Unemployment figures just fell by 35,000. Good! “A step in the right direction,” said Chris Grayling, the employment minister. But his press release made no mention of one important fact. Indeed, his press release bore all the fingerprints of Grayling’s well-known sleight of hand with statistics – no lies, no untruths, but a certain economy with inconvenient facts.
Examine the ONS figures and you find full-time jobs did not increase: they fell by 27,000. All the increase was in part-time jobs for men. There are now 1.4 million part-timers desperately seeking but failing to find longer hours. A part-time job is far better than no job, a step on the ladder and a release from the listless despair of unemployment. So does it matter that full-time work is still falling and only part-time jobs growing?
Until this month, it didn’t matter so much. Labour’s working tax credits made sure that part-time work always paid more than the dole by topping up low pay to help people to take any first-step job. But this month Grayling and Iain Duncan Smith abolished working tax credits for any couple failing to find at least 24 hours work a week – the deepest cut ever inflicted on low-income families, unthinkable by any previous government, including Margaret Thatcher’s. A family on £17,000 has lost £74 a week, tipping them into poverty.
In a speech this week to Policy Exchange, Grayling yet again repeated what can only be called an untruth: “Our reforms will make sure that people will always be better off in work than on benefits.” Universal credit in future may do that – if it ever works. For now, Grayling’s “reform” means 210,000 families working under 24 hours may have to abandon work altogether, as they find the only way to keep a roof over their head and food on the table is life on the jobseeker’s allowance – a tragically self-defeating policy.
In that same speech Grayling defended his work experience programme which was criticised by me and many others when it emerged that companies like Tesco were using large numbers of the young unemployed to stack shelves for free, without training or a job offer, and that anyone dropping out could lose benefits. Grayling labelled critics of this programme “job snobs”, as if we were deriding the work itself. But the protest was against large companies using a battalion of free labour as a substitute for employing people fairly on the minimum wage.
He castigated what he called “the Polly Toynbee left” for “insulting some great companies who were helping young people get a job”. He took a swipe at my book Hard Work, in which I reported on the undervaluing of essential work done by care assistants, hospital cleaners, nursery assistants, dinner ladies, call-centre and bakery workers. Soaring inequality is partly caused by the steep fall in pay for these manual jobs. Grayling said: “It is hard work. For everyone. Particularly for the low paid. But even those at the other end of the pay scale often work all the hours God sends to compete in an aggressive international marketplace.”
Everyone works hard, so get over it, was his message, as if pay and prestige make no difference: Bob Diamond works hard too. Grayling laid into those “who demand swingeing taxes on wealth creators“, by which he means the wealthy. You’re a “job snob” if you criticise employers who pay too little to support a family (or pay nothing on Grayling’s programme). Is it “job snobbery” to object to insecure work with few prospects, run by temp agencies offering zero-hours contracts? Taking these jobs myself for my book, I found people doing essential work contemptuously treated and underpaid, yet still striving to offer good services caring for others. These would be good jobs if fairly rewarded in pay and respect.
After his attack on me, Grayling and I were invited to debate on Radio 4’s PM programme, but he refused. Had he agreed, I would have challenged his deeply misleading presentation of another set of figures: he said research showed “those undertaking a work experience placement were 16% more likely to be off benefits 21 weeks later than young jobseekers who don’t participate”. Not quite a lie, this was profoundly deceptive. The number “off benefits” was in fact only 6 percentage points higher than those not on work experience – 40% for the control group compared with 46% on his scheme. Six points up is a positive result, according to Jonathan Portes of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, who did the research: improvements are hard in this field. But “16%” sounds deceptively higher – and the ONS should complain. What about this? Grayling’s “off benefits” implies they all got jobs, but many simply vanished and may be adrift. Portes says 35% got jobs, compared with 27% not on the scheme – better, but not spectacular.
As a result of protests, many companies pulled out, including Sainsbury’s, Waterstones and Matalan. Tesco was so alarmed by bad publicity that it immediately promised the minimum wage and a guaranteed job for all completing work experience satisfactorily. Had we met on the radio, I would have asked Grayling why he doesn’t insist all employers do likewise. But that would too closely resemble Labour’s Future Jobs Fund, which he abolished and which Portes says was a success whose “cancellation had a worse effect than expected”. Portes says if Labour’s job guarantee was still in place, the number of young people out of work for over a year would not have tripled in the last year.
Grayling’s Youth Contract, just starting, offers a £2,200 bonus to employers taking on young people, but has places for only 160,000 of the million out of work. Portes fears it may go the way of George Osborne’s national insurance holiday for small firms taking on extra staff, which had zero employer take-up.
As for “the Polly Toynbee left”, does he imply I’m some kind of Trotskyite? That shows how far the ground has shifted rightwards in the decades since Grayling and I were both in the Social Democratic Party. I remain a social democrat. I want to see the frightening trajectory of ever greater inequality go into reverse. I want the strong, not the weak, to bear the brunt of this recession. I want Britain to aim for the social and economic balance that thrives in Nordic nations. But Grayling, with his welfare cuts, draws inspiration from all the neoliberal small statism wafting across the Atlantic, imbued with the Ayn Rand and Fox News meanness of spirit.
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