We have ways of making you work

Today, things get tougher for dole cheats with the introduction of the job seekers' allowance. More importantly, workfare is waiting in the wings. Polly Toynbee watches a pilot schemae in action ...
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The Independent Online
When Shirley Ann met Garry the sparks flew. Shirley Ann's eyes flashed; she drew herself up magnificently in her chair and prepared for all-out war. Garry, bristling with testosterone, had met his match. No one at the Job Centre had ever bothered to challenge him before and he could hardly believe his ears. Garry, unskilled painter, 30-year-old father of two, has been drawing the dole for five-and-a-half years. Shirley Ann Clark, a Job Centre adviser, is part of a new drive to force people like him to take available jobs in these better economic times.

Today, the new job seeker's allowance comes into force, designed to chivvy and harry the unemployed into work. It has a fair wind of public opinion behind it: most people have their anecdotes about skivers, scroungers and cheats. Whoever is in government, it is the mood of the moment to want more guarantees that everyone on the dole genuinely cannot find work. So today the screws are tightened. Every dole claimant will sign a job seeker's agreement obliging them to show proof that they are looking for work. They will be interviewed every fortnight: there will be no more signing on by post, with a perfunctory interview once a quarter.

I sat in for the morning with Ms Clark, an adviser at the Job Centre in Strood, a part of the Medway suburban sprawl with above-average unemployment. Garry is precisely who the Government has in its sights. He claims that no one has forced him to do serious job-searching in the past and he is indignant at what is happening to him now. The very basis on which he is allowed to draw the dole seems to have eluded him.

"I'm not taking some effing job I don't want and I won't work for less than pounds 250 a week, final." He crosses his arms and glared at her. "You can cut my benefit, do anything you like to me. I won't do effing tarmacking, ever. Or any of your other poxy jobs, unless I enjoy it and I get over pounds 200 in my hand, take-home pay, final, OK?"

This is certainly not OK with Ms Clark. As an unqualified painter, Garry is never going to earn that much. She calculates that despite his mortgage he would be better off working and earning around pounds 150 a week, with Family Credit to top him up. But he shrugs angrily and refuses to look at her figures.

Checking the computer, she asks why he has applied for only three jobs from the Job Centre since May. He denies indignantly that he has applied for any, which leaves her dumbfounded, so she suggests some jobs. Exhaust- and tyre-fitting? "Na, wouldn't do that." Warehouseman? "Na".

The row turns ideological. Garry sees no reason why he should do a job he doesn't want to do when there are benefits to draw on. Ms Clark retorts tartly that he has a duty to work and support his family. "Do you like your job?" he asks her. "Yes," she says between tight lips."There you are, then! Why should I do a job I don't like, eh?" She snaps back, "There are lots of people who have to do jobs they don't much like, but you brought two children into the world to support!"

He boasts defiantly that he does look for work: he goes touring round building sites up in London. His father and brother are in the building trade, and he is good at mending cars, too. He is so outraged by Ms Clark that he has all but given the game away. He is almost certainly cheating the system, working and drawing the dole at the same time.

She says she will report his case to the adjudicator for refusing jobs she has suggested. "I don't care what you effing do," he says, crossing his arms. She fills in the forms, warning that he will lose benefit. However, he knows and she knows that the most he can lose is his personal allowance, some pounds 19 a week, and he doesn't care. She will undoubtedly send the investigators after him to try to catch him working, but unless they do, he can draw benefit until his children grow up.

The question now is whether the Government, desperate for manifesto ideas this week, will take today's new job seeker's allowance a stage further and proclaim a US-style workfare system, to force the unemployed to work for their dole. Here in Medway, Garry and Ms Clark are in a pilot scheme, Project Work, designed to try out workfare. Everyone in the area who has been unemployed for two years must join the scheme. It forces them into 13 weeks of intensive job-searching, with hour-long interviews once a fortnight, and phone calls to their home and to employers to see how interviews went. There will be no escaping Ms Clark's beady eye this time.

If all that fails, then for 13 weeks they will be obliged to work for their dole, for an extra pounds 10 a week. The work is provided by charities, to ensure that what is called locally "the chain gang" does not take jobs that would otherwise be done by the regular workforce. It is mainly renovating heritage sites, clearing scout camps, and serving in charity shops or charity offices. So far, no white-collar worker has been forced to do blue-collar work, but as the scheme progresses that may happen if there are too few charity office jobs. Some charities have refused to take part.

