November 17th 2010
What goes around comes around. When I first entered the House of Commons Ralph Howell, the veteran Member of Parliament for Norfolk North, was trying to persuade Margaret Thatcher to introduce “Workfare” to replace unemployment benefit, as it was then called. Ralph`s view, which I shared then and adhere to today, was that it was better for self-esteem and confidence and more dignified to place those who are unemployed in gainful occupation in service to the community rather than to see them sink into apathy and inertia.
We tried, and we failed, to persuade the Prime Minister and her cabinet of the day that most of the far too many people who were out of work would rather get up in the morning with a purpose and do something useful in which they could take pride than sit at home doing nothing because society had deemed that there was nothing for them to do. The stumbling block was the element of compulsion: too difficult to determine who is physically and mentally able to undertake community service and who is not, they said. It was a cop-out then and it would be a cop-out, if we repeat the mistake, today.
Workfare is neither a soft nor a cheap option. Assembling people and matching them to worthwhile tasks requires organisation and will cost money. And it will cost more money still if, as I would have it, those engaged in any one of the dozens of community projects that could and should be undertaken were to be paid at a higher rate than what has been risibly known as “Job Seekers` Allowance”.
JSA has little to do with job seeking and Job Centres have become, in fact, little more than Benefit Processing Centres at which claims are made, non-productive interviews conducted and boxes ticked.
I have a good friend who has, through no fault of his own, been seeking work for far longer than he or I would wish. This man, who has seen bullets fly in the course of his service to his country, has told me in terms that he would infinitely prefer to earn whatever money the State decides that he should be given to live on than to be given something for nothing other than the repetitively tedious weekly completion of yet more futile forms.
And before I am told that “it`s easy for you to say that people should go out and get a job” let me recall that a mercifully long time ago I, too, was unemployed. For a few but too many weeks I stood in line, in the freezing winter rain outside the Labour Exchange, waiting to sign on for `the dole`. I took, quickly and eagerly, the most menial job that was offered to me because I had seen how rapidly others had sunk into the downward spiral of inactivity, loss of confidence and despair.
How much better, for all but the workshy and indolent, and of course for those drawing benefits while working in the `black economy`, to do an honest day`s toil for the community in return for the right to hold up the head and to say “I am employable” than to just sign on…and on….and on.
Ralph Howell has gone to the great voting lobby in the sky but if a coalition government can successfully introduce workfare where his beloved Conservative governments failed then I think that he will rest in greater peace. And our Country, our townscapes and our countryside may benefit hugely from a concept of alternative employment that was first promoted by a far-sighted East Anglian politician years before its time finally arrived.