unemployment: a view from the front line

by Christine Hulme, PCS activist in the Department for Work and Pensions

For the first time in their working lives many people are beginning to experience the reality of unemployment in 2009 Britain. This will be a massive shock for those who have not had to claim benefits before. It will be the shock of the complexity and inaccessibility of the benefit system, the low rates of benefits, or the lack of jobs and training opportunities available to find other types of work. This is the reality of the reformed welfare state. But for many more, particularly those in insecure jobs, and who have been in and out of work over the last few years, the current recession, means it will be harder than ever, not just to get a job, but to find a job which is permanent, relatively secure and pays above the minimum wage.

Despite the current economic climate, New Labour continues with its’ plans for welfare ‘reform’ and expansion of the private sector in the delivery of ‘programmes’ designed to help the unemployed return to work. The government’s flagship New Deal programme, set up in the early years of this government to assist the ‘hardest to help’ get back to work is being repackaged and renamed as the Flexible New Deal. With the repackaging comes a massive business opportunity for the private and voluntary sector to secure lucrative 5 year contracts to deliver programmes for the jobless. The DWP already pays over £1billion a year to private and voluntary sector organisations to deliver these programmes, but with over 35000 job cuts during the past four years, and more than 200 office closures, there is no longer he capacity to deliver the work in house. Even though ministers admit there is very little difference in the performance of the private sector compared to the public sector in getting people back to work.

And the privatisation agenda does not just stop with programmes for the unemployed. In December the government announced its intention to privatise the delivery of the Social Fund. They want to take the responsibility for emergency payments to the very poor away from the state and hand this to Credit Unions and other financial institutions that would also ‘assist’ the poor and the desperate to mange their finances more responsibly. Perhaps the Labour leadership could explain how people receiving £60.50 a week on benefits, (less if they are under 25 years old); manage to be financially more responsible.

But these reforms will also add to the growing army of reserve labour by requiring lone parents whose youngest child is 7 and those signed off as unfit for work by their G.P.s to be expected to find work, or minimally, ensure that they ‘become closer to the labour market.’ And for those who are deemed to have been unemployed for too long, they will have to work for their benefits. Additionally, if the latest reserve army don’t comply with the reforms, they face benefit sanctions.

As the recession deepens and with some predicting that the claimant count could reach 3million, the New Labour mantra of work for those who can, and help for those who cannot is looking utterly stupid. We know there is not enough work for ‘those who can’ even before the economic slow down. Whilst the government were, and still are, quick to point out the number of job vacancies in the labour market, there never was or is, a clear picture of where the jobs are, the skills required or importantly the rates of pay. Despite the introduction of the minimum wage and in work benefits in the form of tax credits, many people who have returned to work in the last 10 years entered jobs that are low paid, insecure and temporary. For those who are single and without children, many were earning not much more than they did on benefits. The opening of shopping malls, coffee shops and call centres has certainly assisted in reducing the claimant count in many urban areas up until the credit crunch. But as we see daily on the news, retail and the service sector is shedding jobs by the thousands as sectors reliant upon consumer spending supported by massive personal debt start to crumble.

So why is New Labour continuing with these reforms in the current economic climate? Put simply they are ideologically wedded to them. They have no other vision than to spend billions propping up the banks, yet shy away from investing in infrastructure projects that will benefit people and create sustainable skilled employment. They would rather have the DWP policing the unemployed than properly helping them.

The DWP job cuts and office closure programme is being exposed as a shambles Even at this early stage in the recession new staff are being recruited in job centres, (in areas of the country where they still exist) and into benefit centres that process benefit claims. Many offices are working permanent overtime on Saturday and Sunday to cope with the influx of people losing their jobs. Management are even trying to rope in private sector call centres to handle the growing number of calls\as the in house centres are not able to handle the volumes. It is planned to bring in new staff, to work on twilight shifts as regular staff finish work. In addition to this the management are increasingly using ‘lean working techniques’ as a means of increasing productivity regardless of the impact on the quality of service and advice to claimants. So much for the department’s efficiency savings ordered by Gordon Brown when he was at the treasury and the short sightedness of  government and the senior civil service, who collectively believed there would never be another recession, and used this belief to justify the cuts.

Unfortunately in the face of this meltdown, the response from PCS has been worryingly slow and more worryingly quiet. Whilst there has been some break through in stopping some of the Jobcentre closures. This has been as a result of local campaigning rather than an effective national strategy. Indeed the entire labour movement seems to be in a state of paralysis in the face of the onslaught against the welfare state on the one hand and the crisis in the economy on the other.

There are some immediate issues that we need to campaign around starting with a halt to blaming the unemployed for unemployment rather than the capitalist system, an increase in benefit rates and state pensions. No to workfare. The building of an effective claimants movement, money for proper skills training for all those out of work regardless of benefit ‘status’ or length of unemployment. Job creation, in sectors desperate for government investment such as social housing and transport. A properly staffed and accessible welfare state service based on need, rather than an increasing selection of private companies who are in it for profit. Clearly this is not a full solution to the crisis; but we need to begin somewhere.

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