As I'm fond of telling you all I'm a big fan of the idea of benefit reform, unfortunately some fool put the government in charge and they aren't much cop at it. The principles behind it are mostly fine but in practice the con artists will be mildly inconvenienced and DWP staff will take it out on the vulnerable, the respectable and the genuine. I'm rapidly forming the view that the only way to get a good deal in this country is to be obnoxious and intimidating. If you tell the truth and try to follow the rules the ferocity of the state knows few bounds.
Anyway that oaf they've put in charge of benefits got off to a good start when he said:
'We will not repeat the mistakes of the eighties and nineties when thousands of people were moved further away from employment by condemning them to a life on Incapacity Benefits. This only makes it harder for them to find work and get their lives back on track.'
In fairness to the last Tory administration they believed that many of the then unemployed would never work again and thought the best they could do for them was get them as much money as possible -it is also worth pointing out that almost all this money goes straight back into the economy, benefit claimants not having much to save.
Of course the left used to argue that these people had a right to work, then lowered their sights to a right to benefits instead. I doubt the existence of a substantial underclass was the intention but the combined efforts of the left and right have made it so. The government's vision of everyone working to the best of their ability in the interests of both themselves and wider society is a good one which makes it all the more frustrating that they're going about it in the wrong way.
The first part that caught my eye concerned my chums the single mums. I view motherhood, something for which I am devoid of talent, as rather heroic. I can and do put others before myself from time to time in my daily life but to have to do it all the time is unthinkable. Only a lottery win and a good nanny would compel me to breed. For me the ideal would be not just two parent households but close extended families. Children are wonderful unconscious comedians and a joy but they require a lot of looking after. Not least to protect them from aunties bearing gifts and telling tall tales about their adventures on the high seas. Still the world is not ideal and we are where we are.
Returning to the point the government propose to 'pilot conditionality for workless parents of children younger than currently planned.' Personally I don't believe that anyone with care of children under five should be under any pressure at all to work. The early years are precious and however good full time pre-school care might be, it is no substitute for anything but the worst parent's care. After that I think making any benefits dependant upon searching for work is fair enough except where the parent is in further or higher education or training for work in which case I think the cut off point can reasonably be extended to 12 to allow single parents the chance to pick up their education where they left off.
I would also like to see the introduction of an absent parents tax band and benefit level except in situations where maintenance is being paid. It should be socially unacceptable for absent parent (usually fathers) to resort to every trick in the book to evade paying for their own children but it isn't. In fact it's endemic, in my last job I would expect to see a total of 20 clients a week, of them at least three would be men seeking to evade CSA payments. Not one I ever encountered felt any shame regarding their failure to support their own children. Instead they either thought of child support as something the state should take care of because they were on benefits or something they shouldn't have to pay because the mother was neglecting or mistreating the children. Curiously not one father felt he had a duty to report this neglect or mistreatment to anyone other than the CSA which, in my book at least, makes him complicit. In any case benefits and child maintenance are not rewards for good motherhood they are payments to the parent with care -nothing more.
The government have stated that parents can place reasonable restrictions on their availability for work to take account of their childcare commitments. They have also stated that childcare will be made available throughout the land. I have my doubts about how this will work in practice. In my experience DWP staff delight in their power over claimants and never miss an opportunity to withdraw benefit. The exception to this curiously enough being any claimant likely to turn violent. I can't see them being terribly sympathetic to anyone who refuses to take up work because of a lack of good quality, affordable childcare available locally.
It is worth mentioning that parents can currently claim up to 80% of child care costs back in tax credits, I'd like to see this extended to allow parents to nominate a family member to receive payment for child care provided during their working hours. Payment at 80% of the minimum wage up to a maximum of thirty hours seems reasonable to me and represents a cheaper option than paying private rates. I would also set the applicable benefit amount for a couple at exactly twice that of a single person to encourage the take up of employment by at least one member of the household and disincentivise the relatively rare but not not unheard of trick of separating in order to play the system.
