‘Workfare’: the depressingly sterile ‘left/right’ debate is a challenge to liberals to sharpen our thinking

Deborah Orr has a must-read article in the Guardian highlighting the inverted absurdity of this week’s row about the Coalition’s workfare programme, The slanging match over workfare is getting us nowhere.

She points out that the very essence of workfare is government intervention in the workings of the free market, the state urging private companies to offer work experience placements to the unemployed:

For the right, such hapless, inefficient intervention by the state is anathema. When the private sector is left to make its own arrangements, neo-liberals never tire of pointing out, it functions better, to the advantage of all. The left? Well, the left is always keen to cheerlead for state intervention, no matter how perverse the outcome might be.

The fact that the opposite is happening during the rowdy debate over “workfare” is testament to just how dysfunctional the whole issue has become. In the case of the work programme, it is the right that, counterintuitively, is lining up to argue in favour of state involvement in the employment market. The left is rather less enthusiastic, to say the least. Suddenly, the Conservative party is not remotely interested in letting the market decide

The sterile ‘left/right’ debate on workfare

Much of the debate in the past week has been framed by personal/political prejudice.

Those on the ‘left’ appear to believe that every single private enterprise is on a mission to exploit the most vulnerable in society; the bigger it is the more evil it is, apparently. This ignores the fact that most large firms are — by nature of their scale and profits — much better equipped to offer decent pay, conditions and opportunities to their employees than most SMEs could dream of affording. And it assumes that firms are eager to take on so-called ‘slave labour’ when most are well-aware that taking on less-skilled workers can be disruptive and bad for productivity. (For a positive take on the scheme from an employer, see this comment on the Guardian website.

Those on the ‘right’ appear to believe that every single long-term unemployed is a feckless, work-shy benefit dependent who just needs to jolly well pull their socks up. But of course the unemployed are not a lumpen group. Many are readily employable, and quickly return to work. Some, either from specialised industries or in specific localities or with particular health issues, find it harder. To date the evidence suggests that ‘workfare’ is ineffective in helping people back into training or employment, most probably because it is not sufficiently tailored to the needs of its diverse audience.

Unfortunately, the last week’s debate has been a sterile one which has tended to betray the ignorance of those on the ‘left’ who think wealth-creation is for other people, and those on the ‘right’ who think poverty is a state of mind.

Searching for a liberal response to ‘workfare’

I’ve found the ‘liberal’ response to this debate so far uninspiring. Rebecca Tidy’s article here on LibDemVoice adopted the ‘left’ knee-jerk position of attacking the private companies who signed-up to participate in the ‘workfare’ programmes (though all credit to her for engaging fully with the subsequent comments). The Lib Dems and its blogosphere have been pretty much silent on the issue, as have been the party’s three newest policy groups, Social Liberal Forum, Liberal Left, Liberal Reform.

I’ve seen little sign of constructive, liberal policies to address the big issue of how best to help the long-term unemployed back to work. So far, by default I think, party members have settled for saying all such ‘workfare’ schemes should be optional, with no mandatory work programmes accompanied by the risk of losing benefits.

This may be the right approach, but I suspect we’ve chosen it because it’s the easy approach.

Because the plain fact is that we know if such schemes are entirely voluntary, many of those who could benefit from them, and who might as a result be assisted on the path back to work, will opt not to undertake them. Some of those who decline such work experience opportunities are already, or are likely to become, part of the persistent multi-generational unemployed, where whole families — spanning grandparents to teenagers — have no knowledge of the world of work but know every possible twist-and-turn of the benefits system. What is our liberal response to that social problem?

To be clear, I’m not advocating the ‘workfare’ programme in its current form. Nor am I saying that liberals should be supporting wholesale mandatory ‘workfare’ programmes. The evidence to date is far too weak for us cheerfully to approve compulsion of citizens to take on unpaid work ‘for their own good’.

But I would not be against pilot programmes to test and properly evaluate different initiatives, including those which do require mandatory, time-limited work placements for those whose CVs otherwise makes them unemployable. We would then have a much better idea of what is most likely to work. Such evidence might, however, end up taking liberals to some uncomfortable places.


