Parliament: MPs warn of `mistrust and alarm' over benefit interviews


Andrew Grice@IndyPolitics
Tuesday 27 July 1999 23:02

MPS YESTERDAY urged the Government to tone down its threats to axe state benefits for unemployed people who do not make an effort to find work.

They said "the mistrust and alarm which the compulsory element may engender must be dispelled" to make a success of a new "one stop shop" (ONE) scheme, under which new claimants are called to interviews at Jobcentres.

In a joint report, the Labour-dominated Education and Social Security Select Committees admitted that compulsory interviews might well be needed to ensure demoralised, isolated people who were lacking in confidence received help to find work. But the MPs added: "We recommend that the invitation to attend a ONE interview should be positive in tone rather than threatening."

The committees said that government staff should try to establish personal contact with people before stopping their benefits for not turning up to interviews. This follows a warning by the Disability Alliance that people suffering from severe depression or a lone parent with a sick child were unlikely to respond to letters calling them to interviews.

"Much of the anxiety of groups representing those potentially affected arises from the severe consequences for vulnerable individuals if their benefit is stopped or reduced," said the report. It called for "flexibility" in withdrawing benefits and research into the impact on people who lose them.

Under the ONE scheme, an unemployed person who refuses to attend a meeting with his personal adviser will be regarded as not having made a claim for benefit and therefore will not be entitled to it.

Four pilot projects have just begun, eight others will start in November and ministers plan to extend the scheme nationwide in what is seen as a big step towards an American-style workfare system.

The MPs criticised the choice of the areas selected for the trials, warning they were not fully representative of Britain as a whole. "Although there are pockets of deprivation in some of the pilot areas, we are concerned that areas such as the inner cities of Birmingham, London and Manchester have not been included in the pilots," said the report. "Of the 50 local authority areas covered by the pilot areas, only nine feature on the list of the 100 most deprived local authority areas and only three contain areas of severe deprivation."

The criticism will fuel the fears of some Labour MPs that the Government is giving too much priority to middle class areas, at the expense of the party's traditional heartlands.

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