Leading Article: A stick, but what about the carrot?

Click to follow
The Government's aim in announcing its Jobseeker's Allowance scheme on the same day as the report of the Commission on Social Justice is clear. The message is: here, in contrast to all that well-intentioned, uncosted pie in the sky, is a hard-headed scheme that will genuinely help to get the unemployed back to work.

In reality the scheme amounts largely to a rationalising of administration - with a resulting cutback on Civil Service jobs - and a repackaging of existing practices aimed at increasing the already considerable pressure on claimants to be actively seeking jobs.

The administrative streamlining is sensible. At present the unemployed can claim either unemployment benefit, a contributory benefit administered by the Department of Employment, or income support, which comes under the Department of Social Security and is means-tested. Less than a third have contributed enough to qualify for unemployment benefit, which is so low anyway that for most recipients it is topped up with income support.

Yet the Department of Employment, which disburses least, bears the heavier burden of work in dealing with claimants. With employees of both these departments manning new, one-stop agencies, a considerable saving of jobs will be achieved.

The new benefit's name suggests that the best cure for unemployment is the diligent seeking of jobs, with the Government doing its best to help.

A contract outlining steps to be undertaken as a condition of benefit will be enshrined in a Jobseeker's Agreement, to be signed by the claimant. There will also be various welcome new incentives to reduce the 'unemployment trap', which makes it uneconomic for the unemployed to switch from benefits to a low or part-time wage, and penalties for a failure to seek work.

Yet there is little significant difference between this new agreement and the current obligatory Back to Work plan signed by new claimants. And there are already severe sanctions, in the form of benefit loss, for those who cannot show they are actively seeking work, or who have unreasonably turned it down.

Underlying the new scheme is the old suspicion that much unemployment results not from a mismatch between skills and the labour market, but from deficient job-seeking know-how or zeal on the part of the jobless. There may be some short-term gains from increased use of carrots and sticks, but in the longer term, better education and training will make a much larger contribution to reducing unemployment figures that have fallen, but not far enough.

Comments