The wrong idea at the wrong time
James Purnell and Johann Hari wrote today about a welfare reform strategy which will help people who can work find jobs which are good for their health and well-being, and provide greater support for those who can't work. I think that sounds really good.
But there seems to have been a mix up, because the Welfare Reform strategy which the government published today bears no relation to the above objectives, and instead is a load of right-wing rubbish based on incorrect assumptions from a banker who knows nothing about welfare policy, which has 'thrilled' David Cameron (now there is an unpleasant image), and is opposed by anti-poverty campaigners.
The draft paper was leaked to Sky News on Friday, and the official paper was published today. There's one interesting difference between the two which caught my eye.
In the draft, it claimed that 'the evidence shows that a conditionality regime is essential, whether unemployment is falling or rising' (point 11 of the executive summary, with no link to any research or other evidence). That was omitted from the official version.
This is kind of technical, but also important. 'Conditionality regime' refers to reducing or stopping people's benefits if they don't comply with the requirements to seek work, get treatment for drugs, do training or other things which their advisers tell them to.
Supporters of this claim that it helps increase levels of employment at times when the overall number of jobs in the economy is growing. Even they usually acknowledge that it isn't designed for times when overall unemployment is rising (and if there was evidence that this would work, then presumably the government would not have removed section 11 from the report).
This goes absolutely to the heart of Purnell and Freud's approach to welfare reform. As long as the number of jobs around is increasing, you can get more people into work by changing their behaviour to make them 'work-focused'. But it doesn't matter how 'work-focused' individuals are if the number of jobs is shrinking. What will end up happening in that case is that more people will be living on benefits which are deliberately set at a level too low to live a dignified life, and face further cuts if they don't comply with requirements to seek jobs which don't exist. This is demoralising for them and for the advisers who have to deliver these policies.
Supporters of this particular piece of welfare reform will try to make the claim that it might sound tough and mean, but that once you get over the initial reaction and look at the detail, it is in fact progressive and will end up helping people. They will also portray opponents of it as kind hearted but soft headed lefties who aren't prepared to take tough but important decisions.
This isn't one of those issues. The more you know about it, the worse it gets. Freud and Purnell's approach gets the balance wrong between helping people and bullying them, and it is being introduced at a time when the state of the economy makes it most likely to fail. It is, in short, the wrong idea at the wrong time.