Government rhetoric is likely to turn off business and undermine a flagship policy

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Dr Jo Ingold

Everyone knows someone who has experienced, or is currently experiencing, job insecurity, unemployment or underemployment. In the past, it was largely those at the lower end of the labour market with low, or no, skills or qualifications who were most likely to find themselves without work. But in the current recession, anyone can be unemployed – whatever their skill or qualification level, whatever job or industry they’re in.

The Government repeatedly claims that they want to help people into work. They argue that their combination of tax and benefits reforms and the expansion of welfare to work programmes are the best ways to do this. They also make little secret of the faith they place in enterprise and the private sector to get the economy moving and to tackle unemployment. As Iain Duncan Smith said in a speech in Madrid in July, 2011: “Government cannot do it all. As we work hard to break welfare dependency and get young people ready for the labour market, we need businesses to give them a chance”.

There can be no doubt that employers are fundamental to the success (or failure) of welfare to work initiatives, such as the Work Programme, introduced in 2011. The Work Programme is the cornerstone of the Coalition Government’s employment policy. Central to its design is a network of mainly private providers, contracted to deliver tailored assistance to get the long-term unemployed back into work.

As the CBI has highlighted, the Work Programme can offer a range of benefits to employers looking to hire, including tailored packages which reduce recruitment costs and on-going support. Recently, here at CERIC, I’ve been researching (1) whether and why employers do or do not recruit from the Work Programme, and (2) how providers can persuade employers to give more job opportunities to the long-term unemployed. In the past year I’ve surveyed employers and interviewed providers and other key stakeholders. This research has highlighted two important barriers to persuading employers to recruit unemployed people. These are employers’ negative perceptions about unemployed people, and their portrayal in the media.

The first barrier is relatively well-known: for example, in a survey by the Institute of Leadership and Management a quarter of employers said that they were less likely to recruit people who were long-term unemployed.

Also well-known are the views put forward by some of the media about people claiming benefit. However, the Government itself is also increasingly talking about shirkers, scroungers, welfare dependency and benefits as a ‘lifestyle choice’. Government ministers present erroneous statistics about unemployment, worklessness and benefit receipt. They also focus on specific, individual and unrepresentative cases. This not only presents an extremely misleading picture. It is potentially sabotaging the delivery of a key government policy, hindering both those searching for work and those at the coalface who are actively involved in assisting them. Kayleigh Garthwaite  highlighted this recently in relation to long-term sick and disabled people.

Those who took part in my research, as well as employer organisations such as the CBI have suggested that the Government should do more to promote the benefits of the Work Programme to employers. Painting those who are unemployed, lone parents or disabled as shirkers is unlikely to address employers’ concerns about hiring people who have been out of work for a long time. On the contrary, it is far more likely to lead to the cementing of any existing perceptions that employers may have: that people on benefit lack motivation, self-discipline or that they are never going to be the most promising candidates for jobs. At a time when finding any work is difficult enough – let alone sufficient, regular work that pays the bills – this seems perverse.

The Government says that they want to move people off benefit and into work. To this end, Ministers and MPs need to be ambassadors for unemployed people. A myriad of evidence over the years makes it clear that very few people actually want to live on benefit. Most people who are unemployed want to work. One thing that is unlikely to be effective in helping them into work is portraying unemployed people as somehow ‘deficient’, reinforcing stereotypes based on prejudice, rather than evidence. This is doing unemployed people – and businesses – a severe disservice. Through its rhetoric around benefit receipt and unemployment, the Government is not only kicking people when they’re down. They’re undermining their own policy and potentially wasting large amounts of public money in the process.

Dr Jo Ingold is a Post-doctoral Research Fellow at CERIC.

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