Yesterday, a government White Paper was published proposing changes to the UK welfare system. The thrust of it seems to be that those who are claiming incapacity benefit (essentially those with long term illness or disability) or income support will be expected to prove that they are looking for work. Those who do not find work may be given community work in return for their benefits.
The Methodist Church has responded with a call for “welfare with dignity”
While the proposals offer assistance to help some of the five million people who claim benefits find employment, the Church warned the proposed bill would impose new conditions and potential sanctions to a wide range of vulnerable people.
Paul Morrison, Methodist Policy Adviser, said: “Research from the Rowntree Foundation and others shows that those who claim benefits exist on inadequate incomes and want opportunities to work. Although a small minority may abuse the system, a package containing a focus on coercion risks stigmatising the poorest and, at worst, not treating the benefit claimants with the dignity they deserve.”
“The Church believes that those who are unable to work because of illness, disability or caring responsibilities are valued and equal members of society and deserve a benefit system which acknowledges this.”
I’ve just looked to see how realistic it is for claimants to find work in parts of Wales. In October, in Rhondda Cynon Taf, Blaenau Gwent and Merthyr Tydfil, there were 25,000 people who were either unemployed or were economically inactive but wanted to work. That’s a small town full of people out of work.
At the same time, the Job Centre had just 1,567 vacancies registered with them in these areas. That’s 16 people chasing every job.
Although job centres don’t cover all vacancies, they are the main source for people being ‘helped into work’. And if that is not bad enough, nearly a quarter of the vacancies were sales reps or assistants jobs (many of which are commission only), and nearly a fifth were cleaners or security guards. Many of these vacancies do not pay enough or offer enough hours to provide a living wage.
That’s the rub, isn’t it? If the vacancies are not around, it is deeply cruel to add the threat of removing benefits to the misery of unemployment. And the idea that our Job Centres are places of hope and encouragement for the unemployed is simply cloud cuckoo land. My recent experience suggests that the staff, whilst they are no doubt well-intentioned, have no meaningful help to offer even those who are strongly motivated to find work. How much use they can be to the unskilled and demoralized I can only guess at.