The Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, plans to force people on benefits to do community work. Not only are the proposals a slap in the face of the unemployed, they also do not make economic sense.

Otherwise devoid of any merit, Melanie Phillips’s column in the Daily Mail is at least an entertaining read. Frightening in its right-wing prejudice, but entertaining. Her take on the DWP’s proposed changes to the welfare system is no exception. She hails Iain Duncan Smith as an “unrivalled expert on the lives of the poor” who seeks to “encourage the poor to take some responsibility for themselves and for others.”

The policy proposal which receives such acclaim is the Work and Pensions Secretary’s plan to make benefit claimants work for the money they receive: People on Jobseeker’s Allowance could be required to do community work (cleaning streets, gardening etc.) for 30 hours a week for one month. If they do not comply, they could have their Jobseeker’s Allowance stopped for at least three months. Iain Duncan Smith said that this would “give people a sense of work”. The intended message to benefit claimants: “Play ball or it’s going to be difficult.” Smith is, according to Phillips, “motivated by the highest possible concerns to rescue the poor not merely from material poverty, but the moral and spiritual degradation which keeps them trapped permanently in disadvantage”.

How exactly unpaid community work is going to be spiritually uplifting is rather unclear (The Archbishop of Canterbury thinks that rather than lift the claimants’ mood, the proposal will drive people into “a downward spiral of uncertainty, even despair”). On a more general level, the proposal is plainly absurd. As the TUC points out, the problem is not a lack of work ethic (as right-wing commentators like Phillips try to suggest), but a lack of available work. And thanks to the coalition’s austerity programme, which will lead to an estimated 500,000 job losses in the public sector, this is not about to change.

If, on the other hand, there is community work to be done, would it not make more sense to employ people on adequate wages, who therefore would not have to claim benefit? A possible consequence of Smith’s proposal is that at a time when Local Authorities are facing drastic budget cuts, benefit claimants could simply be used to substitute council workers – and work for free!

Moreover, all the evidence suggests that the programme will not work. As Professor John Krinsky writes in the Guardian, the US-style workfare programmes on which the DWP modelled its proposals failed to help people get jobs. He also points out that after New York City introduced its workfare programme 15 years ago, “[r]egular public-sector workers resented WEP [Work Experience Program] workers’ presence and sometimes mistreated them, while public-sector managers found it difficult to assign, supervise and keep track of WEP workers’ schedules.”

Melanie Phillips starts off her column by saying that “if the wrong kind of people [she means lefties] are opposed to what you are doing, then you must be on the right track.” A more astute observation would have been: If even the Archbishop of Canterbury – hardly one of her “usual suspects on the Left” – is opposed to what you are doing, you must be on the wrong track.

Peter Stauber

Peter Stäuber is a freelance journalist and translator. He writes for English and German language publications and is a member of the NUJ.