The new Government has made a commitment to radical welfare reform.
Some of the promised changes, many of which will be introduced via the forthcoming Work Programme, could prove useful. But the discussions about welfare reform seem detached from any serious assessment of local job opportunities.
We are entering a period where we can expect large-scale job losses due to the recession and budget cuts, especially in the public sector. Whether the losses can be recouped via the creation of private-sector jobs remains to be seen.
Even if the numbers do balance out eventually, it seems highly unlikely that the losses and gains will be geographically matched. Some areas such as the North East, where there has been a heavier reliance on public-sector employment, will inevitably fare worse than others. Recent BBC-commissioned research ('North East and Midlands 'least resilient' areas') echoes this.
These developments are likely to worsen existing geographical inequalities in labour market opportunities. Current welfare reforms rest on the belief that there are adequate numbers of jobs available, and that the problem is one of simply motivating, helping, or even forcing workless people into the waiting vacancies. Of course there are jobs, but recent evidence suggests that in most areas jobless people outnumber vacancies and in some areas of the country there are literally dozens of people chasing every job.
Sobering as the statistics might be, behind them lies an even more complex story about work in contemporary Britain. It is rarely acknowledged that the skills economy is supported by numerous forms of more precarious, low-paid jobs (PDF, 168KB). Factory work and cleaning, for example, generally demand little in the way of education or skills – and these sorts of jobs are unlikely to disappear in the foreseeable future.
Incorrectly, it is sometimes said that these jobs are usually taken by migrant workers, or for other workers that they are stepping stones to better jobs. Research in JRF’s recurrent poverty programme showed very clearly how workers can become trapped, churning repeatedly in and out of the lower reaches of the labour market, but never moving beyond it.
Such jobs often offer little in the way of employment rights or protection, as laws are simply flouted or are not strong enough to prevent bad or illegal practice (Word, 192KB).
The Government's new Work Programme aims to place more emphasis on the importance of job retention. But the scale of change would need to be far-reaching if this is not to become another relatively arbitrary measure of ‘success’ by which welfare providers will be judged and rewarded. Or, worse still, a slightly-moved ‘goalpost’ that some employers will inevitably find ways to avoid or exploit.
Ignoring labour market demand and working conditions at a time when job losses are likely to increase inevitably helps to perpetuate the popular myth that welfare claimants simply need shifting away from benefits into work.
Exposing more clearly the stark inequalities which exist in the labour market, as well as the harsh and unforgiving nature of some jobs, may prove to be too unpalatable for any political party.