‘Urge lone parents into jobs. Just put away the big stick’

December 2, 2008

Polly Toynbee writes in The Guardian, 2 December 2008

Getting people employed is vital, but in a recession current welfare-to-work targets are impossible – and compulsion is crazy.

Welfare reform, a centrepiece of tomorrow's Queen's speech, is under attack. Devised in a boom, it looks perilous in a bust. A battery of charities for children, the disabled and the poor have joined the unions and centre-left pressure group Compass in formidable opposition. Meanwhile, companies and voluntary organisations bidding for welfare-to-work contracts are also protesting. Targets that were eyewatering in the good times are downright impossible now. Head in the sand, the Department for Work and Pensions denies there's a problem.

Is this a clever time to summon many of the sick, and all single mothers with children over the age of 12, to oblige them to work? Firms bidding to take on contracts to find jobs for the long-term unemployed are alarmed at the wildly unrealistic terms set in a recession.

Richard Johnson of Serco, bidding for eight big contracts, complains they are expected to find jobs for twice as many hard cases in these bad times as the DWP achieved in good times. So he has bid at 14% less than the target set – and defies anyone who claims they can hit 50% into work for at least six months at the price of £500 per claimant. He warns that irresponsible bidders will take money for easy cases and forget the rest.

One bidder tells of another whispering that the only way to make money is "to take the hardest to help and lock them in a dark room". Addicts and former offenders, helped by specialist not-for-profit bidders such as the Wise Group (on whose board I sit), cost far more. Serco wants money loaded so that getting easier claimants into work

is paid less than each harder case further down the list. They say the unscrupulous put in unrealistic bids, knowing the government will bail them out: no DWP contract has ever been withdrawn. So one lot of protesters say the plan is cruel, the other lot say it's near impossible.

So will compulsion work? It seems crazy to introduce it now, with so few jobs available for people who want them most. Is compulsion really necessary in a recession? When Carol was finally given enough attention, what she needed was the carrot of significant extra cash for her meagre budget. There is no need to threaten benefit cuts for those who refuse to take jobs. Success will depend on all advisers being as good as those I am always put with to observe. If incentives work, sanctions should only ever be for those refusing to turn up for interviews – often suspected of working while claiming.

Tomorrow the DWP publishes new research on what conditions should be attached to which benefits. But a warning to Labour: if thousands of mothers end up with punishing benefit cuts because they can't find work they feel fits their children's lives, the outcry will be deafening.

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