Jobless 'prefer cheap labour to boredom': Charles Oulton looks at the arguments for making the unemployed work on American-style labour schemes

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The Independent Online
FOR eight unemployed men in the Lake District, working is something they remember doing a long time ago, and at least one of them has never worked at all. So although painting some railings for pounds 10 a week in addition to their unemployment benefit may not sound very much, it is work they all jumped at.

The person who gave them this work, Pauline Greenhow of the Furness Information Technology Centre, was initially uneasy about asking people to work for such money. Her job is to implement government employment programmes, but privately, she disagreed with the Government's 'cheap labour' policy.

Now, however, because of people like first-time worker Mike Ryan, 26, who is delighted not to be 'getting bored sitting around', she is a convert.

Putting people to work for very low wages is a sensitive issue, even if they can continue to draw unemployment benefit. As the Government starts considering whether to withhold dole money from people who have been out of work for more than six months, the spectre has been raised of US- style programmes which cut off benefits completely if the unemployed refuse jobs or training.

Differing forms of workfare, a regime strongly supported by Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, have been operating in parts of the US and in Sweden for many years.

One ministerial source told the Independent that there was a 'lot of support within the party for making people seek work'.

Almost pounds 8bn is expected to be spent on unemployment benefit during 1992/93, a figure described by Tory backbencher Ralph Howell as 'money down the drain'. He has for years been advocating the total scrapping of benefit, replacing it with a scheme that would offer every adult work of up to 40 hours per week at pounds 2.50 an hour, free of income tax. Based on 2.5 million unemployed, and assuming they all took up the work, this would cost pounds 18bn, a higher figure than the benefit pay-out. Politically, this idea would cause an outcry, but its principle of requiring people to work for their benefits is also inherent in the workfare system, which originated in the US. In California, unemployed people are told they will not get benefit if they do not prove they are looking for work. To help them, California provides a job-search course for a week.

Another idea was for the state authorities to ask schools, hospitals and other state agencies to list the projects they would like to do if they had the money. The projects were then given to the long-term unemployed.

However, it is unlikely workfare will be implemented in this country, at least for the time being. One government source said: 'The United States examples show that it's expensive to run, and by and large, it hasn't been successful.'

Leading article, page 16