James Purnell: Back to the Workhouse, Peasant!

According to the mathematically challenged Andrew Woodcock of the Independent, Purnell has proposed to raise the employment rate in the UK from 75% to 80% by getting “thousands of people off benefits and into work.”

Let’s look closely at this assertion: the UK’s 74.9% employment rate translates into about 29,590,000 jobs, according to UK census data. So since I know math, I could pop out my calculator and figure out what a 5 % increase in employment would amount to, considering this fact, and it’s this: One million, nine hundred seventy five thousand, three hundred jobs. Not “thousands” of jobs, but nearly two million jobs.

Now, also according to the UK census, there are not two million jobs going. This is painfully obvious to anyone in the UK currently looking for work, like for example the 5,400 building contractors who have lost their jobs this year. In June, 655,100 vacancies were advertised, and I would bet my own cushy government job the unemployed workers on Job Seekers Allowance and the infirm, illiterate, insane or drug addicted people on Incapacity Benefits are not going to be very lucky competing with people like me for those jobs.

Anyone with a calculator and a single synaptic nerve’s worth of common sense can plainly see the private sector will not suddenly manifest these two million extra jobs out of thin air while the UK’s economic growth for next year is projected at about one percent. So let’s look at what this strategy is likely to accomplish in an economic reality where these two million extra jobs do not exist, and are not likely to be created any time soon:

1: Workers on Incapacity Benefits will be required to see doctors appointed for the specific job of assessing the unemployed and their ability to work in addition to their existing, medically legitimate doctors’ visits. Their own GPs will not be consulted, so we can assume this will be a superficial and invasive check-up by a strange doctor who is totally unfamiliar with the patient’s medical history. As it’s likely that the welfare doctor’s own livelihood will depend on meeting government-set targets for deeming sick people fit to work, we can expect he or she will be disinclined to let anyone off who is capable of so much as folding an envelope without putting out an eye. Also, since these doctor visits are medically non-essential, you can expect additional costs and strain for the NHS, but there will still be the same number of jobs available in the UK. So, we can expect additional stress and dehumanisation for the infirm and incapacitated , additional strain on health care budgets, and zero impact on joblessness.

2: Purnell also plans to incrementally crank up the pressure on unemployed workers (let’s think of them as the UK’s 5,400 newly minted out-of-work builders) in three month intervals by reducing aid and penalizing them for refusing any work proposed by private agencies, so that gradually their benefits are choked to nothing, regardless of whether or not they have found a job. Setting aside the issue of whether or not cutting a man off benefits is the same thing as creating a job out of nowhere in the middle of a recession, this picture should deeply disturb anyone who believes in human dignity. Bureaucrats will be lecturing many thousands of bankers and builders who have lost their jobs or businesses due to the current economic downturn to scrape gum off the streets in exchange for their benefits check.  (Astute observers have pointed out this amounts to forcing people to work for a fraction of the minimum wage.)  As these kinds of jobs already exist, this will not result in two million new jobs required to meet government targets – it will result in the existing paid gum-scrapers being laid off as private contractors snap up these contracts to help the government enforce their unpaid working scheme.  So, we can expect increased dehumanisation, depression and stress for people on benefits, the transformation of awful paid work into awful mandatory volunteering, and zero impact on joblessness.

3: The government will pay private, for-profit companies from the public purse for placing disabled people and skilled workers in jobs they don’t want. So we can expect a large shift of public money away from public services and into the pockets of private businesses, increased dehumanisation of the unemployed and disabled, and zero impact on joblessness.

Perhaps you are of the opinion that being forced by the government to scrape gum off the streets for minimum wage is not a complete and utter humiliation (not to mention a lamentable waste of skills) for an unemployed bricklayer or electrician who would otherwise be looking for building work. But even those who insist that any job is better than none can surely see that the minimum wage jobs these people will inevitably be stuck into by the private, for-profit placement agencies proposed by the government will be the same ones that used to be the jobs of teenagers. Didn’t we all enter the workforce via awful, humiliating, gruelling and tedious minimum wage jobs? Jobs we hated? Jobs that infused us with a passion to look for other jobs in a way no finger-wagging bureaucrat ever could? Jobs we vowed never to return to, even if it meant sleeping under a bridge?

It’s obvious that forcing job seekers and the infirm off benefits is not going to create two million new jobs. And we can reasonably assume that the private agencies contracted to find work for welfare recipients, and paid per placement, will not be placing people in the types of jobs anybody who is currently in the workforce wants to compete for. Therefore, we can reasonably conclude that a large portion of the two million government-appointed menial jobs Purnell intends to force upon out of work and infirm adults are going to be the same jobs teenagers actually want to do. So we can expect to see an increase in unemployed teenagers who are not able to enter the workforce due to direct competition with people who don’t even want those shitty jobs to begin with. But hey! At least teenagers can keep living with their parents – forever! Or at least until they qualify for Job Seekers allowance, at which point they might be able to get a foot in the door with their government-appointed, mandatory, menial gum-scraping job that is not of their choosing.

What kind of “Labour” party is this?

The Welfare Green Paper is available here.

A Typical Day in an English Workhouse
A Typical Day in an English Workhouse