Withdrawing benefits when there are no jobs to find is just cruel

A doctor writes first hand of the repercussions of Whitehall hyperbole on benefits.

The government knows exactly what it's doing. When the Prime Minister broadcast his intention to substantially shrink the benefits system, it wasn't because he's blissfully unaware of the consequences. He knows this will remove a crucial lifeline that could condemn millions to an inescapable cycle of poverty.

A pattern is developing with this government. Policies are announced that seem so clearly detrimental, those enacting them are declared by detractors as either oblivious to the ramifications or utterly callous. But rather than dismiss their decisions as the immoral acts of ignorant elitists, I want to understand their politics. Instead of blustering and chastising, I'm willing to consider that Cameron's cabinet are neither naive nor malicious. I'd like to know how they justify their actions, and why they think what they're proposing is right.

As an NHS doctor I can't agree with sweeping cuts to welfare. We need a social security safety net because the unexpected is precisely that. You cannot predict the personal disasters that drive the need for benefits, in the same way that no-one sets out to require emergency medical treatment. It's not a culture of entitlement, and it's not a lifestyle choice. It's a last resort. Doctors see first hand the repercussions of Whitehall hyperbole. Half a million people will lose their disability living allowance by 2016. They won't lose their disability. Accident and Emergency departments face the overwhelming challenge of a newly homeless generation when housing benefit for under the twenty-fives is withdrawn. When government aid is withheld from the people who need it  the most, the NHS feels the impact.

Nonetheless, the Conservative's idea is perfectly valid: switch the emphasis from benefits to employment. Make it more profitable to work than to rely on the state. Enable all people from every part of society to determine their own existence, instead of being reliant on the whims of government funded charity. It's a well known argument:give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he feasts for a lifetime.

Even when judged by their own standards, this government falls short. So far they've taken away the fish. This is the easy half, the half that abdicates state responsibility for the most vulnerable in society. Truly compassionate conservatism would be to ensure a reliable alternative income for each and every person who has their benefits withdrawn. Otherwise those previously trapped on handouts will be just as trapped, but without any financial support at all.

Unicef has already warned the UK government that their spending cuts will reverse the progress made on tackling child poverty. A recent joint report from Action for Children, the NSPCC and The Children's Society has concluded that depression, poor quality housing and poverty are far more prevalent than government figures suggest. Children's charity Kids Company has seen a two hundred percent increase in families relying on them to avoid starvation over the past twelve months. Further cuts to basic social securities will do little to help this sobering trend.

Reducing housing benefit, capping the numbers eligible for council houses and asking the jobless to do full time community work for free does nothing to address the fundamental flaw in Cameron's argument. Focusing on jobs not handouts conveniently forgets that employment is the part you need to get right first. It relies on a buoyant jobs market where employers are willing to risk their business on a previously unemployed and potentially unskilled workforce. The UK is fast approaching three million unemployed. In today's calamitous economic situation, even the most qualified and most experienced remain out of work.

Giving people no choice but to find a job is a great way to get them off benefits. Unless there are no jobs. There is no plan to address the fallout of Cameron's rhetoric. The new homeless, impoverished disabled and jobless millions don't factor into his equation, where you're either productive and employed or a work-shy fraudster. The least appropriate action for the government is precisely what they're promoting: withdrawing the only means of survival for someone powerless to change their circumstances without help. No matter how you cut it, that's cruel.

Tom Riddington is a NHS hosptial doctor with a special interest in medical ethics and healthcare politics. You can find him on twitter @drtomriddington.

 

Job seekers need jobs to find. Photograph: Getty Images
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"Michael Gove is a nasty bit of work": A Thatcherite's lonely crusade for technical colleges

Kenneth Baker, Margaret Thatcher's education secretary, has been in a war of words with one of his successors. 

When I meet Kenneth Baker, once Margaret Thatcher’s reforming education secretary, conversation quickly turns to an unexpected coincidence. We are old boys of the same school: a sixth-form college in Southport that was, in Baker’s day, the local grammar. Fittingly for a man enraged by the exclusion of technical subjects from the modern curriculum, he can only recall one lesson: carpentry.

Seven decades on, Lord Baker – who counts Sats, the national curriculum, league tables, and student loans among his innovations – is still preoccupied with technical education. His charity, the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, oversees university technical colleges (UTCs), the specialist free schools that work with businesses and higher education institutions to provide a vocational curriculum for students aged 14-19. He is also a working peer, and a doughty evangelist for technical education and apprenticeships in the upper chamber. 

But when we meet at the charity’s glass-panelled Westminster office at 4 Millbank, he is on the defensive – and with good reason. Recent weeks have been particularly unkind to the project that, aged 82, he still works full-time to promote. First, a technical college in Oldham, Greater Manchester, became the seventh to close its doors since 2015. In three years, not one of its pupils passed a single GCSE, and locals complained it had become a “dumping ground” for the most troubled and disruptive children from Oldham’s other schools (Baker agrees, and puts the closure down to “bad governorship and bad headship”). 

