Comment: Victorian workhouse looms in austerity plan

The Coalition's austerity programme seems destined to return Britain to a darker, less caring past
The Coalition's austerity programme seems destined to return Britain to a darker, less caring past
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Work-for-benefits won’t reduce unemployment and has huge hidden costs for us all, writes Martin Sime

Iain Duncan Smith was visiting Glasgow yesterday. He is a decent man, or so people say, who is on a crusade to reform the benefits system. Unfortunately, he is also presiding over the biggest assault on the poorest people in living memory and causing untold misery to families the length and breadth of the country. While the Work and Pensions Secretary and his aides talk about scroungers and cheats, huge cuts to the living standards of people already on the edge are being masqueraded as reform. Disabled people are being harassed on to dole queues, tenants of social housing are being forced out of their homes and an impossible bureaucracy is driving many to the edge of despair. To make matters worse, Chancellor George Osborne has his eyes on a cash grab that will see even harsher cuts. There is nothing decent about any of this.

George Osborne. Picture: PA

George Osborne. Picture: PA

The latest wheeze is to force what will be about 100,000 Scots to undertake mandatory work for their benefits. Those who refuse will get nothing. Recent Department of Work and Pensions research confirmed what we all knew in our hearts, that mandatory work has zero effect in helping people get a job. Never mind the facts, Mr Duncan Smith’s former deputy Chris Grayling, recently promoted by David Cameron, called it “part of the support we provide to the very long-term unemployed”. What he really means is that we are heading back to the Victorian idea of the workhouse. We are dealing with the undeserving poor.

This programme couldn’t have been more badly timed. We’re in the midst of the deepest recession in more than 80 years. Unemployment is high and will remain so for at least the next few years. In parts of Scotland there are more than 40 people chasing each vacancy.

Initial attempts to force the unemployed to work for nothing were rightly condemned. I recall a busload being made to sleep under a bridge in order to provide early morning security for the Jubilee, and a handsome profit being made for the company that had won the contract. Then there was the embarrassment of Tesco leading a stampede of retailers heading for the exit, since no amount of hype could cover for the exploitation involved in getting the shelves stacked for free. Here was a scam that would actually reduce the need to hire staff in proper jobs, swelling the dole queue even further.

The latest version of the plan talks hopefully about mandatory work in an “activity of benefit to the community”, as if having a conscripted and alienated workforce could ever really help. Mr Duncan Smith’s vision for this is probably nearer a community service order, imposed by the courts as punishment for a crime. Except that being unemployed isn’t a crime – at least not yet.

Voluntary organisations will no doubt be induced into participating, although my advice is to have nothing to do with it. The third sector enjoys a privileged relationship with many of the most disadvantaged people in our communities. Our mission is to help people help themselves and our central ethos is voluntary. No-one benefits from mandatory work, but it could undermine the unique bond of trust we have with the people we serve.

There are long-term costs for us all from this assault. Glib talk about the scar of unemployment and inactivity hides another undesirable outcome – disaffection. Divide and rule is a dangerous strategy, because the people you blame and persecute and whose self-esteem is undermined can often become an even greater burden in the future. Crime and the black economy are the last resorts for those the system has failed. Rising stress, family breakdown, homelessness, children in care and much else add a hidden downside to what is already a lopsided cost/benefit equation. The Christie Commission into public sector reform in Scotland heard that as much as 40 per cent of the costs of our public services arise from such failure demand. Mr Duncan Smith represents the politics of despair.

The irony is that a huge majority of unemployed people want to work. Many would happily volunteer to help in their communities until the jobs market recovers and many community organisations would be happy to get an extra pair of hands. The narrative of blame and coercion could quite easily become a story about opportunity and contribution. After all, the people who do manage to stay active, make friends, acquire skills and stay positive really do have a better chance of job-hunting success. Self-esteem is also the key to better mental and physical health and much else besides.

The practicalities are almost mundane. Things like bus fares and the cost of lunch need to be provided. It helps too if there is support for those who want to get trained or who need help with childcare. It’s often the petty things that get in the way of mobilising unemployed people to help themselves by helping others. And of course for Mr Duncan Smith, because this isn’t part of his “reform” script, there would be no-one to blame and the cuts would be more difficult to justify.

We are told that over 80 per cent of the welfare cuts are still to be imposed. We hear the Treasury is demanding a further £10 billion be extracted from the poor as part of the austerity programme that everyone except the UK government knows is not working. Feeding the hungry and destitute is now the fastest growing part of the voluntary sector – a shocking indictment of any claim we may have had to be a civilised country.

The hidden damage, however, is to the psyche of the victims of this assault.

Unemployed people are being blamed, victimised, persecuted and harassed for no better reason than political convenience.

• Martin Sime is chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.