Desperate times call for desperate empathy exercises. Please, for a moment, imagine yourself George Osborne. (I don’t ask this lightly). Now picture a jobcentre. What do you see? (Stay inside Osborne’s mind. Think hard).
This is what my inner Osborne came up with: a big room, huge in fact. (Too much space, if anything). Sunny staff, who pass the day chatting about how little work they actually have to do. The clients, those who bother to turn up, are vagabonds. (You can smell the laziness on them from feet away.)
This is in all likelihood deeply unfair on the Chancellor. But as far as I can tell, he has never been photographed inside a jobcentre. On top of which, and more seriously, his announcement this weekend that the long-term unemployed will lose benefits unless they turn up at a jobcentre every day seems to significantly misunderstand what military strategists like to call “the reality on the ground”.
I don’t have a good grasp on it either. But thankfully nobody is asking me to get the population back to work. People are, however, asking Mr Osborne about the logistics of his “tough love” for the unemployed. Why show up in person, taking expensive public transport, if you can get a service online? Won’t the influx of people overload jobcentre staff? Isn’t a daily trip to discover that there is no work, time after time after time, something of a recipe for gloominess?
Jobcentres have themselves been cut. In June, staff were reduced by 10 per cent at West Yorkshire Jobcentres, news that Bradford council leader David Green greeted with : “This is going to have a massively counter-productive effect on efforts to get people into work”, he said. Mr Green will presumably be humming with joy at the prospect of hundreds more people turning up every day to see 150 fewer staff.
‘Pulling an Orwell’ has, over the past year or so, become popular among politicians. Labour MP Helen Goodman spent a week with only £18 for food to protest the bedroom tax. The trend strikes me as inane. Iain Duncan Smith shouldn’t have to live on £53 a week – as a petition demanded – in order to understand what impact his welfare reforms will have on people’s lives.
But maybe some field research wouldn’t go amiss for Mr Osborne. A daily trip to an overcrowded jobcentre, say, with little prospect of work, and a budget draining away on bus fare. No quesiton, propelling the unemployed off benefits and into work is an important task for any government. But this draconian rule seems geared more to punishment than progress. “Tough love”, you might call it. “Tough luck” is closer to the truth.