In his big immigration speech today, David Cameron took an axe to the rhetorical and philosophical basis of the Coalition's welfare reforms. I don't think he intended to do so, and few people seem to have picked up on it, but the implications of his remarks are nevertheless profound.
I'm referring to this. Rhetorically addressing an East European migrant, the sort who might be tempted to "come and take advantage of our generosity without making a proper contribution to our country" he first reminds them of what conditions are already imposed on British jobseekers:
But then he goes further:
You will be subject to full conditionality and work search requirements and you will have to show you are genuinely seeking employment.
If you fail that test, you will lose your benefit.
And as a migrant, we’re only going to give you six months to be a jobseeker. After that benefits will be cut off unless you really can prove not just that you are genuinely seeking employment but also that you have a genuine chance of getting a job.
But why would that help reduce the benefits bill? Surely anyone who is genuinely seeking work has a genuine chance of finding it? After all, the whole sanctions regime, which has been steadily cranked up during the past decade (under Labour and Coalition governments alike) and which can now lead to a claimant being thrown off jobseekers' allowance for three whole years, is based on the assumption that such incentives will encourage people to get back into work. An assumption that being out of work for a long period is a personal failing that can be corrected by a strong kick up the backside.
But in that case, what does having "a genuine chance of getting a job" mean?
It means, presumably, that you can be genuinely seeking work, genuinely doing everything that the DWP requires of you, and more, to get off benefits and into employment, and still not have a genuine chance of a job.
Cameron is talking about migrants. But there's no logical reason why it this applies only to migrants. He mentions inadequate spoken English as one possible barrier to finding work, which will form part of a "robust" test applied to unemployed migrants. He doesn't mention the other criteria that will be applied, but it's not hard to think of ones that apply equally to native jobseekers. Such as: low educational attainment, age, a drink problem, a patchy employment record, or (most of all, perhaps) lack of available jobs.
Because it is a truth universally unacknowledged (by mainstream politicians, at any rate) that there are many unemployed people who have no real chance of getting a job, however often they have their benefits stopped and however many workfare schemes they are sent on. To acknowledge this fact, though, would make a nonsense of much of the political debate around welfare, which seems premised on the assumption that the way to reduce unemployment is to make life as difficult as possible for the unemployed.
Foreigners can be told to leave or starve, but what is to be done with British-born people who, according to what are now going to be formally devised criteria, have "no genuine chance of a job." Informally, we have the answer: they are going to be forced to work, not for the national minimum wage (which would at least be reasonable) but for the inadequate benefits that they had hitherto been given while "looking for work". But workfare programmes, thus far, have been justified on the principle that they exist as a stepping stone towards proper paid employment, even though someone working a full week at a fairly intense (if unpaid) job is likely to have insufficient time and energy for useful job-hunting. No politician has yet suggested that performing state-directed labour for around a quarter of the national minimum wage is meant as an alternative to normal employment. Not yet.
But perhaps the way is now open for such an admission, as the new concept of "genuine chance of employment" is tried out, initially on migrants from other EU countries. The next development in benefits conditionality might be precisely this, that after a period (perhaps two years, perhaps one, perhaps even six months) of permitted job-hunting a claimant will be subjected to a "genuine chance of employment" test, and anyone failing it will be put onto underpaid work for life.
I can imagine some employers being quite enchanted by the prospect of not having to pay unskilled workers properly, or at all. Of course it will distort the labour market, taking away jobs from paid employees: but they needn't despair, because after a suitable interval they'll become eligible for workfare too.