The Coalition must not create the modern workhouse

18 February 2012

I have warned on this blog before that the reforms of the welfare-to-work system risk
embedding unpaid labour into the benefits system. This week’s story about Tesco advertising for night shift workers to be paid Job Seeker’s Allowance plus expenses has rightly caused
outrage now it seems that large retailers and charities are pulling out of the work experience element of the Work Programme.

As the Independent reports today, Matalan has suspended its
involvement in the scheme and Waterstones, Sainsbury’s and TK Maxx have expressed their opposition. Employers are now said to be concerned that job seekers will lose their benefits if they
drop out of placements. Shiv Malik of the Guardian, who has been tenacious in following this story, reports that Tesco is now urging the government to make changes to the scheme. But this may not be enough.
The reaction to the Tesco story demonstrates that there is real public concern even if people still receive benefits when they work.

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I’m not surprised. The new system drives a coach and horses through the principle of a national minimum wage, which is effectively reduced to the level of Job Seeker’s Allowance.
Although I have no doubt the architects of the new system, Iain Duncan Smith and Lord Freud, had the best interests of job seekers’ at heart. (I genuinely believe this, by the way. It is
common sense that people with work experience have a better chance of getting a job). But this does not mean it is legitimate not to pay people. The pure free-market value of labour may be zero (or
indeed less than zero in parts of the country) but we cannot justify slave labour in a civilised society.

Iain Duncan Smith and his benefits attack dog Chris Grayling need to act quickly to stop this becoming a crisis. The government’s Work Programme is utterly dependent on the good will of
employers. If they do not come on board, the new scheme will fail, it’s as simple as that. If they continue to pull out at this rate, the so-called ‘Prime Contractors’, who have
been given the job of running welfare to work, will not make the profits they need from each ‘customer’ they place and they could also pull out.

The Coalition believes, probably correctly, that there is an appetite for benefit reform. But there is little appetite for something which looks a lot like the modern version of the workhouse.

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Show comments
  • TrevorsDen

    In that case Mr Bright just double the amount of tax you pay

  • fs

    Not the workhouse, but the outdoor relief of the early 19th century, i.e. wages (for agricultural workers in particular I think) were to low to live on so they were complemented by support from local government, paid for by the ratepayers – a wider group than employers. As landlords dominated local government, i.e. the JPs, this was a subsidy to themselves. And it gave stronger control over the “feckless”. Now Tesco, poor mites, would have been receiving labour for free, paid for by the tax payer. Strikingly similar!

  • David

    E. Hart sums up everything that needs to be said. Head up its Arse indeed.

  • michael crockett

    I am an expat of many years. I was appalled when recently in England that there seems to be an idea that anyone on benefits should earn the same as people who are at work. This is fine for genuine claimants who for various reasons cannot work, but is utter nonsense for those who don’t want to. I have four children in England, all working, and they have great difficulty in earning more than 35000 pounds per year. If they work in London, then they rent flats with other people to keep the cost as low as they can. Those people living in expensive parts of the country who dont WANT to work should certainly move to other parts where housing is cheaper, and they, like everyone who is in work, should have to prove that they are worth 35k to the country. If they simply don’t want to work, then they should have to live in a very simple and uncomfortable way. I thought I read that those on lower wages than the cap, would be able to earn their wages, and have them topped up by benefits. With this I totally agree.

  • Fergus Pickering

    However, Jeremy Bentham, the founder of the modern Guardian tendency, did.

  • Fergus Pickering

    Dickens didn’t like it, Ruby.

  • Ruby Duck

    What’s wrong with the workhouse ?

  • Tom

    Judy, perhaps you find it super-emotive, but it’s true, which is why you also find such terms a disgrace. It’s not just the workshy being forced into this, but skilled people made redundant in the recession, who find themselves either too old or overqualified for many advertised jobs. It can happen to anyone, and their is no moral imperative for people to do unpaid labour where they could be paid. If there are jobs to be done, they should be paid for. That is capitalism. By not allowing people to sell their labour but forcing them into work, you’re actually entertaining a queasy idea of feudalism, and it’s hilarious that the free-market libertarians are all for this state-subsidized scheme. What a tacit admission of hypocrisy and contempt for the poor.

  • Noa.

    E Hart – apposite and well said.

  • E Hart

    The welfare issue is a side-show. The real issue is that Britain has its head up its arse when it comes to having an industrial policy and creating wealth. All governments – but especially post-Heath – have systematically thrown away an industrial heritage and skills base and put in its place the economic “subtractor effect” of B&Q, Morrisons, McDonalds and Poundland etc. This has done incalculable damage to the health and welfare of our economy and is going to be prohibitively expensive to put right.

    At the time we blithely accepted the untenable as tenable and we now live in a fairyland in which it is okay for RBS – a state-owned bank which makes a loss of £2bn – to pay over £700m in bonuses. Aside from the disproportion and the inflationary nature of these bonuses, doesn’t it ever occur to these arseholes that someone who actually imagines, creates, produces and sells something is immeasurably more important to the country and economy than some greedy parasite in a suit?

