And then about a week later you would have found this comment piece by yours truly (which got a rather good response, I recall).
At Prime Minister’s questions this week I asked Gordon Brown about an issue that has been on my mind for some time. It is an issue that is raised whenever I speak to people in the inner-city areas and council estates in my constituency, particularly by older constituents who have worked hard all their lives, paid their taxes, and made their contribution as honest, decent members of the community. They want to know why we seem to tolerate people who are physically capable of work, but have no interest in doing so. They express concern that some– generation after generation in some families - have opted out of civil society altogether: dropping out of school; rejecting opportunities to work or train; indulging in anti-social behaviour and making life a misery for their neighbours. The suspicion is often voiced that their lifestyles are financed by criminal activity.
I do not believe that this is an overwhelming problem; I think it probably only applies to a very small minority of people. But I understand the resentment expressed by my constituents. They quite rightly object to the fact that some people are quick to claim their rights to benefits, to public services - rights funded by the contributions of others - but reject any responsibility to make a contribution to society themselves.
When I left school, many of my friends and fellow pupils struggled to find work; it was the early 1980s, in the middle of a deep and prolonged economic recession. Unemployment was 3 million and rising. People desperately wanted to work, but couldn’t. This is simply not the case these days. In Bristol, Job Centre Plus have 5000 or so vacancies on their books; they estimate there are around 10,0000 vacancies in the local economy. The new Cabot Circus development will bring thousands of new jobs to Bristol city centre, which should make dramatic inroads into the unemployment statistics in our inner-city areas.
The Government is doing many things, on many fronts, to equip people for the world of work: improving literacy and numeracy standards in our schools; introducing vocational diplomas for 14-19 year olds; raising the school leaving age so that young people will be required to remain in education or training till they are 18; establishing modern apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeship skills training. We also need to raise children’s aspirations, and show them the benefits of getting a decent education and a foothold on the career ladder. This is particularly important for children from households where parents don’t work, or left education early.
The Government is also helping people who are claiming benefits but want to work. The oft cited statistic is that once someone has been on Incapacity Benefit for more than six months, they’re more likely to die claiming the benefit than they are to find work. And yet many claimants could work if they were equipped with the training, skills and, above all, the support they need to find new jobs. Unlike in decades past when most claimants had industrial injuries, many claimants these days have mental health problems, depression, work-related stress, or addictions. With the right support and encouragement, with mentoring and work experience placements, their lives could be turned around. The new Employment and Support Allowance, being introduced this October as a replacement for Incapacity Benefit for new claimants, will see much more of a focus on what people can do, rather than what they can’t do, and identify what training or adaptations they need to be able to work.
The Government also wants to do more to help lone parents find work. We inherited an appalling situation in 1997, with 1 in 3 children in the UK living in poverty. Our ambition is to halve child poverty by 2010 and abolish it within a generation – and all the evidence shows that the best route out of poverty is to work. Yet 27% of the children living in poverty in my constituency are in workless households. From October lone parents whose youngest child is 12 or over will be encouraged to work; by 2010, this will apply when the youngest child is 7. But we have to be sure factors such as childcare costs, travel to work and school meals are taken into account in judging whether their family will be better off in work than on benefits - something I also raised in Parliament this week.
Through the Government’s efforts many more of those who want to work will be helped to do so. And the welfare state must of course still be there for those who can’t do so. But that still leaves that small minority of people who have chosen not to work. The new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions announced this week that this will no longer be tolerated. Everyone who is long term unemployed, claiming Job Seekers Allowance and participating in the new Flexible New Deal will be expected to take active steps to return to work, including doing at least four weeks full time work or work-related activity in return for their dole money. This may sound tough to some people, but it is clear that if we are to break the generational cycle of poverty and unemployment in some parts of our city, we need to send out a clear message that everyone is expected to pull their weight.