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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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit