Punishing the “workshy”

// 11 November 2010

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Channel 4 News reports that 66% of the public support withdrawing job seekers’ allowance from people who turn down the offer of a job or job interview. This comes on the day when Iain Duncan Smith revealed his “three strikes” plan to frighten encourage people off benefits:

Unemployed claimants who turn down offers of work, refuse to apply for jobs or fail to turn up for interviews will lose their Job Seekers Allowance. If they do this once, they lose the £65-a-week allowance for three months. If they do this twice, for six months; and if they do this three times, for three years.

69% of people also support more stringent testing for those receiving Disability Living Alowance. 73 per cent support plans to make the unemployed spend four weeks doing unpaid work in order to keep receiving their full benefits

I would hazard a guess that many of those supporting IDS have not got much further than “Well if they can’t be bothered to take the job that’s there, why should they get benefits?” If only it were that simple.

For a start, making DLA tests disability benefit tests* even more stringent, when we know that they are already not fit for purpose and are administered by a private company that is required to get people off the benefit in order to make profit, will result in more people on JSA that are not actually able to work, particularly in a society that prizes long, non-flexible working hours and is thoroughly disabilst. Do 66% of the public really want to force people into a situation where they will have to choose between taking a job that will make them even more ill and being left in abject poverty? Individuals are already storing up pills to commit suicide should their benefits and support be cut off. At least one man has tragically already taken his life, leaving the letters notifying him that his benefits were being stopped in lieu of a suicide note. This is the harsh reality of the benefit cuts.

Secondly, what happens if an individual refuses a job because it does not fit in with their caring responsibilities? Or because the vast majority of their salary would be spent paying someone else to take over the care work they do, work that they could perform better themselves? People officially designated as full time carers and parents with children under five will not be subject to the three strikes rule, but parents with children over five will be. If a single mother refuses three jobs that would prevent her looking after her kids properly, the money she needs to feed those kids will be cut off. The government claims that advisers will be asked to “ensure that the requirements they place on a recipient are reasonable for that person, taking into account their particular capabilities and circumstances”, but with a culture of complete disdain for benefit claimants I hardly think we can guarantee this will happen.

Other issues to consider include how far people are expected to travel to take a job, will they be expected to move home, will they have to put up with poor working conditions or workplace harassment in order to ensure they are not cut off for three years? Forcing people into jobs on pain of losing JSA can only make them more vulnerable as workers.

And quite how are we going to provide jobs for all the people on JSA when 100,000s of jobs are being cut? Even work at the bottom end of the pay scale will end up being taken – unpaid – by benefit-claimants that IDS wants to put to work so they don’t forget the “habits and routines” of working life. Why force people on benefits to do manual labour when they could be paid a proper wage for the work that needs to be done?

Oh, and while we’re on the subject, the Department for Work and Pensions’ own 2008 research into workfare schemes in other countries concludes that:

There is little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work. Workfare is least effective in getting people into jobs in weak labour markets where unemployment is high.

(H/T harpymarx)

So, it might on the surface sound logical to stop giving money to people who do not take jobs they are offered, or to make them work for their benefits. But the reality is far more complicated. What we need is policies and schemes that will enable people to enter employment, not punishments and sanctions. What we need is universal free childcare and jobs that are valued for the good they do society, not the number of pounds they bring in for millionaire shareholders. What we need is a radical overhaul of our working culture and employment structures, so that people are treated as complex individuals with varying needs and responsibilties, not just cogs in the Tories’ sacred private sector machine. Trying to force people into an employment system that cannot cope with them is just a waste of time, with a potentially devastating human cost.

*Apologies for my error here. The disability benefit that is dependent on one’s ability to work is Employment and Support Allowance, not DLA. I do think the poll is still indicative of support for more stringent testing for this benefit too, as the supposed epidemic of people “pretending” they are ill or disabled so they don’t have to work is generally the focus of media coverage of disability benefit, and the general public will base their views on this coverage.

Comments From You

J // Posted 11 November 2010 at 9:38 pm

Completely right, Laura. It’s just disgusting how the national debt is being used as an excuse to further disadvantage the disadvantaged.

Sheila // Posted 11 November 2010 at 10:11 pm


I think you should make it clear that you did not mean to insinuate in your statement that if woman refuses to work because if she did “she couldn’t then look after her children properly” that all working women are not looking after their children properly.

