• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Demonising the workless makes our society poorer

They were two small examples of man's humanity to man.

The first I came across in a magazine. The story involved a London restaurant which is training the homeless as chefs. The illustration beside it showed two happy men with bright futures opening unexpectedly before them. And alongside their phoenix-like rise we could read what had led them to sleeping in doorways.

One was an African war refugee whose home was destroyed and whose family was scattered. He arrived here penniless and traumatised. Now he has been reunited with his wife; he has a home and a job.

The second was a former professional fallen on hard times. They illustrate the fact that there is no such thing as "the homeless" or "the long-term unemployed". They are just individuals, each with their own history of decline and fall.

For these two that is now the past.

Then yesterday, on Radio 4's Woman's Hour, I listened to the story of hedge fund manager turned chutney and jam maker, Jenny Dawson. Her company, Rubies in the Rubble, is located "a plum stone's throw" from Spitalfield market. She uses its ripe fruit which otherwise would be destined for landfill. She employs vulnerable local women. Their product is good enough to sell in Fortnum & Mason and in Waitrose. It's win, win.

Jenny is 27. Her initiative is inspiring and life-enhancing. She exhibits the sort of imagination we look for in our leaders, the sort of thinking that would have us rushing to the polls. Instead we get hectored about hard-working people versus those who want something for nothing.

As if life were so black and white. Mostly it's about people doing the best they can in the circumstances they find themselves. Sometimes, for any number of reasons, those circumstances can be difficult to overcome. Yesterday George Osborne outlined his Help to Work scheme. It concerns the 200,000 of our 60m population who in April 2014 will have been out of work for at least two years. (Most will have been unemployed for three years.)

These unfortunates will have three choices. The illiterate and addicted will be put on to courses or into therapy. Of the rest some will be put to work clearing litter, removing graffiti or cooking for the elderly. The rest will be required to sign in at the JobCentre every day, where they will complete applications.

It is a popular move with taxpayers. They appear to have bought into the notion that welfare claimants are getting it too easy. Some think too many of them are foreign.

Hard times harden attitudes. Just look at Greece. Look at the swing to Ukip in England. It's tempting to think the Tories are looking over their shoulder and appeasing their right wing. I don't think so. I think David Cameron and George Osborne have always had this societal view.

And what is wrong with it?

After all, I am applauding back-to-work schemes instigated by individuals. Few can doubt the value of having paid work. It keeps us solvent and is integral to our self-esteem. We wake brighter and walk taller for knowing that we have a contribution to make. We are social beings, so we flourish in joint enterprises which have a shared product. What's more, it's good for the country. With more of us in work, tax receipts will be higher and the deficit lower.

I should be on side with this initiative of Mr Osborne's. So why do I chill at the mention of the policy?

In the words of Frank Carson, it's the way they tell it.

The Tories have dissected the population into two very unequal portions: hard-working people versus those who want something for nothing. It plays to the dark side of our natures. It brings out the bully. It gives people a sense of satisfaction to feel slightly superior, to have someone to kick at. As Eliza Doolittle's father said in Shaw's Pygmalion: "I'm one of the undeserving poor….up agen [sic] middle-class morality all the time… What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything."

How right Shaw was. We dislike those to whom we feel we ought to give. It soothes our meanness to think they are ill-deserving. It helps us shake them from our collective shoe.

Instead of dwelling on the lousy education system that allowed large sections of the workforce to leave school illiterate, we label the victim workshy. If we know people are addicts, why wait until they have been unemployed for two years to treat them?

Having to spend every day in a JobCentre writing applications will weed out those working in the black economy, as Mr Osborne hopes. Won't it also penalise those who live in rural communities - long distances from the centre? Will travel expenses be covered?

Remember, one infringement of the new rules and benefits are stopped for two weeks. Two infringements and they aren't paid for three months. We are then into the realms of food parcels and evictions. But this is a popular policy which is costing £300m to bring into effect.

Just think how many enterprises like Jenny Dawson's chutney and jam making might spring from such a sum.

Instead we prefer to think of the feckless, of the abusers of welfare.

They do exist and it's good that they will be rooted out. But they didn't land us in this financial mess and depriving them of their ill-gotten benefits won't get us out of it.

But maligning the unemployed will distract us. It will give us a common enemy, someone to hate while we adjust to our new stringencies.

I have just read Making It Happen, Iain Martin's excellent deconstruction of the fall of RBS and the "men who blew up the economy".

He notes that in 2012 our national debt had risen above £1trillion, heading for £1.5trillion.

It got me thinking about the undeserving rich. Fred Goodwin was made a pariah, also a scapegoat. Martin lists plenty of others who strolled unpunished from the wreckage to continuing careers in finance or to spend time with their multi-million bonuses.

Mr Osborne says that Labour left five million people on out-of-work benefits. It was, he says, "a waste of life and talent".

He's right. Idleness is a waste of both. And yet, with Jobseeker's Allowance accounting for around 3% of the welfare budget, is spending £300m on implementing this scheme the best use of scarce resources? And is demonisation the healthiest way to approach those hardest to re-employ?

On moral grounds I find it repugnant; on practical grounds too. It follows the seeming failure of the Government's own Work Programme. It can boast only 14.7% in work for six months and around 25% for three months.

Labour would replace the Coalition's policy with subsidies for employers who give the long-term unemployed part-time work for the minimum wage.

It might not be better but it would be kinder - and when we can't afford kindness we will be destitute indeed.

Contextual targeting label: 
Careers and Jobs

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

185257