The government claim to want people to work which makes their treatment of people who have worked all the more baffling. Consider how a twenty year old who left school at sixteen for employment but now finds themselves unemployed might feel at receiving only £47.95 per week contribution based Jobseekers Allowance, when someone aged 25 who has never worked gets £60:50 per week. If the government values work and if National Insurance contributions are to mean anything at all then this meaningless age differential should be done away with. Anyone who has made sufficient contributions should be paid at the highest rate, those that haven't the lower. The only exception to this I would make are people coming off Incapacity Benefit or Employment and Support Allowance who should not be discouraged from making themselves available for work if they wish to.
There is also the fact that someone just out of work is more likely to want back into to it quickly to maintain their lifestyle. Instead of making them sign on every two weeks I'd like to see them given a lump sum equivalent to six weeks benefit when they first register. If they enter employment before six weeks is up, then they're up on the deal. If not then they should sign on monthly for up to six months at which point it's every two weeks. Yes this would, in some cases, mean paying out more benefit than is required but it would also create an incentive to find work quickly and a small reward for work done and taxes paid.
The government make no mention of this or anything resembling it. Instead their grand plan is to compel people who have been unemployed for two years or more take part in some form of full time activity including voluntary work. This does nothing to address the massive two year gap in the CV prior to taking up 'full-time activity'. As someone who has worked in the voluntary sector I am also concerned about the havoc that forced volunteering (forgive the oxymoron) is likely to cause. Instead I'd incentivise taking up voluntary work much earlier on by paying income based JSA at the higher rate for those engaged in voluntary work of of more than 16 hours per week, with an equivalent raise for those on contribution based benefit. In addition I'd allow them to keep any expenses paid out by the charity concerned. However I do not think the unemployed should be engaged in any sort of full time activity, surely a substantial portion of their time should be devoted to finding paid work. A ceiling of 25 hours unpaid work would allow sufficient time to work voluntarily and look for paid employment.
In addition to the above I would also like to see the reasons the person has been unemployed for two years addressed. I used to sign on behind a chap who couldn't even write his own name- something of a barrier to him finding employment that harrassing him to apply for jobs was unlikely to remedy. I would also like to see more large employers reviewing their application processes for low skilled jobs. Really what is the point of a large and off putting application form for a cleaning job?
Under the current system after six months National Insurance contributions run out for unemployment benefit. I would extend that to twelve months before the claimant goes on to the non-contributory rate unless they took up voluntary work in which case they could remain on the contributory rate of £60:50 (single) or £121.00 (couple) depending on their household income for a further twenty four months.
The government also make great play of the help and support to be made available to help people back to work. Incredibly DWP staff are actually being given the responsibility of providing this 'help and support'. In practice this involves 'help and support' for folk who don't really need it, whilst those that do are landed on charities and private companies. Naturally under the governments proposals charities and companies will receive funding based on results. I have grave doubts as to whether any account will be taken of the amount of work required in providing the support required in getting the 'difficult cases' back to work. I am also quite certain that private companies will use every trick in the book to dump the most difficult cases on to the charities.
With regard to the take treatment or lose money proposal to deal with drug addicts, I can't say I'm a fan. Unwilling addicts taking up valuable and scare rehab places helps no one. It is also worth pointing out that getting a methadone prescription would be classed as treatment. There aren't many smackos not on the methadone programme. Rather than give addicts full cash benefits I'd prefer them to be issued with food, travel and utility tokens with a very small cash payment. Whilst I realise this would in the short term cost the state more it would provide more of an incentive to clean up than the current system does. Incidentially I don't believe this would lead to large increase in crime. We are often told the average heroin habit costs £200 a day an amount far in excess of any benefits currently paid to anyone.
For reasons of space I have confined myself to work- seeking/potentially work seeking benefits. I will come onto disability benefits and the social fund in later posts.