One step too far for British politicians

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The Wisconsin proposal is far more extreme than anything yet advocated by any mainstream politician in Britain, writes Nicholas Timmins

The Department of Employment already has limited powers to require attendance of indviduals at Job Clubs and other work-seeking measures which will be somewhat strengthened when the new Jobseekers' Allowance takes effect in October.

Labour has also aired limited proposals to require the young to be in work, education, or a government-approved programme for a time.

But full-blown "workfare" - the requirement that benefit will be paid to the unemployed only on condition of participation in a training programme or community sponsored job - has relatively few advocates.

Politicians on both the right and left - including Michael Portillo when he was Secretary of State for Employment, have resisted the idea of the state becoming the "employer of last resort", on the grounds both of cost and distortion to the labour market.

Providing even limited and voluntary work schemes such as the Community Programme has proved expensive and of mixed impact, they argue - and the cost would be far greater if all the unemployed were required permanently to be on schemes or in training. And workfare schemes would be likely to displace employees in "real" jobs, they argue.

There will also be considerable scepticism in Britain over whether the Wisconsin programme will fulfil its pledge to withdraw benefit entirely after five years, leaving people to fend for themselves. There would, however, be much fascinated observation of what followed.