Fair Work?

WorkhouseNews this morning of the Government’s plans to make those on unemployment benefit for over two years contribute something towards their payments from the State. As usual some on the right are delighted and some on the left are apoplectic. Cheers rise from those who think that a large proportion of those claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance are not seeking anything and boos resound from those who see this as nothing more than a 21st Century style workhouse approach.


The plans are for claimants to work for 30 hours a week or they would lose their unemployment benefits. Whilst the idea of making some contribution towards the support the Government gives you is in principle a good idea, it raises all sorts of questions.

  • Isn’t this what national insurance is meant to pay for? Whilst admittedly the idea that your NI contributions are not just income tax by another name is dead and gone for all but final state pensions, surely if you have worked for decades and the find yourself unemployed it is rightly your turn to claim off the State?
  • Job Seeker’s allowance for those over 25 is £71.70 a week. Minimum Wage (from the 1st of October) is £6.31 an hour. I make it that Job Seeker’s Allowance is just under eleven and a half hours of work on the Minimum Wage. If we insist that some people need to work for their benefit then the most they should work is eleven and a half hours unless the Government pays them more. To demand someone works for 30 hours means they would be paid £2.39 an hour. That is unconscionable.
  • There is absolutely no way that unemployment claimants should have to work for any benefit that is also paid to those working (for example Housing Benefit). That would produce a situation where the Government treats unemployed people differently than employed people for the same benefit. That is patently unfair and unjust.
  • What are you going to do about claimants with children who fail to meet these new criteria? Will you take money away from those families? Will you penalise the offspring of those not doing their part?

In principle the idea that unemployed benefit claimants should do some work to contribute towards their money from the State has merit. But in practice there is the real possibility that we treat people in a manner that would otherwise be illegal (paying them a pittance) or penalising those who have done nothing wrong.

So, a few thoughts.

  • If we really want to move to a system where after a while on benefits you have to contribute something, then we need to create a much more European style of social insurance. If I contribute for 30 years into the central pot I should be able to claim benefits longer than someone who has only paid for a few years. And yes, someone who comes straight onto the Dole after education should expect to have to contribute towards their benefit from the word go. This would emphasise the point that everything costs something to someone and that no-one is owed anything by the State if they don’t give something back.
  • Work in exchange for benefit should be paid at very least at the minimum wage. It would be immoral (and possibly illegal) to do anything other. This means that most jobseekers should only have to work eleven or twelve hours, not thirty. It is a basic principle that the worker is worth his wage. If we create pittance wages for those long-term unemployed then we run the danger of creating a whole underclass stuck working 30 hour weeks for a tiny handout.
  • Furthermore the only people who at the moment do community service under compulsion are those who have committed a crime. Are we happy putting the unemployed in the same bracket? We must make sure that those who contribute towards their handout from the State are treated like real workers, not pariahs.

There is nothing wrong with helping people understand that there is no unlimited pot of money and that one needs to work to bring in a pocket full of cash. Yes, some people need to deal with issues around their unemployability and others need to work much harder to try and find a job. But in the midst of trying to help those long term unemployed find work we are in serious danger of creating an iniquitous situation where we force people to work for the benefit of the State for a pittance of a return, and we punish third parties for their failure to comply.

Let me know what you think whilst I go and find my copy of HG Well’s “The Sleeper Awakes“.