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How the “Work Programme” could make the poor poorer

Making work pay is a laudable goal but this scheme isn’t how to do it.

Over the past year, I have sometimes felt as if I were battling almost alone against the coalition's ineptitude. Then, into the fray strode Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, with his critique of government policy in last week's issue of the New Statesman. His comments put the government in a real tizzy, with David Cameron and various ministers trying to defend themselves from the suggestion that they lack a mandate for their restructuring of the British welfare state.

I was struck in particular by Williams's claims that the term "big society" is "painfully stale" and the electorate is "being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted". That seems right. The plans to privatise the NHS, to take the most obvious example, were in neither the Conservative nor Liberal Democrat election manifesto.

I agree with the archbishop's criticisms of the Labour Party for failing to set out an alternative: "We are still waiting for a full and robust account of what the left would do differently and what a left-inspired version of localism might look like." The government has been so hopeless that Labour should be all over it. Tory attack dogs such as Michael Fallon have a point when they ask, "What would you do instead?" Labour needs answers to that question and soon.

The onslaught against the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, following the leak of old documents with zero news in them, shows that the right fears him. But Balls is the only tiger on the Labour front bench; the rest have been pussycats. Ed Miliband, whose performances at Prime Minister's Questions have been lacklustre, needs to raise his game. It is no good sitting around waiting for hoped-for policy reviews: it is time to get stuck in.

Obstacles to reform

Here is a useful piece of evidence to add to the opposition's arsenal. The full results of a survey conducted by the European Commission in November and December 2010 have just become available. The survey is part of the Eurobarometer series, which asks identical questions in all 27 member countries. The 22,560 respondents were asked whether they totally disagree, tend to disagree, tend to agree or totally agree that the economic crisis "means we should increase public deficits to create jobs". In the table below, I report by country the weighted percentage of those who said they tend to or totally agree.

The high percentages suggest that there is major opposition to the policy of decreasing public deficits. Two-thirds of UK respondents were in favour of increasing public deficits to create jobs - a much higher proportion than in all the other major western countries. This looks like a potential support base for Labour, whose strategy in opposition should be all about the need for jobs, jobs and more jobs, especially for the young.

The coalition's "Work Programme", which was launched on 10 June, is more likely to make the poor poorer than it is to get Britain back to work. To make work pay is a laudable aim but is this the way to do it? The Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, and his employment minister, Chris Grayling, face three main problems in implementing their reforms.

First, they promise that the programme will give 2.4 million unemployed people help to find jobs over the next five years, which seems unlikely, given that there are so few jobs available. At present, there are 2.43 million people who are unemployed and a further 2.4 million who are out of the labour force - those who are neither employed nor unemployed but want a job. The Office for National Statistics reported that, on average, there were only 469,000 vacancies available from February to April, which implies only one vacancy for every ten jobseekers. The number of jobseekers per vacancy is likely to be much higher in areas of high unemployment. There remains no evidence that the private sector will deliver the large numbers of jobs the coalition is hoping for.


Jobs for the jobless

Second, the reforms are largely untested and on too small a scale to make a serious dent in the problem. Under the scheme, approved providers - primarily private companies - will try to find work for claimants of benefits in the UK. Seven-year contracts have been agreed and are on a payment-by-results basis, so the worry is that these companies will pick the individuals who are more likely to get jobs and ignore unemployment black spots. The withdrawal of PricewaterhouseCoopers after losing out on contracts amid suggestions that the scheme was commercially unviable was not a good start.

Third, the evidence is that the unemployed are not just a bunch of lazy bastards. The vast majority are unemployed involuntarily. Many have the wrong skills and are in the wrong place. The housing market makes it hard for them to relocate. Some are simply too ill to work. Being jobless makes people unhappy and the longer they are without work, the less happy they are. Being without work is bad for self-esteem and mental health.
Based on my calculations using the 2010 Labour Force Survey, the unemployed are three times as likely as those who are employed to report that they are suffering from depression and bad nerves. It doesn't matter for policy whether their poor mental health is a cause or result of their unemployment. They deserve compassion.

David Blanchflower is NS economics editor and a professor at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, and the University of Stirling

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

This article first appeared in the 20 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia

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Is the Catholic Church about to welcome the LGBT community?

Something beneath the surface is shifting in the Catholic Church regarding its attitude to gay people, as its Synod on the Family gets underway.

Is the Catholic Church reaching an LGBT tipping point? The short answer, for anyone so buoyantly optimistic as to expect the imminent arrival of Elton John whirling a thurible round his head and backed by a leather-clad heavenly choir, is: No!

The Catholic Church remains, for the most part, deeply suspicious of homosexuality: as for transgender, the word is that – despite the claims of mostly right-wing, reactionary evangelist types – the term, let alone the issue, has scarcely registered the quietest of blips on the Vatican radar.

