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Dubious benefit of compulsory work

04 October 2013

IDLENESS is no friend, and so the Government's new Help to Work scheme, announced by the Chancellor, George Osborne, at the weekend, is, on the face of it, welcome. The workshy number far fewer than the typical Conservative-Party conference-goer believes, and many will be glad to be more active. Implicit in Mr Osborne's announcement, however, is the unlikelihood of there being any more full-time, paid work as a result of this new scheme. A string of programmes and incentives already exists to move people from benefit and back into paid work. Despite various retraining programmes, only about 15 per cent of those who have been unemployed for more than two years have found and held jobs for six months or longer. The new Help to Work scheme, extending the period of mandatory work from four weeks to six months, might encourage good habits, but, without serious training and an economy that supports employment, the placements will be seen as pointless by many.

There is already disquiet about the blanket, compulsory nature of the new scheme, but whether church groups should participate by offering placements will depend on circumstance rather than ideology. Sir Stephen Bubb, head of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, said: "It is typical of governments, not just this one, to think there is no cost to expanding volunteering. Charities need to manage, supervise, and train volunteers, and that is not cheap." No church scheme would be satisfied with merely managing the doing of tasks - "making meals for the elderly, clearing up litter, working for a local charity" were the examples given by Mr Osborne. A Christian charity would wish to attend to the pastoral, social, and spiritual needs of the participants, and they would be placed in a quandary if, when the new scheme is rolled out, its character militates against the well-being of those taking part. For, although the Government's rhetoric is about helping - "No one will be ignored or left without help," Mr Osborne said - the compulsion, the sanctions, and uncertainties about the scheme's implementation by overstretched Job Centre staff will all give church charities pause.

A key aspect of employment relates to meaning and identity. Work is successful and fulfilling if it suits the training and aptitude of the worker, if it is conducted in friendly surroundings, and if it brings rewards, both immaterial - the knowledge of a valued job well done - and material. The lack of any financial incentive for people to work harder, which has long been a concern of people like the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, is a serious flaw in this latest plan. Sticks are no substitute for carrots.

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