    The real issue is how are we going to create well-paid jobs? Nothing else is going work. The alternative is an impoverished Poundland.

  • Noa.

    “But there is little appetite for something which looks a lot like the modern version of the workhouse.”


    Unlike you Mr Bright, I must have missed the IDS reference to Work experience candidates being required, as ‘undeserving poor’, to move into the workhouse and step up on to the treadmill all day.

    However you seem to adhere to the principle that if money comes from the taxpayer it doesn’t need to be earned. This is an argument which simply perpetuates the already failed and unaffordable dependency culture.

  • E Hart

    This idiotic government is going to create a desert and call it Greece. They still don’t understand that “expansionary austerity” is futile and they still believe that impoverished workers and welfare claimants are good for the economy. The present ratio re. jobs to applicants is 1:5 (1:7 in some places according to the ILO).

    Still, we should all be heartened that Osborne’s daft policy for the regions “may create 30,000 jobs by 2015”.

  • Dave B

    The minimum wage does nothing to help the poor, or the unemployed.

  • Fergus Pickering

    Nobody except the committed left would vote out any government to replace it with the curse of the Eds.

  • Arblaster

    The poll tax was an idea so stupid, that it mattered little how it was managed. The riots, incidentally, were not staged by agitprop Marxists, (the 1991 police report concluded there was “no evidence that the trouble was orchestrated by left-wing anarchist groups”), although they were doubtless there, they always jump on the bandwagon, I admit.
    So fear not the reds under your bed, Ian Walker, they are a figment of your febrile imagination. Fear neither the idle poor, they amount to very few in the grand scheme. Better to raise your drawbridge when you hear the sound of the sturdy beggars approaching….

  • Ian Walker

    Albaster: Sloth has been recognised as a ‘sin’ since the proverbs of Solomon, so about 3,000 years ago.

    By the ‘idle poor’ I referred to the specific definition in the Act for the Relief of the Poor 1601 (commonly the “Old Poor Law” or the “Elizabethan Poor Law”) which created different categories of poor, including the idle poor, and how they were to be treated. The workhouses of the article’s title, and the modern welfare state are direct descendents of the 1601 law.

    And the poll tax was a good idea, badly managed. The ‘riots’ were staged events by agitprop Marxists and their legions of useful idiots.

  • Minekiller

    There is clearly soemthing wrong here. If these companies have jobs and can’t fill them, yet there is so much unemployment, then there is an obvious imbalance between too low wages and too high welfare.

  • Arblaster

    Thank you, Martin Bright, for publishing this article.
    I trust your readers who defend this absurd unreal half-cocked attempt at legislation will remove their rose-tinted glasses for a minute or two and actually read what the DWP say, rather than coming to the sort of short-circuited conclusions I read above.
    You must face reality, this action will have the same resounding effecton the country and its current government as did Thatcher’s poll-tax, and look what happened to that…and her?

  • Arblaster

    Ian Walker
    “The idle poor have been a problem since Tudor times. Not expecting much change soon.”
    Your history is vague,the ‘idle poor’ were no less aproblem before Henry VII, and luckily for you, the black death wiped the majority out; but despite that. I would not worry about the idle poor, matey, they don’t amount to many these days; it’s the active, aggressive poor you should be in fear of.

  • Lucidorchid

    Kyle said
    “The only people who have raised doubts with this issue are committed left wingers. If there was an opinion poll, I bet most people would be in favour of the current system.

    The government shouldn’t back down.”

    I say
    I’m pretty sure that the only people who support this our committed Totalitarians / Plutarchists

    If there was an opinion poll, I bet most people would be in favour of a free county / free market.

    The corrupt control freak, government establishment traitorous regime has to go.

  • Ian Walker

    The idle poor have been a problem since Tudor times. Not expecting much change soon.

  • Colin Cumner

    john t – you have a very valid point. I guess my use of the word ‘genuine’ meant where experts in the field leave no doubt that the recipient of benefits that he/she is definitely disabled. Alwyas remember it is the deceitful work-shy who rob you and others like you of the extra money that should otherwise come your way.

  • Southcoasting

    It’s all about incentives, and the incentives in this scheme are just wrong.

    There’s nothing wrong with a bit of work experience – and not enough people understand the current scheme is voluntary – but that cannot be at the expense of jobseekers developing other meaningful skills and looking for real jobs. Likewise, business needs an incentive not to carry on using cheap labour indefinitely and to fill real jobs with real workers paid a minimum wage. Limiting these placements to 10 or 12 hours a week might be one way to set the balance straight. However, the current approach seems obscene.

  • Erica Blair

    I think Fergus Pickering is confusing his politics for mine.

  • john t

    Dear Collin Cummer

    As person with Cerebral Palsy (A genuine disability) I hate the word genuine when applied to disability because some disabilities are hidden or variable.

