Tories get nasty

Project Work "sorts out the wheat from the chaff" said Sir Michael Neubert MP to the NCVO/TEN conference on October 29th. The 300 strong audience took a sharp intake of breath and wondered if they had heard right. Sadly, they had.

In a surprisingly unscripted remark, Sir Michael summed up precisely the attitude of senior members of the Government and its supporters. As joint Chairman of the Conservative Party backbench committee on education and employment, this was no maverick’s opinion. Sir Michael spoke for the sentiment deep within his party and for the explicit re-election strategy of the Government.

This strategy has two planks.

Firstly the Government has decided to make the attack on ‘fraud’ one of its strongest themes. And, say some critics, Labour has quickly rowed in behind the Conservatives - also promising to crack down on fraud but to use the proceeds to boost spending on training and back-to-work measures.

At the Conservatives’ Party Conference, few speeches were complete without a reference to fraud. Now Peter Lilley has announced a bill which will penalise local authorities for not clearing up enough Housing Benefit defraud; and it will introduce ‘penalties’ against individual claimants which some Tory spin doctors have described as ‘on-the-spot fines’ for claimants accused of giving inaccurate or misleading information about their circumstances.

Meanwhile the Government wants to make it harder to appeal against mistaken assessments, incorrect decisions or being falsely accused of fraud. They want to hamstring the appeals system by having more cases decided on paper in the appellant’s absence, by reducing the scope and jurisdiction of appeals tribunals and to lessen the independence of those serving on them.

The second plank of the Government’s electoral plan is just as invidious. Now the whole apparatus of ‘help for the unemployed’ is being re-focused towards sanctioning the unemployed. Penalising the ‘workshy’ does two things - it brings the Claimant Count unemployment figures down nice and sharpish; and it proves that individuals are responsible for their own unemployment - they have the wrong attitude to work and why should the taxpayer subsidise them? Readers who doubt this analysis need only read some of the collected quotes of Eric Forth MP to realise this.

Now, Project Work has become a programme designed to "deter those whose claims are not genuine" (Gillian Shepherd’s words). When launched Project Work was supposed to "provide a wide range of help in looking for, and securing, work". Now, Ministers trumpet the fact that 20% more people have quit the register in the pilot areas than in ‘control’ areas. As Project Work has only got 8% of participants into jobs, the entry rate can hardly justify its nationwide extension.

So far, Project Work has the worst job entry figures for any Government initiative. This is no surprise. Compulsory schemes seem to worsen the chances of getting a job not improve them. As Iain Murray also reveals, the Government crudely censored their own commissioned research which showed that Job Plan Workshops only achieved a 9% job entry rate. Of a ‘control’ group of claimants who did not go through JPW, a startling 22% got back in to work. Plainly, this scheme did not help; it hindered. No surprise then, that unemployed people decline to go on these schemes.

By using the Employment Service in such a destructive way, the Government is engaged in a slash and burn strategy. They are driving the jobless off the dole; they are turning the ES into an agency that is brutally obsessed with denying people benefits;

If a new Government takes office next May, it will have a corrupt and discredited agency on its hands. It will not be equipped to run the core business of a public employment service - finding and filling vacancies for jobseekers across the board (the jobless as well as job changers). Sensible folk in TECs, the Careers Service as well as the Opposition parties know we must have a comprehensive careers and guidance service helping people make informed choice about work, education and training - irrespective of their age, work history or current status.

Project Work represents the latest chapter of Employment Service complicity in the Government’s political project. If the Government is defeated in the Spring, the Employment Service cannot have a future. And if it does, it could easily wreck a new Government’s ambitions.

Labour has big plans for tackling unemployment. As Stephen Byers, also speaking at the NCVO/TEN conference said, Government institutions work on the "assumption that people will fail" His pledge of "genuine employment and education opportunities...of jobs not schemes and wages not benefits" is promising and hugely encouraging. But Labour will have only one chance to get it right. And, the Employment Service has the wrong organisational culture to deliver for Labour.