Slightly off the main topic, but I am getting tired of the anti-work messages on this website.

spiralsheep // Posted 11 November 2010 at 10:43 pm

“Why force people on benefits to do manual labour when they could be paid a proper wage for the work that needs to be done?”

Answers itself.

Good post, thank you.

Scared disabled person // Posted 11 November 2010 at 11:22 pm

I completely agree with this article, but even here there is the pervasive misunderstanding about DLA. It is not an out-of-work benefit: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jun/23/disability-allowance-exists-reason The “not fit for purpose” tests that are producing such appalling results are for ESA, which replaces Incapacity Benefit.

But this does point to why these polls are so awful. If the writer of this article isn’t clear about what DLA actually is and how it works then the average person on the street most certainly isn’t. There has been a campaign of misinformation from politicians to create this confusion, which they can now capitalise on. And it applies across the board, right down to the way a question was asked in the poll about the £400 housing benefit cap rather than the far more insidious cuts that will actually do most of the real damage, both based on and reinforcing the utterly false idea that has taken hold that this is the only housing benefit change and limit and that most HB claimants are receiving huge amounts. Grab the headlines with something that will outrage people and the changes that will cause tremendous hardship to millions slip by unnoticed.

There has been a concerted programme of villification of benefit claimants in all areas, ramped up under the Tories but already driving people to suicidal despair under New Labour, that has succeeded so spectacularly that now any amount of punishment is acceptable and in fact will be cheered on. If only people realised that benefit claimants are not a distinct group that is somehow utterly different from them, but that they could become one themselves at any moment. Illness and accident can strike anyone. And those of us who have been struck are living in terror and despair.

On another note, more specific to this site, I find myself wondering with a sick feeling in my stomach whether a woman might find her benefits cut off because she refuses to become a lap dancer.

polly // Posted 11 November 2010 at 11:32 pm

Well there are hardly any jobs out there of course. The few jobs that there are will be scrambled over by people who’ve recently been made redundant. So why would an employer want to employ someone who’d been unemployed a long time, when they’ve got skilled would be staff beating their door down?

Which just means it’s empty gesture politics – trying to stigmatise people who can’t find work. Talking of suicide, do you remember the tragic case of Vicky Harrison who killed herself after applying for 200 jobs over 2 years?


Laura // Posted 12 November 2010 at 7:55 am

@ Sheila – I was referring to a woman refusing a specific job offer that did not fit in with her caring responsibilities. I did not mean that accepting any job would automatically mean she could not look after her chlidren properly. Clearly that would not be true.

@ Scared disabled person – You’re right, and I did know that but was mislead by the poll as you suggest (the joys of blogging witha tired post-work brain!), as the implication is that there should be more stringent tests for disability benefits full stop, not just DLA. I will add a note to the post for clarification.

sianushka // Posted 12 November 2010 at 9:17 am

the debate on channel 4 was quite upsetting. i thought dwayne was going to start crying, as he struggled to explain to those self satisfied idiots that it isn’t as easy as walking in to a job centre and saying yes to everything!

there are 5 claimants to every job at the mo. they are cutting thousands of jobs in the public sector, and the private sector is set to make job cuts too. there are no jobs!

i was on JSA for three months last year after being made redundant. i live in bristol, and my ‘advisor’ said there were some jobs in my field in poole and plymouth. i looked at him like he was stupid and we moved on. now, i wouldn’t be able to move on. i may well have been expected to do a two hour train commute that would eat up all my wages.

further to the very valid points about caring responsibility factor outlined by laura, there is also another factor to be taken in to account – principles. we’ve just had a hooters open in bristol, and they were advertising in the job centre. now, if i was unemployed and they offered me a job in hooters i would refuse because i don’t believe i should work somewhere where i am open to sexual harassment etc. but now young women would have to take the job. similarly i once had an interview for a company who’s principles i strongly disagreed with (this was when i was temping). i went to the interview to get ‘practise’ and they offered me the job which i turned down. but if this was to happen to someone on benefits, they would now have to take the job.

it makes me furious! it is very easy for people who have never been unemployed to preach that ‘you should get on yer bike;. but sometimes there’s no where to cycle to! i applied for about 5 jobs a week when i was on benefits and ended up temping because i wasn’t getting call backs. people distrust ‘breaks from work’. people are suspicious of why you are unemployed. and the longer you are out of work, and the more prejudices people have towards the unemployed (fuelled precisely by IDS language such as ‘it’s a sin’) means it becomes a vicious circle.

