Labour's plan to make benefit claimants take skills tests is smart policy

By seeking to ensure that all jobseekers acquire English and maths skills, the party is tackling one of the long-term causes of unemployment and of low pay.

Rachel Reeves's first major speech as shadow work and pensions secretary has been long anticipated. Back in November there was a memorable furore when the Telegraph reported that Labour was planning to "scrap benefits for under-25s" as part of its new approach to social security (Ed Miliband has told shadow ministers not to use the term "welfare"). The claim was quickly denied by Reeves, with angered activists told to wait for her speech in January, but it still aroused the suspicion of the left. Then on Saturday, in a story headlined "Youth Dole Axe", the Sun claimed that Reeves was set to announce plans to "take away" benefits from the young, prompting another wave of Twitter outrage.

Today, Reeves finally has a chance to speak for herself and will announce a policy far more sophisticated than the Sun's story implied (it is puzzling how some on the left, who consistently criticise tabloid reporting, are nevertheless prepared to believe their accounts of Labour policy). In her speech at IPPR, Reeves will detail Labour's plan to introduce a "Basic Skills Test" for all new claimants of Jobseeker's Allowance within six weeks of them signing on. Those who are deemed to lack basic maths, English and IT skills will be required to take up part-time training or lose their benefits (the party estimates that it will affect around 25,000 a month). No one will be automatically stripped of their benefits and the policy will apply to all jobseekers, not just the under-25s (proving the inaccuracy of those earlier reports). Reeves will say: "We all know that basic skills are essential in today’'s jobs market, but the shocking levels of English and maths among too many jobseekers are holding them back from getting work.  This traps too many jobseekers in a vicious cycle between low-paid work and benefits.

"Government plans in this area just aren'’t enough. They’'re now asking jobseekers who exit the failed Work Programme to take up literacy and numeracy training, three whole years after those people first make a claim for benefits.

"A Labour government will introduce a Basic Skills Test to assess all new claimants for Job Seekers Allowance within six weeks of claiming benefits. Those who don’t have the skills they need for a job will have to take up training alongside their jobsearch or lose their benefits. Labour’s Basic Skills Test will give the long-term unemployed a better chance of finding a job and will help us to earn our way out of the cost-of-living crisis."

There are some on the left who will bridle at the conditionality (accept training or lose your benefits) but the policy deserves to be welcomed by those genuinely committed to supporting the jobless. Too often in the past, jobseekers without basic skills have been left to stagnate on the dole, or accept insecure, low-paid employment (leaving them cycling between welfare and work). Nearly one in ten people claiming JSA lack basic literacy skills, while more than one in ten lack basic numeracy skills (making them twice as likely as those in work to not have these skills). Half are unable to complete basic word processing and spreadsheet tasks and nearly half lack basic emails skills (which may prove problematic if the online-only Universal Credit is ever fully introduced). Government research found that a third of people claiming Jobseeker's Allowance had claimed the benefit at least three times before and that nearly 20 per cent of those with repeat claims had problems with literacy or numeracy.

By ensuring that all jobseekers acquire basic skills, Labour is seeking to tackle one of the long-term causes of unemployment and of low pay. The policy is a natural companion to the previously-announced jobs guarantee, which would ensure that all young people out of work for more than a year and all adults out of work for more than two are offered a job paying at least the minimum wage.

The Tories are protesting that the new "Basic Skills Test" is just a "weak version" of a policy announced by George Osborne at last year's Autumn Statement. A Conservative spokesman said: "Labour are copying a Conservative policy that already exists and that is superior to the one they are proposing.

"After 13 years of Labour running our education system, many young people looking for work do not have the English and Maths skills they need to get a job. That's why, starting in some areas at first, anyone aged 18 to 21 signing on without these basic skills will be required to undertake training from day one or lose their benefits. And we are making the long-term changes needed to fix the system by requiring all young people who have not achieved a proper qualification in English and Maths at 16 to continue studying these subjects until age 19.

"Without basic English or Maths, there is a limited chance any young person will be able to stay off welfare. David Cameron's long-term economic plan will give young people the skills they need to get on in life and have a more financially secure future." 

But Labour is pointing out that the coalition's policy is merely a pilot for 18-21-year-olds, rather than an offer of training for all adults without basic skills. By combining such "tough love" measures with plans to abolish the coalition's most pernicious measures, such as the bedroom tax and the national benefit cap (replacing it with one regionally-weighted), Reeves is outlining a balanced welfare policy that both the left and the public can support. 

Elsewhere in her speech, she will again pledge to reform the system so that it gives greater weight to "contribution". This is a return to the Beveridgean principle that those who put more in, get more out. In an article last year, Reeves's predecessor, Liam Byrne, pledged to to examine a higher rate of Jobseeker's Allowance for those who have contributed more. He wrote: 

I think social security should offer more for those that chipped in most either caring or paying in National Insurance. Our most experienced workers and carers have earned an extra hand. We should make sure there something better for when they need it. That’s why we’re looking at just how we put the something for something bargain at the heart of social security reform, starting with a new deal for the over 50s.

This might sound attractive, but one concern among some in Labour is that, to to be affordable, higher benefits for some must mean lower benefits for others. As one Blue Labour figure told me, "our main welfare policy could actually prove more expensive". Unless the party makes it clear who will pick up the bill, the Tories will be able to charge it with promising more of the "unfunded spending" that "got us into this mess". I'm told that Reeves will be offering detailed proposals around contribution, and on pensions, in speeches later this year. 

A street cleaner passes the Jobcentre Plus office on January 18, 2012 in Bath. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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