The news that the Department for Work and Pensions has been conjuring case studies from thin air to justify its sanctions programme was no less depressing for its lack of shock value. Spin is, after all, now endemic across Whitehall.
What is surprising is that the DWP felt the need to invent the photogenic Sarah and Zac is that there is a good story to tell about the Coalition’s welfare reforms and changes in this Parliament, rooted very much in the real world.
It is occasionally said that the most effective politician is one who has given up getting a promotion, and that certainly applies to Iain Duncan Smith. Though you wouldn’t know it from the consistent howling of certain quarters of Westminster and the press, the principles behind welfare reform are not just effective and right, but deeply popular.
Take this week’s announcement that unemployed 18-21 year olds would be put through an “Intensive Activity Programme.” Barnardo’s, the children’s charity, criticised the plans, saying that young people needed to feel “supported, not punished.” What does this ‘punishment’ entail? CV training, help with job applications, interview preparation, and a dedicated job coach. That’s not punitive – that’s helping to change a situation in which, according to an industry poll, a majority of UK employers believe that immigrants have better qualifications, skills and motivation than young Britons.
Other critics complained that those young people who refused to take part would be sanctioned. Well, yes: our welfare system must provide a sturdy safety net and a retinue of carrots, but a small stick is necessary to ensure that people have no choice but to engage with a programme designed to help them into work.
Programmes like this are – without question – one of the reasons that nearly 2 million more people are on the job ladder today in 2010; the so-called “job miracle” despite economic growth only really picking up in 2013.
The situation before reform was hopeless. An expanding benefit system didn’t alleviate but enshrined poverty, making unemployment often pay better than work. A safety net that became a trap is nothing to be proud of.
The system is by no means perfect. There is a need for far greater flexibility in the administration of the sanctions regime, the universal credit programme has not rolled out effectively enough, and we must do more to reward work for those on low incomes by reducing marginal tax rates. There remains work to do to reduce childcare and housing costs to ensure the incentive to work is strong.
The DWP doesn’t need to invent people who have benefited from its welfare reforms. Plenty of real people have.