Conservatives pledge to continue welfare reforms


The party says €18bn will have been cut from the welfare budget by the 2015 election, writes MARK HENNESSY,writes London Editor

JULIE BROWN works for the Salvation Army in Lye, deep in the heart of the Black Country in the West Midlands – once the engine that drove much of the Industrial Revolution.

Today, much has changed – engineering has faded but not gone, while skilled manual jobs have become rare, leaving a generation of Britain’s youth facing challenges unknown to their predecessors.

For nearly two years the Salvation Army has been involved in the Work Programme driven

by works and pensions secretary Iain Duncan-Smith, who has a near-messianic ambition to reform the UK’s benefits system.

Many of the long-term unemployed endure a crisis of confidence that makes it even more difficult for them to get back into work, Julie Brown told a meeting on the fringes of the Conservative Party conference.

Under the Work Programme, companies – including the Irish- based Rehab – get paid if they get someone who has been out of work for more than 12 months back into work, and if they can keep them there. People such as Brown build up relationships with local employers, including David Barrett of the Dudley-based De-Met powder-coating specialists. “She was very persistent,” he said yesterday, remembering her first approach.

Jobseekers complain about sending an endless series of letters seeking work, but companies, on the other hand, express frustration that they cannot find people qualified to do the work needed.

In some cases, said Brown, companies become wary of offering any jobs, knowing they will drown under the weight of applications. “We do the filtering for them,” she said.

So far, De-Met has taken on two Salvation Army-sponsored apprentices, Stephanie Hook and James Gadd. “It has been superb; a lot of the hard work was done for us,” Barrett told the fringe meeting.

However, a final judgment on the Work Programme is still out, admitted welfare minister David Freud. Transparency will separate the wheat from the chaff, he believes. “The data will make it clear who has done well, or who has done badly, and there will be quite a spread between the good and bad performers.”

Most of the companies providing the mentoring service, in partnership with organisations such as the Salvation Army, had to invest or raise money before getting involved, since the system pays only on results.

In time, the good performers will find it easier to raise further investment, believes Freud.

“Performance will become a marketable quality in itself,” he told the meeting.” The pressure to act is two-fold – the UK’s workers have the poorest skill set to offer employers of any in Europe, while pressure is mounting to curb the multibillion welfare budget.

“Our reforms must improve the life chances for the least of us. That must be our mission, plain and simple – a mission not to change people but to restore them,” Duncan-Smith told Conservative delegates later.

Under Labour, the welfare budget spiked: in 2010 £90 billion was spent on welfare for people of working age, the same as “the entire education budget for that year”. One in five British households has no one working. Two million children live in workless households, youth unemployment is at a record high, “yet half of the new jobs being created are being taken by foreign nationals”, he said.

Some €18 billion will have been cut from welfare by the 2015 election, he vowed, though a further £10 billion will have to be cut subsequently, Duncan-Smith has agreed with chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne.

Sticking to his much-mocked “we’re all in this together” declaration, Osborne insisted that the rich will pay, but added “it’s an economic delusion to think that you can balance the budget only on the wallets of the rich”.

Welfare reform is a crucial piece of the jigsaw – “that’s why I insisted on a cap on benefits, so no family can earn more out of work than the average family earns from work,” he told delegates. “For how can we justify the incomes of those out of work rising faster than the incomes of those in work?

“How can we justify giving flats to young people who have never worked, when working people twice their age are still living with their parents because they can’t afford their first home?”