While the right wing of the Conservative Party has for many years favoured a scheme which would force the long-term unemployed to work for their benefit, only recently has the subject moved higher up the ministerial agenda.
One proposal before ministers involves the expenditure of pounds 600m on a scheme which would withhold unemployment benefits from those who had been on the dole for more than 18 months unless they do work of benefit to the community.
Treasury ministers have baulked at the cost, while others are worried about the political impact. But with unemployment likely to break through the psychologically important three million level this month, all options are thought worthy of consideration.
Many observers object to the use of the term 'workfare' to describe the programme being considered by ministers, because the plan appears to contain no provision for vocational training.
A very different workfare system operates in Sweden. Any Swede who becomes unemployed gets 80 per cent of former earnings up to a maximum of pounds 55 a day. After a year the government offers them a training course. Those who prefer are given a place on a temporary work scheme. Any unemployed Swede who refuses a place on a training or work scheme is deprived of his or her relatively generous benefits and paid a bare minimum.
The best-known system operates in the United States. In most American states, unemployed males will only qualify for unemployment benefit for six to nine months, after which they receive nothing. Workfare is for 'special cases', normally unemployed single mothers. There is generally a strong educational element in the programme, although the definition of training varies from state to state. In some it means help with looking for work, in others it will involve courses in numeracy and literacy. Elsewhere it is job-specific training.
One of the systems under consideration by the Cabinet committee would be separate from state training programmes, which would remain voluntary. The system, known as 'Jobchart', would apply to all able-bodied people who were long-term unemployed.
The author of the scheme, Peter Ashby of the charity Full Employment UK, has suggested that participants would get pounds 10 on top of their benefit to help with travelling and child care costs. Families would also receive a new weekly allowance of pounds 2.50 for each child. Participants would have to work three days a week and an estimated 390,000 people would be expected to take part in the first year.
Unemployed people who refused to participate in the scheme would lose their income support, although other family benefits would remain. Most individuals would lose about pounds 40 a week under such circumstances.
The defunct Community Programme, under which unemployed adults were put to work on local projects, differed from Jobchart in two ways - participation in the programme was voluntary and those who took part were paid 'the rate for the job'. Employment Action, a similar programme which was abandoned recently, failed largely because participants were only paid an extra pounds 10.
Another voluntary work project is to be set up in the Norfolk North constituency of Ralph Howell, a Tory MP who has long espoused the principle of 'work for benefits'. The 3,000 jobless people in his area will be invited to undertake socially-useful work for an additional pounds 10 on top of their benefits. Mr Howell envisages setting them to work improving gardens and canal banks. But Department of the Environment officials privately expect a similar response to that which greeted Employment Action.
There is already a degree of compulsion for the unemployed in Britain. Unemployed school-leavers are guaranteed a place on a Youth Training Scheme and are refused benefit unless they attend.
After two years of unemployment, adults must attend a week-long Restart course, aimed at encouraging them back into the job market. If they do not attend they lose 40 per cent of their benefit for seven days. In April 'Jobplan workshops' are planned for those who have been out of work for a year. Non-attendance is penalised at the same rate.
Now John Major has given a strong indication that the principle of compulsion is to be extended.
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