It has been a lively weekend of debate on the proposals which are being rolled out by the Government on the future of welfare payments to the workshy. Back in 2008, a visit from Chris Grayling to Morpeth when he was the Shadow Minister for Work & Pensions led to questions for us about how we would like to see benefit payments & systems change up here in the North East. So I did a little survey of local people - businessmen, school teachers, the local surgery staff - to find out what frustrated them. And the unanimous reply which came back was that those on the dole ought to be doing something each day to "earn" their dole money, it shouldn't be handed out for "free".
So I sent in a short report to Mr Grayling's team setting out these views, and we were so pleased to know that we had in a small way been part of the process of policy making which took place in the run up to the General Election. I would be very surprised if they had not received similar views from across the country, from all sections of society.
For me, more than anything, if people are on benefits and have no work routine any more, it becomes much harder for them to convince a future employer of their suitability, if they are competing against others who are in employment already and looking to move up the ladder. The challenge of getting out of bed in the morning and getting on the bus to work, becomes a physical burden which takes time and real concerted effort to get back into the habit of.
Other than a few workshy (of which I am convinced there are not that many) most people on benefits would prefer to be working. Issues of self-esteem alone convince me of that. Once Ian Duncan-Smith has redressed the balance so that it is no longer more financially beneficial to be on benefits than in work. this will start to help. However, in the meantime, whilst those in work are struggling to make ends meet and working longer hours to ensure they keep their jobs in financially straigtened times, it will be good for the communities, and good for the balance sheet of UK plc to encourage those with nothing to do out into useful activity.
It all sounds very protestant, work ethic, stuff. And perhaps it is. But more importantly it will provide fit and active people to help do day-to-day tasks in every area where extra pairs of hands can be useful and productive. Gardening in civic spaces? Everyone would welcome their contribution to cheering up an area. Getting rid of graffiti off public buildings? Also a constructive activity with visible results. Helping school teachers on the playing field with football practise, going into primary schools to help out in the classroom? There will be many of those sorts of jobs which I hope that employers will willingly propose inviting the jobless in to help them out. And to begin with I have no doubt there will be failures, and some responsible people will be disappointed, but there will also be cases where unemployed folk re-discover their self-esteem, find out that they have skills they had forgotten they had, and start to re-engage with their communities in a constructive and enthusiastic way. We have to be brave and stick at this to help those most in need. Cash for basics is one part of our civic duty to our neighbours, but including them in daily life and asking more of them will be what changes the framework of our society.
In times of financial austerity it should always be all hands to the pump. What I really hope is that we will envigorate a jobless group of up to 1.4 million to get stuck in and be part of the team once again. This could be truly revolutionary in getting society back on its feet, breaking down those "benefiters v workers" walls which have grown up in recent years, and rebuilding community life and mutual support.