Government plans to force the long-term unemployed to do unpaid manual labour have come under fire from Labour, unions, charities and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith will this week unveil plans for four-week programmes of compulsory community work, doing jobs like litter-picking or gardening, for jobless people deemed to have lost the work ethic.
His Cabinet colleague Danny Alexander said the Work Activity placements will be used as a “sanction” against benefit claimants who fail to take advantage of available support to find employment.
But Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said the plan was not fair and could drive vulnerable people into despair, telling BBC WM Radio: “People who are struggling to find work and struggling to find a secure future are, I think, driven further into a sort of downward spiral of uncertainty, even despair, when the pressure is on in that way.
“People often are in this starting place, not because they are wicked or stupid or lazy but because circumstances have been against them … and to drive that spiral deeper does seem a great problem.”
Under Mr Duncan Smith’s plans, job advisers will be able to direct jobseekers who they believe would “benefit from experiencing the habits and routines of working life” to undertake a 30-hours-per-week work placement.
The scheme is expected to be targeted at thousands of claimants believed to have opted for a life on benefits or to have an undeclared job on the side. Anyone refusing to take part could have their £65-a-week Jobseekers Allowance stopped for at least three months.
Mr Duncan Smith said: “One thing we can do is pull people in to do one or two weeks’ manual work – turn up at 9am and leave at 5pm, to give people a sense of work, but also when we think they’re doing other work. The message will go across; play ball or it’s going to be difficult.”
But shadow work and pensions secretary Douglas Alexander accused the Government of “focusing on the work-shy but offering nothing to the workless”, while TUC senior policy officer Richard Exell said the policy would be “very unfair to unemployed people, especially long-term unemployed people”.
Richard Hawkes, chief executive of disability charity Scope, said: “Many disabled people would find work experience beneficial, but such schemes are only of use if they are tailored to the individual and are designed to help them develop relevant skills and experience. Using voluntary work as a punishment within the welfare system will do little to help disabled people find sustainable employment and sends a counter-productive message about the benefits of work.”