Mark Harper MP: As the recession hits, we must not neglect the forgotten unemployed
With the news last week that the UK is now officially in recession and as unemployment nears 2 million, it may well go unnoticed that this week Parliament will debate the Welfare Reform Bill. It is a sign of this Government’s failure that, after nearly 12 years in office, it has only now decided to start reforming the welfare state. After 12 wasted years, it is too little too late.
As the dole queues continue to lengthen, attention will inevitably shift towards those people who have recently lost their jobs, and those who face the prospect of redundancy. However, as the recession bites and the unemployment numbers swell, it is important that we do not lose sight of the plight of the forgotten unemployed: the long term out of work.
Most people would have expected that, after 16 years of economic growth, we would be fairly well down the road with welfare reform. Sadly though, there are still millions of people who have been left behind and have not been given the opportunity to release their talents. It is thus all the more disappointing that the Bill currently before Parliament will do little to help the millions of people currently on Incapacity Benefit.
The Government’s failure to deliver change is all the more a missed opportunity now that the economic situation has darkened. Delivering real welfare reform would have been much easier in a steadily growing economy rather than one in the jaws of recession.
At this key point, the Government’s rhetoric on welfare reform is complacent and betrays a growing gap with reality. In a recent Commons debate on Work and Welfare, the Government proudly boasted that its record was a story of ‘so far so good’. The facts tell a very different story.
As well as the top line unemployment figures, there are 2.6 million people in the UK claiming Incapacity Benefit, a number that has barely changed over the last 12 years. The Government itself estimates that well over half of these people could be working. This is all the more telling as the Government claims to have created millions of new jobs in the last decade. There is a very simple question which needs answering: why have so few of these new jobs been filled by the long term unemployed?
Having inherited a sound economy, and benefiting from a decade of economic ‘good luck’ according to Tony Blair, it is all the more disappointing that Labour has squandered this unprecedented opportunity to help many benefit claimants into work. In addition, the individual who has done the most to obstruct and block real welfare reform has been Gordon Brown.
Tony Blair proclaimed as far back as 1995 that ‘We all agree that the welfare state has got to be radically reformed’ and that he was ‘the only one with the will to do it’. Ten years later, the hollowness of this promise is plain for all to see.
Frank Field’s appointment as Minister for Welfare Reform in 1997 with instructions to ‘think the unthinkable’ gave initial hope that genuine reform was imminent. However, that early hope quickly evaporated as Blair lost his nerve in the face of his dominant Chancellor and disposed of Field for doing exactly what he had been asked to do.
Thus very early on in his Premiership, Blair effectively surrendered control of welfare policy to his Chancellor, and the opportunity and momentum for radical policies was lost. There has been a steady procession of Social Security and Work and Pensions Secretaries continuously reciting a familiar script of radical reform but with little or no follow through.
The Government has tentatively prodded around the issue of welfare reform whilst allowing benefit dependency to grow deeper roots in many of our communities. Vast sums have been spent on the New Deal programmes, but they have at great expense only moved a fraction of the long term unemployed into work. All the while, thousands of economic migrants have filled the vacancies in the job market.
It was not until 2006 that Blair finally summoned the courage to challenge Gordon Brown and deploy David Freud to carry out a ‘ground zero’ review of welfare policy. Interestingly, the Freud report was initially rubbished by Gordon Brown, but was coincidentally resuscitated just as the new Prime Minister began to slip behind in the opinion polls. Above all, Gordon Brown has demonstrated over the last decade that he doesn’t have the ‘will’ to reshape the welfare system radically.
The latest Welfare Reform Bill starting its journey through Parliament is a small, but long overdue, step in the right direction. However, there is a disappointing lack of urgency in implementing its proposals. A good example is the roll out of individual budgets for disabled people to take more control of their lives. In today’s more challenging economic times the long term unemployed need action, not just a few pilot projects. More than ever we need to make sure that we help those people who have remained unemployed for too long so that they are not forgotten again.