Workfare vs. Community Sentences – Incoherent Government

Nikhil Venkatesh @ Edinburgh Against Poverty

Notwithstanding the plethora of consultants currently on government books, there remains a gap that needs very much to be filled. Employing what I describe as a ‘freelance philosopher’ may not look like the smartest move in a time of austerity, but it would have some tangible benefits. The philosopher would not be there to make decisions; I am not prescribing some sort of ‘philosopher-king’ from Plato’s The Republic; her job would be merely to examine government policy to make sure it was not contradictory. A good example of incoherence in Coalition thinking comes to mind from the news this week.

The government line on ‘Workfare’ – unpaid internships for job seekers, which, if refused, see the unfortunate claimant lose his benefits – is that work experience is a good thing. They believe that, in the words of Chris Grayling MP  “All of the evidence we can see is that this does better than simply leaving people on JSA, it actually helps more young people get into work.” This is despite a DWP report from 2008 finding that Workfare can ‘reduce employment chances’. The report studied how Workfare programmes had worked in other countries – the USA, Canada and Australia – and found that paid placements, and subsidised jobs ‘can be more effective than work for benefit programmes’ and that ‘there is little evidence that Workfare increases the likelihood of finding work’. This is partly a matter for common sense: if there are no more jobs in the economy, how is giving free labour to companies going to help? Shouldn’t a job seeker spend their time looking for actual jobs, rather than spending two weeks stacking shelves? How does a fortnight of low-skilled, forced labour make anyone more employable?

 Back to the government’s moral argument – they see Workfare as a good thing for those involved; the idea is that if people get into work habits, they will become more employable. In short, the government think forced unpaid work is a reward; it is beneficial to the people involved, and it is in no way a punishment.


Now consider community sentences, a reform of which was reported this week. The theory behind a community sentence is that making a convicted criminal clean the streets, paint a wall, or prune a tree is a punishment for her misdeed. One can add to this ideas about rehabilitation, but ultimately, a community sentence is punishment – just a lower form than a prison sentence. In short, the government line is that forced unpaid work is a punishment; it is a removal of rights from the offender, and it should not be seen as ‘getting away with it’ (Kenneth Clarke’s words).

But isn’t a community sentence just like unpaid work experience? Don’t criminals serving these sentences gain valuable work experience, get into the habits of work, and become more employable? If Workfare is beneficial, so are community sentences. If community sentences are a punishment for criminals, Workfare is punishment for the poor.

A coherent government policy would understand the contradiction inherent in these two policies (Ken Clarke might say he has, so he’s ‘toughening up’ community sentences, but the ultimate idea of unpaid work as a punishment will continue to be the foundation of the system) and change one of them. A philosophically literate public would remind them that you can’t run a country on a paradox.

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