Then, with customary chutzpah, came Michael Gove. In the week of the closure, the former education secretary declared in his Times column that the UTCs project had failed. "The commonest error in politics," he wrote, quoting Lord Salisbury, "is sticking to the carcasses of dead policies". Baker is now embroiled in a remarkable – and increasingly bitter – war of words with his successor and one-time colleague.

It wasn't always this way. In 2013, with UTCs still in their infancy, he told the New Statesman the then education secretary was “a friend”, despite their disagreements on the curriculum. The bonhomie has not lasted. In the course of our hour-long conversation, Gove is derided as “a nasty bit of work”, “very vindictive”, “completely out of touch”, and “Brutus Gove and all the rest of it”. (Three days after we speak, Baker renews their animus with a blistering op-ed for The Telegraph, claiming Gove embraced UTCs about as warmly as “an undertaker”.)

In all of this, Gove, who speaks warmly of Baker, has presented himself as having been initially supportive of the project. He was, after all, the education secretary who gave them the green light. Not so, his one-time colleague says. While David Cameron (Baker's former PA) and George Osborne showed pragmatic enthusiasm, Gove “was pretty reluctant from the word go”.

“Gove has his own theory of education,” Baker tells me. He believes Gove is in thrall to the American educationalist E.D. Hirsch, who believes in focusing on offering children a core academic diet of subjects, whatever their background. "He doesn’t think that schools should worry about employability at all," Baker says. "He thinks as long as you get the basic education right, everything will be fine. That isn’t going to happen – it isn’t how life works!" 

Baker is fond of comparing Gove’s heavily academic English baccalaureate to the similarly narrow School Certificate he sat in 1951, as well as the curriculum of 1904 (there is seldom an interview with Baker that doesn’t feature this comparison). He believes his junior's divisive tenure changed the state sector for the worse: “It’s appalling what’s happening in our schools! The squeezing out of not only design and technology, but drama, music, art – they’re all going down at GCSE, year by year. Now children are just studying a basic eight subjects. I think that’s completely wrong.” 

UTCs, with their university sponsors, workplace ethos (teaching hours coincide with the standard 9-5 working day and pupils wear business dress), and specialist curricula, are Baker's solution. The 46 existing institutions teach 11,500 children, and there are several notable success stories. GCHQ has opened a cyber-security suite at the UTC in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, as part of a bid to diversify its workforce. Just 0.5 per cent of UTC graduates are unemployed, compared to 11.5 per cent of all 18-year-olds. 

But they are not without their critics. Teaching unions have complained that their presence fragments education provision and funding, and others point out that hard-up schools in disadvantaged areas have little desire or incentive to give up children – and the funding they bring – at 14. Ofsted rate twice as many UTCs as inadequate as they do outstanding. Gove doubts that the vocational qualifications on offer are as robust as their academic equivalents, or anywhere near as attractive for middle-class parents. He also considers 14 is too young an age for pupils to pursue a specialist course of vocational study.

Baker accepts that many of his colleges are seen as “useless, wastes of money, monuments to Baker’s vanity and all the rest of it”, but maintains the project is only just finding its legs. He is more hopeful about the current education secretary, Justine Greening, who he believes is an admirer. Indeed, UTCs could provide Greening with a trump card in the vexed debate over grammar schools – last year’s green paper suggested pupils would be able to join new selective institutions at 14, and Baker has long believed specialist academic institutions should complement UTCs.

Discussion of Theresa May’s education policy has tended to start and finish at grammar schools. But Baker believes the conversation could soon be dominated by a much more pressing issue: the financial collapse of multi-academy trusts and the prospect of an NHS-style funding crisis blighting the nation’s schools. Although his city technology colleges may have paved the way for the removal of more and more schools from the control of local authorities, he, perhaps surprisingly, defends a connection to the state.

“What is missing now in the whole education system is that broker in the middle, to balance the demands of education with the funds available," he says. "I think by 2020 all these multi-academy trusts will be like the hospitals... If MATs get into trouble, their immediate cry will be: ‘We need more money!’ We need more teachers, we need more resources, and all the rest of it!’."

It is clear that he is more alert to coming challenges, such as automation, than many politicians half his age. Halfway through our conversation, he leaves the room and returns enthusiastically toting a picture of an driverless lorry. It transpires that this Thatcherite is even increasingly receptive to the idea of the ultimate state handout: a universal basic income. “There’s one part of me that says: ‘How awful to give someone a sum for doing nothing! What are they going to do, for heaven’s sake, for Christ’s sake!’" he says. "But on the other hand, I think the drawback to the four-day working week or four-hour working day... I think it’s going to happen in your lifetime. If people are only working for a very short space of time, they will have to have some sort of basic income.” 

Predictably, the upshot of this vignette is that his beloved UTCs and their multi-skilled graduates are part of the solution. Friend and foe alike praise Baker’s indefatigable dedication to the cause. But, with the ranks of doubters growing and the axe likely to fall on at least one of its institutions again, it remains to be seen in what form the programme will survive.

Despite the ignominy of the last few weeks, however, Baker is typically forthright: “I sense a turning of the tide in our way now. But I still fight. I fight for every bloody one.”