Leading Article: Workfare with dignity, not gimmickry, please

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Workfare is fair, according to a majority of taxpayers. Why shouldn't the unemployed, especially the long-term unemployed, be obliged to do something useful in return for their benefits? The Conservative Party clearly agrees. It plans to include proposals for workfare in its election manifesto.

But we should tread carefully. Well executed, workfare can be effective and worthwhile. The principle that those who receive community support incur obligations is right. If support for the unemployed includes real opportunities to train and improve their chances of getting jobs, then the state can reasonably insist that they should take up one of these options in return for financial support. Badly executed, however, workfare could wind up wasting taxpayers' money, and accentuating the demoralisation and frustration already felt among unemployed people. That, in turn, would undermine public faith in the ability of government to lift people out of the cycle of decline that so often accompanies long periods out of work. There is a fine line between workfare that works and is genuinely fair, and workfare that is disastrous and morally wrong. As yet we cannot tell on which side the Conservatives' new proposals would fall - but we can set out the principles that their proposals, as well as those emerging from New Labour, should be measured against.

For decades the very mention of "workfare" has sent shivers down liberal spines. We imagine chain gangs of miserable men, shoulders bowed, swinging pick-axes pointlessly against rocks. Or we think of bored youths pulling bicycles out of deserted canals, only for their mates to chuck them back in again at the weekend. Workfare, we fear, is punishing those who already struggle to find work, by sentencing them to futile labour on pain of penury.

Such qualms are justified. Penalising people for something that is not their fault will not improve anyone's lot. However, insisting that the unemployed fulfil certain conditions in exchange for benefits does not necessarily involve demeaning punishment. In fact it could be the establishment of an honourable reciprocal relationship between the Government and the unemployed. Allowing people to take from society indefinitely without demanding anything in return is to fail to respect them as citizens, and to treat them as helpless victims. Many of the unemployed are desperate to do something useful, and would be reassured to feel they were earning the giro they get at the end of each week.

The critical question is how much we can reasonably demand of the unemployed in return for their weekly benefit. Forcing them to do the grotty jobs, the boring, meaningless ones that no one else will do, may simply reinforce the slide in their self-esteem, and then in their future employability. Nor is it reasonable to demand that the unemployed waste their time in meaningless activity, just to prove that they are not lazy or fraudulent.

The fact that workfare would cut down on fraud and encourage those who are merely lazy to get jobs is a welcome bonus. But it is insufficient justification for the programme.

However, a well designed workfare programme could provide the long-term unemployed with exactly the kind of help they need to get back into work. If the Conservatives are proposing real help to make the unemployed more employable, they will be justified in demanding that the unemployed participate in exchange for continued financial support. The longer people are out of work, the harder it becomes for them to find new jobs - perhaps because they are unskilled, perhaps because they have become stigmatised by unemployment, and perhaps because they have become dejected, and detached from the world of work.

In such circumstances, government intervention may be essential to give them a chance of getting a job. A good welfare programme would help the unskilled train, and help the long-term unemployed re-establish a working routine through high-quality work placements or through wage subsidies for jobs in the private sector. Pilot schemes operated by government and the voluntary sector across the country have proven promising in levering the long-term unemployed back to work.

If the Conservatives have really embraced these principles, the turnaround in their approach to unemployment is startling. It means they have acknowledged that the market alone cannot deliver the jobs that the unemployed need. The risk, however, is that the Government's commitment to the welfare of the long-term unemployed is half-hearted. Practising workfare properly will prove expensive.

If this is a gimmick to prove tough on fraudsters and slackers, and to cut the numbers on the dole, it will backfire. Make-work schemes that fail to make the unemployed more employable are not only a waste of time; they cruelly raise hopes and then dash them. The unemployed know that their work is under-valued, and so they become even more demoralised. Whatever the next government decides to do about the long-term unemployed, the stakes are high. Workfare in whatever form will not only affect the welfare of those on the dole; it also holds the potential to legitimise or undermine public support for the welfare state.

If taxpayers can be convinced that those on the dole are striving and being encouraged to find work, they will be much happier about funding all those benefits. But if, instead, a future government goes in for another round of youth training schemes and community programmes that fritter public money and stoke up frustration, the Government would risk undermining public support for state intervention even further. If we are going to do it, we had better do it well.