Work-for-welfare is 'unjust unpleasant and unworkable'

Unions and church leaders have condemned a government proposal to force people on benefits to undertake manual labour as an "unfair" and "objectionable" move that will fail to get the unemployed back to work.

• The plans will be unveiled by Iain Duncan Smith this week Picture: PA

There are also fears that controversial welfare reforms could see some public sector workers replaced by people doing their old jobs for a fraction of the pay.

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Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith will this week unveil plans for four-week programmes of compulsory community work, doing jobs such as litter-picking or gardening, for unemployed people deemed to have lost the work ethic.

The proposal was condemned by the Church of Scotland and Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, who said it would drive "vulnerable people to despair".

A senior union official said the proposals failed to help the unemployed who were actively seeking work, and insisted the problem was that there were not enough jobs available.

Mr Duncan Smith's colleagues in the coalition government insisted yesterday the move was meant as a "sanction" against the feckless who saw being on benefits as a form of occupation.

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Under the plans, jobs advisers will be handed powers to force those jobseekers they believe would "benefit from experiencing the habits and routines of working life" to undertake a 30-hours-per-week work placement.

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The government says that it will be targeted at thousands of claimants believed to have opted for a life on benefits or to have an undeclared job on the side. Anyone refusing to take part could have their 65-a-week Jobseekers Allowance stopped for at least three months.

As thousands of low-paid public sector workers face losing their jobs after the 80 billion of cuts announced by the coalition over the next four years, trade unions warned they or the long-term unemployed could find themselves doing similar work for a fraction of the cost.

TUC senior policy officer Richard Exell said it would be "very unfair to unemployed people, especially long-term unemployed people". He went on: "The reason we have got such high unemployment isn't because of a problem with the work ethic, it is because there aren't enough jobs for people to do.

"We think this is a policy that is mainly objectionable because it is unfair to unemployed people.But it is also unfair to workers who find themselves competing against people paid much less than themselves and to any businesses in competition with the organisations that have got this subsidised workforce."

Religious leaders also questioned the coalition's motives, suggesting the vulnerable were being unfairly stigmatised.

The Rev Ian Galloway, convener of the Kirk's Church and Society Council, said: "We are concerned about the apparent stigmatisation of those in receipt of benefits that is emerging through a political discourse that associates error and fraud in immediate proximity to each other. I am concerned that this is being done deliberately and that the incidence of what are extreme cases is being used as a cover for reforms that harm those in need, whose care is our moral duty as a society."

Dr Williams said: "People who are struggling to find work and struggling to find a secure future are, I think, driven further into a sort of downward spiral of uncertainty, even despair, when the pressure is on in that way. People often are in this starting place, not because they are wicked or stupid or lazy but because circumstances have been against them, and to drive that spiral deeper does seem a great problem."

Shadow work and pensions secretary Douglas Alexander accused the government of "focusing on the workshy but offering nothing to the workless".

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The SNP's Eilidh Whiteford said: "The coalition have got their priorities all wrong - they should be focusing on supporting recovery and job creation, instead of spending cuts which are too fast and too deep and will actually destroy employment."

Mr Duncan Smith insisted it was about creating a new work ethic. He said: "One thing we can do is pull people in to do one or two weeks' manual work - turn up at 9am and leave at 5pm, to give people a sense of work, but also when we think they're doing other work. The message will go across: play ball or it's going to be difficult."

Chief Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander denied the government would be treating the long-term unemployed like criminals doing community service. He said the proposals would ensure work paid and that support was available for people seeking employment.

He added: "There are sanctions in the system at the moment that say if people don't turn up for work-focused interviews and don't carry out job search responsibilities properly, they will lose their benefit for a period of time. We are seeking to extend these sanctions."