New government plans to force long-term unemployed people to attend their local jobcentre for 35 hours a week in exchange for their benefits have been branded “unworkable”, “unethical” and “cranky” by disabled campaigners.
The plans were announced by the chancellor, George Osborne, and the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, at the Conservative party conference in Manchester this week.
Although disabled people claiming employment and support allowance will be exempt from the scheme, those with lower support needs on jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) will not.
The announcement was accompanied by rhetoric from both ministers about the need to attack what they called the “something for nothing culture” and “welfare dependency”.
They announced two pilot schemes, one for those who have been through the two years of the coalition’s Work Programme and are still out of work, and the other for claimants thought likely to benefit from the “intensive regime” early in their JSA claim.
Many of those taking part in the two Help to Work pilots will have to attend their local jobcentre for 35 hours a week, for up to six months, to search for jobs under supervision. Others will have to carry out work in the community, or receive intensive support for problems such as drug addiction or illiteracy.
Failure to participate in the pilot schemes without a good reason will lead to a loss of benefits.
The two pilot programmes should be running from autumn 2014, and each of them are expected to have about 3,000 participants.
But disabled campaigners have already raised serious concerns about the plans.
Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK (DR UK), said she was “deeply concerned” that disabled people claiming JSA were likely to “get caught up in a pointless regime” of daily trips to the jobcentre and other mandatory activities.
She said: “We hear from disabled people who can’t see a disability employment advisor for months.
“Government should get the support right, not penalise individuals for the failures of the system.”
She said the proposal was also “unworkable” because there was no way that “over-stretched Jobcentre Plus staff will be able to see thousands of people daily”.
She added: “They should spend what time they have helping disabled people and employers to open up job opportunities, not on new activities that will just make things worse.
“This type of proposal may grab headlines – and please those who want to scapegoat benefit recipients – but the proposal is unworkable and unethical.”
Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said that Duncan Smith’s “cranky plans as usual will be totally unworkable”.
She said: “Reduced numbers of staff in job centres are already struggling to deal with their ever-increasing workloads so how he expects them to spend 35 hours a week with thousands of people in job searches I have no idea.
“This plan also ignores many practical issues – simple things such as how will unemployed people living on £71 a week actually be able to afford to travel to job centres five days a week, and where is the space in job centres for all these people to be accommodated?
“And what about rural areas where there is no or very little public transport? How are people there expected to get to the job centres?”
Nicola Smith, head of economic and social affairs for the TUC, said in a conference fringe event organised by Channel 4 that evidence showed that forcing people to carry out community work “isn’t actually seen as very credible” by potential employers.
Matthew Oakley, head of economics and social policy at Policy Exchange, told a fringe meeting organised by the social research agency NatCen that he believed a new survey that suggested disabled people should not be excluded from such “workfare” schemes if they had been found fit for work showed the public did not understand the issues.
The Policy Exchange poll found that 56 per cent of people supported the introduction of workfare for long-term unemployed people, compared with 12 per cent who did not.
It also found that only one in four people (25 per cent) thought those with “mental disabilities” who were capable of working should be excluded from workfare, and only 22 per cent thought people with “physical disabilities” should be excluded.
Oakley said: “I don’t think that is a good place for policy-makers to be going.”
3 October 2013