Trade unions on Thursday gave their reaction to Work and Pensions Secretary Duncan Smith’s announcement of a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ ‘claimant contract’, whereby the unemployed will lose their Jobseekers Allowance for up to three years.
The Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) said: ‘The government’s plans to increase the sanctions on benefit recipients will do nothing to alleviate poverty without the creation of more jobs with decent pay.’
Responding to publication of the Welfare Reform White Paper, published on Thursday, the union said that the coalition government is unfairly targeting unemployed people and seeking to punish them for the recession and a shortage of work.
Recent claims by Duncan Smith that people in Merthyr Tydfil in south Wales should ‘get on the bus’ to Cardiff to find work were immediately debunked by PCS, which pointed out that for every job vacancy in the city there were nine unemployed people.
Research by the union also showed the vast majority of job vacancies were temporary and part-time work, often doing unskilled jobs for just one or three weeks’ duration.
Increasing sanctions on jobseekers and forcing some to do voluntary work to qualify for benefits is unfair, the union added.
It is also unfair to ask jobcentre staff, who are already overstretched because of cuts, to police decisions about who should have their benefits cut, it stressed.
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: ‘This is part of an orchestrated campaign by ministers to portray some of the most vulnerable members of our society as the new “undeserving poor” to persuade the public that some cuts are fair.
‘Not only is this cruel, it is directly at odds with the fact the government has admitted half a million public sector workers are set to lose their jobs, with even more expected in the private sector.’
The Unite trade union warned: ‘The coalition’s welfare reform proposals aim to create a division between what they see as the “deserving” versus the “undeserving poor”, which will herald a US-style ‘soup kitchen’ culture.’
Unite Assistant General Secretary for Public Services, Gail Cartmail said: ‘We deny that such division exists.
‘The income inequality in the UK is wider than most other OECD countries – those developed countries with whom the UK can most easily compare.
‘This is because of low pay and gender discrimination, especially against part-time women workers.
‘Government policy is pushing people into joblessness – the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) latest forecast is 1.6m.
‘The sums do not add up – divide unemployed into vacancies and there remains a lack of jobs already.
‘Looking into the future, the predicted joblessness is on a level not seen since the dole queues of the last Tory era of the 1980s.
‘But it is far more complex than benefit dependency and low aspiration – housing, education and health inequalities are all massive factors – all big-ticket issues, also under concerted attack by this government.’
Unite is also concerned that Iain Duncan Smith will lose out in the Whitehall ‘turf war’ with Chancellor George Osborne to get the extra funds to make his plan for a single universal credit viable.
This is due to replace the current work-related benefits.
Cartmail added: ‘Nobody believes for a second that Osborne wants to help the poor, so how can Duncan Smith convince people that the money will be there?’
‘The coalition’s ultimate vision is taking shape: a massive shift to a low-waged, low-skill economy where we compete with emerging economies, not on skills and innovation, but on the huge pool of workers to hire and fire.
‘No-one wants to see this country’s talents languish on the dole.
‘Ministers are importing their ideas from the US – the land of the food box and soup kitchen.
‘Already in America, we can see the social and human agonies caused when welfare is withdrawn at a time when dole queues are lengthening.’
TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said: ‘Making work pay is an admirable objective, but it can only be done by spending much more money or creating real hardship.
‘Yet the government is mainly going down the hardship route at a time when unemployment is high and its own policies mean many will lose their jobs in the coming months.
‘Some people will undoubtedly make small gains, but it is poor and vulnerable people, as well as working families on middle incomes, who will pay for most of those gains through the government’s £18 billion programme of welfare cuts.
‘With five people already chasing every job, the problem is not work-shy scroungers but a shortage of jobs.
‘Of course we should be tough with the small minority that play the system, but there are already strong sanctions in place.
‘It looks very much as if the government is trying to blame the victims, while covering up the spending cuts that have already ended the Future Jobs Fund and that will throw up to a million extra people on the dole.
‘Iain Duncan Smith had interesting policies when he was in opposition, but today the Treasury is calling the shots.
‘Meanwhile the government spin machine is talking up populist policies like workfare that independent research shows do not work, in the hope that the continuing scourge of unemployment, particularly among the young, drops out of media and public concern.’
Commenting on the publication of the government’s white paper on welfare reform, Universal Credit, Welfare that Works, the Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group, Alison Garnham, said: ‘The Universal Credit plans are barely half-formed and raise more questions than they answer on crucial areas like childcare support, passported benefits, training and not least how much investment in support services there will be.’
She warned: ‘Sanctions are an expensive red herring with no real evidence they work. Sanctions are better at wrapping claimants up in the red tape of bureaucracy than getting them into work.
‘It is the government that needs to be brought to book if it fails to deliver the training, support, childcare and job guarantees that parents who want to get into the workplace should be entitled to.
‘We don’t know today what is going to be done about the lack of jobs, the lack of affordable childcare, employer discrimination or poverty pay.’