This pilot workfare scheme is being carefully monitored. How many long- term unemployed get jobs? How many stay in those jobs, and for how long? How many stop claiming benefit, once they are subjected to rigorous scrutiny and threatened with work (suggesting they were cheating the system in the first place)? Does forcing them to work simply satisfy our puritanical urge to see them with a spade in their hands, or does it make them more employable? Is the work they do worthwhile to anyone? Above all, what does it cost? For it is the great expense of make-work schemes that has deterred the Government from doing it so far.

If the Government goes ahead this week and announces that this system will become universal, they will have none of the answers to these crucial questions. It could well cost a huge sum for relatively little return in getting people off the dole. It would probably be a popular policy, and there is nothing wrong with it in principle. Why not pay the unemployed to work, when we can all see how much needs doing in our squalid cities?

How today's job seeker's allowance or a future workfare system comes to be seen by the public will depend on how sensitively it is interpreted locally in each Job Centre. Will people be treated more gently in no-hope Jarrow than in high-employment Winchester? Harrying the honest who have no chance of work, making them do useless jobs for ideological reasons, will make it hated. But threatening Garry with a spade would be no bad thing.

Ever since Beveridge's day the principle has been clear: the dole is only for those who cannot work, not for those who will not. Most experts agree that many of the idle or dishonest have always managed to fiddle the system. But the Employment Minister Eric Forth got a sharp reminder a week ago of the other side of the coin. Appearing on Radio 2's Brian Hayes phone-in to talk about tightening the screw on the unemployed, he was swamped with calls from very angry middle-class and middle-aged unemployed people, desperate to work and furious at the inability of Job Centres to help them.

Ms Clark seems well attuned to the variety of clients she sees. Heather, for instance, is a very different case: at 27, out of work for two years, she lives with her parents. She is pretty, quiet, passive and neat. She looks a very good prospect, so why has she been unemployed so long? She wants office work, and would work locally or commute into London. "No one wants to know when they hear you've been out of work so long," she says, a fairly stock answer.

How many jobs has she applied for each week? Four, she claims, a bit too pat. Ms Clark checks her computer and points out that Heather has not applied for jobs at the Job Centre since May. "I apply from newspaper ads," Heather protests mildly.

Together they trawl through the computer's list of jobs in the area. Heather turns her nose up at Kwiksave but looks mildly interested in Debenhams. Ms Clark prints out a list of jobs and telephones several employers to arrange interviews, promising to call her at home to find out how they went. If she was Garry's enemy, she appears to be Heather's helpful friend.

It is plainly beginning to dawn on Heather that she is going to have to get a job, and you can see the penny drop - rather slowly. A picture of her life begins to emerge from stray remarks. She lives comfortably at home, likes her parents, pays no rent, draws pounds 47.90 a week dole. She has a fiance, temporarily off sick, with whom she spends much of the day, so she is not bored. She loves looking after her sister's children.

Heather is a family girl, unadventurous, unambitious, a bit of a baby. She is not your archetypal scrounger, but work is probably low on her list of priorities. She has just subsided into an unemployed way of life and needs a small nudge no one has given her until now.

There is now a good bunch of carrots on offer to persuade all the long- term unemployed to take jobs: they get a pounds 200 grant on their first day at work. They can work part-time, still draw benefit and save a pounds 1,000 lump sum for the day they start full-time work. Any boss taking on a long- term unemployed worker gets a pounds 1,500 grant plus a year's relief from national insurance contributions.

Those are the carrots Ms Clark offers Heather. The stick of compulsory work kicks in only if all the above fail. Personable and likeable, Heather will probably be snapped up by an employer. But she may decide not to work, stop claiming benefit, marry her fiance and become a housewife. Either way, she soon won't be on the dole any more.

How well will all this work? Until the research tells us, no one knows. If the Government rushes in to proclaim workfare for all, it could be a very expensive mistake. Research may well show that the first 13 weeks of job-searching is what gets people back into work. The threat of compulsory work after that may make very little difference.

When I visited some of those doing compulsory manual jobs in Medway work, they were remarkably laid back about it. It was, they said, a bit of a joke, nothing like real work, doing a bit of wood-clearing for the scouts for 21 hours a week. They quite enjoyed it, but doubted it would qualify them for anything. As they had already failed to find work through the intensive job-search weeks, this charity make-work was going to add nothing to their chances - or their intent.

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