Labour and welfare – Merely direction of travel so far

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So, after 3 months in the job, today, Rachel Reeves made her first major speech on our social security system. If you live your life with a long term illness or disability, living in terror at the coalition’s brutal changes to benefits and support, this is not the speech to find out how – or indeed if – that fear will continue under a Labour government.

There is no mention of illness or disability at all apart from this:

“Now it’s important to say at the outset that there will always be people who cannot do paid work, because of illness or disability.

And it is part of our responsibility to them to make their rights a reality: rights to dignity and respect, to a decent standard of living, and to the resources and support that can empower them to contribute and participate equally and fully in society.”

Welcome words, hard won by campaigners before the reshuffle, but I imagine many will conclude that the time for reassuring words is fast running out. We need concrete alternatives to the chaos unfolding, chaos that affects every aspect of our lives at the moment.

Most of what we are told today has already been well trailed. It’s worth noting that those naughty little trouble makers at the Sun and the Telegraph were 100% wrong – as usual. There are no plans to remove benefits from the under 25s other than the compulsory work guarantee that promises at least 25 hours of work at the minimum wage after 2 years of unemployment (1 year for young people.) Whilst I imagine the debate will rage over sanctions, for me, a paid job is not workfare. Most people who find themselves out of work want a job more than anything else. If Labour can guarantee one, it seems reasonable to me that people should be expected to take it – within reason of course.

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And it’s reason we all understandably question. Sanctions are currently used as cruel punishment, often unfathomable and unfair. At the moment, there is no reason at all in the system and few yet believe Labour will run our social security system with more sense and less judgement than the coalition.

Labour’s support for the Benefit cap and an overall cap on social security spending has already been out there for yonks. We might conclude they are unworkable policies based on ideology rather than need, but it seems they are here to stay.

The speech announces that jobseekers who don’t reach minimum standards in maths and English will be required to take training or lose benefits. So some more information on sanctions and the attitudes of a potential Labour government towards them:

“So today I am announcing another important plank of our plan to address this problem: a new requirement for jobseekers to take training if they do not meet basic standards of maths, English and IT – training they will be required to take up alongside their jobsearch, or lose their benefits.”

But finally, and for me, most controversially, Reeves suggest that Labour will “reward work”:

“by ensuring that the contributions people make are properly recognised in the social security system.”

This is a thorny issue. There is certainly merit in looking to see whether those who lose their jobs might temporarily (Reeves mentions 6 weeks) receive a higher rate of benefit to cover that initial period of devastation. Most people do find new work quite quickly, yet are shocked when they learn just how little they get back for, often a lifetime of contributions.

So, for the easiest cases and those closest to a return to the job market, this policy has potential. But as campaigners have always argued, if this contributory reinforcement is made across our social security system, where does it leave those who can never work? Or parents who must take time out to raise children? Or Carers?

So whilst I tentatively welcome a short term boost to unemployment benefits, I hope Labour are looking very carefully at those unable to meet such a “responsibility”.

“The IPPR have today announced that they will be looking at options and costings for increasing the initial rate of Jobseeker’s Allowance paid to those who have built up a sufficient record of contribution.

If this can be done in a cost neutral way by extending the period people need to be working and paying national insurance to qualify for contributory JSA it would be a very valuable step forward.

For example, a higher rate of Jobseeker’s Allowance paid for the first six weeks of unemployment to those who have lost their jobs after perhaps four or five years in work could be a big help in cushioning the immediate financial impact of redundancy and give them a better chance of getting back into work and back on their feet sooner.

And it would be a powerful way of restoring that understanding of collective insurance against unemployment that was such an important impulse behind Beveridge’s original plan but which today has been all but lost from sight.”

There are undefined commitments to improve the Work Programme

“Under this government we’ve seen a billion pounds paid out to contractors on a scheme that has seen more people return to the Jobcentre than find a job. A Labour government will not be renewing those contracts in 2015-16.

In place of the top-down, bigger-is-better model imposed by this government, our replacement will be jointly commissioned by central and local government, so it can be better integrated with local economic strategies more closely connected to local businesses, and make better use of innovative charities and social enterprises.

You’ll be hearing more from me and the rest of Labour’s Work and Pensions team about this, and the better targeted support we need for key groups such as single parents and disabled people over the months to come.”

Within the Spartacus network, we’ve recently completed a far reaching study into the Work Programme, ESA and the future of work for people which we’ll be releasing soon. We too recommend that:

“As in so many areas, it is early, preventative intervention that is the best way of making savings over the long term.”

And few Labour supporters will be sorry to hear that:

“A Labour government will mean new rules to prevent the abuse of zero hours contracts, and the closure of legal loopholes that allow migrant workers to be exploited and used to undercut all workers’ wages and working conditions.

We are developing plans to improve the help that the system gives to older workers who lose their jobs.”

However, on the whole, this speech merely sets out a direction of travel. Perhaps as it took so long to decide what that direction would be, it’s understandable that today, we still see little detail. The speech seems to walk a strange tightrope between genuine solutions and Daily Mail sound-bites. Perhaps that was just the line the shadow work and pensions team hoped to tread.

We have 16 months left until a general election. I fear this speech will do little to reassure those who want to hear real details from Labour on social security and little to convince the general public that Labour will be “tough”. Trying to be all things to all people runs a real risk of ending up meaning nothing to no-one.

However, those with endless patience might decide to wait to hear more. How long they will wait is hard to tell.

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