Job Seeker’s Disallowance

In 1834, the Whig government passed the Poor Law Amendment Act, later known as the New Poor Law. This act codified and networked existing workhouses across the UK, where the unemployed would receive subsistence and accommodation in exchange for menial labour. However, in order to prevent the option from becoming too attractive, life in the workhouse was designed to be as unpleasant and degrading as possible: families were split up, with separate areas for men, women and children respectively; prison-like uniforms were enforced; the diet was barely sufficient. And, if the rules were not adhered to, the owners of the workhouse had the power to impose sanctions on the inmates, such as ration-cuts or isolation.

The writings of novelists and social critics like Charles Dickens reveal the horror and degradation of life on the inside, the most famous scene from Oliver Twist being a prime example. And, as a result, many were driven to crime or begging in order to avoid such a fate. After World War II, and many reports of inhumane living conditions in these workhouses, the welfare state was established via a series of acts, like the 1946 National Insurance Act, and the workhouse system became obsolete and was officially abolished in 1948.

In 2010, Iain Duncan Smith, supported by David Cameron, has announced proposals to end the provision of Job Seeker’s Allowance to those who do not take up community work offered by the government. The work is expected to include basic, community-focused tasks like picking up litter, gardening and charity work. The work itself will be unpaid but if those offered do not take up the work they face having their Job Seeker’s Allowance taken away. Refusing work once will result in Job Seeker’s Allowance being withdrawn for three months, twice will be six months and for three years if they refuse three times.

The irony here is that from the 17th-19th century, the poor were paid for their work in the workhouse. In 2010, they are not. What Iain Duncan Smith is proposing is not an incentive to work but a disincentive not to work. Aside from the sheer humiliation that this measure brings on those concerned, treating them like criminals, the way in which it regards them as ‘scrounging’ and ‘workshy’ is regressive, returning us to the language of the 19th century and the view that the less well-off are somehow less moral. In truth, unemployment is unavoidable at the moment for a huge part of the population. The Office for National Statistics published statistics on the 13th October that showed that while unemployment (those out of work and full-time education between the ages of 16 and 64) stands at 2.45 million, the amount of available vacancies in the country was 459,000 which fell over the last quarter by 30,000.

The government must be aware of this fact, so the question becomes: ‘What are the Tories trying to achieve with this new legislation?’ If there are no jobs for these people to go into then there must be some kind of ulterior motive. The official line is that this community service is meant to ease the transition back into the world of work for those left unemployed and to give them back transferrable skills. I can sympathise with these aims but if this is the case why not offer free training or unpaid placements and internships designed to teach new skills rather than unpaid, menial tasks.

A number of underlying motives have been suggested here: One is that the government’s spending cuts and 490,000 redundancies passed onto local institutions threaten to fall on jobs like litter-picking and gardening. In this case, a cynic would observe that this new legislation serves to create a pool of effectively ‘free’ labour for local authorities to perform these jobs with.

However, a much more realistic, and I would argue sinister, motivation becomes clear when we look away from tackling benefit fraud to the other end of the scale and corporate tax avoidance and evasion. The amount of money lost to benefit fraud has been stated at around £5 billion. But recently, research published by Tax Research LLP has estimated the cost of corporate tax avoidance, evasion and outstanding debts to the treasury amount to £120 billion.
In response to information like this, which suggests that much more lost revenue could be recovered from the pursuit of corporate tax evasion as opposed to benefit fraud, you would expect to see pressure being placed on corporations by HMRC and on them by the government. In fact, there seems to be a move towards relaxation of the checks on corporate taxation. The department’s budget has fallen consistently since 2006, from £3.6 billion down to £1.9 billion today. In addition, George Osbourne has pledged to reduce corporation tax to 24%, the lowest rate of any major European country.

What this demonstrates is not only an inability to pursue lost revenue but a general nonchalance on the government’s part in the whole matter; they are happy to let corporate sleight of hand slide.


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