Laurie Penny: You can't bully people into non-jobs

There is nothing wrong with stacking shelves unless it's for £1.33 an hour
  • @PennyRed

Never underestimate the power of middle-class umbrage. As the Coalition's programme of savage welfare cuts finally meets some resistance in Parliament, geology graduate Cait Reilly is suing the Government for forcing her to sweep floors and stack shelves in Poundland for no extra salary or lose her benefits. There is nothing wrong with stacking shelves. There is everything wrong with stacking shelves for a wage that would amount, for a 22-year-old, to £1.33 an hour for an average working week, with no security, benefits or expectation of promotion: Ms Reilly was not even offered an interview after her placement.

The Department for Work and Pension's claim that the practice of requiring people on benefits to work menial jobs for substantially less than the minimum wage is somehow about "support" and "help[ing] people off benefits and into work" flies in the face of dizzying dole queues and evidence that low-paid, low-status, high-stress labour may in fact be worse for people's long-term prospects than living on a pittance of welfare benefits.

When it comes to welfare, there are early signs that the tide of public opinion may be turning, especially now the unemployed children of the middle class are beginning to be affected by the everyday cruelties of the benefits system. Baroness Meacher, an independent cross-bencher, told the BBC's Today programme that proposals to confiscate welfare from disabled young adults and terminally ill cancer sufferers, which were rejected by the Lords yesterday, were "over the line". That is a deliciously delicate way of saying "an outrage to the principle of common humanity in a social democracy". "The British public," said Meacher, "do not accept the idea that the banks screw up and very disabled people pay the bill."

One cannot bully people into jobs that aren't there, and it seems there are limits to how far the British public will tolerate the narrative that the sick and unemployed are to blame for their own conditions. The Labour Party, which pioneered time-limiting of sickness benefits during its own tabloid-pandering welfare-slashing spree, last week offered mitigated support for the Government's cuts. In doing so, Liam Byrne MP invoked the name of William Beveridge, whose grave is being investigated as a source of alternative energy as soon as someone manages to hook up the rotating coffin to a generator. It should be an occasion for self-reflection for the left that it took the Lords to reassert basic decency on welfare reform.

There is an employment crisis in Britain, but it has nothing to do with laziness and everything to do with public-sector cuts, and a proto-suicidal economic indulgence of big business. If companies like Poundland really have space for shelf-stackers, they should pay them properly – and a political culture with the guts to stand up for human dignity would require them to do so.