i know some people take the pi**. but it is a minority. why not get vodafone to pay its tax bill, why not save those £5billion in the benefits system that are lost by internal errors?

we should encourage and help people who want to work find work. but this is just hurting people without understanding the issues that people face.

starsandscars // Posted 12 November 2010 at 11:32 am

What a lot of people don’t seem to have considered is- what are people who have their benefits denied to them going to do, with no income? I predict rocketing rates of crime. Also suicide, as discussed in the post.

As for the 66% who agree with the cuts? I think we have truly been Divided.. here’s hoping they won’t Conquer.

This is really upsetting stuff, thanks for the link to the Where’s The Benefit? blog.

HarpyMarx // Posted 12 November 2010 at 12:25 pm

I agree with your article Laura.

@ Scared disabled person: totally agree. Though politicians now sod all about the benefits system either. Ed Miliband on Andrew Marrr’s show couple of wks ago showed absolute ignorance of the benefits system. Marr referred to Incapacity Benefit as “Invalidity Benefit or whatever it’s called now”!

While Miliband referred to it as “Incapacity Benefit”… Er no, under James Purnell’s watch IB became ESA!

This illustrates that these politicians are clueless on the basics of the benefits system, these attacks are ideological as opposed to anything based on evidence.

It’s easy to accuse people on benefits as “work shy scroungers” etc. intensifying vilification, stigmatisation and certainly demonisation with Workfare.

It’s classic divide and rule where the powerful point at the powerless as a way of distraction from the real enemy…the ones who got us into the economic mire in the first place.

We didn’t cause the economic crisis, it was the boom and bust mentality along with casino capitalism. Neoliberalism is the riot of the rich.

Viva resistance!

Sue N // Posted 12 November 2010 at 12:55 pm

I agree totally with your post Laura. Many people just hear the words benefit and automatically think ‘workshy’. Attitudes to the unemployed, disabled, sick and elderly are getting worse by the week and it is truly despicable that it is government policy-led. For JSA, there are already sanctions in place for not turning up to interviews or not applying for jobs which are enforced with utter ruthlessness in some cases. I know someone who was given a list of 8 jobs to apply for by their advisor, which they duly did but when they went to sign on the next time, they were told their JSA had been stopped for 2 weeks. Turns out her advisor had rung round the employers and 1 of the 8 had said no application had been received. So that was it – no enquiry, no what happened? – done. Luckily, my friend had proof she had sent the application via email but it still took 2 weeks to sort out so no money for almost a month. If errors such as this happen under this new system I dread to think what chaos, stress and misery will ensue for many people already close to the edge.

Juliet // Posted 12 November 2010 at 12:58 pm

Great post, Laura. It is terrible what’s happening. A lot of it is down to the tabloids, I think, with their relentless focus on the ‘workshy’. This idea of making unemployed people sweep the streets, etc, is just beneath human dignity. You’re unemployed through no fault of your own, trying to find other work in a recession, and then insult gets added to that injury! It is just disgusting. The most vulnerable in society are always on the receiving end.

Juliet // Posted 12 November 2010 at 1:17 pm

PS – also agree with standandscars, how the hell are people whose benefit is stopped supposed to survive? Beg? It is terrifying.

Denise // Posted 12 November 2010 at 1:27 pm

Laura, well done for writing about this awful situation. As usual, the government picks on people who can’t fight back. Why don’t they (as Sianushka says) get Vodafone to pay their tax bill, and make the system more leak-foolproof? Take the bankers to task? And all those who can fiddle more money in half an hour than some perceived ‘workshy benefit cheat’ could in twenty years? Local councils also waste huge amounts of money. Do something about all that, instead of picking on people who need help and support. Also, as Juliet said, the scum tabloids are responsible for whipping up prejudice and hatred against people on benefits. I wish people would stop buying and reading them. They are a total blight on society.

coldhabour // Posted 12 November 2010 at 1:42 pm


“Slightly off the main topic, but I am getting tired of the anti-work messages on this website.”

