Compulsory Reprogramming: The Job Seekers Remould
The co-signatories of the new Job Seekers Bill, presently making its way through the parliamentary process and heading rapidly towards statute, are Peter Lilley and Michael Portillo. Small wonder then that the new Job Seekers Allowance is destined to be a vicious piece of work. Andy Johnson forewarns of what’s in store...
Squall 10, Summer 1995, pp. 10-11.
There are times when satire becomes reality. There are times when it is possible to be suckered by a political hustle of such stupendous cunning that the initial response is to shake the head and emit a low, long, whistle. Until the reality that you’ve been well and truly satirised turns the whistling note flat. Try this:
In October 1996 the Job Seekers’ Allowance (JSA) will replace unemployment benefit and income support for the unemployed.
In its place will be a contractual agreement signed by the so-called Job Seeker enforcing a responsibility to find work of any nature and any pay.
The new JSA will be suspended for two weeks if the claimant refuses or fails to carry out a “direction” given by the employment adviser with whom they have entered into a contract.
JSA will be suspended for four weeks if the offence is repeated.
There are, as yet, no concrete guidelines as to what this contractually obliged “direction” might entail. It could, in effect, be anything. However, there are a few alarming clues.
The Government’s consultation paper on the JSB (Job Seekers Bill) states: “The benefit rules will be changed to enable benefit to be stopped where the unemployed person’s behaviour is such that it actively militates against them finding work.
“Advisers (will be able to) direct job seekers to improve their employability through, for example, attending a course to improve their job seeking skills or motivations, or taking steps to present themselves acceptably to employers.”
How this will work is anyone’s guess. But, theoretically, it gives one individual the power to tell another to look more feminine or to get a hair cut, take earrings out or put on a suit.
When the Bill was discussed during a House of Lords committee in April it was described by the Liberal Democrat peer, Earl Russell, as “the most arbitrary power I have ever seen conferred in English law. It gives one person total control over the life of another. It gives them the power to direct those people to do all sorts of different things, most of which have probably not yet been imagined, on pain of total loss of benefit. In fact, it becomes remarkably close to forced labour”.1
For the first two weeks of suspension there will be no one-off hardship payment unless you have children or care for an elderly or disabled person.
Hardship payments may be paid for someone with a four week suspension. It is not yet clear whether they will have to endure a month without income before they can apply.
Under the JSA, the claimant will have to complete a back to work plan in the same way as now. Except, as the JSA enforces a binding contractual agreement, the powers of direction will be specific to each individual.
These powers will apply immediately to those already claiming unemployment benefits and income support, not just new claimants.
The Bill does include a “without good cause” exception for failure to carry out a direction. But ethical objections are almost certainly unlikely to be considered good cause. Neither is personal unsuitability to the job offered. The level of pay will definitely not be considered good cause.
When Earl Russell spoke of “forced labour” it was not political posturing. Clause 16 of the Bill deals with denial of benefit. It makes it clear that refusal to take a job, or apply for one, on account of low wages does not constitute good cause: “When determining good or just cause any matter relating to remuneration shall be disregarded.”
....theoretically it gives one individual the power to tell another to look more feminine or to get a hair cut, take their earings out or put on a suit.
There is no minimum wage in this country. One million people earn less than £2.50 an hour. Three hundred thousand people earn less than £1.50 an hour. A study in Manchester last year showed that half of all jobs advertised in local job centres paid less than £100 per week. A third of those paid less than £57 per week.2
Refusing to take a job of such a low wage will lead to the suspension of benefit under the JSA.
Accounting for work-related expenses, such as travel and improving one’s appearance, it is possible that a person may be forced off benefit to take a job which leaves them with less weekly income than on benefit.
Asked if this was the case during the House of Lords committee stage the Government minister, Lord Inglewood, replied: “I am not going to give a straight answer to that.”3
The exception to this rule is the first 13 weeks of a new claim, when a person is allowed grace to look for then- usual work at their usual rates of pay.
It gets worse.
The present 26 week benefit suspension for leaving work voluntarily, being sacked or refusing to take a job offered through the employment service remains. But at the moment, hardship payments in such cases are paid automatically through income support. Effectively, income support is paid at a reduced rate - usually 20 or 40 per cent less.
Under the JSA automatic hardship payments in these cases will stop.
Again, unless you care for a child or an elderly or disabled person, you will not be able to claim a hardship payment for the first two weeks of suspension.
Estimates of those who will not receive hardship payments under the JSA are not available. A report in the Observer (1/1/95) quoted the DSS as saying most people in this category would receive reduced JSA after the first two weeks.
