Ross Clark Ross Clark

What Hunt should really do to stop people claiming benefits

Jeremy Hunt (Photo: Getty)

It is hard to deny the assertion made by Jeremy Hunt and the Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride that there are plenty of opportunities for people who want to work, or at least for a good number of them.

If you want the long-term unemployed to take up jobs, you don’t offer them a little gentle encouragement: you send them on compulsory work placements

According to the Office for National Statistics, there were 898,000 unfilled vacancies across the UK economy between February and April – meaning there were 1.6 unemployed people for every vacancy. Not all these jobs will be suitable for everyone, of course: they may not be in the right places, or they may require qualifications which not all unemployed people have. But it has become a feature of the jobs market over the past few years that while we still have large numbers of people on out of work benefits we simultaneously have employers screaming out for recruits – and reporting that there are some jobs which Britons simply don’t want to do.

But rather than simply assert that there are plenty of jobs out there I would be rather more interested to know what Hunt and Stride intend to do about the problem of the unemployed claiming benefits but failing to take up jobs.

The tragedy is that John Major’s government appeared to be close to solving this problem back in the mid 1990s but that the initiative was lost and no government has taken it up since. In 1996, 6,800 people in Hull and Medway who had been unemployed for more than two years were put on something called Project Work – in which they were obliged to spend three months in work training followed by a further three months in compulsory work placements. If they refused, they lost their benefits

What was remarkable was the sheer numbers of people who stopped claiming – 3,100, or nearly half of them. Of these, 900 announced that they had succeeded in finding jobs, while the others simply disappeared. What had happened to them? Maybe they did have work after all, and were falsely claiming unemployment benefit on the side. Or maybe some decided that work is such an awful burden that they would rather go without the benefits.

Maybe some of them didn’t actually live in Britain, or didn’t even exist. Either way, the scheme promised to save the taxpayer a fortune. But then Major’s government was thrown out of office and Tony Blair didn’t take up the idea – in spite of Polly Toynbee, of all people, announcing herself to be impressed by the results.

The lesson was pretty clear: if you want the long-term unemployed to take up jobs, you don’t offer them a little gentle encouragement: you send them on compulsory work placements.

The imaginative policy would be to abolish unemployment benefits altogether – and instead offer people guaranteed work placements, creating the required jobs if necessary. There is hardly a shortage of work to be done, surely it would be possible to train people to fill potholes in half a day, for example. Farms complain they cannot get fruit and vegetable crops picked. True, it would cost the government money to create jobs for the unemployed, but that misses the point: as Project Work showed, if you make work compulsory the number of claimants for unemployment benefits magically falls.

It is also true that Major’s government is not the best model for Tory administration trying to win a general election, but on this particular policy it was absolutely right. The present government should invent something along the same lines.

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