Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A land fit for workers

It appears that our Great Leader has given the Housing Minister, Caroline Flint, a knuckle-rapping over her proposition that tenants occupying lets in social housing, eg council houses, housing associations, should undertake skills audits and then undertake to seriously look for work as a condition of their tenancy.

This is rightly so: Mr Brown has every reason to fear a proposal to get unemployed people back to work, because it smacks of the sort of common sense which, if permitted to go unchecked, might win Labour another election instead of allowing it to head for the safe ground of being, in Labour MP Ian McCartney's words, the natural party of opposition. The scheme would also halt the drift of areas managed by registered social landlords into sink-estates that is presently ineluctable unless management committees and directors are foresightful and corageous enough to break their own golden rule and let families with members in employment jump the waiting list.

Not that pragmatism in the face of ideology has always been lacking in left-wing leaders. Labour's first Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, realised that when the Wall Street bubble burst during the first year of his second government, some tightening of the public spending belt was inevitable, and that this would have to include cutting unemployment benefit - the TUC's refusal to countenance which brought down the Labour-led Government. Socialists have detested MacDonald for his common-sense statemanship ever sinse.

Clement Attlee managed to guide Britain through the initial postwar period when Great Britain was fiscally drained, and oversee the introduction of the welfare state.

This was a truly inclusive project: under the orders of Tory premier Winston Churchill, Ernest Bevin, the Labour Minister of Employment, had commissioned William Beveridge, who would soon become a Liberal MP, to draft a plan for how Britain should unfold after the War.

Beveridge had the worthy vision of slaying the "Five Giants": Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalour and Idleness.

To pay for this, he envisaged the need for "full employment", ie an unemployment rate of less than 3%. Current unemployment in the UK is put at 5.3%, which seems not too much of an overshoot.

But the operative word in the above sentence is seems. In a documentary, Ann Widdecombe found that dole-office advisors in Barrow, where "only 20 per cent [of younger people] want a job and only 10 per cent are seeking one were encouraging people with minor ailments to register for incapacity benefit. And in Parliament, Stewart Jackson MP was presented with statistics on the amount of incapacity benefit claimants in Peterborough since 1997; but his interlocutor demurred from revealing what percentages the figures represented of Peterborough's population. A friend who works with vulnerable people assures me that Peterborough has the highest proportion of young people claiming incapacity benefit in East Anglia.

We now have the sort of situation where there can be "66% on benefits [and] marginal rates of taxation are at 75% and more, at the low end, ensuring no escape from poverty". Moreover, means-testing of benefits ensures, "at the low end", that if you get a job that does not pay the equivalent of incapacity/job-seeking benefit plus housing benefit plus council tax benefit, then the more you make the more you lose. If you have a family and earn just over the threshold for Working Families Tax Credit, which is not that high, then things are worse. I have been in this position. No wonder Frank Field, the Labour former Minister for Welfare who was fired for the unusual disloyalty of doing the job he was asked to do, said:

"The penalties means-tests impose on working, saving and honesty become apparent only later with an ever-growing proportion of the population having to think about how best to work this system. Equally importantly, this drive to even greater means-tested dependency is set to blow apart some of the key characteristics which underpin a common citizenship."

Another source "thinks the unthinkable" in the manner Mr Field was commissioned to do, if exaggerating somewhat for effect: "Would lifting the threat of economic destitution result in a flood of work-shy labourers overwhelming the public purse?" One is reminded of For the Benefit of Mr Parris, when the MP undertook to live on unemployment benefit in 1984 and found it harder to make ends meet than he had anticipated. But times have changed: even Freeview is poor man's meat, Sky or cable is de rigeur, and attempts to transcend means-tested benefits make it impossible to dress one's children in this week's latest fashion as modelled by whichever collective of singing mannequins has climbed the greasy pole today.

It's scary trying to get back into work after an enforced period on incapacity benefit. I know this. What is scariest is that - and this will sound astounding for a Scot to say - incapacity benefit rises every year, giving one an income that the sort of work available after a lengthy hiatus cannot compete with. No longer able to do the sort of jobs I had taken in the past, I was doing work experience as an office junior and doing it less well every day because I wasn't sleeping at night worrying over how I'd support my family if this particular job came on the market.

As it happened, thank God, a job came up that I was qualified to do that didn't involve the conditions that, while they may not have been responsible for my illness, I was keen to avoid because I was unsure if those I love could bear another stretch of coping with me at a Lovecraftian angle to the family. Perhaps one of the things that needs to change is that incapacity benefit should stay at the same level, in real terms, unless somebody is manifestly unable to work.

Sigmund Freud said that "Love and work are the cornerstones to our humanness". But sane people have also wrote on the dignity of work: for example, Pope John Paul II (a former factory-worker) commented in 1981 that "work is one of the characteristics that distinguish man from the rest of creatures", and also observed that "the sources of the dignity of work are to be sought primarily in the subjective dimension, not in the objective one".

In other words, this is just one way of saying that there's a dignity to work which is not fixed to the size of the wage that a job attracts. Let the Joneses keep up with each others' ulcers: the point is to go to a given place at a prescribed time, do certain things, and interact with different groups of people in the appropriate ways so that you feel that the world is - ever so slightly - changed because you did your job. I don't see us getting Sky or cable in the near future, but when I come home tired, my children at least know that I'm doing something that makes days off special, and attainment of more highly-valued qualifications than mine worth working for. And whether they end up renting their houses from the council or a housing association, or even buying them, I want them to experience the discipline upon your thoughts and emotions that remaining in a job imposes upon you, and builds you up to be a resource for the community. Hopefully it will be a community where the workless can look through the window at those who contribute to society and say, with aspiration rather than greed, "I want that".

1 comment:

  1. Sorry to keep commenting on every post, but that last paragraph was so elegant and this column really captures the essential unfairness to the unemployed of a system that financially penalizes people who could work.


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