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Saturday, 19th April 2014

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Whatever happened to the unemployed?

1.68 million people in Britain are unemployed, an increase of nearly a quarter of a million in the last year. But this hardly makes the news.

The latest pronouncement on unemployment by the Office of National Statistics reads as follows:

"The unemployment rate was 5.5 per cent, up 0.3 over the quarter and up 0.7 over the year. The number of unemployed people increased by 92,000 over the quarter and by 243,000 over the year, to reach 1.68 million.

"The claimant count was 957,000 in July 2006, up 2,000 on the previous month and up 90,900 on the year."

In the mid 1970s, as the official unemployed figures approached the one million mark, unemployment was a central issue for political commentators and a subject for debate amongst the wider community. Trades Councils (organisations linking local trade union branches) held conferences and meetings up and down the country as the horror of the return to mass unemployment loomed large. Every monthly rise in unemployment generated discussion of the wide spread and long term implications of a million without work.

Today the ‘claimant count’ (the number of those entitled to Jobseekers Allowance) approaches the one million mark, with consistent monthly increases. It hardly makes the news. Discussion about unemployment is negligible and revolves around benefit fraud, and individual demotivation and failings.

The closure of car factories has resulted in thousands of job losses in the Midlands

The TUC has not received a motion at congress on unemployment or benefit issues for over four years. The trade unions bemoan redundancies but talk little of unemployment. Action to save jobs and stop closures is the exception and certainly not the norm, as they negotiate the best deal for those joining the dole queue.

So what has happened to the unemployed?

To many in the post war years, mass unemployment was unacceptable with the memories of the conditions of the 1930s still relatively fresh. I will not insult the reader’s intelligence by commentating on the Thatcher years and the destruction of the post war consensus. It is however, interesting to examine what the effect has been on attitudes towards unemployment, the trade union movement, the aspirations of working people and the welfare state.

The propaganda machine aimed at numbing the public abhorrence to state inflicted unemployment was crude, constant and effective. The active promotion of greed and individualism created a suitable environment for the propaganda to permeate even into the trade Union movement. When the General Secretary of the TUC said that some unemployed people needed a kick up the backside, I’m sure there were many in the trade unions and certainly in the Labour Party mumbling “here, here!”.

Hardly a flicker of protest had been raised through the late 1980s and 1990s against increased compulsion in the benefits system. The unemployed became ‘job seekers’. ‘Actively Seeking Work’ legislation firmly placed the responsibility of unemployment on the unemployed themselves. Of course, little of this was new, as any student of the history of the unemployment of the 1920s and 1930s will no doubt point out.

What was different was the increased sophistication used in preventing any meaningful opposition to the policies and propaganda plus the lack of an organised political response in opposition. ‘Fortnightly signing’ at job centres on appointment prevented traditional ways of organising unemployed people. The lack of an effective political organisation, helping forge shared objectives and strategies throughout all the groups organising around the issues (a role which used to be played by the Communist Party) was, and still is our biggest weakness. 

The Unemployed Workers’ Centres fought valiant campaigns but on their own could not stem the tide of regressive legislation impoverishing and emasculating the unemployed.

Flexible labour market

Unemployment of course, weakens the trade unions and has cleared the way for the army of agency workers in the flexible labour market. Instead of dockworkers waiting at the gate, to be hand picked for the days work, agency workers sit alone by the phone, waiting for the call. More people are in work than ever before and yet trade union membership is falling. “Worklessness” is the word invented to bring those with health limiting conditions, the disabled, single parents, and the unemployed together for treatment. That is not the only change of language. Full employment has become “an employment opportunity for all” and sustained employment is a job that lasts for more than 13 weeks!

Incredibly, the answer for the “workless household” is not job creation or high quality training with a job at the end of it – but a mixture of motivational courses, ‘condition’ management, work focussed interviews and a demand to look further afield for that elusive employment opportunity. The media, political commentators and many who should know better are complicit in the wide spread misinformation that jobs exist for anyone who is prepared to get up off their backside. The emperor has a full set of clothes.

Where will the jobs come from?

The coverage of the recent launch of the White Paper on Welfare Reform, talked about taking a million people off Incapacity Benefit. Not one comment in the TV coverage addressed the issue of where these one million jobs were coming from. Every group of incapacity benefit (IB) claimants will tell you that there is not the appropriate work out there for anyone with a health limiting condition and that employers openly and casually discriminate against IB claimants. This is especially true for those with a history of mental illness, who make up 40% of IB claimants.