What I certainly think we need is a greater quality of debate on the tricky issues raised by ‘workfare’, both at a national level, but also among Lib Dems. That debate needs to extend much further than the simple and simplistic ‘left/right’ attitudes currently on display, and start grappling with how best we can empower the individual to make the best of their own lives — including, and especially, those who appear to have settled for a life on benefits, and reject all other offers of help.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • A Liberal response should probably come to the conclusion that just about any attempt to influence the job market in ways like workfare is always going to offer diminishing returns. The work programme for example almost certainly doesn’t offer value for money for the taxpayer, especially since the government continues to outsource to companies that have consistently failed.

    We’ve got to keep the workfare debate in its wider context. Firstly, there just aren’t jobs available; the recession has made sure of that and short of creating demand itself by, for example, embarking upon a massive social housing building programme, the Government is unlikely to have much impact on employment in the next couple of years.

    Then there is the problem of motivation and skills. Even when universal credit is introduced, the financial incentive to work will not be much more impressive than it is now. If it is skills that is preventing people from gaining employment, this is sadly a long term symptom of failings in the education system; not much that can be done there in the short term. Remedical action can be taken though and I’ve always been astounded at how reluctant Governments have been to offer free adult education and training to people while still paying benefits; even in the short term it is cost effective.

    The argument on workfare still comes down to how you perceive what the scheme entails. If it is a structured and focussed piece of training-educating long term unemployed on the rigours of everyday work-we should support it as an integral part of a personalised approach to helping people make the most of their potential. If it is merely a way for big companies to gain free labour, the intent of the scheme has obviously been misplaced. I’ve not seen enough of how the scheme works on the ground, but I suspect the former position is more true and the problem comes more down to the Government dismally failing to explain what it is trying to do…again.

  • Rawnsley’s article in The Observer today focuses on how, while ‘winning the argument” on the Health and Social Care bill, the left is losing the argument on the Welfare Reform bill. It seems to me that the perceived necessity for Workfare and similar are related to the same issue, ie what I call a “tabloid” stereotyping approach to those on, or might be on benefits, or, sometimes, those on lower incomes generally.

    A liberal argument, Stephen, is going to be much closer to how you describe the “left”. But the problem is that first the left ideas on this were lost under nuLabour, now the Lib Dems have found it very difficult through the Coalitionista approach. The liberal argument must start and end with individual need, the fact that although we can probably group people under various needs, but we must never, EVER, end up by stereotyping people, as “scroungers”, workshy, or any other ofthe numerous other insults deployed. Treating people as individuals costs more, but that does not mean “less value for money”.

    If we are to be serious about a liberal argument on this, we have to recognise reality that serious money needs to be spent. Any contractors need to be managed by programme managers who have a clear view of Government (and local govt) objectives, so that where possible, we avoid the pitfalls of contractors like A4e and the scandals which seem now to be an ever more likely part of their involvement.

    We also must recognise that the employment market is very weak at the moment, and this was not the time to ramp up controls and sanctions on those claiming benefit. I think we are seeing the chickens coming home to roost on this, and Lib Dems need a new approach for 2012.

    Having worked some years ago in work experience fields, it is most unfortunate that employers and work experience schemes have started to look very tarnished indeed – such schemes, if well designed, can have an immensely beneficial effect for those on them.

  • This is very good stuff, thank you. I wonder if one element of a liberal approach might be scale? If local (and regional) government had the opportunity to deal with these sorts of problems, it would be easier for them to respond to specific economic conditions, deal with SMEs as well as large employers, manage systems etc etc. By this I mean actually developing their own programmes, not just implementing national government goals.

  • Daniel Henry 26th Feb '12 - 12:07pm

    Stephen, I’m planning to pleasantly surprise you with an LDV article later this week with the kind calm and balanced response to workfare you’re looking for.

    Stay tuned! 😉

  • Daniel Henry 26th Feb '12 - 12:29pm

    (it won’t come up with the deeper alternative answer you’re looking for but it will at least give a calm suggestion on how to clear up this Tory mess)

  • jenny barnes 26th Feb '12 - 2:47pm

    “how best to help the long-term unemployed back to work. ”
    Provide jobs

  • “Some of those who decline such work experience opportunities are already, or are likely to become, part of the persistent multi-generational unemployed, where whole families — spanning grandparents to teenagers — have no knowledge of the world of work but know every possible twist-and-turn of the benefits system.”

