On new unemployment laws and student protests

I read today that the government are proposing new legislation that would bring in supposedly new restrictions on people who are on Jobseeker’s Allowance, in which people who refuse work or “community service” will lose their benefits for up to three years. This comes a few days after a proposal to make JSA claimants do unpaid “community service”, such as litter picking, or else risk losing their benefits. They are both bad ideas, clearly aimed at playing to the Daily Mail by picking on supposed “scroungers” who just don’t want to work or have been unemployed for generations, at a time when there are just not enough jobs to go around, for obvious reasons.

The fact is that the regulation by which someone can have their benefits stopped for turning down work has existed since the JSA was introduced in 1996. Claimants (or “customers” as they call us at the Job Centre) are expected to fill in a little log book telling the consultant (I think that’s what they’re called) what they’ve done to look for work the past fortnight, and they are supposed to make three approaches a week. The problem is that you don’t always find suitable work, but there is nothing to stop you just not applying, or not telling the Job Centre you applied, or applying for jobs you know you couldn’t do or don’t fit the requirements for, or deliberately underperforming at the interview, and there’s no need even to do that if you really don’t have the experience or know-how they want. The chance of getting offered a job and losing your benefits by turning it down are actually very slim. How they plan to tighten up on this, I have no idea. The consultants already find us jobs out of their database, but it’s up to us to apply for them as they do not have the time to sit over us as we apply.

The reason I’m out of work is because the job market collapsed in 2008. This has been a problem for a lot of people, and for someone like me who spent the past 8 years driving vans and small trucks, moving into any other work is going to be difficult because jobs are scarce in other sectors too, and they all want (and can demand, as there are no shortage of applicants) people with experience, which does not mean me. Speaking to people at my old agency yesterday, I was told that numerous firms at the industrial park where I used to work a lot (Park Royal in north-west London) have closed or moved out (because Park Royal is sprawling yet congested) and they told me they had seen numerous commercial premises in the town where they are based (Staines) which have become empty. This doesn’t mean I don’t look for work, or don’t want to work. What I end up doing is spending as much time as I can bear, searching job banks and finding jobs I’m perfectly capable of doing, but I don’t have the professional experience of doing.

If you remain on benefits for a certain length of time, they put you on their “New Deal” programme, which means going to two full-time training sessions which need not be in a convenient location (in my case, Croydon). There’s a two-week and a thirteen-week programme, in that order, and I’m near the end of the two-week programme right now. It’s not great. The first week consisted of a lot of workshops which consisted of a lot of motivational patter and group role-playing. They told us that there would be a “job fair”, but that consisted of standing around a table covered in print-outs of jobs I could have found simply by searching the job banks. Today, they brought in an employment agency, but did not tell us until it actually started that they were only looking to recruit people to work in a betting shop. Much of the rest of the time is spent sitting in front of computers searching the same job banks I was searching at home (incidentally, using a version of Internet Explorer which is incompatible with a lot of online application forms). Admittedly, I have actually applied for a couple of jobs I might not have done had I stayed at home, and secured an interview (for an actual job, not an agency), but there’s a limit to the amount of time you can search the same job banks for the same jobs. I’m not sure I needed two weeks to do this.

The “community service” is an even bigger joke. This is work. People should be hired and paid to do this, not made to do it to get the same money (which is roughly a day’s pay per week) they would otherwise have got for doing nothing. This is also likely to be the same work that might otherwise be done by people sentenced to community “payback”, as they now call it, for committing crimes, so why has being out of work become morally equivalent to spraying graffiti or other anti-social behaviour? Because the assumption is that people don’t want to work, not that there are no jobs available (particularly if an entire town’s industry has been destroyed by the government, without any replacement).

There are, sometimes, disincentives to take work — for example, if an agency offers me one day’s work, the money is mostly offset against my JSA money, which means I gained very little from going out to work if it’s just one day in a week (unless there’s a lot of overtime). If I get two days in a week and there’s overtime (i.e. more than 16 hours over the two days, which is often the case in driving work), my claim is stopped and I have to go through the rigmarole of getting it started up again. But the biggest disincentive is simply the high cost of living and, particularly, housing, caused by the sell-off of the public housing stock which was built at tax payers’ expense without replacement, the explosion of the buy-to-let industry in which private landlords rent out houses and flats they don’t fully own at a higher rate than their mortgage repayments, and the Blair era property boom (read: massive house price inflation), which means that housing alone will take up a huge percentage of someone’s pay if their pay is not that high.

This leads to recurrent headlines about families receiving colossal benefit payments, and even if they are true, they do not equate to a family living high on the hog in a posh area of London; that is simply the cost of housing a family in London. The coalition’s solution to this is to cap benefits so that they will no longer be paying to house benefit claimants in “desirable” areas, which were, of course, not all that “desirable” a generation or so ago. According to Tory poster boy Shaun Bailey, people don’t have the right to live in the areas where they grew up, and that “it is unfair that middle-income couples find themselves commuting from the capital’s outer reaches because of high housing costs while the poor have their rents in prime locations guaranteed”. Well, actually, many of them moved to those outer areas because they were leafy, offered spacious housing and were themselves desirable, not because of high housing costs in inner London — far from it; much of inner London was rough in the 1970s. The places they plan to ship benefit claimants out to are not even in London but are in run-down resorts on the South Coast and in Essex, and one wonders how these people will get to low-paid jobs in London, as commuting costs will be far higher than what they may pay now (which may actually be nothing, as they may live within walking or cycling distance of their jobs). There is really cheap housing in some places, but they are places where jobs have been destroyed and which are full of undesirables. Why should perfectly respectable families be forced to live in slums, to save the middle-classes and the rich (many of whom benefited from tax-funded state services such as health and education themselves) a bit of tax money?

The one section of society which has taken to the streets in large numbers is, of course, students — missing the odd lecture isn’t a big risk for them like missing a day’s work is for someone in a job. My sympathy for them is not that great. I was one of the last groups of students to miss paying tuition fees and even then, there were a lot of students who seemed more interested in the “social side” of university life than in their actual studies. I actually attended the NUS conference which scrapped the organisation’s demand for a return to pre-Thatcher grant arrangements, back when the NUS was under the control of the Labour student group. There was a lot of underhanded behaviour by some of the Labour officers, particularly at local and regional levels, but the old policy just was not realistic, as the old maintenance grants that were frozen under Thatcher paid for a much smaller group of undergraduates than there is today at a time when university was hard to get into and a degree was not a necessity for a lot of the jobs in which it is today. We cannot afford to keep a huge percentage of our youth out of work for three years; we need to find ways of reducing this burden and getting more out to work at 18 or even younger, and increasing opportunities for people to go back into education when they have more inclination than they had in their teens. The situation of young people remaining largely dependent on their parents and in full-time education until the age of 21 is unsustainable, and not only for economic reasons.

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