First published in Canvas: October 14 2013
Last month, George Osborne announced at the Conservative Party Conference that the long term unemployed (particularly those who have ‘graduated’ from the Work Programme) would soon be forced to sign on at the Job Centre on a daily basis, and also be assigned to a mandatory work experience placement. Thoughts of overcrowded Job Centres, increased staff burden and an exponential increase in bus fares paid to clients immediately come to mind.
Certainly, the logistical implications were not lost on the editors of the website UsVsThem.com, who released “Ian Duncan Smith’s Realistic Unemployment Simulator” as a response. the player navigates a downtrodden jobseeker, pushed against the clock from the job centre to work placement to job interview. To complete the experience, Duncan Smith’s disembodied head shouts anti-welfare slogans over a rumbling synth refrain. If the jobseeker fails to make an appointment on time, they are sanctioned, and the game ends.
The ‘Realistic Unemployment Simulator’ portrays, roughly, the attitude desired of the long term unemployed under Duncan-Smith’s reforms: unyielding, robotic and relentless in their pursuit of a job. Every day they march, an army of poorly skilled jobseekers, across our cities in the search for work that is beyond their experience or skill set, without being offered the help that they need to improve their chances of securing a job. Playing the game reminded this writer of the British tramps depicted in George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.
“…The important part is that a tramp’s sufferings are entirely useless. He lives a fantastically disagreeable life, and lives it to no purpose whatever. One could not, in fact, invent a more futile routine than walking from prison to prison, spending perhaps eighteen hours a day in the cell and on the road.”
The cells that Orwell speaks of are to be found in ‘The Spike,’ the casual ward of the workhouses. Though far removed from the experiences of today’s poor, who receive benefits for food and shelter, the futility of their current lives demonstrates the inadequacy of government policy in much the same way it did in Orwell’s day. Tramps in the 1920s could only enter one spike per month, under the threat of being confined there for a week, meaning they were forced to keep on the move, tramping from spike to hostel and back again. Without a care towards solving the problem, they were forced to walk from place to place to meet the demands of society.
“There must be at least several tens of thousands of tramps in England. Each day they expend innumerable foot-pounds of energy – enough to plough thousands of acres, build miles of road, put up dozens of houses – in mere, useless walking…They go round and round, on an endless boring game of general post, which is of no use, and is not even meant to be any use to any person whatsoever. The law keeps this process going, and we have got so accustomed to it that we are not surprised. But it is very silly.”
Contemporary poverty exists not so much in housing, but in education, environment and employment. A sizeable number of Work Programme candidates lack the qualifications or the skills to secure a meaningful job. Even if they do, they face stiff competition for even the most menial position. The failure to do either would result in a sanction of benefit. For critics of this idea, thoughts of educational qualifications available to them for free through the Work Programme do not reach the level required by most employers. Governments have not addressed the underlying issues that cause these problems; instead, they punish the long term unemployed by forcing them to take unpaid work placements.
“The problem is how to turn the tramp from a bored, half-alive vagrant into a self- respecting human being…What is needed is to depauperise him, and this can only be done by finding him work – not work for the sake of working, but work of which he can enjoy the benefit…Under the present system, tramps are as dead a loss to the country as they could possibly be, for they not only do no work, but they live on a benefit that is bound to undermine their health; the system therefore loses lives as well as money.”
Few ideas are totally devoid of merit, and in individual cases, the coalition policy might give clients a daily focus to their lives. Take ‘Martin Beecroft’ from Swindon. When he was interviewed by the BBC in early 2011, he stated: “It does provide a structure to the day, which is important to keep work routines, your patterns, and your discipline. I think the improvements we’ve made to my CV and the improvements we’ve made to my job search method will result in the right sort of job, of course.”
Martin, of course, has worked in IT for big names such as IBM, and is computer literate. Deprived of computer skills and an internet connection, it is now difficult for many unemployed people to apply for jobs. An increasing number of employers no longer accept CV’s in-store, and direct people to increasingly sophisticated online applications, with videos to watch and competency tests to complete. All of this, for a shop floor position in a clothing retailer over Christmas. Some might say that they should go to their local library to apply, but as more libraries close, this is harder to do. Central Library restricts computer access to half hour long slots, booked up to a week in advance, barely enough time to complete one application.
“If he represented labour to the workhouse, and the workhouse represented sound food to hum, it would be another matter. The workhouses would develop into partially self-supporting institutions, and the tramps, settling down here or there according as they were needed, would cease to be tramps. They would be doing something comparatively useful, getting decent food, and living a settled life. By degrees, if the scheme worked well, they might even cease to be paupers, and be able to marry and take a respectable place in society.
A major rethink is needed on policy towards the long term unemployed. If mandatory work placements are to be considered as a genuine attempt to improve peoples lives, jobseekers deserve comparative remuneration for comparative work. They also deserve the opportunity to improve themselves by taking educational qualifications to GCSE level, the required minimum for most advertised positions. Some might consider this as unfair, but few would ever want to swap places with those who live on the Work Programme: without work, they are pushed from place to place, without much hope of escaping their current circumstances.
 George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London, Penguin Books p. 207
 ibid p. 209
 Down and Out in Paris and London, Penguin Books p. 209