Why Iain Duncan Smith needs to get his facts straight

The Work and Pensions Secretary insists that “almost everyone” can find work. The statistics tell a

Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, is interviewed by Mary Riddell and Andrew Porter in the Daily Telegraph today.

Discussing the much-feted universal credit welfare reform, the article notes that there will be a "marked shift" away from Britain's generous welfare system to a "more punitive, American-style one" that punishes "those who refuse to work".

This is the passage that caught my attention:

"The message will go across; play ball or it's going to be difficult," he says.

Pressed on the penalty regime and the gradual taking away of benefits from the most recalcitrant, Mr Duncan Smith first offers lengthy and detailed explanations about why almost all people will get back into work if they can.

But some, he acknowledges, will refuse. What will happen to these people and how will the system come after them?

"I think most of the public think that progressively you send them signals. They have a bit withdrawn, then a bit more, then eventually [you] have to say you will eventually lose all your benefit.

"The signal will get round very quickly that you are serious about this. We may have to do it initially to some of the more recalcitrant people. But I have a view about human nature: most people, once you start to show them the right way out, I think most people move.

"Those who won't play get lost in the system at present and they infect everyone else."

Let's just recap on the facts here. There are currently just under 2.5 million people claiming Jobseekers' Allowance in the UK. Analysis by the TUC in the summer found that dole claimants outnumber job vacancies by five to one. In London, it's more like seven to one, and in some boroughs even higher – in Hackney, it's 24 to one.

The number of job vacancies across the country has fallen consistently over the past 12 months. It is unlikely this will change. The government itself estimates that about 490,000 public-sector jobs will be lost as a result of the cuts set out in the Spending Review.

While ministers suggest that this will be offset by growth in the private sector, there is no indication of why this would be the case. A report by PwC last month argued that cuts would hurt the private sector, too, and forecast a further 500,000 job losses here – bringing the total to one million. Another estimate this week put the figure as high as 1.6 million.

Sadly, the interview does not elaborate on the "lengthy and detailed explanations" that Duncan Smith gave as to why everyone can get back into work. Given these figures, I would certainly be interested to know: getting "on your bike" to find work is irrelevant if there are five people for every job – if not dramatically more, once the cuts hit.

If the new system is going to be, as the article says, more akin to the punitive American system, one need only look across the Atlantic to see that this is difficult to maintain in such straitened times. President Obama has had to extend the 99-week limit on claiming benefits several times because of the dearth of jobs in some states.

A simpler benefits system that doesn't trap people in a dependency cycle is a commendable aim. Yet the continued suggestion that people are "choosing" not to work in the present economic climate is not only unreasonable; it indicates a worrying view of the poor. It also shows a wilful misunderstanding of current times, given that many, many more people will soon be forced to claim state support, whether they want to or not.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.