    This is a right wing tabloid myth. The DWP haven’t been able to identify a single family that fits this description. Very few individuals have never worked. It’s disappointing to see LDV ignorantly regurgitate poisonous right wing propaganda. The problem is more that there is a section of the population that bounce between unemployment and insecure, low-quality jobs. Workfare is not going to solve this.

  • jenny barnes 26th Feb '12 - 2:55pm

    Part 2.
    International trade. The reason for international trade is “comparative advantage” (see the WTO site if you want an explanation) Briefly, the gains from international trade accrue to the relatively abundant factors of production in each country. – and the scarce resources lose out. In the UK we have a relative abundance of skilled labour, and sell high tech things and services; places like China have an abundance of low skilled labour. So our low skilled people lose out – although as a country, no doubt we are better off for the trade. The usual way to deal with this is by welfare payments to the low skilled resources that have lost out , rather than blaming them for being feckless and lazy. Such welfare payments should be easily affordable out of the benefits of trade – unless those who have benefitted are so greedy they want to keep it all for themselves.

  • “But I would not be against pilot programmes to test and properly evaluate different initiatives, including those which do require mandatory, time-limited work placements for those whose CVs otherwise makes them unemployable.”

    I’m not sure what aspect of someone’s CV could or should make them unemployable, but if it were the case, would a “mandatory, time-limited work placement” make any difference to that?

  • “At a time of high unemployment these work placement schemes maybe putting people on the minimum wage out of work.”

    Sure this would have to be a major concern if significant numbers of people were working – either voluntarily or not – for private companies without pay.

    It’s not so much a question of companies being “exploitative,” as of the whole point of private enterprise being to maximise profits. Given the opportunity of replacing some or all of their unskilled paid staff with unpaid workers, companies would be failing in their duties to shareholders if they turned the option down.

  • Workfare is completely incompatible with liberal principles and values.

  • James Sandbach 26th Feb '12 - 6:44pm

    As a liberal I’m deeply uncomfortable about mandatory workfare programmes – labour should always be freely exchanged, but how free are people under the spectre of conditionality and benefit sanctions? If companies like burger king, tescos and other supermarket chains are pulling out due to both the ethical, as well as public relations issues, raised than that should say something.

    Labour Government started all this and brought in A4A – a company I know well and I have consistently campaigned about the risks of Government doing so much public services business with them. Extremely glossy and with fantastic marketing, their ‘offer’ and businesss model often looks too good to be true, However, in reality A4E specialise in winning tender bids (frontloading resources into wrting creative tender bids) , manipulating Government targets, and showing good ‘performance outcomes’ by manipulating the reporting frameworks of Government tenders – there are well tried techniques for this – cherry-picking, using the right language, double counting, misdescribing what they offer and what they have done for people, and from what we’ve learnt now blatently falsifying data – which comes as no great surprise to any critically minded person who’s ever looked into them. The Tories new ‘payment by results’ model has been a godend for their skills of being able to manipulate targets and data. Having seen some of their training programmes first hand – it really looked like a lot of money for old rope. One scheme on CV skills inolved taking a group of 100 jobseekers on the programme for a days workshop – they were taken to a warehouse where there was one computer, and an instructer employed for one hour.

    It’s not true that the liberal blogshere has been asleep to the real issues – David Boyle has blogged extensively about how a target driven approach from on high has set up these risks with workfare,

    But with reference to your piece I’d say forget left/right – we’re coming perilously close to legitimising a form of modern slavery in the UK – liberals should be the first to spot the dangers and speak out, not the last….

  • Richard Dean 26th Feb '12 - 7:01pm

    A simple solution might be to fire all the old people. Not very consistent with penion plans though. May I suggest another solution – that the way to create jobs, and so jobs for younger people, is to create DEMAND, but not for any old products or services …

    As a relatively poor person, I believe that relatively richer people have different demands than me. They want yachts, butlers, fine wines, but I want sneakers, smartphones, nappies, and winter fuel. Is the answer to TAX THE RICHer people so badly that the demand they create for the products they want collapses? A dangerous strategy, yes, but companies will then be forced to turn to new sources of demand – for products and services that poorer people want – and the tax take can help them do this. Will this create the jobs which provide the people who fill them with the money they need to create that new type of demand?

