The government is announcing their grand vision for the welfare state today – the plans to encourage people back into work and to create more punitive disincentives for those who try living a life on benefits.
Some of the measures make sense, the idea of a universal benefit to simplify the myriad of benefits, the principle of tapering benefits off slowly rather than just stopping everything the moment a claimant gets a job. Some of these ideas make sense and despite his hard-right-Rottweiler image, Iain Duncan Smith has spent many years thinking about these issues – after he left the Tory leader job he set up The Centre for Social Justice think tank, focused entirely on issues such as benefit reform.
But one of the key principles is troublesome. If a claimant refuses to take a job that is offered to them then their benefit gets stopped. On the surface it makes sense – if a job is out there and a person on benefits is available to do it then they should lose their benefits if they refuse the job. Fair enough. But how does that work in practice? Who makes the final decision on whether a job is too far from the claimant’s home, or the job is not suited to the person, or the job is not paying the going rate?
I’m not a natural Tory supporter at all, but I can see that IDS is trying to reform the system into one that encourages work, rather than facilitating a life lived on benefits – and that’s naturally a good thing. But there are some worrying aspects to this reform that don’t take into account the issues of structural unemployment and jobs being out there, but nowhere near the people who need them.
IDS keeps repeating that over 1m new jobs went through the job centre last month – there are new jobs being created. But the majority of them are low-paid minimum wage and so only people local to the job would take those… you can’t commute long distance to a minimum wage job. And this naturally suits migrant workers. There is a free movement of labour throughout the EU, so a person coming from another country to the UK will naturally locate themselves close to the work.
This does not mean that migration is the problem, but many locals competing with migrants will complain that foreigners are taking all the jobs. It’s not really the case – it’s just that the migrants are prepared to go and live next to the jobs. IDS and the government really need to explore this issue of the friction between where new jobs are being created and where people live.
If I live in Preston and there is a job at Burger King in Manchester, would I lose my benefits by refusing to take it, even if a 40-mile journey to work might eat up most of those new earnings? This new policy might need a rethink.