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Charlie Duff

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Ministers defend ‘work activity’ scheme


Ministers have been forced to defend plans to compel the long-term unemployed to undertake manual work or lose benefits after the Archbishop of Canterbury branded the proposals unfair.

In a surprise intervention, Rowan Williams, the head of the Church of England, said he had “a lot of worries” about the coalition government Work Activity scheme, due to be announced by Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith this Thursday as part of a broader white paper on welfare reform.
Under the Work Activity Scheme, claimants thought to need “experience of the habits and routines of working life” would have to spend 30 hours a week for four weeks undertaking a placement such as picking up litter or gardening.
Potential candidates who were thought to require work discipline or were suspected of already having a job that they were not declaring would be identified by advisors in job centres. Those refusing to participate could lose benefits for at least three months.
But in an interview with the BBC, Williams said: “I don’t immediately think it’s fair. People who are struggling to find work and struggling to find a secure future are, I think, driven further into a downward spiral of uncertainty, even despair, when the pressure is on in that way.”
Such an initiative could make people feel “vulnerable” and “that’s the kind of unfairness that I feel”, he added.
The issue was that people were often not on benefits because they were “wicked, stupid or lazy, but because their circumstances are against them, they’ve failed to break through into something, and to drive that spiral deeper, as I say, does seem a great problem”, Williams said.
But Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander told the BBC Politics Show that the idea of the scheme was not to “punish or humiliate” claimants and denied the plans involved treating the long-term unemployed in the same way as criminals undertaking community service.
Instead the aim was to “support and encourage” people to get back into the habit of getting up and going out to work and to enable them to demonstrate to employers that they were employable, he said.
But Douglas Alexander, the Share Work and Pensions spokesman, retorted there was no point in penalising the unemployed when there were simply not enough jobs available.
“The Tories are focusing on the workshy but offering nothing to the workless, despite the fact that today, there are five unemployed people chasing every job vacancy in the country. The tragic flaw in the Tory approach is that, without work, it won’t work,” he said.

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Charlie Duff


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