Currently called "Contract to Work" in senior Tory circles, the tough US-style initiative is being viewed enthusiastically by both the Downing Street Policy Unit and Conservative Central Office, who see it as a potential vote-winner. They believe the proposal will meet with warm approval from their supporters and will steal a march on Labour, which is believed to be thinking along similar, but less Draconian, lines.
A pattern is beginning to emerge of a strong line to run through the manifesto - representing tough, no-nonsense values that Conservative strategists believe will appeal to working voters who resent "cheats", "scroungers" and young "tearaways".
The result will not only be the promotion of workfare, which was backed by deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine 10 years ago, but a more hardline approach to young offenders.
One possibility being mooted on youth crime is another United States response - the curfew - which could be slapped on persistent young criminals, forcing them off the streets during the hours of darkness. Manifesto policies are also being sought to deal with disruptive pupils in schools.
Both Whitehall and Central Office sources have confirmed that work on the controversial workfare policy is well advanced and say it could be flagged at the forthcoming party conference. A range of options is under review, the most radical of which is encouraging employers to give work with training to young, unemployed people. They would be paid by the employer and have their benefit stopped.
Acceptance of the proposal represents a victory in Whitehall for Peter Lilley, the Social Security Secretary, and Norman Blackwell, head of the Downing Street think-tank, who persuaded the Treasury to drop its opposition to workfare.
They are hopeful that two pilot studies by the Department of Education and Employment, currently underway in Hull and Maidstone, will highlight the positive aspects of such a scheme. Opponents of workfare argue it makes the state the employer of those at the bottom of the jobs market and threatens those in non-subsidised, low-paid work.
Workfare, said one policy adviser, could result in three jobs being removed from the dole list for every one created. "It will take off the person who is forced to work. It will get rid of the cheats who have been claiming benefit for years while doing other work. Now, unless they do a community job, they will no longer receive benefit. Third, those people who could get a job but choose not to, because the dole is a soft option, will sign- off and take a job."
In the Hull and Maidstone exercises, people aged between 18 and 50 who have been unemployed for more than two years are given intensive help over 13 weeks to help them find a job or a place on a training course. After that, if they are still unemployed, they must work for 13 weeks on a community project. Run by charities, the projects cover menial tasks like gardening for the elderly and renovating tourist sites.
They receive normal unemployment benefit plus pounds 10 a week, paid for by the Government. The two pilot studies are budgeted to cost pounds 12m and have just entered the 13-week community work phase.
In order to be seen to be cracking-down on benefit abuses, senior Tories intend workfare to be mandatory: unemployed people will have no choice if they wish to continue being paid but to work. Tory resolve has been reinforced by a recent survey showing two out of three people would back some form of workfare.
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