandatory work obligations should ensure a better allocation of resources. It's futile for jobcentre staff and work agencies to spend time and money on dole claimants who have no intention of taking up work. Much better that their efforts should be directed to those unemployed who genuinely want (and need) to be in work, who are therefore likely to profit from training programmes and to hold down jobs as a result. If mandatory work enables jobcentres to flush out fraudulent claims, genuine jobseekers will benefit.
A third argument for work obligations lies in the value to participants of creating a habit of work. For long term unemployed – the category of claimants at whom the pilot scheme is directed – getting into a work routine is an important preparation for holding down a paid job. Community work schemes – charity work, maintaining parks and open spaces, chores for the elderly – may be repetitive, unskilled and certainly unglamorous. But so is a great deal of paid work. Even dreary jobs can bring other kinds of satisfaction, however: contact with others, the notion of service, achievement from a task completed, a reason to get out of bed in the morning. 'Dignity of labour' – valuing the accomplishment of mundane but useful tasks – has been one of the many casualties of easy welfare. And whilst workfare schemes are most important for the long term unemployed, other jobseekers could reasonably be asked to participate. School and college leavers who are no longer in training should not be automatically entitled to JSA, but should instead be allocated to community work. The best way to break the habit of claiming out of work benefits is never to start it; for young and able bodied people it should simply not be an option.
For mandatory work schemes to gain respect, it's vital that they should not overlap with punitive schemes used in community sentences. And time out to prepare for and attend job interviews must of course be granted. Schemes will not be cheap to run, most will require some basic training at the outset and structured supervision. But the long term impact on welfare bills, combined with the value to participants of building up a work record, will surely outweigh those costs.