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Only Fools & Horses?

February 27, 2012

Recent unemployment figures make for grim reading. Yet the 2.6 million claiming Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) is only the tip of the economic iceberg. In the 90s I worked for the Department for Lies (DOL) compiling such sexy stats surveys as the Average Earnings Index as well as the various employment and unemployment returns. It was during my stint on the unemployment survey that I witnessed what was one of the biggest statistical sleights of hand ever devised by a government. In one fail swoop, millions of people suddenly disappeared from the unemployment register because only those claiming the new Job Seeker’s Allowance were now classed as officially ‘unemployed.’ Other so-called ‘economically inactive’ claimants ie those not in work but not claiming JSA, those on various disability benefits for example were no longer included in the figures.

This suited all those involved; the claimants got a few quid more than their JSA allowance and didn’t have the same restrictions on their signing on regime, the jobcentre staff met their targets to reduce the level of those on the register not necessarily by placing people into real jobs but by parking them on disability benefits instead and the government could camouflage the true level of unemployment in the country. The statisticians, those supposedly independent academics with professional codes of ethics of course should’ve kicked up a stink, as should the Labour Party at time. They did in a rather timid way realizing that they would need to use the same techniques once elected. It was this suspicion of the political manipulation of official stats that was the catalyst behind the creation of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in the mid 90s. Yet, despite the usual boasts of non-partisanship, the usual political interference and spin continued.

First John Major, then Tony Blair used these massaged unemployment and employment figures to goad European leaders about the so-called ‘Anglo Saxon miracle’ that they had created via their supposedly ‘flexible’ labour market policies. In essence this was the same anti-union legislation that required any strike action to pass through various costly administrative hoops before being ‘legitimised’ coupled with an appallingly low minimum wage level that resulted in low paid, low skilled, zero expectation jobs. As a sop to low paying employers, New Labour’s tax credit system subsidised these architects of the ‘flexible’ workforce. If there is a so-called ‘benefits trap’ then it was the Tory and New Labour governments of the 90s and naughties who had set it.

With those who were bumped onto ‘incap’ and who are now claiming Employment Support Allowance and other non-JSA benefits and are therefore classified as ‘long term sick or disabled’ the current Work Programme strategy is beginning to have predictable consequences. Many of these people have never worked in their entire lives and are now in their 40s and 50s. The heroin epidemic in Merseyside of the 80s coincided with the last Tory onslaught on the working class heartlands, so it’s no surprise that this lost generation who left school in the 80s are exactly the same people who are now finally overcoming their addiction problems or who still have them are now being funneled through to sub-contracted out workfare organizations such as A4e.

A4e, that’s Action4Employment folks, have recently been in the news not only because their self-publicising boss, Emma Harrison is exactly the kind of psychobabble spouting ‘fairy jobmother’ guru beloved of employment ministers of both the left and right but because their Slough branch has been charged with fraud. This ‘rogue’ branch was apparently claiming the full employment credit for each job created from the government but only placing their clients onto one day work placements. Although disgraceful, this is far from a one-off incident. When I was made redundant from ONS in the early 00s, I did a spot of teaching at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA) as part of their New Deal for Musicians programme. Apart from showing me how deep the educational apartheid policy had become ingrained in our academic system, this period also gave me an insight into the phoney world of ‘placements’ and ‘work experience’ opportunities.

The New Deal programme was every bit as exploitative and futile as the YTS placement I had been stuck on back in 1983. Kids working for a day, a few days, a few weeks or months if they’re lucky and then replaced by other desperate kids doing work for the benefit of cheapskate employers and cynical politicians. In Liverpool it was commonplace for such single day and fixed period placements being used to funnel New Deal claimants through the system with the contractor’s full knowledge. They got weighed in, the employers got free labour, the kids got….nothing. The occasional one may have got full time employment if they were lucky but what incentive does an employer have to take on young workers if they can get away with using free labour? The recent furore over the Tesco ‘workfare’ post may have made headlines but it’s only going to get much worse. Welfare To Work and community improvement or Big Society volunteering schemes are coming to jobcentre near you very soon.

There are no jobs out there and despite the billions thrown at the banks, the global economic system is still on the point of total meltdown. The Con-Dem’s latest desperate strategy is to offer employers two grand for each 16-17 they take on for a year. They may call these ‘apprenticeships’ and spin the story so that it looks like a bona fide opportunity for young people, but like all their plans, it is based on the unrealistic premise that all those who are now competing for jobs, those leaving education, those now ‘fit for work’ after being on disability benefits, those who have lost their previous jobs have all got the skills and abilities to work in invisible industries with on-existent jobs. If this sounds overly pessimistic then surely it’s better to address the very real issue of post-industrial employment opportunities in a globalised labour market than pretending that the likes of Emma Harrison and her ilk can magic jobs from thin air by mouthing platitudes and creaming vast profits off the back of vulnerable people.

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