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Welfare reforms must be fair to all

Where are George Osborne's infamous shirkers; the skivers who, according to the Chancellor, lie in bed with the blinds closed while the strivers go to work?

You certainly will not find them in the latest report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on poverty in the UK. In fact, what this unsettling document confirms is a completely different narrative – the story not of shirkers, but of strivers who are prepared to and want to work, but cannot; Scots who are caught in the quicksand of poverty but are at risk of being pushed further in by the Government's welfare reforms.

These strivers divide into two groups. The first is the young, who, it is clear, are suffering some of the worst effects of the country's economic problems. The number of under-25s out of work has doubled in five years. What is even worse is that, while unemployment among other groups has settled since 2008, the rate among the young has continued to rise.

There are a number of reasons for this including the crisis in retail, which employs a disproportionate number of young people. An increasing number of young people are also going straight from school to unemployment, a situation exacerbated by the drop in funding for further education colleges in Scotland. The greatest danger is that thousands of young people will increasingly go from education straight into the jaws of poverty and joblessness, and never escape.

The second group highlighted by the Rowntree report is the underemployed – often low-paid working people who cannot find full-time work and have to make do with part-time hours. This has been a significant economic trend for some time now, but Rowntree confirms it with figures showing the number of Scots in full-time work fell by 120,000 between 2008 and 2012 while the number working part time who want to work full time rose in the same period from 70,000 to 120,000.

In many ways, this trend is entirely understandable – one way for employers to ride out hard times is to save money by asking their staff to work fewer hours and there will certainly be staff who would rather go part time than lose their jobs. But the problem for such staff is that their incomes suddenly go down at a time of rising costs. These workers also will not show up on the unemployment statistics – which, on the face of it, look much healthier than countries such as Spain – but the difficulties are just as stark. They are the poor-in-work, hidden from view by a focus on the out of work.

So, how should we help these two groups? Guaranteed training-in-work places and apprenticeships are positive for the young, although the Scottish Government must look again at the downward push in further education funding. Employability schemes and training must also be focused as much as possible on those who need it most.

However, until the economy recovers, the biggest single contribution the Government can make is to ensure their welfare reforms do not make the situation worse by cutting benefits for vulnerable people who want to work, including in-work benefits for part-time workers. It doesn't help that the strategy is fuelled by draconian rhetoric, most recently from the work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who said this weekend that cheats had been given a green light to pick the pockets of hard-working taxpayers. The truth is that the changes to welfare will make life worse not just for Mr Osborne's shirkers but for the strivers too.

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Education

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