Ministers out of step on work for dole idea

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT is considering compelling some of the unemployed to undertake work, voluntary action, training or education in return for benefits, the Prime Minister confirmed yesterday. But Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Employment, and key prime ministerial aides, spent the day repeatedly ruling out any form of universal 'workfare'.

The prospect of work for dole came as Kenneth Clarke, Home Secretary, last night conceded, for the first time according to Labour, a link between unemployment and crime. As well as law and order policies, Mr Clarke said on Channel 4 News, 'we are saying the way to tackle crime is by training, employment and enterprise programmes . . . to give young people opportunities, to give them hope'.

That was in marked contrast to John Major's declaration at the Carlton Club that to blame unemployment for crime was 'insulting to the families who may face all the problems of unemployment and yet do not resort to crime'.

Yesterday on benefits for work he told MPs it was 'right to look at all the radical options and we propose to do so. That may mean offering more opportunities, for example, of volunteering. It may mean extending an element of compulsion.'

It was, he said, 'a vital issue and I believe we need a public debate on it'. The Prime Minister certainly got that yesterday. But after a separate meeting with Mr Major after Cabinet, Mrs Shephard emphasised that the Government was not considering 'any scheme that treated nearly 3 million people in the same way'. She, like the Treasury, is alarmed at the cost of any large-scale compulsory scheme. Costs of up to pounds 700m have been put on schemes that would cover only those out of work for 18 months or more.

The way Mr Major launched the idea in one imprecise paragraph in his Carlton Club speech brought renewed Labour charges of confusion.

John Smith, the Labour leader, pointedly chose not to centre his question time attack on workfare; Labour fears the Government is attempting to portray it as the party that backs the feckless.

How far and how fast the Government will move remained deeply unclear last night - one minister in the field declaring there could not be 'any question of coercion in a climate of 3 million unemployed' but there might be compulsion later when unemployment fell.

US-style workfare schemes are being studied by Lord Wakeham, chairman of the Cabinet committee examining unemployment. But, as early as the time of the Budget, more limited proposals could be made to extend the rights of those on benefit to undertake education, and extended opportunities for community work for the young unemployed and those made redundant in their fifties.

The Prime Minister's press office was at pains to emphasise that any element of compulsory work would have to be targeted 'very carefully', as a possibility 'in certain limited cases'.

The most likely target of compulsion is the long-term unemployed.

Alan Jinkinson, who is to be the leader of the new public sector union Unison, said: 'We are totally opposed to any form of 'workfare'. It would mean yet another cynical manipulation of the already highly fiddled unemployment figures.' Workfare meant exploitation, he said.

Details, reaction, page 3

Leading article, page 18

Andrew Marr, page 19