Lesley Riddoch: Community service just won't cut it

The Work and Pensions Secretary may be a thoughtful man, and his desire to tackle decades of dependency may even be sincere. But this week trying to tackle a "benefit-abusing" minority Iain Duncan Smith will cast all claimants into a state of high anxiety and unwarranted fear.

If leaks are to be believed, IDS will unveil a white paper to "break the habit of worklessness". One measure will order the unemployed to do four weeks of compulsory full-time work in the community or be stripped of Jobseeker's Allowance (between 50.95 and 64.30 a week) for at least three months.

A Department for Work and Pensions insider explains: "Some jobseekers need an extra push to get them into the mindset of being in the working environment.

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"This (gets) them back into a working routine which, in turn, makes them a more appealing prospect for an employer looking to fill a vacancy."

A very sympathetic reading of this proposal would note that it's discretionary, a last resort, to be used for four weeks only, and a taste of real work without jeopardising existing benefit claims.

An unsympathetic reading suggests IDS is intent on destabilising the whole, growing army of the unemployed.

And that's partly because this benefits reform is not alone but comes hot on the heels of plans to cut housing benefit payments to some of the lone elderly, some parents of unemployed working-age children, some people paying over 400 per week in "overheated" cities and some who've been unemployed for more than a year.

The coalition urges calm - only some people will be affected. But which people? There's the rub.

I chaired a big social housing conference in England this week and heard reports of elderly female tenants preparing to be evicted from their two bedroom Housing Association homes. They'd heard about Coalition plans to cut benefits for those considered to be under-occupying homes. As lone grannies, they assumed IDS was after them.

The housing officer who recounted the conversation had tried her best to reassure the old ladies that single people in four bedroom houses were the target.

"But when will they be coming for us?" was the granny's unconsoled response.

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Well who can say? The devil is in the detail. And in the absence of detail, worry is ubiquitous. Especially amongst the truly vulnerable.

To be fair, the Coalition's reforms do tackle underlying problems. But they tackle them in a contradictory, punitive, market-driven and high risk manner.

There is a problem about people kicking the "habits of worklessness".The redoubtable, Glasgow-based obstetrician Mary Hepburn asked her team to visit expectant mothers in deprived North Glasgow on their way to work because so few attended daytime ante natal classes. Tackling poor timekeeping boosted clinic numbers. But professionals had to make the effort and no strings were attached.

Tesco also tried to tackle "habits of worklessness" by promising to hire a proportion of local, jobless young people every time they opened a new store.

One of the trial stores was in the North-East of England and around 20 teenagers were hired six weeks before the store's launch. They trained, worked hard, stacked shelves, turned up and got paid. Perfect.

Until the morning after the big day when most of the 20 went out to celebrate, got drunk, slept in, failed to call the work and got sacked.

All those who've lost a job - or witnessed the teenage capacity for school holiday lie-ins - will know it's hard to maintain working discipline without work.

So "habits of worklessness" are a problem. But IDS will not resolve it with four week community service orders to ready the unemployed for work.

Quite simply there are next to no permanent jobs.

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A parent gave this account online about the experience of her unemployed 25-year-old son.

"He applies for at least three jobs a week. He has had some interviews but no offers of jobs - and records his efforts in his Jobseekers record card as the unemployed are required to do.

"Last Christmas he took an application form into a camera shop and was told the manager said not to take in any more forms - there had been 200 already.

"He was then informed that he was to have his (benefits) payments suspended as he had failed to take up the chance of applying for the post at the camera shop.

"He went through all the stages of internal appeal in vain. He even had a letter written by the manager of the camera shop confirming they had stopped taking in forms, but still his benefit was stopped for 12 weeks.

"When this went to tribunal he did get his benefits paid back - after six months. Luckily he has a family to feed him or he would have been left with nothing."

This Kafka-esque account of the absurd nature of the current benefit rules for claimants is borne out by a closer look at the nature of job vacancies.

Last week IDS said Merthyr Tydfil in Wales was a place where people had become "static" and wouldn't take the bus to Cardiff to look for work there.

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The Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) did some checking and found 15,000 people in Cardiff were chasing 1,700 jobs (an average of nine people for every vacancy), while in Merthyr there were 1,670 unemployed people chasing 39 job vacancies (a ratio of more than 40 to one).

All the jobs advertised were part-time and temporary. This knowledge is what drives people into "static" behaviour and despair.Will a few weeks of "community work" change things? To find out jobseekers will have to join a lengthy queue. Volunteering has already been proposed as a "reality check" for existing students, a socially useful occupation for gap year students, a taste of work for fifth and sixth year pupils, and a pathway back to social acceptance and basic skills acquisition for prisoners on community service.

Who will pay for the training and supervision? Where will the work be found? By robbing (employed) Peter to (not) pay Paul?

The Coalition's reforms are based on the assumption that the unemployed can get jobs if they try.

They cannot. So what happens next?

Unless Iain Duncan Smith can answer, his "reforms" will spread panic across Britain.