Still, something is stirring: if this is not a tipping point, it may yet be the moment that the balance is beginning to shift towards greater, more open acceptance, which, by my calculation, might just break out sometime around 2030. And that’s 15 years hence – not half eight this evening...

Cause for optimism is the Synod of bishops on the Family, taking place in Rome on 4-25 October. Its theme is the distinctly unsexy “vocation and mission of the family in the Church and the modern world”.

Its scope, set out at the conclusion of a previous session in October 2014, includes “the importance of affectivity in life” and “guiding engaged couples in their preparation for marriage”.  Important, but in the end, quite dry stuff.

What has set secular speculation off is the fact that also on the agenda are the “pastoral care for couples civilly married or living together”, as well as “pastoral attention towards persons with homosexual tendencies”.  Note the p-word: “pastoral”. It's key to understanding what is at stake here: what the bishops might be debating, and what they cannot.

This body cannot change policy: cannot, in the jargon of the church, address “doctrinal issues”. Pastoral is about how we treat people: whether, for instance, the Church should exclude divorced and remarried couples from receiving Communion; whether a woman requires absolution at bishop level before she may be reunited with the Church, or whether her parish priest may suffice; whether a gay couple may attend mass together.

Secular readers may, at this point, shrug and decide the whole thing is beyond them. Yet that is to ignore the importance that faith continues to play in the lives of hundreds of millions of people the world over. These things matter: they have an impact on individual lives and they influence, and are influenced by, the politics of each country in which the Church exists.

Moreover, how these things are managed reflect two very different ideas of what the Church should be and the role it should play in people's lives. Reformers and liberals, one of which Pope Francis is widely considered to be, seek guidance in the New Testament. They look to  evidence, particularly in the gospels, that sin is an individual issue, a matter between God and the person concerned, and not for other humans, however imbued with book learning they are, to judge.

Others take a different, more dogmatic view. Some might even characterise it as pharisaic: a tendency towards strict observance of the rules with little regard for the spirit. This is why the constant drip of stories about how Pope Francis has extended the hand of welcome to those traditionally considered sinful – phoning a divorced woman and telling her she can receive communion, or hugging a trans man – are significant.

So much for the split – and it is significant – within the Church. Though you’d be hard-pressed to understand this in classic political terms. The accepted gloss is that this Synod is all about learned debate. There is no lobbying, and absolutely no playing out of the issues in the wider press arena.

Do not be fooled for an instant. Lobbying is going on behind the scenes. But not as we know it.

Over the weekend, the news lit up with the removal from office of Monsignor Krysztof Olaf Charamsa, a gay priest who rather unhelpfully came out shortly before the Synod. Far more significant was the launch in Rome of the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics (GNRC), attended by over 120 people, and including an interview with former Irish President Dr Mary McAleese and a keynote closing address by Bishop Raul Vera from Mexico.

Pressure is being applied, and the quieter the pressure, the more confident you suspect are those behind the pressure. The letter from the GNRC to the Synod contained no demands; was little more than a gentle wave, a nod to say that LGBT Catholics exist – and they are not going away.

In the wake of the 2014 Synod, the Pope wrote openly of the twin "temptations" that the Church needed to avoid. There was, he suggested, a need to "chart a middle course between 'hostile inflexibility' to the letter of the law and a 'false sense of mercy'”.

Hence the many, many cryptic references to be found, these past months, in the Catholic press to the “need for mercy” or, conversely, “the danger of too much mercy”.

In practical terms, this is about keeping the Church together, while managing expectations both inside and out as he does so.

The first Synod, attended by the most senior clerics in the Catholic hierarchy, still managed to open up some radical discussion around the issue of gay people within the Church. This second Synod, which includes input from bishops and lay people, is widely expected to be significantly more radical – and while that may find favour across broad swathes of the Western Church, it must also contend with the fact that in numeric terms, the Catholic Church now draws heavily from Africa and Eastern Europe, where views on LGBT issues are far more conservative.

Already, the Vatican press office has revealed that bishops have said they feel the need to change the language used by clergy with regard to gay people, cohabiting couples or, in the case of some African nations, polygamous marriages.

That may seem little to those of us used to the straightforward democratic battles for equal marriage and LGBT rights. It is, within the Catholic Church, a shift of tectonic proportions: and the Synod still has two and a half weeks to run!

Jane Fae is a trans activist who is also a practising Catholic. In the run-up to the synod, she co-ordinated the writing of a document on transgender in the Church for key attendees at the synod – and later this month she hopes, along with other trans Catholics, to be meeting with senior officials of the Catholic Church in England.

Jane Fae is a feminist writer. She tweets as @JaneFae.