Hardworking families or lazy scroungers! You decide?

fishingNow, I don’t know about anyone else but I am pretty fed up with all this victimisation of those out of work, of those who are not deemed to be “hardworking people” or hardworking families”? When did we become a nation of people who see those without jobs as scroungers and somehow beneath contempt? At what point did we decide that people on benefits were lazy and needed to be coerced into employment? And it’s not just the government who appear to be taking this line, I watched with amazement andy disbelief the last Labour Party election broadcast which focused on ‘hardworking people” and how much out of pocket they are under the current government. Which I’m sure is true, but when did people who have jobs become “hardworking people” rather than just people who have jobs and when did people who don’t have jobs become lazy and by definition, not hardworking people?

In an attempt to stop this just becoming a rant about the use of the detestable term “hardworking people/families” I thought I’d draw a parallel with an employment programme I was involved in a few years back because it strikes me that this new “Help to Work” programme is anything but going to help people get back into work and is doomed to failure unless it learns some important lessons from the past. Let me explain why?

The Programme I was involved with was called the New Deal which was introduced by Blair in 1998 with the aim of reducing unemployment by providing training, subsidised employment and voluntary work to the long term unemployed – yes we’ve been there before! The sustainable development charity I ran at the time took people on the Environmental Taskforce element of this Programme. We set up a group of environmental providers including Avon Wildlife Trust and Resource Futures, liaised with Job Centre Plus and took on the mentoring and support work needed to allocate unemployed people to projects and help them gain the confidence to engage in them. And this is precisely what seems to be missing from the latest proposal – what we had to do back then was provide very basic levels of support to the people on the Programme to enable them to participate. This wasn’t because they were lazy or scroungers, it was because they didn’t have the confidence, social or life skills to engage, they just were not able to cope with some of the things we take for granted.

As an example, some of my staff would have to go and collect people starting their first day on the Programme, they’d meet them at their house, take them to the bus stop, show them which bus to get on, show them where to get off and then walk them to where the project was located, introduce them to the others and make sure they settled in – all things that might have stopped those people being able to engage in the past, any one of these things could have been a major barrier to them turning up. Seems simple doesn’t it, seems a bit too basic, but we learnt very early on in our delivery of the Programme, that this is what was needed. It’s not that the participants in the Programme were disengaged or didn’t want to work, they just couldn’t cope with some of the very basic elements of going to work everyday, at least not without some help to start with. Now I know the Programme wasn’t perfect, and has many of the conceptual problems any ‘forced labour’ scheme has, but it served a purpose for those long term unemployed with little or no skills and with little chance of entering the job market on their own. One of the most rewarding things about running that particular Programme was seeing some of the participants gain permanent jobs with the placement organisations, including our own, but this didn’t happen often enough and more needed to be done to provide job opportunities as part of the Programme. It’s also got to be about hope and aspiration as well as opportunity, but that’s a bigger question!

The main point I’m trying to make is that the New Deal Programme would not have worked without the support and mentoring provided alongside it – it’s not necessarily a remote “intensive regime of support” or reading & writing skills that are needed (although I am sure that’ll help some) or the threat of benefits being withdrawn; it’s life skills, social skills, confidence and personal support from someone they can get to know and relate to that some long term unemployed people need to give them a start and to help them to engage. But that of course comes at a price and perhaps too high a price in times of ‘austerity’. An article in The Guardian by Polly Toynbee sums it up better than I ever could – Help to Work is a costly way of punishing the jobless – as she so aptly ends her article “To be out of work is now officially morally worse than committing a crime.”

Just what kind of society are we living in?


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