THE BLOG
01/11/2013 09:29 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

The Work Programme Just Isn't Working

Roger Harding, Head of Policy, Research and Public Affairs at Shelter, recently wrote a very interesting piece in the Huffington Post, (Now More Than Ever, Welfare Needs a Better Sales Pitch).

He argues that "welfare will be on the front line of the 2015 election - a key issue for parties to show that Britain can do better than this, or that they're on the side of hard working people."

He goes on: "Those that attack welfare today have a simple, razor-sharp message: some people out there are getting something for nothing, you're paying for it and it has to stop. And its supporters respond: these cuts are hitting the most vulnerable, the excluded, those in poverty."

It is a challenging piece. However, I think he, like me and many others, have all too easily slipped into defining the debate as being around 'welfare' and 'welfare reform'.

When did it stop being 'social security'?

Welfare, according to Wikipedia, "is the provision of a minimal level of well-being and social support for all citizens, sometimes referred to as public aid. In most developed countries, welfare is largely provided by the government, in addition to charities, informal social groups, religious groups, and inter-governmental organisations. The welfare state expands on this concept to include services such as universal healthcare and unemployment insurance."

Social security, on the other hand, is a concept enshrined in Article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states: "Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realisation, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organisation and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality."

I have worked and paid taxes and national insurance contributions without a break for over 30 years and for the last ten years at a higher tax rate. I don't complain about this. In fact I think it is a sign of a civilised society that while I am fit and able, and earning at the level I do, I should make a sizeable contribution in proportion to my income.

If I was to lose my employment and was unable to work, I would want the security offered by the welfare state through social security. I would not want to go from being regarded as a "striver" one day, a "skiver" the next. I would want to maintain my dignity and be free from fear, fear from the cold, hunger, the debt collector, homelessness.

But what about the under 25 who has never worked, the NEETS (not in education, employment or training)? Why should they, who have never contributed get something for nothing?

The debate is moving on to which group or groups are going to lose entitlement to benefit. David Cameron has repeated his announcement from last year that he intends to deny those under 25 the right to claim housing benefit, but has now said those under 25 will not be able to claim any benefit.

The very real issue of how to prepare young people for work, and whether there actually are the jobs, has descended into an exchange of sound bites with the prime minister promising to "nag and push and guide" young people away from a life on the dole and Labour accusing the Conservatives of a "desperate" lack of ideas.

I have no problem with there being high expectations on those out of work engaging in activities to prepare them for work. I am amazed that the current Work Programme has been so poorly devised and implemented that the government is now saying that if someone is on the Programme for more that two years they will be required to address some of the underlying causes, such as illiteracy or their substance misuse. What are the existing Work Programme providers doing, for goodness sake!

Some 90% of those who become unemployed are back in work within a year. The support they need is minimal. They are the ones from whom Work Programme providers cash in.

It is the 10% with more complex needs, and those who have never worked, who offer a greater challenge, and who the Work Programme fails miserably. It is all too easy to dehumanise them by dismissing them as "skivers" and all too easy to threaten to deny them benefits.

It is far more complex than that. The ambition for this country should be for full employment, so that people can fulfil their aspirations, where work pays (and not just marginally better than social security).

Reform is needed, but we achieve nothing other than further exclusion by merely blaming and punishing those who have perhaps been failed by the education system, who leave school without the ability to read or write, or whose alcohol and drug addiction has for too long been tolerated and sustained by treatment services that don't meaningfully advocate abstinence, and where training does not lead to work because the training is inadequate or the jobs are not actually there.