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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.