    Is this LibDem thinking, or perhaps SWP? Does it matter? By “richer” I probably include all doctors including retired ones, and most LibDem party members. Would that make a difference? Might the plan be effective? If so, is our focus on high-tech export products counter-productive – part of the richer half’s focus on the what THEY want, not what I want? Unemployment is an excess of the supply of labour over the demand for labour, so another strategy could involve strengthing unions and supporting their action … SWP again?

    If supply increases while demand is stationery, prices fall, some product lines start losing money, get cancelled, so supply decreases back, as does employment. QE won’t help that at all! Maybe DEMAND is the way forward?

  • David Pollard 26th Feb '12 - 7:59pm

    It would seem to me that an acceptable Liberal principle is to expect those paid welfare by the State, make some sort of contribution to Society. I’m very disappointed that the Coalition did not defend the workfare scheme hard enough and sod the Daily Mail.

  • Richard Dean 26th Feb '12 - 8:20pm

    Another acceptable principle might be to expect those failed by the State to be recompensed by the State. Jobs requre organization, and their absence is not the fault of those seeking them. Workfare may keep people active, yes, but it is not any kind of solution.

  • It should not be a surprise to the author that the Conservatives are corporatist and looking for ways that help big business. As has been stated in the past the idea that they support the free market represents an incomplete understanding of the Conservative approach which requires them to take into account the needs of their donor base.

    My suggestion would be that the government changes tax and accounting regulations for long term unemployed setting up one man owner run and managed businesses, for example people running their own market stalls. If the government allowed the long term unemployed to enter these businesses and exempted them from the requirement to pay tax for a period of two to three years as long as they came off benefits it would increase GDP and reduce the deficit.

    This would, however, create competition for major retailers who provide some of the finance for the Conservative Party.

  • “It would seem to me that an acceptable Liberal principle is to expect those paid welfare by the State, make some sort of contribution to Society.”

    But under the present scheme they seem to be making a contribution to private companies’ profits – and if those companies reduce their paid workforce as a result, won’t Society end up worse off?

  • @Chris

    “But under the present scheme they seem to be making a contribution to private companies’ profits – and if those companies reduce their paid workforce as a result, won’t Society end up worse off?”

    Exactly, and those people who come out in force and say it’s only 4 -8 weeks, so it won’t really effect full time paid jobs are just plain wrong.

    For every 6 “work fare placements” that is equal to 1 full time employee over the course of a year.

    Now we already know that Tesco alone have used several thousand of these people on these schemes.

    I am sure there are a “minority” of candidates who go on to get paid jobs, but then they would, wouldn’t they, these huge corporations would have to show “some” success stories if not they might be seen as abusing the scheme
    *clears throat*
    But the truth of the matter is, their are far more people being exploited than there are that are actually being helped by this scheme.
    There are far more people losing out to “paid” full time positions and Hundreds of thousands of people who are forced into Part Time work being denied full time work or overtime, because of these “workfare” programs.

    The Tories are corporatists, they are constantly banging on about bringing down taxes for businesses, cutting red tape and making it easier to hire and fire people. That should say it all really. What a better bonus to give to these corps than “free labour”
    Our taxes to the DWP should be used to help get people back in to work, but this must be done through, training, education, apprenticeships and with real skills that can be taken to the job market. Not free labour at the taxes payers expense to provide workers to stack shelves and clean offices for private companies.

    It is Ironic that George Osborn is quoted as saying in the telegraph today
    “In a stark warning ahead of next month’s Budget, the Chancellor said there was little the Coalition could do to stimulate the economy.
    Mr Osborne made it clear that due to the parlous state of the public finances the best hope for economic growth was to encourage businesses to flourish and hire more workers.
    “The British Government has run out of money because all the money was spent in the good years,” the Chancellor said. “The money and the investment and the jobs need to come from the private sector.”

