Deborah Orr: You can increase pressure on the jobless to find work but beware of the risks involved

The Government's welfare reforms emphasise support, but there is also an element of sheer harrying
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Welfare reform is a funny old thing. Ostensibly it is one of those issues that people are absolutely passionate about. There is a constant thrum of anger about the perverse incentives our welfare system brings immigrant chancers, work-shy new Europeans, Vicky-Pollard single mothers, idle, violent youths, middle-aged alkies pretending they're depressed the list goes on and on. Something really ought to be done.

Yet in reality there are few people unless they have a vested interest who give a stuff about welfare reform. It's complicated, tedious and it doesn't bear too much examination, or suddenly one's comfortable assumptions are overturned and the people caught up in the system no longer look bad, but instead start looking sad or mad, as worthy of thought and consideration as our own relatives and our own children, human in their frailty and abject in their disadvantage. It is more soothing to cling to prejudice, and fulminate about the Rileyesque lives being lived at the taxpayer's expense by ghastly people who are laughing all the way to the dole office, than it is to look at the miserable lives of those we pretend are somehow enviable.

For this reason, I guess, Britain said a distinctly muted final farewell last week to incapacity benefit, long considered a particularly nefarious hand-out rewarded to those who combined fear of an honest day's work with excellent acting ability, and also to income support for substantial numbers of lone parents, again a benefit widely considered to be an enticement to rush out and become impregnated as many times as possible with as many of the nation's least impressive males as one can find. Pretty much every other problematic claimant group was also targeted, from Pakistani women to new deal recipients who end up back on the dole. The lack of "national debate" about all this, has been deafening

Yet the reforms announced by Peter Hain last week are well worth paying attention to, especially as they cater as much as is probably possible to the agenda beloved of the handout-haters without inciting those actually responsible for delivery into unhelpful rebellion. They have, of course, been a long time in the making, and have been upsetting and exercising many and varied campaigning groups for years.

They are the result of countless consultation and miles of reports, and indeed there are many more consultations, and many more reports, yet to come. But the reforms all have one objective to get people into work and to keep them there, and mostly they are based on pilot schemes that have thus far been proven to work. (Although it has to be said that they were proven to work during a period of employment growth that is by no means guaranteed to continue.)

The emphasis, the Government stresses, is on moving from passive benefits to active benefits. Income support will, as of 2010, be available only to lone parents with children under seven, coming down in yearly increments until then from the current age of 16. Once a child is seven, its parent will move on to jobseekers' allowance, a benefit that itself is being beefed up in order to propel all recipients more firmly into work, or training then work if necessary, as quickly as possible.

This is a pretty tough requirement, as even the affluent will burble on about the hell of combining work and childcare. But the statistics on the life chances of the children of out-of-work lone parents tend to confirm that, as long as flexible employment and good childcare is available, it's the best way forward. The Department of Work and Pensions says it understands these requirements to be essential if the reforms are to have any impact.

Likewise, those out of work for health reasons will from next October find themselves on employment and support allowance instead of incapacity benefit, and will be subject to similarly muscular exhortations to find a job. To begin with, this will apply only to new claimants. But there are already plans to roll out the encroachment on incapacity benefit, starting with those who are on it and under the age of 25.

Although different out-of-work groups have different problems, and so need different sorts of support in finding work, all follow a pattern. Some of the "innovations" are shockingly basic, and it is painfully apparent from them that state passivity has been every bit as tricky a long-standing problem as recipient passivity.

A key reform, for example, requires claimants to undergo a basic skills test, in order to ascertain whether they have basic literacy and numeracy problems. If such problems are picked up, then the claimant will be subjected to sustained and increasing pressure to rectify the difficulty. This may not sound like rocket science, but it must be remembered that adult illiteracy and innumeracy are a dirty secret to most sufferers, and a problem they have been used to denying and covering up for years. Yet if the right balance can be struck, and people can be persuaded into adult education rather than humiliated into childish intransigence, lives can be transformed.

Likewise, as has long been the case, the reforms of necessity acknowledge the limitations of the minimum wage, as they rely much on enticing people back to work by offering in-work incentives that guarantee that their income as an employee will not be lower than their income on benefits. This is particularly important for those who may have little alternative but to work part-time, and it's pretty straightforward. Those seeking work will be guaranteed a return-to-work credit of 40 if they work more than 16 hours a week and earn less then 15,000 a year. No one is expected to take up work that doesn't, somehow, get them 25 a week more than they were already receiving on benefits.

And although the emphasis is on support and advice and training with private, charity and local organisations being encouraged to take a more active role there is also an element of sheer harrying and hassle involved in the process. Lone parents, in the year before they move to jobseeker's allowance, will be expected to attend three-monthly back-to-work interviews.

For everyone on jobseeker's allowance, including them, the pressure quickly rackets up. Weekly attendance at a Jobcentre Plus will be required. Those who have not found the type of work they would prefer within three months will be expected to accept any suitable job offered to them. Sanctions will be imposed on those who do not comply without good cause although individual advisers in a more personalised service will be given extra discretion to decide what "good cause" may be.

No one on jobseeker's allowance, even the long-term unemployed, will be excused from taking on four weeks of full-time work experience, and capricious behaviour during such work experience again will trigger sanctions. It all sounds tough and challenging enough to me. One wonders what reforms would have to be brought in before they were considered worthy of comment.