Magazine article Public Finance

Beyond the Safety Net

Magazine article Public Finance

Beyond the Safety Net

Article excerpt

Welfare-to-work or 'workfare' was once a novel concept in the UK. Just a decade ago, in the heyday of New Labour, the idea of using private firms to encourage back Into work people who have been unemployed for years was still considered too radical - or at least too American for British tastes.

While Tony Blair's original concept of a 'New Deal' talked the talk of US-style welfare reform, it never really walked the walk. It was aimed more at job creation than at filling genuine gaps in the job market, and thus fell flat with employers, many of whom saw it as effectively a subsidy for the hassle of employing the unemployable.

More radical ideas were still being toyed with by some policy thinkers, including the more thoughtful welfare experts such as MPs Frank Field and David Willetts. But these approaches - Inspired largely by the welfare-to-work models pioneered in the US state of Wisconsin - mostly remained in the realm of the think-tank seminar.

Yet now it would appear that both Labour and the Conservatives are once again ready to do battle for the prize of reforming welfare. This week's launch of the government's welfare green paper, No-one written off, under the stewardship of Work and Pensions Secretary and rising star James Purnell, attempts to claim that Labour finally has the answer. The answer being that 'work works', to coin a self-evident phrase.

Under the proposals announced to Parliament on July 21, the government will become much tougher on those who are unemployed or on Incapacity Benefit. Single parents might have to participate in training for a return to work even before their children are of school age, not to mention the ambitious target of getting a million people off Incapacity Benefit by 2015.

Purnell also wisely proposes scrapping Income Support and Incapacity Benefit, replacing them with a simplified system of an Employment Support Allowance for those with disabilities that limit their ability to work or a Jobseeker's Allowance for those who can work.

Aiming to instil work as an obligation rather than a choice, the paper proposes that those with children aged seven or over will be expected to seek work but suggests training for those with younger children. Additional benefits will be granted to lone parents of younger children if they attend a 'skills health check'.

The Tories, meanwhile, support the proposals, arguing that while they agree with the measures, this is because Labour has yet again stolen their ideas. And indeed, the Conservatives did set out their own welfare green paper, entitled Work for welfare, six months ago. …

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