    Seems George Osborn needs to communicate this to his colleagues in the cabinet, IDS and Greyling, because their policy to provide more free labour is hardly going to do this

  • If withdrawal of benefits for non-attendance is unacceptable to companies who originally signed up they do have alternatives to withdrawing from participation. For example, they could offer a bonus (from their profits) for anyone who completes the placement and the govt could remove the sanction. Incentive rather than penalty.

  • Pulp Quango 1st Mar '12 - 5:31am

    Quoting EMM here “EMM Feb 29 – 3:45 pm

    If withdrawal of benefits for non-attendance is unacceptable to companies who originally signed up they do have alternatives to withdrawing from participation. For example, they could offer a bonus (from their profits) for anyone who completes the placement and the govt could remove the sanction. Incentive rather than penalty.”

    That’s actually not allowed under the terms of the scheme. In fact under the terms of documents that were on the DWP website prior to a conservative interview on the BBC on Friday 24th 2012, such subsidy by the employer is in fact forbidden either in kind or in cash. In fact cost of any meals (work requires more energy after all), or even work clothes and laundry of same are to be born by the “trainee”. In addition, whilst transport expenses are granted, these are also born in the first instance by the trainee and claimed back. A reasonable journey to work can easily mean two buses, and therefore £3.80 each way. This can put a benefit claimant on a nominal £65 per calendar week out of pocket to the tune of £30.60 which while it may not be onerous to an MP, seems crushing to a benefit claimant. Whilst they are allowed to claim for bus tickets, apparently issuing a bus pass is not permitted.

    In the meantime the employer on the scheme, and there are verified accounts of waged workers being laid off and/or having overtime reduced/removed entirely, benefit from tax revenue monies paid to them, as does the placement contractor, so much so that it would be cheaper to pay minimum wage, issue a bus pass and work clothes for the duration at no charge to the benefit claimant, and pay benefit rates for the remainder of a five day working week, which would certainly send the message that work pays.

    Bearing this in mind and that the scheme is demonstrably achieving worst results than leaving claimants to the mercy of the Jobcentre staff, is it not time to think about the purpose of the scheme in Conservative eyes, its incompatibility with liberal principles, the cheaper alternatives available, which would not necessarily require the use of contractors, and remove Liberal support from the government on this issue ?

    If the party feels that the scheme as applied to the young, able bodied has been subject to pungent debate, I suggest that this will be as nothing when the same rules are applied to those with mental and/or physical disability. Expect higher costs, not all can use buses. Expect irregular attendances, caused by fluctuating conditions and inconsistent availability of suitable public transport. But don’t expect allowances to be made for these problems by employers, or when it comes to sanctioning individuals. In fact again sourced from the DWP employers do not have to make even the “reasonable adjustment” in the workplace,set out in current law and fluctuating conditions ? No allowance need be made according to the DWP.
    Many of these workplaces will be inaccessible or have no lavatory facilities. Further, these schemes are not time limited.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, how electable will the party be, and what regard will liberal policy or principles be held in if this aspect of the scheme comes to pass ? Unlimited work for wage, for the life of the claimant , under permanent threat of sanction, whilst employers profit, but need make no allowances will not look good. Local elections and a hostile electorate wishing to punish Tory and Liberal candidates alike could prove painful.

  • L S McKnight 3rd Mar '12 - 11:33pm

    I am suffering from 2 degenerative diseases, that apparently qualifies me as a ‘trotskyite’ . If I fail a test which is almost random I can be put onto JSA and I would have to appeal. There is one problem with the appeals procedure – there is no time limit within which a response has to be given! I am in the WRAG, which means I am unfiit for work but may be able to take up employment at some time in the future with the right support. People who commit crimes are limited to a maximum of 300 hours community work, for me as someone in the WRAG there is no limit and I will be in the position of getting benefits for being unfit to work whilst being expected to work for those very same benefits! It really is an extremely depressing indictment of our so-called democracy when MP’s are willing to blindly vote as they are told to and people like me end up being scared to hell.
    I’m not in the SWP or any other party but you bet I’m protesting, the question I have for you is would you be as restrained as I am, ?I have limited myself to the traditional right of all in these islands – the well aimed insult.

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