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July 30, 2008

Welfare Rights – or wrongs?

The Government’s proposals to reform the benefits system make the assumption that "paid employment, whatever its quality or content must be superior for the individual and society, to a life focused on home, family and community." Social policy analyst Stephen Maxwell questions this assumption in his weekly column

Stephen Maxwell

AMIDST the media headlines on the government’s Green Paper proposals to reform the benefits system the philosophy underlying the reforms is easy to overlook. Shorn of tabloid sensationalism the intention of the proposals is straightforward enough and in the context of previous reforms evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

Since the introduction of the New Deal successive Labour Governments have required people in receipt of unemployment benefits to meet progressively more qualifying requirements. This progression has been matched by an increasing emphasis on personalised plans and support for people to move back into work. With the help of a growing economy this combination succeeded in moving one million people off out of work benefits, halving the number of unemployed claimants and saving the Treasury £5bn annually.

The government’s latest proposals take the process a step further. The longer people depend on Jobseekers’ Allowance the more stringent the requirements imposed on them in return for the increased support. After one year on the Allowance a requirement for four weeks community work will be imposed. After two years on JSA the requirement to carry out some form of agreed work will be extended. The prospect, never fully spelled out, is that those who fail to find work after two years will be required to work permanently on make work schemes or lose their benefit.

The change proposed for the 2.6m people on Incapacity Benefit is more radical. From October 2008 IB will be replaced by an Employment and Support Allowance. All recipients of IB will be expected to undergo a new Work Capability Test focused on their potential for paid employment. The WCT will divide people into two groups, a Work Related Activity Group and a Support Group. Those in the Work Related Group will be required to follow a programme designed to get them back into work with the carrot of personalised support but backed by a threat ofiosing entitlement to benefit if they do not cooperate. Those in the support group will be encouraged to volunteer for a work related programme but like those assessed as incapable of working will (eventually) be entitled to a higher rate of income support.

Some changes are proposed in how these back to work services will be delivered. Individuals will be given a right to request control of their support budget. And private and voluntary sector providers of the services will be given an open right to bid for contracts and under an enhanced system of payment by out- comes will retain a proportion of the public budget for their client.

There are some purely practical questions to ask about these proposals, not least whether the success claimed for the New Deal can be repeated for a more intractable client group in far less favourable economic circumstances and which professional if not an individual’s GP is best qualified to assess capacity to work. But there are also questions of underlying philosophy exposed in part by the Green Paper itself.

With its constant reiteration of rights being matched by imposed responsibilities the paper confirms the govemment’s fixation with a ‘contract’ model of society. But a contract model not only risks marginalising people who are chronically disadvantaged but is hard to reconcile with the growing inequalities of globalising market economies.

The paper grandly proclaims that “our objective is a social revolution: an 80 per cent employment rate -the highest ever”, as if paid employment whatever its quality or content must be superior, for the individual and for society, to a life focused on home, family and community. No less surprising is the confidence with which employment is presented as the answer to child poverty in the face of the fact that nearly half the children living in poverty in the UK live in house-holds in which at least one of the adults is in work. There is no doubt that these proposals are fashionable but are they truly timely?