Mark Steel: Never mind the baby, just get back to work

The next thing will be an exciting new scheme known as the 'workhouse'

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You can tell what they've got in mind when they begin an article, as the Work and Pensions Secretary did yesterday, by insisting they have to make tough decisions. It means they're tough enough to cut benefits for the weakest people in the country, because they're hard. It's like if Ricky Hatton did an interview at the start of a fight, saying "I'm going to show the world tonight just how tough I am", then walked into the audience and smashed an old woman in the mouth.

The Minister insists "future reform will ensure that virtually everyone has an obligation to work". But the genius of the latest plan is that it extends to single parents who look after one-year-old children, who will have to demonstrate a plan to find work or risk losing 40 per cent of their benefits. Because that's who's been swiping all the wealth of the country – single parents of one-year-olds. And the rest of us have had enough of them using their vast bonuses to buy Ferrari pushchairs and Gucci jump-suits.

You can hardly walk past The Ivy without hearing a waiter say, "I'm sorry Mr Abramovich, there's no tables this evening, as they're all taken by single parents of one-year-olds", followed by a squeal of "Here you are darling, truffles sprinkled with gold leaf all mashed up in milk with banana – down it goes".

An interview to ascertain why a single parent with a one-year-old hasn't got a job must be the most pointless interview ever. Presumably it will go: "Well, single parent of a one-year-old, why haven't you found a job?" "Because I'm a single parent – with a one-year-old."

Or maybe this is only the first part of the plan, and the next stage will be to interview the one-year-old as well. Then an officer will compile a file that goes: "The interviewee shows no willingness to co-operate. Asked why he hadn't sought work he replied, 'Cat cat cat, I got cat, wee-wee, done wee-wee', and displayed no interest when I suggested he attend a training course in accounting."

The Minister, when asked on the radio how he could justify the benefit sanctions, said: "We don't want to impose sanctions." Well, if he doesn't want to impose them, why doesn't he not introduce them then? Has he got some strange neurological disease where he can't help doing things he doesn't want to do? Perhaps at night he sits on the floor setting fire to worms, and when anyone asks him why he's doing it he says: "I don't want to set fire to worms."

Then he said: "Most people, when asked, thought the sanctions were justified." What people were they then? He seemed to suggest the single parents themselves had said that, but that's unlikely, unless he carried out his survey in the single parents masochist society. And all night they came up to him saying: "Oh minister, I've been a very naughty claimant. Sanction me minister, sanction me, not 20 per cent minister, I've hardly looked for work at all. I deserve more than that, sanction me FORTY, yes FORTY per cent, oh that's so JUSTIFIED minister."

Throughout these proposals is the insistence the cuts are part of an overall plan to help the jobless find work. Which is why it's essential to insist, whenever they start on this track, that the reason unemployment is going up is because there's a bloody recession, and not because people have suddenly become useless at finding work. It would be more honest if these interviewers at job centres called in the unemployed and said: "I've studied your records, and the main reason you seem unable to find work is you're living through the start of a slump. So I'm sending you on a course that can teach you how to be in 1998, or if you prefer 1957, when you should be able to get a job as a bus conductor or chirpy coalman with no problems at all."

They know these proposals will, at most, effect which people are unemployed, but make no difference to the total of unemployed. They might as well announce a plan to send a pack of rabid dogs after anyone claiming benefits, while insisting: "This scheme will assist claimants by forcing them up trees where they might be offered a job as a tree surgeon or ornithologist or member of the paparazzi."

And it's all sold as a part of the New Labour plan to modernise everything, by modernising us into an idea that would have been at home in the 1930s. Next week they'll announce: "To modernise our welfare system even further we're proposing an exciting scheme known as the 'workhouse', followed by a modernisation of housing benefits, in which tenants will pay tithes to a baron, and those in arrears will be placed on a 'ducking stool', which most people, when asked, thought was justified, because we're prepared to be tough."

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