It depends on what you call “anti-work”. In a democratic society of free association where decisions, resources, and onerous jobs were shared equally then there is no reason why people would want to avoid work as it would be directly in the interests of themselves and society to produce and indulge in labor. In a society that we are presently residing in where people are forced into low paid wage-slavery via socio-economic circumstances for the benefit of a minority (the capitalist class) who profit from their labor, who control and monopolize resources and capital it is not surprising people don’t find ‘work’ a joy to behold. The wages of jobs that I.D.S. wants to force people into (especially in London) are simply unlivable, people know work is only for others profit and not in their interests. But here’s the rub; all these social obligations are put at the feet of the workers with no scrutiny paid to the capitalists and employers who are profiting from the system. When does I.D.S. talk about employers responsibility to pay people a livable wage, treat them humanely make them feel honored and respected for doing the most important work in society? When does he talk about the need for capitalist landlords to charge a fair rent and maintain the properties that they employ to make a fortune out of people they have priced out of the market in the first place? The answer is never; the capitalist classes have no responsibility but to themselves, to maintain power at societies expense for their own benefit. It wouldn’t take a genius to work out why the privately owned media place no scrutiny on the capitalist class’s that own them, turkey’s don’t vote for Christmas.

The Rich always have been protected from the ‘free market’ as the days of the ‘to big to fail’ bailouts have shown, it’s always the workers and those least able to cope with cutbacks who have had to face the rough end of the ‘free market’.


Tamara // Posted 12 November 2010 at 1:57 pm

Thank you for this, Laura.

It is utterly stupid and cruel to just expect people to up sticks and move to another part of the country (maybe away from friends and family who give them support), just to get some rubbish paid job. It’s always the same, some stupid tosser out-of-touch politician gets a deranged idea and lots of people have to suffer for it, even have their lives torn apart. Politicians don’t even know what they’re talking about half the time, all they care about is their ‘image’ and vote-grabbing, and they have nothing but contempt for people. They make me sick. What can the likes of Ian bloody Duncan Smith or some other smug bastard on Newsnight know how it feels to be vulnerable, have to take crap jobs if you can even get a job, or what it’s like to live with a disability? And get penalised for that? They don’t know. And they don’t care. All I’m seeing is elitist people who have never had to worry about money in their lives, and never will have to, talking bullshit and lecturing the rest of us.

Jennifer Drew // Posted 12 November 2010 at 2:51 pm

Yet again the white male-dominated Tories and Lib Dems are scapegoating the unemployed and rightly know that by putting the focus on unemployed and disadvantaged women and men this ensures Josephine and Joe Public don’t realise just what is happening .

Meanwhile it ‘s jam all round for the white male-dominated bankers and the male leaders of multi-national corporations all busily enaged in ensuring they don’t pay any tax because they have accountants employed exploiting loopholes in the tax system. Oh and don’t forget millionaires Cameron, Osborne and Clegg are ‘sitting pretty’ because they won’t be affected by any of the cuts.

Jam all round for the white middle-class boys club.

vicky // Posted 12 November 2010 at 4:14 pm

I’ve been on ESA since May when I lost my job due to mental health issues. I’ve got the medical next week, and looking at the criteria they tick boxes on, I’m not going to “pass”. I’ve been job hunting but had very little luck- the gap in my employment, no reference, terrible absence record, all going against me. On a good week I can apply for 2 jobs and buy the job papers- which probably won’t be enough to show I’m actively searching for work. The thought of going on jobseekers scares me enough as I’m worried I can;t meet the search requirements, and the proposed changes bother me even more. I used to work in care and it really triggered my ptsd, I am not going back into a sector that has made me ill. I’m just going to hold on to the hope that someone in the job centre might actually consider my needs as a person rather than someone faking illness

Philippa Willitts // Posted 12 November 2010 at 7:06 pm

Thanks for this post Laura, it’s a very frightening time for many, and I appreciate you writing about it here.

polly // Posted 13 November 2010 at 11:20 am

@scared disabled person. Well one thing the condems HAVE done, is banned sex industry ads from job centres with immediate effect.


So no, women can’t be forced to take jobs as lapdancers now. I don’t know what the position would be with jobs such as shop assistants in Ann Summers though. It’s not a place I’d like to work.

I see nothing wrong with a job sweeping the streets and I’d happily accept one if I was unemployed – if it was properly paid! What I do object to is people being made to do this type of job for JSA, which is £64 a week (for over 25’s). It’s a LOT less than the minimum wage.

