The areas for 12 pilots testing the Single Work Focused Gateway are now gearing-up. The first 4 start on June 28th; eight more start in November whilst the legislation necessary to extend this approach nationwide will be published in mid February.
Its principle feature is to provide claimants with a simpler, seamless service, integrating the activities carried out by the Employment Service, the Benefits Agency and by local authorities' Housing Benefits administration. It is intended to build on the principles pioneered in the New Deal and provide the guidance needed for employment, training or rehabilitation.
In the pilot areas, an initial interview will be offered to all new claimants followed by continuing help on a voluntary basis to all claimants other than those for whom JSA is the right benefit. Over ó of all these claimants are likely to opt for JSA because they are unemployed and want work. They will still have to meet the JSA labour market conditions and take particular courses of action to remain eligible for benefit.
Other new benefit claimants - like those who want Income Support as a lone parent or want to claim Incapacity Benefit - will be offered help in looking for work. Ministers have repeatedly stressed the message that there "is no question of forcing lone parents and disabled people into work".
The Government is not absolutely sure what the precise design for the Gateway should eventually be. So the pilots will be trying different types of approach - not least by setting up 4 areas testing "call centres" and 4 pilots which will probably be delivered by private or voluntary sector organisations.
But one thing is beyond doubt. This is the future shape of social security for a long time to come.
Whilst many policy insiders talk about the Single Gateway being a "second Parliament project", it will certainly be implemented before the next election.
Is it good or bad then?
Over many years the benefits system itself has contributed to the growth of economic inactivity and long term detachment from the labour market. The Tories cynically encouraged the wholesale transfer of hundreds of thousands of claimants - mainly older men - off mainstream unemployment benefits and onto disability related benefits. Many of these claimants did indeed have work related medical conditions which limited their ability to work.
There were some incentives for claimants too. Incapacity Benefit pays more cash - on the long term rate. And it removes the hassle of Jobcentre staff armtwisting claimants into often unsuitable or badly paid jobs.
As a result, the number claiming incapacity or disability benefits has risen to just over 2ó million people despite significant improvements in the general health of the working age population. Whilst many recipients of these benefits have serious disabilities which prevent them from work, others do not.
Yet the benefit system treats them all the same. It assumes they do not want to work. This is wrong. The Labour Force Survey reveals that almost ó million people who are sick or disabled - and are only semi-active in looking for jobs - want to work and are ready to start a job. Yet only about 150,000 a year get into work.
During the 80s and early 90s it looked like the Tories were simply trying to "massage" the jobless statistics by switching claimants from one benefit to another. But the long term consequences have now become clearer. Many parts of Britain have relatively low unemployment rates yet have perhaps 30% of working age men not in work. This has pushed up the number of workless households. And it has contributed to many communities becoming isolated from economic and employment centres, or suffering the wide-ranging social problems associated with many inner urban areas.
It is far better to help them find work - and encourage employers to recruit - than to keep them stuck on the poverty line of benefits. Economic independence is better served by helping people get jobs that move them out of benefit-level poverty.
However, this is an approach that many in the lobby-group sector feel uneasy about. Why? Because there is still an orthodoxy which was born out of the difficult Tory years when defending the welfare state status quo seemed like the only practical strategy.
This was reinforced last year when Ministerial mishandling caused a deep mood of distrust about the future of benefits - one that prompted disabled campaigners to chain themselves to the Downing Street railings. That mood still persists and the Government will have to combat the perception that they want to force the disabled and lone parents to take work instead of benefits.
Reforming the benefit system itself is not enough. To be worth the name, a "strategy" has to include other essential elements: imposing minimum standards in the labour market so that work is better paid and more secure; promoting jobs growth so that good vacancies exist for the marginalised groups that all these labour market "activation" measures are designed for; and encouraging training - particularly at the bottom end of the labour market so that people with precarious work history or poor skills stay in work after the "re-entry" jobs that the Government's programmes help them into.