The new Work secretary, Iain Duncan-Smith, has caused outrage by suggesting that the unemployed should move in search of work, directing his focus mainly at council tenants who occupy local authority property, claim benefits, and generally don’t do a lot – it’s reminiscent of former Tory minister Norman (now Lord) Tebbit and his famous ‘my old man got on his bike’ speech.
Tebbit is often misquoted, he actually said: “I grew up in the ’30s with an unemployed father. He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking ’til he found it.” He was responding to a statement that unemployment naturally leads to riots.
Iain Duncan-Smith is the protégé of Lord Tebbit and that’s easy to see with these new plans about migration. When Tebbit left the Commons for the Lords, Duncan-Smith replacing him as MP, he is alleged to have said: “If you think I’m right-wing, you should meet this guy.”
But there is an issue of structural unemployment in the UK. Jobs are out there, but often the long-term unemployed are not living in locations where suitable jobs are available. What are the thousands of skilled workers at the former Corus steel plant in Teesside going to do now – work in McDonald’s or deliver newspapers? Hardly fulfilling, rewarding, or exploiting the skills available.
There is already a system that allows people to swap their council home with tenants in another location, though why people in an area full of work might want to move someplace where there is none is beyond me. The unsettling thing about what the government is now proposing is that they want the power to force people to move in search of work.
That’s not like the romantic dream of the American migrant worker. It’s compulsion. And though I am all for the government trying to help people into work, I don’t think that charging up behind vulnerable people with a big stick is a very strategic appeoach.
Everyone wants to get rid of dole scroungers and the long-term sick claiming incapacity benefit and spending it in the pub – that’s a given – but this problem needs more thought than clunking Conservative proposals to force council tenants out of their home. What about their family and support networks? How will a single parent arrange child care in a new city, because they will need it if they are heading out to work fulltime?
I think the more intelligent response to this issue of work distribution would be to approach it with short, medium, and long-term proposals. In the short term, make it attractive for companies to create jobs away from the Southeast – offer tax incentives and grants to make it really worthwhile. Then for the longer term, the only thing that can make the people more mobile and more likely to find work in future is their education and skills. Give them training and let them find new work, don’t kick them out of home because it makes for a good headline on cutting costs.
Wasn’t there that story in the Bible about teaching a man to fish…?