However, claims for hardship payments under the JSA will be based on the current system for claiming hardship payments. Under this system, in 1993/94, more than half of those who applied were refused payments - 145,000 people.4 There are serious concerns that many applicants will find themselves without an income for 26 weeks.
There will be two types of JSA. These will be structured along the same lines as the current arrangement with income support and unemployment benefit.
Those who have paid enough National Insurance will receive a “contributory” based benefit. Except this will last for six months rather than one year it is at present.
Those who have not paid National Insurance will receive a means tested, or “income based”, benefit.
JSA will not be paid to someone if a member of their family with whom they live is in receipt of JSA or has savings of over £3,000.
Concerns have been raised that this will cause tension in families where young people over the age of 18 still live at home but cannot obtain an independent income. These rules could force the break up of families because younger members will leave home in order to qualify for benefit. This comes from a government which promotes the family. Such an outcome will also push up the social security bill, which the JSA is supposed to cut, because those who leave home will consequently seek housing benefit.
Many practices of the current system are extended through the JSA. The presumption that 16 and 17 year olds have a guaranteed training place and so do not qualify for any benefit remains. (Although hardship payments will be made in special circumstances under the JSA). Also, there are currently provisions to suspend benefit by between 20 and 40 per cent for those who fail to complete mandatory training courses. Under the JSA, benefit will be suspended for two weeks in such an event. Four weeks for a second offence.
At the same time as the JSA consultation paper was introduced in November '94, a host of new back to work schemes were announced in the budget. These were due to begin in April 1996 - the original start date of the JSA.
The JSA will not only push people into poorly paid, insecure jobs, but also into job training schemes that read in the statistics as “in work” and therefore not “unemployed”. It is a situation that also smells suspiciously similar to “work fare” rather than “welfare”.
One example of a new course is WorkWise. Due to be introduced in April ‘95 this will be compulsory for all 18 to 24 year olds who refuse other training schemes or bad jobs at their 12 month restart interview.
A trial run of WorkWise, involving 10,000 participants, showed that one in seven people dropped out of the four week course during the first six months of the scheme.5 They left in the full knowledge that this would result in a benefit cut of up to 40 per cent - a testament to the unsuitability of the scheme to their lives or aspiration threshold levels.
Community Action, which pays an extra £10 per week for work carried out on behalf of the community, is also to continue for the next three years. The latest figures, for 1993/94, show that only 13 per cent of participants found full time work through this scheme.6
The Job Seekers’ Allowance is the handiwork of employment secretary Michael Portillo and social security secretary Peter Lilley.
It works on the premise that having a job is an obligation regardless of pay, job description, or personal fulfilment.
The very notion of unemployment and the unemployed is to be abolished. The definition is replaced with the concept of busy people actively fulfilling their obligation to society by desperately seeking work. Any work. At any price. However unfulfilling. Any regard to the individual’s right to determine their own future is ignored.
A leaked employment department paper7 suggests that inexperienced front-line staff should (not) be allowed to make decisions over benefit disqualification. It states that this practice should be phased in because such staff may run “an increased risk of assault”.
The Criminal Justice Act is an attack on lifestyles, involving strong collectives and communities, whose members have the support of each other. The JSA attacks the individual.
A fundamental aspect of the JSA is to save money. The Government expects to save £140 million in the first two years.
A fundamental lie of the JSA is that a substantial minority of those who claim unemployment benefits do so because they are lazy.
An unpublished government survey8 shows that already claimants are being pushed onto inappropriate courses against their will. A chief complaint they make is that advisers did not take their wishes into account. It showed a “definite thrust for vocational work related programmes coming from the claimants themselves” - a consideration absent from the JSA.
As Squall goes to press, the Job Seekers Allowance Bill is wending its tortuous way through parliament and is presently in the House of Lords. It’s introduction has already been put back from the originally planned April ‘96, to October ‘96.
The Government say the delay allows them to ensure a smooth introduction of the new procedures. For thousands of people on benefit there will be nothing smooth about the JSA when it comes chiselling its way into a job centre near you.
1. Hansard 27.4.95:1102
2. Hansard 27.4.95:1123
3. Hansard 27.4.95:1127
4. ‘Working Brief Feb '95 iss 61.
5. Hansard 26.10.94: 677-680
6. Hansard 21.7.94: 402
7. ‘Market adjudication to the front line under JSA’ Employment Dept. 1.12.94.
8. ‘The Employment Service national customer satisfaction survey 1993’ Research and Evaluation report 93, May 1994.