MPs unite to back `right to work' plan

Welfare reform: Tories accept step towards de facto minimum wage
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Labour Editor

Conservative and Labour MPs yesterday joined forces to call for a multi- billion-pound "right to work" scheme which would introduce what amounted to a national minimum wage.

The Commons Employment Committee rejected the introduction of compulsory US-style workfare, declaring that penalties for the jobless who refused government programmes were tough enough already.

Under the system backed by the committee, jobless adults would be guaranteed pounds 3 an hour for useful work for the community instead of receiving benefits. A rate of pounds 1.50 was suggested for young people.

Sir Ralph Howell, Tory MP for Norfolk North, who has been fighting for such a scheme for 15 years, conceded that such reform of the benefit system would lead to a de facto minimum wage which is opposed by his own party and endorsed by Labour.

Sir Ralph accepted that while people could opt to work for less than pounds 3, they were unlikely to do so.

If the system was introduced it would affect the wages of millions of low-paid workers and pounds 3 may even be seen as high by devotees of "New Labour".

Labour MPs on the committee overcame their uneasiness about backing a measure which would involve substantial penalties for those who refused work.

Greville Janner, Labour chairman of the committee, said that if someone was offered a "suitable, reasonable and decent" job then they should not be allowed to sit back and draw the same amount of benefits.

In a report published yesterday, The Right to Work/Workfare, the committee said that a Bill sponsored by Sir Ralph and backed by the Labour MP Frank Field, deserved "serious attention" to find out how much the scheme would cost or save. It was put forward as a Private Member's Bill last year but came to nothing. Although the Government is known to oppose the idea, the report said a pilot scheme should be introduced "forthwith".

Under the plan, wages would be paid directly to the unemployed person by the Government. The benefit system would be changed to ensure that it was always worthwhile to accept the community work.

The report also called on the government to introduce the successful Workstart schemes nationally, where in-work training is provided for the unemployed. The government has so far only run pilot schemes.

Sir Ralph said the welfare system, introduced 48 years ago after the Beveridge Report, was now "thoroughly out of date". It trapped millions into unemployment because many found they would be paid less to work.

Angela Eagle, Labour MP for Wallasey, said Beveridge was designed for a society without mass unemployment. Some of the long-term jobless would remain "perpetually" on benefit.

Ms Eagle said however that a compulsory system as practised in some areas of the United States would be "pointless" and irrelevant".