Leading article: Voluntary work has merit, but is no substitute for a paid job

Monday 08 November 2010 01:00

In one respect this Government is following the last: in drip-feeding to the media some of its more controversial proposals before presenting them formally to Parliament. Yesterday's disclosure that this week's White Paper on welfare reform will include a requirement for the long-term unemployed to do some unpaid work was a classic of the kind – and what a predictable furore it unleashed.

On the one side were those people – most of them employed – who hailed the move unhesitatingly as a very good thing: people on jobless benefits, they argued, should not just sit there; they, and society, stood to benefit if they bestirred themselves. On the other side were those, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, who feared that compulsory work could drive already vulnerable people deeper into despair. There was also widespread cynicism about "make-work" schemes and worries about exploitation.

Ministers speaking yesterday sounded less absolutist. Iain Duncan Smith, whose plans for a universal credit will be at the centre of the White Paper on Thursday, said the idea was to "pull people in to do one or two weeks' manual work ... to give people a sense of work, but also when we think they're doing other work". William Hague told the BBC that the point was to give people "who have not been used to working having both the opportunity and perhaps a bit more of a push as well, to experience the workplace from time to time". The vast majority of people in Britain, he said, would think that the right thing to do.

That may well be so. It is surely not unreasonable to expect those who are able-bodied but have long been – for whatever reason – without a job, to contribute a portion of their time to the general good. The difficulties are less to do with the underlying principle than with the practice, which risks throwing up all sorts of potential anomalies and contradictions.

The vast majority of those currently receiving jobseeker's allowance are doing so for the simple reason that they cannot find a job – and their number is only likely to grow, perhaps massively, as spending cuts hit local councils and other parts of the public sector. The danger could be that paid jobs will be cut, only to reappear as unpaid jobs in the voluntary sector. It is not hard to imagine the absurd situation where a local council employee is laid off, only to be displaced by a benefit recipient putting in his or her voluntary hours. Which poses the further question of basic justice: whether a job should not be rewarded, at very least, at the rate of the minimum wage.

It should be acknowledged that some unemployed people already do voluntary work, mostly for charities. But even if there is work to be done that is not at present being done because no one is prepared to pay for it, any scheme needs to be properly organised. Nothing is so discouraging, and so likely to put people off the whole idea, than work that has no obviously useful aim. Yet devising and managing useful schemes can cost as much money as is saved. If anyone thinks that new work – even unpaid work – comes cheap, that is a mistake.

On balance, there are probably more pluses than minuses to asking those who have received benefits for a long time to give something in return. The contrast, repeatedly drawn by David Cameron, Mr Duncan Smith and others, between those who leave for work at the crack of dawn and those who are still asleep, courtesy of the taxpayer, behind the drawn curtains across the street has struck a chord. But it has to be recognised that if it were so simple to put jobless people to work, either as a nod towards social justice or as preparation for a real, paid, job, it would have been done long ago.

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