The requirement to work looks imminent – why not locate it all in one place?

We are starting to get strong indications of the shape of the Coalition’s proposals on welfare. Today’s papers are trailing the core idea of requiring unemployed people to participate in 30-hours per week of unpaid manual work in the community for four week periods. It appears that if claimants decline to do so then they can expect to lose their benefit entitlement for up to three months. The aim is apparently to refamiliarise individuals who’ve been out of the labour market for a while with the routines and rhythms of work. It is likely to be prescribed for those who need “experience of the habits and routines of working life”. Of course we have to be cautious in jumping to conclusions before the formal policy announcement is made, but the suggestion that policy is moving in this direction – under the malign influence of US academics Mead and Murray – shouldn’t surprise anyone. Nor should it surprise anyone that something very similar was proposed by Labour in 2008 (as discussed here).

This policy is going to represent yet another challenge for the Liberal Democrats.

While the issues of personal responsibility and self-determination are clearly vital for liberals, the authoritarianism, coercion and stigmatisation inherent in these proposals are deeply problematic. Any suggestion that such an approach could be compatible with respecting human rights and promoting human dignity is utterly implausible.

Any argument that Labour were planning to do something similar to the approach the Conservatives are now peddling, and that that somehow that makes it ok, should be treated with deep suspicion. The course of action favoured by the other parties is entirely irrelevant to assessing whether a policy proposal is acceptable from a Liberal Democrat perspective. Two wrongs don’t make a right. It may be a cliché, but is seems highly relevant at the moment.

That shouldn’t be taken to mean that existing systems of support for working age adults who are out of the labour market are unproblematic. Or that they aren’t in need of reform. But we should be considering reform from a more compassionate position than the Tories will ever offer. And without the authoritarianism inherent in the approaches characteristic of both the other parties.

It would seem from comments made by Danny Alexander today that he is trying to do just that. He stated on the BBC that the purpose was “emphatically not to punish and it’s not to humiliate”, rather the aim is to “support and encourage”. But he’s shackled to such a right wing mob that his comments are going to have next to no credibility at the moment. If it turns out, for example, that people are not coerced into participation in such schemes by the threat of losing their benefit then perhaps such arguments would start to look more credible. If, in fact, they are not forced to work for nothing but instead are paid over and above their benefits – why not up to the equivalent of the minimum wage? – then perhaps it would shake off the suspicion that this isn’t just a “cheap” way of replacing work previously done by paid public and voluntary sector employees that has disappeared as a result of the public sector budget cuts.

Such vital details are likely to – indeed really should – be crucial to shaping the response to these proposals from the Lib Dems. But I’m not holding my breath that the proposals are going to be anything other than extremely unpalatable.

Lib Dem members of the Coalition may try to give the proposals a more positive reading. But most people will assume the changes are punitive. Some will think that is a good thing, some will think it is awful. Few will see it as in any way supportive of those outside of the labour market. Until the Coalition addresses in a plausible fashion the criticism that there are currently five people out of work for every one job vacancy (and that ratio is presumably about to deteriorate), then all claims that this initiative is not punitive will sound hollow.

The New Victorians in the Coalition seem determined to dismantle many of the key institutions of the welfare state as fast as they can. They seem intent on winding the clock back to a harsher, darker age when it was every man, woman and child for themselves. Of course, as people of significant independent means they are personally rather well placed to survive, indeed thrive, in such a society.

We would appear to be revisiting the notion of forced labour as the price for the rather meagre assistance on offer from the state. But it seems to me the government is missing a trick. Providing assistance to people who are living all around the place is surely an inefficient way to organise things. Wouldn’t it be better if we brought them all together? In some form of institutional setting? Then we can efficiently supervise the indigent to ensure they are exerting themselves adequately in return for the largesse of those hard-pressed middle income taxpayers. That makes a lot of sense in these times of austerity. And there seems no particular reason why such supervision need be carried out by the public sector. Then perhaps the New Victorians’ vision will be complete. We will truly be back in the world of indoor relief and the Workhouse.

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