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The panellists on Radio 4’s Moral Maze are asked to suggest possible debate topics for the next programme. I am trying to persuade the team that we should look at the idea of the long term unemployed being required to do voluntary work. I have a strong instinctive reaction to this proposal and I’m keen to explore whether it (the proposal and my reaction) is justified.

There is, in my view, no problem at all with conditionality in the welfare system. If people are getting out of work benefits paid for by the taxpayer then it is reasonable that they should be expected to look for employment or take a job that is on offer. This is what the public wants and it is important to maintaining public support for the welfare system. Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that many unemployed people come retrospectively to value the structure placed in their lives by requirements to attend meetings with job advisors, compile CVs and attend interviews.    

But I feel much more uneasy about a compulsion to do voluntary work. If conditionality is already being applied to a claimant and they are continuing to receive benefits, then we have to accept that the person involved is not to blame for their unemployment. (It is important to recognise that conditionality rules can and are being strictly applied with new and some existing claimants with quite severe disabilities being required to search for and take jobs.)

By all means encourage and support such a person to use their free time in ways which are self-improving and useful (and I would and indeed have encouraged friends of mine out of work to volunteer) but to make the right to subsistence dependent on doing good works is, to me, a step too far. It means we are placing extra citizenship obligations on people simply because they are unfortunate.

The counter argument might say that if unemployed people have time on their hands why shouldn’t they be expected to use it for social benefit. One problem is that this means the state adjudicating on what social benefit means. A paid job is a paid job regardless of its content but if an unemployed person uses their days to tend their allotment or spend more time with their family is this more or less useful than cleaning the local canal? Also, if we are applying this principle to the unemployed, why not also to pensioners? If you are receiving a state pension (not to mention the winter fuel allowance, free bus pass etc) then why shouldn’t you be required to use your retirement for social purpose, perhaps, say, providing mandatory childcare for grand children?

There are other problems too. Unwilling, unskilled people require a lot of supervision and this is expensive. The very idea of compulsory good works is problematic. I suggest a new word for the dictionary ‘involunteer’- somebody who is compelled by the state to do unpaid work. Those of us promoting the idea of a Big Society may worry that it will be tarnished if it is associated with chain gangs. 

But the main objection is about rights and liberty. How odd that a Coalition which has commendably argued for the state to be less interfering and intrusive to demand that the right to a basic income should be conditional on poor people adhering to a governmental definition of good citizenship.


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