The Welfare Reform Green Paper is going to be a real treat, judging by James Purnell's interview in the Times today
. Apparently, "private companies will be brought in to get the long-term unemployed back to work – and will be paid by results. People who refuse to take jobs or go on training courses will be stripped of benefits. There will be no excuses for disabled people or lone parents if they are able to work. Drug addicts will be forced to seek treatment or lose money."
What is really galling is the difference between the tough talk aimed at people on low incomes, which is all about what We The Government expect of Them, the little people, and the gormless praise of the private sector, “When people talk about privatisation that seems old-fashioned...It doesn’t matter if they make a fortune doing it, if they get the job done.”
The problem with this isn't the rhetoric (though that would be embarrassing if coming from a right-wing moron in a hurry let alone someone who fancies himself as the next leader of the Labour Party), it's that these policies won't work if all the extra responsibilities are placed on people who are out of work, and the only responsibility for the private sector is to turn up and bid for new handouts from the government.
Purnell and his advisers don't appear to understand what life is actually like for people who can't find a job, who are out of work because they are sick, who have deliberately chosen to live on less money in order to have more quality time with their kids, or, indeed, what it is like working in a job at the bottom end of the labour market.
Government ministers frequently cite research which shows that being out of work is bad for people's health, compared to having a job. Hence his idea that GPs should send their patients to job advisers rather than medicine. But this research is not a like for like comparison of the options which are actually available to people.
When Purnell talks about 'work', he is thinking of the kinds of jobs that he and the people that he is friends with do - interesting and rewarding work, nice colleagues, a supportive boss and the chance to work flexibly and balance work with caring responsibilities, and the chance to change jobs if a better opportunity comes along. These kind of jobs are indeed better for your health than being unemployed.
But most jobs available to someone who has a disability, mental health problems or caring responsibilities, or who hasn't worked for fifteen years, aren't like that. And Purnell's colleague John Hutton says that any attempts to give low paid workers more rights which might improve the quality of their jobs and promote their health and well-being would be a burden on business.
The overwhelming temptation is just to oppose this bill when it gets put forward this autumn. Problem with this is that it will pass with Tory votes, as the only problem the Tories have with it is that they would like to go a bit further and keep the issue as one to beat Labour with in the election. But I think a better strategy might be to try to amend it. After all, welfare reform is something that lefties should support, because no one can possibly believe that our welfare system is perfect as it is. And the principles of good jobs for all who can work, and support for those who can't are good ones. Here's three possible examples, there can be many more.
Purnell remarks that better childcare is needed - so why not amend the bill to include free childcare for working parents?
He says that work is important for promoting good health - so why not amend the bill to make sure that low paid workers get new rights which would help reduce stress and ill health in the workplace?
He says that 'the gap between rich and poor matters' - so why not amend the bill to make sure that everyone who works full time can earn enough to fully participate in society?