    I have no idea what word to use to replace it.

  • john t

    Using super-emotive terms like “slave labour”

    Dear Judy

    These placements are undermining precarious,low paid,part-time workers jobs.
    My disabled fiancee has hydrocephalus and spina bifida.

    She has done everything ask of her by Lain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling.
    She was able to claim Disabled Working TaxCredits because she worked over 16hrs per week.

    Her hours have now been reduced to 9hrs per week,hence no Disabled Working TaxCredits
    She was actively encouraged to take a redundancy package of £500 for her 4 years service.

    Less than expect profits from a rival company of Tescos and unpaid (Work) experience for Jsa has made my fiancees Precarious job even more precarious.

    She would be financially better of quitting and going onto Esa.

    Is this what Lain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling envisioned, how is this making work pay

  • Bob Low

    Keep your head down, Erica! The Troll Hunter is on your trail.

  • Ian

    It’s not slave labour to work for your benefits. It’s fair.

    It’s fair to the people who are having to work in order to pay the taxes that fund public welfare. It’s fair to employers who are investing significant management effort into this scheme. And most of all it’s fair to the people receiving benefits – because it is protecting them from falling into a lifetime of not working.

    My brother went on the equivalent of this scheme in the 1980s. It sorted him out – and it will sort out the current generation too. Two of my cousins didn’t – and they’re still unemployed.

    If people don’t want to participate in this scheme then how about getting a job? Sure, that may mean doing something you don’t like, or moving to another part of the country, or getting on a training course, or (perish the thought) getting out of bed at 5am every morning in order to commute, or getting your hands dirty doing menial labour. Tough.

  • Fergus Pickering

    And you, Erica, can’t wait for the setting up of gas chambers for the jews.

  • Ollie

    Judy, you totally misunderstand (as does Mr. Bright) the motivation for the workfare scheme. It’s not to give people work experience and make them more employable. (How would having done hundreds of hours of shelve stacking make you more employable than anyone else?) The scheme is about giving cheap labour to big businesses, cheaper than they already can get.

  • Colin Cumner

    Make the scheme mandatory, exempting those who have genuine disabilities (something akin to National Service). Why should taxpayers go on supporting those who do not have any inclination to work for a living or ‘benefits’? Certainly safeguards have to be built into the system to prevent slave labour conditions arising out of the scheme but it is well past the time when people expect handouts from the Government without any effort on their part to earn them.

  • tomdaylight

    Seems like the only moral thing to do would be to abolish the minimum wage. But I can’t imagine any politician having the cojones to do it.

  • Kyle

    The only people who have raised doubts with this issue are committed left wingers. If there was an opinion poll, I bet most people would be in favour of the current system.

    The government shouldn’t back down.

  • DavidDP

    Work fare is fine, but companies mustn’t use it to fill vacancies on the tax payers’ money.

  • Judy

    Using super-emotive terms like “slave labour” to describe this programme is a disgrace. Job-seekers’ allowance is money paid out to people looking for work. Gaining unpaid work experience very substantially increases their chance of finding work. Even if it does not, the JSA is money paid out by wage earners and pensioners who pay tax. It’s not at all unreasonable that doing unpaid work which is known to increase the chances of gaining work should be a condition of getting this hand-out to people who have the potential to work. It’s not unreasonable that the enterprises who will have to check, train and manage these unpaid employees should be paid if they get the people into paid jobs.

    “Modern version of the workhouse” is really even more outrageous. The workhouse involved compulsorily forcing people into segregated prison-like institutions where they were given work such as oakum-picking that had virtually no commercial value and certainly did not represent any training of the inmates towards becoming more employable. Nor were they given a cash payment of any kind for their labour.

    My understanding is that this scheme is anyway voluntary at present. I would have no objection to it being made compulsory, provided that the recipients did their work experience in enterprises which will serve as advantageous to their future chances of being employable.

    School students routinely do unpaid work experience because it helps them towards both work and further education.

    The campaigns being set up to try to destroy this programme are all part of the UK-Uncut agenda crowd. Their aim is to bring down this government and campaign for an extreme left one. No thanks. And no thanks to Martin Bright for supporting them.

  • Jane Young

    I’m pleased to see that the Spectator has realised that workfare is problematic (understatement!). Could you also look at the proposals in clause 54 of the Welfare Reform Bill to subject Employment and Support Allowance claimants in the WRAG to mandatory unpaid work? This is even more dangerous as people in the WRAG have been assessed as not currently fit for work and there doesn’t seem to be any requirement for JCP staff to seek advice from the claimant’s GP. This raises all sorts if health and safety issues on top of the issues you raise in your post.

  • Paul Lucraft

    Good article – most employers and the public are sympathetic to the idea of welfare to work but will be appalled at the idea of slave labour. We need to get the scheme to work fairly and help people to paid work.

  • Erica Blair

    Martin ‘not very’ Bright has completely misjudged his readership. Most Spectator readers would welcome the return of slave labour and the workhouse.

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