Labour should respond to Osborne's benefits cuts with a jobs guarantee

A jobs guarantee would allow Labour to defend benefits from a position that resonates with the public.

Osborne has set Labour a trap. As Rafael Behr clearly explains, either Labour supports the benefits changes that see devastating real-term cuts to the most vulnerable, or they are left arguing in the Commons in support of people on benefits, playing into the hands of the worst stereotypes of the party in terms of public spending and supporting so called "scroungers". So what to do?

The party has to be clear about one thing. Work is the best way to support people out of poverty and get the economy moving again. Labour. The clue is in the name. Talk to some members, and you would think the worst news from the Autumn Statement for poorer people were the benefit cuts. It wasn’t. The worst news for poorer people was that growth will be negative this year and stagnate for much longer than we thought. Without jobs, there is no hope.

The first point the party has rightly emphasised is that most people being hit by these benefit cuts will be in work. Ed Balls has been good at articulating this so far, breaking down the false stereotype the chancellor presents us with between "strivers" and "scroungers".

But I'm not talking about that argument, which I believe we've already won with the public. I'm talking about how we defend benefits for those who are out of work. The "strivers" who spend eight to ten hours a day applying for jobs without so much as a word back. How do we make their benefits seem fair to the working person who lives next door?

One answer - which I’m putting out for discussion rather than a definitive solution - is a jobs guarantee. If someone capable of working has been unable to find work in a year, then the state guarantees them a job and pays them at least the minimum wage. Labour shouldn't support any further erosion of benefits in parliament until that promise has been kept.

Evidence suggests that this scheme worked well under the Future Jobs Fund, which offered a six month placement to unemployed young people until the government axed it. In fact DWP’s own research showed it delivered a net benefit of £7,750 per participant. Others such as Stephen Timms and Richard Layard have researched what it would be like to extend it to all ages.

Putting this suggestion to someone in Ed’s office, they reasonably argued that it still does nothing for those people who are in work on benefits. That's true, and a devastatingly sad reality for those struggling to afford Christmas and pay their bills in the new year. But as I’ve argued before, pushing the living wage is a much better way of helping the working poor than subsidising low wage jobs through tax credits, particularly when money is tight. 

Obviously the most important reason for a jobs guarantee is that it gives people a chance to help themselves. But it also has strategic advantages. It shows that Labour is being constructive and allows us to defend benefits from a position that resonates with the public. At a time when there are so many more claimants than jobs, it shows the Conservatives up for hitting people who are desperate to find work but can't find it. And on a deeper and more fundamental level, it may even cause a rebellion among the Liberal Democrats and give them cause to side with us in the Commons, defeating the government’s present measures altogether.

Labour leader Ed Miliband and shadow chancellor Ed Balls speak at a press conference at Labour headquarters. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

We don't need to build more prisons - we need to send fewer people there

The government talks a good game on prisons - but at the moment, the old failed policies hold sway

Some years ago the Howard League set up an independent expert review of what should happen to the penal system. We called it Do better, do less.

Too many governments have come in with enthusiasm for doing more, in the mistaken belief that this means better. We have ended up with more prisons, more prisoners, a bulging system that costs a fortune and blights lives. It is disappointing that the new regime appears to have fallen into the same old trap.

It is a big mistake to imagine that the justice system can be asked to sort out people’s lives. Prisons rarely, very rarely, turn people into model citizens able to get a great job and settle with a family. It is naïve to think that building huge new prisons with fewer staff but lots of classrooms will help to ‘rehabilitate’ people.

Let’s turn this on its head. There are more than 80,000 men in prison at any one time, and 40,000 of them are serving long sentences. Simply giving them a few extra courses or getting them to do a bit more work at £10 a week means they are still reliant on supplementary funding from families. Imagine you are the wife or partner of a man who is serving five to ten years. Why should you welcome him back to your home and your bed after all that time if you have hardly been able to see him, you got one phone call a week, and he’s spent all those years in a highly macho environment?

The message of new prisons providing the answer to all our problems has been repeated ad nauseam. New Labour embarked on a massive prison-building programme with exactly the same message that was trotted out in the Spending Review today – that new buildings will solve all our problems. Labour even looked at selling off Victorian prisons but found it too complicated as land ownership is opaque. It is no surprise that, despite trumpeting the sell-off of Victorian prisons, the one that was announced was in fact a jail totally rebuilt in the 1980s, Holloway.

The heart of the problem is that too many people are sent to prison, both on remand and under sentence. Some 70 per cent of the people remanded to prison by magistrates do not get a prison sentence and tens of thousands get sentenced to a few weeks or months. An erroneous diagnosis of the problem has led to expensive and ineffective policy responses. I am disappointed that yet again the Ministry of Justice is apparently embarking on expansion instead of stemming the flow into the system.

A welcome announcement is the court closure programme and investment in technology. Perhaps, in the end, fewer courts will choke the flow of people into the system, but I am not optimistic.

It is so seductive for well-meaning ministers to want to sort out people’s lives. But this is not the way to do it. Homeless people stealing because they are hungry (yes, it is happening more and more) are taking up police and court time and ending up in prison. We all know that mentally ill people comprise a substantial proportion of the prison population. It is cheaper, kinder and more efficacious to invest in front line services that prevent much of the crime that triggers a criminal justice intervention.

That does leave a cohort of men who have committed serious and violent crime and will be held in custody for public safety reasons. This is where I agree with recent announcements that prison needs to be transformed. The Howard League has developed a plan for this, allowing long-term prisoners to work and earn a real wage.

The spending review was an opportunity to do something different and to move away from repeating the mistakes of the past. There is still time; we have a radical Justice Secretary whose rhetoric is redemptive and compassionate. I hope that he has the courage of these convictions.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.