Monday, 8 November 2010

Slavery, Unpaid Work And Daytime TV: Constituents On Reforms To The Benefit System.

Today is filled with the post-weekend moans of the usual suspects, and also lots of calls from people with an opinion on Iain Duncan-Smith's latest proposal to make the long-term unemployed do a minimum of four weeks' voluntary work.

Constituents might all be sticking to the same subject but, God, their opinions vary. Some of them are enraged that people are to be made to work unpaid, and one even bandies the word "slavery" about. (Obviously the recent criticism of Boris et al for the use of over-the-top language hasn't filtered through to everyone yet.)

Of course, Mr Beales has a completely different point of view. (Probably due to those glasses of his.)

"Why does everyone keep saying these people will be working unpaid?" he says. "Taxpayers like me are already bloody paying them - to sit on their backsides and watch daytime TV. While eating pizza."

Thank God Mr Beales rarely notices if I don't reply, and nor does Richard Levison, who wants to know why the Labour Party is objecting to the idea, given that they put something similar in place themselves. Or so he says.

Even Joan has a contribution to make, when she catches me on my way back from the loo:

"I know it's not the Party line," she says. "But I did voluntary work to get back into the jobs market once my kids were older. Sometimes it's the only way to make your CV worth anything after a big gap."

It seems that Joan has her finger on the pulse where issues are concerned, at least where young people are concerned. It must be due to her being the bus driver in South Park in a parallel universe.

A recent graduate called Jim Mackie phones and, after telling me that he's never contacted his MP before, takes Joan's point a whole lot further:

"These proposals," he says. "About time, too - though only if they make sure that the work is bloody relevant."

"Um, yes," I say. "Did you have something specific in mind?"

"I've got a degree in Molecular Biology," he says. "And I've been unemployed all year. The f*cking Jobcentre hasn't a clue where graduates are concerned."

Then he goes on to explain that, after he finished university, he got a research job with a company which quickly became a victim of the recession. So Jim had no option but to move back home to live with his parents, as he was under twenty-five and therefore only entitled to half the Housing Benefit payable to an older person.

"I've been to almost a hundred interviews since I came back to Northwick," he says. "But even though I usually make it to the second interview, I always lose out to someone older. Even for science jobs that only require GCSEs or A-levels."

"That's awful," I say. "But I'm sorry, how does it relate to the new work and benefits proposals?"

"I get turned down because I can't compete with the experience that the older candidates have. A few months ago, I was offered two short unpaid internships by a research lab and by the local university, but I wasn't allowed to take either of them to make myself more employable. My benefits would have been stopped - and, as my parents can't afford to keep me, I need the Jobseeker's Allowance to pay my share of the housekeeping."

"Oh, I see," I say.

"With all due respect, I don't think you do," says Jim. "When I was told that I couldn't do the internships, the Jobcentre said that I would be allowed to do unpaid work in the local RSPCA shop or for some other charity while claiming benefit - even though that wouldn't have helped me at all in the longer term. So it's okay to do something for charity while you're signing on - but not anything that might make you more able to get off benefits."

"Oh, now I do see." Good God, that's ridiculous. No wonder he sounds so angry. I really hope Connie's not going to have the same problem when she graduates.

"So is something going to be done to make sure that these new proposals will allow people to take useful work that might actually get them jobs in the long run? If there are any good internships left by then, because God knows the competition for them is high, too."

"I'll see what I can find out," I say. "But I really hope so."

Honestly, this stuff is so complicated, isn't it? God knows how anyone's supposed to muddle their way through it - and it's not exactly reassuring when MPs are the people making the policies that affect our lives. Not when you work for one.

If a simple thing like cycle helmets is too challenging for The Boss, what hope is there of the Government reforming something as complex as the benefits system without cocking it up even further?

Maybe I should persuade Connie to change her degree subject now, while there's still time. There seem to be publicly-funded jobs for stylists and photographers, after all. Shame the Camerons don't need a personal scientist, as I know just the man for the job.

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