Monday, 20 January 2014

Labour's compulsory skills training for the unemployed - would it work?

Labour's big announcement on welfare today is the proposed introduction of new skills courses in English and maths for people at risk of long-term unemployment.  The idea is that around 10 per cent of new unemployed people (and even more who are long-term unemployed) have extremely poor basic numeracy and literacy skills.  If the Government intervenes at an earlier stage, then unemployment will be brought down.

Putting aside debates about the conditionality of the policy (which will no doubt dominate many discussions within Labour today) would the policy work?  Or is it just a policy gimmick, designed to make Labour look supportive - but tough-  towards the unemployed?

In general, there are two main question marks surrounding the potential success of the policy.  The first is the extent to which poor basic skills are actually the main barrier towards re-employment.  Steve Fothergill, an expert on welfare-to-work at Sheffield Hallam, argues that poor skills are only part of the problem when it comes to unemployment.  There are other important barriers too: such as poor health amongst many unemployed people and, in particular, the weak - and in some instances non-existent - demand for labour in certain parts of the UK.

Raising the basic skills of some unemployed people is thus a good move; but it might be relatively ineffective if it is unaccompanied by other policies as well.  This is why Labour's job guarantee - a demand-boosting measure - is so important.  But there should be other policies as well, designed to deal with the poor physical and mental health outcomes of many unemployed people.

The second question mark is implied by Rachel Reeves herself in her article for Labour List today.  This is that unemployment is experienced by a far broader social demographic than those with low skills: such as managers, professionals, graduates and the high skilled.  Reeves is right to say that the benefits system should do more to offer economic security to such groups - but what about offering more support to get back into work?  Many people with long experience and high skills will find work anyway.  But for others it will be more difficult to find a job.  Basic skills courses for these people are irrelevant and there is nothing in the way of support proposed for them.

Poor basic skills are an undoubted barrier to work for many people - but they are not the only problem.  The fact that in some areas there are just too few jobs to go around is a much bigger - and far more complex - barrier for governments to deal with.  Many unemployed people also suffer from poor physical and mental health; and basic training courses offer nothing to those with higher skills.

Along with the job guarantee policy, this is a good start for Labour.  But it must be accompanied by a wider range of measures to move people from welfare to work: ones that understand the reality of why people are unemployed.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

What is Ed Miliband offering the middle-class on the welfare state?

As the general election approaches next year, Labour faces two key challenges.  The first is trying to revive some form of support for the welfare state.  The second is attracting the kind of voters - i.e. middle-class ones, especially in parts of the south - that won Labour three majorities between 1997 and 2005.

In an intriguing article in today's Telegraph, Ed Miliband appears to be trying to kill these two very difficult birds with one stone.  In the piece, Miliband argues that the fate of the middle-class is tied to the future of the welfare state.  Whereas the typical sales pitch to Telegraph readers is usually centred around tax cuts, Miliband makes an explicit argument that middle-class prosperity can only be revived by an expansion of the welfare state.  There are few concrete policies but Miliband highlights further/higher education, pensions and housebuilding as areas ripe for state intervention.

This is - as Miliband says himself in the article - a long way from New Labour's focus on "aspirational self-confidence".  It is a much more (small-c) conservative vision of intervention than Blair's vision of the "active" or "enabling" state: one which seems to have far stronger emphasis on people's social and economic security than, for example, spreading opportunity or offering a safety net.

It is also a much more traditionally social democratic proposal, in which a larger, more intervening state plays a central role in how people's lives are shaped.  It will probably annoy many liberal or conservative commentators but I doubt that matters much to Ed Miliband.  The only thing that matters to him is whether his vision of a larger state appeals to the kind of people who read the Telegraph. 

Friday, 3 January 2014

Is welfare conditionality justified?

Conditionality is at the centre of welfare reform.  It underpins everything that the Coalition – and before it New Labour – have done.  Nothing is given away for free in the land of social security: everything is tied up with conditions and consequences. 

The major break with the past came during the New Labour years.  This was when benefits for the unemployed and other ‘economically inactive’ groups - like lone parents and the disabled - became increasingly conditional upon certain behaviour, such as looking for work or participating on welfare-to-work schemes.

The logic of conditionality is twofold.  First, conditionality will improve employment outcomes: use a bit more stick and soon people will be on their bikes.  Unemployed people need more ‘incentives’ to find paid work.

Second, it is only fair that in return for income support, people should have to fulfil certain duties and obligations to the rest of society.  This is the argument for rights and responsibilities: people have the right to help but the responsibility to look for employment.  No one has the right to a ‘life on benefits’ if they are capable of work.

Whilst the first argument is more of an empirical one, the second is moral.  Is it right to ask people to behave in a certain way in return for social security?  Or, alternatively, is income support a social right that the Government should be unable to remove? 

Advocates argue that it is fair to expect the able to seek work and that benefits must be conditional on doing so.  Expecting people to give something back in return for help is a basic tenet of reciprocity; if people share in the benefits of society, then they have a duty to contribute something back.  If we fail to impose these requirements, we risk violating reciprocity and undermining social trust and common bonds. 

There are strengths to this argument: unconditional benefits would allow people to live indefinitely at the expense of others.  Whilst the common retort is that the number of potential ‘free-riders’ would be negligible, ‘unconditionality’ would nevertheless endorse free-riding as socially legitimate. To many people this is both economically dangerous and morally untenable.  Most of us go through life carrying the responsibility to work: if a person is able, it is unfair that the option to evade such responsibilities is made available.

However, the major problem with this argument - and of much of the rhetoric surrounding welfare conditionality - is the disproportionate attention given to benefit claimants.  If welfare support is a contract there is by definition another party involved: the state.

Yet in practice we hear very little about what the responsibility of the state is.  This is crucial: it is blindingly clear that the responsibility to take a job does not exist irrespective of what is being offered to people.  The most extreme example, proposed by the theorist Stuart White, is of a slave society.  Few of us think that in such a society there is a moral duty to work: to do so would be to cooperate in “our own exploitation”.

What the responsibilities of the Government should be are up for debate.  People from the Right tend to consider a job – any job – will do, but many people rightfully expect more.  It is not just about providing any kind of work but the right kind of work: work that can be meaningful, can match a person’s hopes and ambitions and can be married with other aspects of life, such as home and childcare.

So in one sense the Government is right: social security for people who can work should be conditional upon taking up opportunities.  However, it is the nature and environment of these opportunities, and whether they are even available, that is the deal breaker for justifying conditionality.  Does a person with social anxiety have the responsibility to take a job in a busy pub?  Does a lone parent have the duty to work evenings in a call centre?  Does a medicine graduate have the obligation to stack shelves?

Or rather, do people have the right to a labour market that can provide them with fair, appropriate and decently paid work?  If this requirement is satisfied, then it seems there is a strong case for conditionality.  If not, as it actually appears, the case for conditionality is weakened.  The danger then is of a government that exploits conditionality to coerce and to stigmatise.  And of a situation in which people are enforced to oblige in their own exploitation.

This article was originally written for London Student