Letter: A lack of strategic sense on unemployment benefit

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The Independent Online
Sir: Unlike your leading article ('The vanishing benefit', 12 August), it is possible to approach the idea of 'workfare' positively. I believe many unemployed people would prefer a system which, while requiring them to be available for work (as at present), offers a place on a temporary work scheme or a training place. During the past 10 years the Government has fudged making a distinction between temporary work and training, much to the detriment of the quality of training offered and how claimants perceive such offers.

What your article does not comment on is the lack of any strategic sense from the Government on this issue. The Cabinet should give this issue the priority it demands. Or the Government could establish a commission to develop a temporary work programme before co-ordinating the nation's training programmes.

When such a programme is announced, serious discussion should begin on tying in changes in the rights to unemployment benefit. But it is not right to give the Government a clear run in cutting the income of the unemployed. Benefit was denied to 16- and 17-year-olds on the promise that all those not in education or at work would be guaranteed a training place. The Government has ratted on that promise and left many young people without money, training or hope.

Nor can changes in benefit entitlement be viewed in isolation. To limit unemployment benefit to six instead of 12 months will deny up to 200,000 people a benefit. It will also have a major impact on the number of partners who continue working. Unemployed claimants denied unemployment benefit become ineligible for income support if their partner works for more than 16 hours a week.

So by all means let us begin a debate on the future of work, training and welfare, which I hope the Opposition will lead. But don't chide the Opposition when it calls attention to the Government's attempts to bounce the country into cuts in unemployment benefit. Opposing daft, unfair, or unworkable policies is what the electorate sentenced the Labour Party to at the last election.

Yours faithfully,

FRANK FIELD

MP for Birkenhead (Lab)

House of Commons

London, SW1

13 August

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