Merrick, 22nd December 2010ce
Iain Duncan Smith – Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and founder of the supposed Tory conscience the Centre for Social Justice – has set forth his plans for welfare-to-work. People unemployed for a year will do four weeks full time work for no wage, or else lose benefits.
The plan is backed by Conservative leader David Cameron. These two men live in multimillion pound mansions thanks to their wives' fortunes, and from these grand platforms they tell us how important it is to work for your money rather than living on handouts.
To be fair, this isn't a Tory initiative. All the elements and more were laid out by Labour two and a half years ago:
After a year on unemployment benefits, claimants will have to undertake at least four weeks compulsory work in the community. This becomes full-time voluntary work after two years. It is hoped that this will push people back into paid work as they will have to work at least 30 hours a week unpaid simply to claim benefits. They may also have to sign on daily.
Firms successfully returning people to the workforce for the long-term will receive bonuses of up to £50,000.
As I said back then, that – just the bonus, before the firm's standard fees – is equivalent to over 16 years of Job Seekers Allowance. Do we really think that’s value for money? Or does the government just feel better giving the benefits budget to wealthy private firms instead of poverty stricken individuals?
Given there are already people who remove graffiti and pick up litter but who'll now be unneeded, we can sack them, put them on the dole, then re-employ them on unemployment benefits at a third of the price.
This is, by any measure, slave labour. Those who have no other option are forced under threat of destitution or other punishment to do menial work in exchange for basic food and shelter, with no prospect of improving their conditions or of leaving.
This affects more than those on the scheme, as the new pool of dirt cheap labour drags down wages and conditions for the properly employed.
However, this is not the advent of modern slavery in the UK. In 1995 the government introduced the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme for convicted prisoners. Since then, things that were formerly rights such as visits and association with others, have had to be earned. Paid work is mandatory in order to earn a few - very few - pounds a week.
David Taylor, Governor of Wandsworth prison, says
If we did nothing with them at all during their time in custody, what would we have at the end of the process? No-one has had the opportunity to address their offending behaviour or improve their skills to give them the opportunity to be employed.
Packing small items into bags for Wilkinson's or assembling those miniature football shirts that you put in your car window isn't exactly learning a trade. More, because this labour is enmeshed in the prison privileges system; workers who refuse to co-operate are penalised. You can lose privileges – no visits, confined to your cell – because you refused to pack plastic spoons for Sainsbury’s. The more cynical among us might say that coercion is a key part of the world of work. But certainly, the main lesson is to teach prisoners that employment is dull, that the worker is undervalued, and the rewards are nowhere near as good as your life of crime outside.
Currently, the compliant ones get between £4 and £8 a week. This slave wage is not paid in cash but in credit to be spent at the prison shop. Being fed on a malnutrition diet, inmates top it up with snacks from these overpriced tuckshops and other services where the prison takes advantage their monopoly.
Prisoners are also exploited on their phone calls. These cost around five times the price of those made from a public phone box. The prison service receive a 7% commission from BT's profits from the calls.
Surveys consistently show that prisoners pay more for their shopping than the general public. Some items, toothpaste for example, were 20% dearer in prison than in supermarkets. Prisoners' wages have not increased since 1995, when the incentives and earned privileges scheme was launched. Since then, the RPI has increased by some 43%.
As with welfare-to-work, this was a regime Labour revelled in. In 2008 a planned increase in the prisoner wage – from £4 to £5.50 a week – was vetoed by Gordon Brown the day before it came into force.
Our new Justice Secretary Ken Clarke says that prisoners should now get the national minimum wage but with hefty mandatory deductions – “the lion's share” of the wage, they said – going to charities that deal with victims of crime. So serving the sentence given to you is no longer repaying your debt to society, you have to hand over money too.
Because of the threats it functions under, this workforce will be far more compliant than any other and so, like welfare-to-work, it will help to reduce pay and conditions for everybody. It is already doing so as many public services are contracting out to prisons.
Lancashire Fire and Rescue service's residential training centre has a £16,000 laundry contract with HMP Kirkham. "The contract was awarded to the prison as it was the lowest cost," says Keith Mattinson, the fire service's director of finance.
It also puts more people on to the job market. There are 2,467,000 people unemployed chasing 467,000 job vacancies. The unemployed already outnumber vacancies 5:1. The last budget will cause the loss of a further 1.3 million jobs. There are 2.6 million people on Incapacity Benefit. The government's new stringent tests are recategorising 68% of them as suddenly magically fit to work, adding add 1.77 million to the unemployed. Add all this up and the jobless outnumber vacancies 11:1.
Force these five million people through a benefits system being made punitive in the places where it's not dissolved entirely, and there will be massive, dangerous poverty as great swathes of the population struggle to stave off destitution.
This callous attitude to the poorest and most desperate in society unifies the government's approach to the unemployed and prisoners. Neither are there to be assisted into useful fulfilling lives, they are merely population overspill that helps keeps costs down for those that require cheap unskilled labour, there to be coerced into hopeless work for paltry recompense. They are regarded by our cabinet of millionaires as two different regiments in the same army of slaves.