Leaders: George Osborne’s reforms

George Osborne. Picture: Getty
George Osborne. Picture: Getty
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MOST people would probably agree with George Osborne that, in principle, those people who can work should not be able to get money from the state for doing nothing.

Any political canvasser will know that this view is held particularly strongly by working-class people who do hard jobs for not much money and see neighbours on benefits doing very little.

Having such principles is fine, but putting them into practice, particularly when they are as sweeping as this, has a habit of turning into a nightmare. Gone are the days when there were plenty of jobs. Even when a company offers relatively low-skilled low-paid work, such as a supermarket looking for shelf-stackers and check-out assistants, it usually finds that it has far more applicants than positions to fill.

True, much of what Mr Osborne wants to implement implicitly recognises this. To qualify for the main unemployment benefit, JobSeeker’s Allowance, he wants people to do unpaid work placements, such as cleaning up litter or dishwashing in an old people’s home.

Acquiring a skill, even if it is as basic as learning to read or count properly, is another option. Having to report to a Job Centre every day is a third possibility.

Unfortunately, the coalition government’s track record on welfare reform suggests that this latest policy will have harsh consequences for many undeserving individuals. The efforts to reform disability allowance, so that only those who are genuinely disabled receive it, has thrown up many cases of people with relatively mild conditions which nonetheless severely curtail their ability to work being denied the benefit and having their quality of life severely impaired.

The so-called bedroom tax has also impacted these people hard, with many of those requiring a room for a carer to stay in, or to store vital equipment in, being required to move, even though there may be none of the smaller accommodation which allegedly suits their housing needs available in the community they are used to living in.

Suppose these latest ideas get applied to someone living in a remote rural location, where there are no litter-picking type of work placements, or where there is not the public transport available to make attending a skills course or a Job Centre on a daily basis possible. Is such a person to be denied benefit? Or forced to move?

On such cases, rather than the contribution these policies make to reducing the public spending deficit, will their success or failure be judged.

However, Mr Osborne may have other yardsticks in mind. Is this a bid to win back potential Ukip voters by, in effect, creating a welfare regime that is so strict that it deters immigrants? If this is indeed the motivation, and it turns out to be unworthily harsh on those who live here already, it will end any hope the Tories have of meriting the description of compassionate.

No excuse for information failure

Having the most robust system of freedom of information in Britain, as the Scottish Government claims is the case, doesn’t mean much if the information is not provided on time or withheld. This, sadly, looks to be the case. According to information commissioner Rosemary Agnew, the Scottish Government is lamentably failing to live up to its own goals of transparency and openness.

Ms Agnew is concerned that the number of appeals to her over the failure to provide information is steadily rising, up by 14 per cent over the past year for all public bodies. But she has singled out the Scottish Government and Parliament for especial criticism, complaining that appeals against non-timeous or lack of response have nearly doubled to 31 per cent over the past two years.

The Scottish Government protests that this partly due to a continually climbing rate of requests. The excuse is not good enough – every public servant knows that when a new and much demanded public service is introduced, the take-up rate will grow over time and increased resources will have to be provided to meet that demand.

Ms Agnew correctly says that a failure to respond has wider effects. People are entitled to view that as a barometer for how civil servants treat the public. Those services which are much more orientated to treating people with more respect as customers they are obliged to serve have the best record in responding to information requests.

She has offered to help the government with this problem, which should be gratefully accepted. By doing so, the government may not just fix the issue, but also raise the esteem in which its civil servants are held.