AS the recession takes hold and jobs are scarce, the Government is working on new plans to get people off benefits and into work.
Although this might seem a rather strange time to push people into job hunting, James Purnell, the Work and Pensions Secretary, said last week that these measures are crucial for breaking cycles of welfare dependency.
New proposals will mean that benefit claimants will have to show that they are preparing for work or face having their payments cut.
Only single parents with children under one, the severely disabled and some carers would be exempt.
After two years, every claimant would be required to work full-time for their benefit.
But while Trade Union Congress (TUC) Senior Policy Officer Richard Exell agrees that claimants should be expected to look for work, he says this is not an excuse for creating cheap labour.
“It is unclear whether the Government is suggesting that people who have been unemployed for two years should have to work for their benefits, rather than the minimum wage,” he says.
“Ministers have refused to give us that reassurance that the unemployed would only be expected to do work experience which could enhance their career prospects, rather than doing jobs which could be done by paid workers.”
While Exell says there is no doubt a real job is better than benefits, every employee should be paid a decent wage.
“If the job that an all unemployed person is told to do is worth doing, then it should be paid properly. That’s only fair.”
The Government’s proposals mirror the “workfare” schemes already in place in America and Australia.
“This summer, the Government published their own review of the studies of workfare schemes and concluded that there was no evidence they get people into long term jobs,” says Excell.
“What it does do is get people of benefits in the short term, which is a different matter. And hardly getting to the root of the problem.”
Excell also predicts that the new measures could make life far more difficult for lone parents.
“At the moment we don’t have any thing like nationwide coverage of child care,” he explains.
“There is a real concern about how, in practice, new obligations on lone parents are going to work.”
There are also doubts among employment professionals about the practical implications of forcing people into training.
“What we’re told by people who work in the training system, is that it’s very difficult to teach people who are only there under the threat of sanctions. They do not want to be there.
“And not only is it hard to teach them but they’re disruptive and make it hard for everyone else in the room, spoiling it for those people who could get something positive out of the course.”
He adds that now is not the time to be forcing people into work.
“We think we’re going to get a huge increase in unemployment, of the order of one million people. At a time when people are finding it extraordinarily difficult to get jobs, it seems counter-intuitive to suggest that what we need to do is force people into looking harder.”