As the ‘claimant count’ moves towards the one million mark again, what is the position of the 21st Century benefit claimant in comparison with their 1970s counterpart?

In 2003, the Derbyshire Unemployed Workers’ Centres asked the MP Harry Barnes to table the following Parliamentary Question.

‘To ask the Secretary of State for Work and pensions, what rates of Unemployment benefit/Jobseekers Allowance (Contributions) were for a single claimant over the age of 25 in each year since 1979; and what those rates would have been had the benefit been uprated annually in line with the percentage increases in average earnings’

This was the abbreviated reply:

Date of Uprating


Rate of UB/JSA (single claimant)

If 1978 amount uprated with average earnings

November 1978



November 1981



November 1984



April         1987



April         1990



April         1993



April         1996



April         1999



April         2003



The figures show the stark reality for people living on JSA. Far from the popular myth that unemployed people are living the high life they are over £30 worse off than if benefits had been increased with average earnings.

Hoops and hurdles

Much column space and airtime was made of the pensioners uprating of 75p in 2002, and rightly so, but there has been not a whisper about the miserly upratings given to benefit claimants. In 2005 a single person’s JSA went up by just 55p!

To claim this pittance, the claimant has to jump the hoops and hurdles of a system riddled with compulsion. On December 22nd 2004 a woman came into our Chesterfield Office to report that she had her benefit stopped for 9 weeks (over the Christmas and New Year period) because she had failed to apply for a job she had been instructed to do so. This was despite having applied for 50 jobs over the previous three months, way over what she had to under her so called Jobseekers Agreement. 

Despite our best efforts we could not get the system to overturn this local decision. We managed to get the sanction reduced to 6 weeks and eventually won the case at tribunal in February, but in the meantime she had to survive off the kindness of her family. 

We have used this case in a booklet produced by the European Anti-Poverty Network to be launched at the European Parliament this autumn. Unfortunately few of the case studies will be represented by the unemployed claimants because they will lose their benefits if they leave the country. So much for being able to exercise your democratic rights!


The UK government frames every discussion about benefits in terms of ‘rights’ and ‘responsibilities’. The arguments that claimants should fulfil certain obligations in order to gain the right to benefit sound reasonable. But in reality they are a smokescreen to hide measures that place much harsher conditions on the right to benefit.

Previously it was necessary for a claimant simply to be ‘available for work’. The Jobseekers Act 1995 and the Regulations made under it now require that a person receiving benefit (Jobseekers Allowance) must be actively seeking work and capable of work. The jobseeker must sign up to an ‘agreement’ determined by the DWP. This is not a voluntary agreement because the threat of withdrawal of benefit hangs over the claimant.

The government claims to be committed to the ending of social exclusion. They have supported strategies at European level and set up a special social exclusion unit at home. But the benefits policy is in contradiction to this work.

Poverty, insecurity and crime 

Our case is an example of a widespread situation. Organisations which work to help claimants, Unemployed Workers Centres, Citizen’s Advice Bureaux and other advice agencies, report thousands of cases where unreasonable conditions are being placed on claimants and thousands of cases where benefit is being withdrawn. These policies drive more people into poverty, insecurity, crime and the ‘informal’ economy.

Benefit levels are too low to allow a decent life style. To be living on benefits is to be living in poverty. People who are unemployed for long periods suffer physical and mental health problems, which make it hard to return to employment.

The benefit system is too complex. Many people feel powerless when they have to deal with the system. There is too much emphasis on preventing fraud, and not enough on helping the claimant.

So, what is to be done?

The Unemployed Workers’ Centres (UWCs) will continue to hammer away at the trade unions to put unemployment back on the agenda. The UWCs conference this year will try to renew the relationship between the Unions, the trades councils and the UWCs. 

On a positive note, the Centres have the best relations they have ever had with the Dole Office Union PCS. Together we have produced a Bill of Rights for Claimants and Jobcentre Staff recognising the need to build solidarity both sides of the counter! 

A new initiative coming from the UWCs is the forging of stronger links with the wider anti-poverty movement in the UK.

Inspired by the success in raising consciousness on international poverty and development issues of the Make Poverty History campaign, we are trying to set up a domestic equivalent. 

It is amazing that 25+ years after Thatcher the anti poverty movement in the UK does not speak effectively with one voice. This will be rectified. From Oxfam through to End Child Poverty, soon all will sign up to a new coalition against UK poverty. Watch this space.

Colin Hampton is Co-ordinator of the Derbyshire Unemployed Workers' Centres.