LONG-TERM unemployment, much more than the "bedroom tax", deserves to be a central issue in the 2015 General Election campaign.
During the heady days when boom and bust were "abolished" - just before the banks went bust, of course, plunging Britain into recession and painfully slow recovery - the number claiming Jobseeker's Allowance for more than two years fell from 345,000 to 40,000. Since 2009 it has growth rapidly, topping 200,000 in the most recent Government figures. Headline figures for long-term unemployment, including those not on benefits, show the same pattern. The latest total for those out of work for more than two years is 469,000, up 27,000 in a year. Those jobless for ayear or more now make up one- third of Britain's 2.49m unemployed people.
No doubt with one eye on the 2015 General Election (and perhaps with the other on his own recovery-revived leadership ambitions), Chancellor George Osborne yesterday prescribed his medicine. Those who fail to find a job after two years on the existing Work Programme will move onto a new scheme, Help to Work. On pain of losing benefits they will either have to undertake compulsory community work, such as litter-picking; reporting daily to the Jobcentre, or receiving help with literacy or other issues. "Fair for those who need it and fair for those who pay for it," Mr Osborne told the Tory faithful in Manchester who, we can be confident, will have warmed to the get- tough message of ending the "something-for-nothing" benefits culture.
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Yet what is really striking about the Chancellor's linctus is how familiar it tastes. Benefits claimants can already be placed on the Mandatory Work Activity Scheme if and when their JobCentre Plus decrees it, with the threat of losing cash if they refuse a period of work experience. The Work Programme, which awaits almost all those out of a job for more than a year, also threatens to dock or stop benefits.
The very principle of conditionality is unacceptable to agencies working on the frontline. Citizen's Advice Scotland said Help-to-Work would "pile even more pressure on the most vulnerable," while the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations accused the Chancellor of "punishing people for something over which they have little control". Such complaints will strike a chord with many. But even those who agree with the principle that the long-term unemployed should work for their benefits might pause to consider how effective the new scheme will be, given the Government's past record. Since it was launched in June 2011, 1.3m people have started on the Work Programme. Of those, 168,000 have gone into jobs for long enough - a fairly modest three months or six months, depending on their circumstances - to trigger "outcome" payments to the private sector agencies delivering the scheme. Even discounting those who only began the programme recently, the Government's claimed success rate of 15% leaves much to be desired. On that evidence, at least, it is difficult to see how Help to Work will help or, indeed, work.