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Recently, Welfare-to-Work schemes have been the site of a major battle between the government and citizens. There have been major court cases that have brought the legality of the schemes into question, and Ian Duncan Smith appeared on the Andrew Marr show criticizing people who he labelled as thinking that they are too good for work schemes.
The government has done a reasonable job of marketing these welfare-to-work schemes as a fight between ‘scroungers’ and ‘strivers’, arguing that those receiving benefits such as job seekers allowance are simply parasites, preying on the system without incentive to get into work. To the government, the idea of people being required to work for their benefits is ideologically in line with the Conservative party’s history of dismantling and stripping back the welfare state.
However, these schemes are a poor idea on paper. The idea of forcing benefits recipients to work is unacceptable to me, although I refrain from using the exaggerated and melodramatic term of ‘Slavery’. Ian Duncan Smith has claimed that recipients aren’t forced to work without pay, as the benefits themselves constitute financial reimbursement for services. But why should Poundland pay wages for employees if they can take on free labour from one of these schemes, and receive money from the government for doing so? In essence, the scheme, while designed to get people on benefits into paid work, is actively contributing to an environment in which this paid work is unavailable.
The case of Cait Reilly clearly demonstrates a failure to consider individual needs and situations by these programs. Reilly, a Geology graduate, was receiving Job Seekers Allowance while working voluntarily for a museum, something that was providing her with valuable experience for a possible future career using her degree. However, she was required to leave this voluntary position in order to take part in the ‘Sector-based work academy’ scheme, which constituted 2 weeks unpaid work at Poundland, which failed to give her any valuable experience, and which she should not have been told was compulsory. This complete failure to adapt to individual situations means that the schemes fail more often than not, as people are required to work in sectors in which their experience will not contribute in any way to their careers and futures, which takes them away from previous voluntary experience that would help them in the exact way that the government scheme fails to do.
Ian Duncan Smith continued to argue against the rulings, attempting to demonise those on benefits as thinking themselves “above shelf stacking”. In his argument, he avoided using facts, but instead relied primarily on rhetoric, ignoring any criticism of the schemes and not answering the questions given to him. He made the argument that, when people go into a supermarket, “when they can’t find the food on the shelves, who is more important: them, the geologist or the person who’s stacked the shelves?”. Not only is this completely irrelevant to the argument, it appears to be making the argument that smart people should forget getting careers in the subjects that they choose to study, and instead everyone should get jobs stacking shelves. Cait Reilly herself has now started working part-time at Morrisons, and is actually being paid for her work – the idea that the scheme is just under attack from those who see themselves as being ‘too good’ for this work is laughable. What people do want is relevant work experience, and to be paid if they are required to work.
I am not going to argue that these work experience schemes are flawed by nature. However, requiring people to work in order to keep their benefits raises all sorts of questions about the legitimacy of said schemes. Ian Duncan Smith’s arguments in favour of the schemes are full of holes and rhetoric, and refuse to deal with the issues with them, instead tying into the falsified war between parasites thinking themselves too good to work and society. Really, a work experience scheme for those on Job Seekers Allowance could be considered a positive thing – provided that it is not used to provide unpaid labour to businesses that could instead be hiring, and that it is targeted to individual needs instead of being blanketed over recipients under the guise of helping them to get a job.