Kelsi // Posted 14 November 2010 at 9:34 am

I’m afraid I DON’T completely agree. While I take the point you’re trying to make — and it’s been made in the liberal media a thousand times over in the past month — I’m getting a tad sick of hearing it.

In the first place, this post is just as alarmist as anything the government is “doing to scare people on benefits.” Linking to one anonymous internet commenter talking about suicide, which may or may not be serious, and then saying people are “storing up pills” as if it’s some kind of lemming-style mass suicide in the making is ridiculous, not to mention hugely hypocritical when you’ve just done a piece on the government trying to scare people.

The plan isn’t perfect; legislative plans are NEVER going to be perfect. Nevertheless, the welfare state is in desperate need of a serious overhaul.

Yes, maybe the government will force mothers of 5-year-olds to be lap dancers. Or maybe, since that claim is utterly ridiculous, they won’t. Maybe their programmes WILL take individual circumstances into account, build the confidence of those on long-term unemployment, get people with minor disabilities into work they can handle, and continue to support those with major ones who genuinely cannot do any paid work. Maybe it will end cycles of joblessness and ensure that people are benefits are, for the first time, better off in work than out of it. Maybe it will all be sunshine and rainbows and, in 20 years time, will be looked back on as a massively positive turning point for our nation’s welfare system. The fact is, no one knows until we try it, least of all the academics and politicians. Why not at least wait and see, instead of panicking people into thinking they’ll be effectively murdering poor, helpless individuals by supporting the cause?

Laura // Posted 14 November 2010 at 6:32 pm

Sorry for the delay in publishing this latest batch of comments – I didn’t have internet access over the weekend.

polly // Posted 14 November 2010 at 10:05 pm

@Kelsi, I put this link about the fifth comment down, it’s about a woman, Vicky Harrison, who committed suicide after applying unsuccessfully for 200 jobs.


So this isn’t just scare stories. That woman was obviously destroyed by constantly being rejected when applying for work. I’ve been in that position and believe me you feel pretty crap without the government going out of it’s way to humiliate you.

I have absolutely no objection to people being given assistance to get into work or getting (properly paid) work experience. This scheme is NEITHER of those though. It’s just bashing the poor.

I’ve also got experience of the kind of ‘help’ offered to people on benefits finding work and it’s piss poor believe me. When I asked for help with interview skills I was directed to a league of gentlemen type place where I was told to ‘wear something smart’, to the interview. That was the sum total of the advice offered – no shit sherlock!

Job centre staff are so ridiculously inept that a man was recently told that he if he went for a job interview he’d lose his benefits.


And this man was told he’d lose benefits for not attending an appointment a day after he’d got out of hospital.


I’m afraid i really don’t share your confidence that an underfunded, oversubscribed jobcentre is suddenly going to become an efficient service helping people find work.

Maia // Posted 15 November 2010 at 2:17 pm

Kelsi, let’s hope you never have to find out the hard way.

Kit // Posted 15 November 2010 at 3:23 pm

“Maybe their programmes WILL…get people with minor disabilities into work they can handle…” – Kelsi

thing is, how many jobs are flexible or accessible enough for people with disabilities? I suspect there’s more to it than just giving people the “confidence” to work and changing their own attitudes/view. It’s kind of putting the “blame” solely on the person who can’t find suitable work, or is unable to work in the current system.

I see folks saying a lot in these kind of discussions (out there in the wild on the Internet, that is ;)) that “it’s illegal for employers to discriminate now” as if that’s the only issue for someone trying to find work when they have a disability.

Kristin // Posted 17 November 2010 at 2:04 pm

Bit of an aside, but has anyone seen that BBC2 show with the two creepy middle-aged men (Rob Bryden and Steve Coogen) gorging huge, expensive lunches and dinners while they make supposedly witty conversation with one another (when not ogling young women staff members)? The bill for their last lunch was about a hundred and ninety quid. I kept thinking how the JSA allowance is about sixty-four quid a week. Depressing.

Emily // Posted 17 November 2010 at 3:00 pm

Hey everyone, cheer up! Who needs to worry about losing their jobs/getting jobs/paying mortgages/managing on this or that pathetic ‘benefit’ when there’s a ROYAL WEDDING on the way?! Millionaires Clegg and Cameron say you should all be very happy about that and it will make you forget your problems.

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