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The benefits system, workfare and public opinion

We cannot afford to base policy on public opinion when the public opinion is based on false information.

ESA is a good example of this. Public opinion is that a larger proportion of those who were or still are on IB did not need or deserve to be there. Consequently there was room for approval of a harsher test that tells more people that they do not face health-related barriers to work. This led to ESA, a test considered to be one of the harshest in the world, which many sick and disabled people fear because it strips them of the support they need to live whilst simultaneously denying them the support they need to get into work.

Public belief is at times widely disparate from reality. An Ipsos Mori poll showed this some months back by asking people to answer a selection of questions. The results showed a large gap between what the public thinks is true and what is true.

So when Policy Exchange finds that more people support workfare than a compulsory jobs guarantee, it is apposite to ask whether public support is founded on misinformation. Are long-term jobseekers lazy, or are they ill-served by a long depression, poor access to vocational training, and poor support from the Jobcentre and Work Programme providers?

Policy Exchange themselves recognise this. They speak of the prohibitive cost of workfare for all (over £1 billion a year), the risk of “displacing employment in the formal economy,” and the “deep barriers to employment facing many jobseekers.” They say that workfare is “not suitable for all, or even a large proportion of, benefit claimants,” and that “It is vital for these [deep barriers] to be addressed with personalised and intensive support and coaching.”

PE builds on this by recommending that workfare be used only for those “whose main barriers to work are a lack of experience or who refuse to engage effectively in employment support.” They estimate that this group forms no more than 10% of individuals who leave the Work Programme without finding work. Workfare is also recommended as potentially useful for those “with little or no labour market experience” and as an alternative form of sanctioning, i.e. to use compulsory workfare rather than the financial loss of benefit. They say that this “could be a better driver of behaviour than existing sanctions and would not risk putting dependents into hardship.”

It is not fair to Policy Exchange to use their report to say that they want workfare for all or most claimants. PE have clearly explained where they consider workfare to be appropriate or inappropriate, and this results in a recommendation that workfare be used only for the minority who persistently do not engage with the support offered to move into work. They say that, “for the majority of benefit claimants, such schemes will do nothing to provide the support they need to move into the long-term and sustainable employment that will ultimately be most effective at reducing the benefits bill,” and that “for many people, workfare schemes will simply not be the most effective tool for helping them into work.” PE do not want the mis-use or inappropriate use of workfare, as this can create an “underclass of families, detached from both the labour market and the chance of receiving support from the state to re-enter employment,” as has occurred in the USA.

Another important point is that the workfare PE talks about is short work experience placements, or community or charity work – not subsidising private employers. This is very different from the current work placement schemes, and from Labour’s Job Guarantee where that job is in the private sector. That PE refers to community work, not employer-subsidised work in the private sector, is likely to have contributed to the high support for workfare that the PE opinion poll showed.

To conclude, Policy Exchange point out that, “In the same way as employees are asked to undertake work by their employers, it is neither unjust nor exploitative to ask benefit claimants to do something in return for the benefits they receive.” But they also say that there are very clear limits to this – and to overlook these limits would be grossly inappropriate. PE are clearly recommending charity or community based work for those who are not engaging or lack recent work; this is very different from suggesting that the majority of those out-of-work should be made to work for private companies at taxpayer’s expense.

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