From the TUC

I spoke too soon

14 Nov 2008, by in Economics, Labour market, Society & Welfare

Yesterday I said that Tony McNulty’s response to the TUC’s call for a modest rise in JSA had gone unreported.

But readers of the Sun and Daily Mail were treated to an extended version – which while only quoting “a source”  used identical language.

The Mail says:

“The biggest crackdown on unemployment benefits for more than a decade is being planned by ministers”

Of course it isn’t. Welfare reform ministers love to brief modest changes in benefit rules to the right-wing press as ‘crackdowns’, ‘shake-ups’ and ‘new wars on scroungers’. It does not mean that they are, but while not living up to its billing this looks both impractical and reactionary.

What appears to be happening is that new claimants will now face a job-focused interview after six weeks rather than 13. This is the stage when the unemployed have to accept any job, rather than one related to their skills and experience, or start facing sanctions.

The unemployed will also have to sign on weekly, rather than fortnightly.

There must be doubts whether this is achievable. Job Centre Plus has targets for cutting staff. Unemployment is going up by 1,500 a day. Staff will struggle to cope with 13 week interviews, and have already relaxed the fortnightly signing-on requirement in some areas, or so I have heard.

But is also a very strange policy.

Getting a quicker in-depth interview with a Job Centre Plus adviser may well be a good thing. At the moment people get little help in the first 13 weeks – and indeed when times are better many will get a new job in that period.

But when it is getting harder and harder to find a job, it makes no sense to shorten the time people have to find a job that uses their talents properly before they are forced to take minimum wage jobs – and anyway there will be fewer of them around too. An early interview would be better used to provide support and help in getting a suitable job, perhaps by identifying good training.

No doubt readers of the Sun and the Mail have bought into the idea these papers (and too often ministers) have peddled that everyone could get a job if they wanted and the only barriers are workshy attitudes, a cushy benefit system and – at their few liberal moments – possibly a lack of skills.

But now it is precisely those Sun and Mail (and Mirror and Metro for that matter) readers who are losing their jobs.  Of course people who cheat the benefit system should get their come-uppance, but not even Mail writers will be able to argue that Britain has had a sudden increase in scroungers when unemployment passes the two million mark as it undoubtedly will.

There is good work being done by ministers to genuinely help the unemployed. But it’s about time they got the message that the debate has moved on. We need a war on unemployment, not the unemployed.