Labour’s big announcement on welfare today is the proposed introduction of new skills courses in English and maths for people at risk of long-term unemployment. The idea is that around 10% of new unemployed people (and even more who are long-term unemployed) have extremely poor basic numeracy and literacy skills. If the Government intervenes at an earlier stage, then unemployment will be brought down.
Putting aside debates about the conditionality of the policy (which will no doubt dominate many discussions within Labour today) would the scheme work? Or is it just a policy gimmick, designed to make Labour look supportive – but tough – towards the unemployed?
In general, there are two main question marks surrounding the potential success of the policy. The first is the extent to which poor basic skills are actually the main barrier towards re-employment. Steve Fothergill, an expert on welfare-to-work at Sheffield Hallam, argues that poor skills are only part of the problem when it comes to unemployment. There are other important barriers too: such as poor health amongst many unemployed people and, in particular, the weak – and in some instances non-existent – demand for labour in certain parts of the UK.
Raising the basic skills of some unemployed people is thus a good move; but it might be relatively ineffective if it is unaccompanied by other policies as well. This is why Labour’s job guarantee – a demand-boosting measure – is so important. But there should be other policies as well, designed to deal with the poor physical and mental health outcomes of many unemployed people.
The second question mark is implied by Rachel Reeves herself in her article for Labour List today. This is that unemployment is experienced by a far broader social demographic than those with low skills: such as managers, professionals, graduates and the high skilled. Reeves is right to say that the benefits system should do more to offer economic security to such groups – but what about offering more support to get back into work? Many people with long experience and high skills will find work anyway. But for others it will be more difficult to find a job. Basic skills courses for these people are irrelevant and there is nothing in the way of support proposed for them.
Poor basic skills are an undoubted barrier to work for many people – but they are not the only problem. The fact that in some areas there are just too few jobs to go around is a much bigger – and far more complex – barrier for governments to deal with. Many unemployed people also suffer from poor physical and mental health; and basic training courses offer nothing to those with higher skills.
Along with the job guarantee policy, this is a good start for Labour. But it must be accompanied by a wider range of measures to move people from welfare to work: ones that understand the reality of why people are unemployed.