Harsh rules to drive the long-term unemployed into work come into force today in the UK, which state they will only receive their benefits if they either show up at a jobcentre every day or commit to six months of voluntary work.
Those who fail to comply with the rules, which also offer signing up to a training scheme as a third option, will have their jobseeker’s allowance docked for four weeks for the first offence, and 13 weeks for the second.
Under the previous system, people were only required to attend a jobcentre once a fortnight so the move is likely to see long queues of people lining up to sign on every day.
The stringent measures announced today by the British Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, under the heading Help to Work, reflect his conviction that there is work for the unemployed, if they can be induced, by a combination of encouragement and sanctions, to wean themselves off welfare.
According to the Government, there are 600,000 job vacancies at any given time. The latest rules apply to the 200,000 or so toughest cases – the one in 30 claimants who has been out of work for three years or more.
One major part of the scheme has run into immediate trouble. A group of leading charities, including Oxfam, has announced that it is boycotting the new mandatory work placement scheme on the grounds that volunteering should be genuinely voluntary and not something that the long-term unemployed are forced to do under a threat of losing their benefits.
The charities have noted that the maximum community service order that someone might receive if they were found guilty of drink-driving or assault is 300 hours, but claimants on six-month workfare schemes will have to work without pay for more than double this time.
The new rules were first announced by the Chancellor, George Osborne, in his speech to last year’s Tory conference. The idea behind unpaid community work is that it will help the long-term unemployed learn the discipline of observing office hours and being part of a team.
But 30 voluntary sector organisations are launching a campaign today to Keep Volunteering Voluntary, forming an alliance of groups who have all agreed not to sign up to the scheme. “Workfare schemes force unemployed people to carry out unpaid work or face benefit sanctions that can cause hardship and destitution,” a pledge signed by the campaign’s members reads. “We believe in keeping volunteering voluntary and will not participate in government workfare schemes.”
Britain’s biggest union, Unite, has also condemned the new scheme as “nothing more than forced unpaid labour”.
But a Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said; “There are a number of charities and other organisations who will be coming forward, who see this as a valuable initiative.” The sort of work that the Government thinks the long-term unemployed could be doing includes “gardening projects, running community cafes or even restoring historical sites and war memorials”.
He added that the present requirement that the unemployed report to a jobcentre once a fortnight has led to slow progress in getting them to find work, a problem that daily contact with a supervisor should overcome. Though one aspect of Help to Work is intensive training, the Government is not creating extra training places.
Jobcentre staff will have more leeway to make small payments to help those who cannot afford the journey to work, or cannot afford work clothes.
David Cameron defended the new measures yesterday as a means of helping the long- term unemployed escape from welfare dependency. “We are seeing record levels of employment in Britain, as more and more people find a job, but we need to look at those who are persistently stuck on benefits.
“This scheme will provide more help than ever before, getting people into work and on the road to a more secure future,” he said.
Independent News Service