Call for quality jobs to make welfare plan work

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Government plans to compel young people to take up one of the planned welfare-to-work options by threatening to slash their benefits are criticised in a report published by an independent think-tank today. The "tough love" approach modelled on US schemes could be counter-productive, it warns.

The report from the Employment Policy Institute says compulsion will not improve the skills and motivations of the unemployed unless the options made available are of sufficiently high quality. The report, by Professor Alan Deacon of the University of Leeds, concludes that welfare-to-work will otherwise be an unfair punishment on people who are already doing their best to find work.

"There is a fine line between measures which seek to do something for the unemployed and those which seek to do something to the unemployed." Tough love could easily become rough treatment, he argues.

Labour's New Deal programme ought to match compulsion for the unemployed with compulsion for employers, Professor Deacon suggests. This would help ensure that good jobs were on offer under the scheme, which the Government hopes will take 250,000 people off the dole.

The programme is to be financed out of the proceeds of the windfall tax on privatised utilities that Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer, introduced in his Budget.

Under the scheme, unemployed young people will be offered four options: a subsidised job, training, voluntary work, or work on an environmental task force. Single claimants who refuse to take up an offer without good reason will lose all benefits for two weeks, and every subsequent refusal will lead to the loss of benefits for another four weeks. Claimants who are disabled or have dependants would lose two-fifths of their benefits.

The report quotes Alan Sinclair, chief executive of the WISE Group, a much-admired Glasgow programme for returning the long-term unemployed to work, speaking to the House of Commons Employment Committee: "It is very hard to work with conscripts. It is much easier to work with people who actually think they are going to benefit," he said.

Reservations about forcing young people to take up one of the New Deal options have also been expressed by other groups such as Centrepoint, the charity which runs foyer schemes for homeless people. Its director, Victor Adebowale, has warned that the options must be attractive if the scheme is not to become as discredited as its predecessors, such as the Youth Training Scheme, in the eyes of young people.

Professor Deacon argues that the fundamental objection to compulsory schemes is that they rest on the assumption that somebody is unemployed partly because of their own shortcomings. At a minimum, this cannot be true of all the groups of unemployed, he says, pointing out that there are big differences in the situations of young jobless people, lone parents and the long-term older unemployed.

Commenting on today's report, John Philpott, director of the Employment Policy Institute, said: "It is the quality of the options on offer... that must be at the heart of the welfare-to-work programme if it is to succeed."