The shadow of the workhouse – George Osborne’s hidden agenda?

The Bermondsey workhouse admission ticket


George Osborne (who seems to have become the public front for Ian Duncan-Smith) has announced that people who have been unemployed and on benefits for more than three years may be expected to turn up at Job Centres and work up to a 35 hour week. This, apparently, is to get them used to what having a proper job is like, and stop them earning a bit of illegal cash without reporting it to the authorities.

Hang on a minute, though. Quite apart from their utter lack of humanity, these proposals make absolutely no economic sense.

Who is going to pay all the people who will have to supervise these claimants, make sure they turn up on time, process their paperwork and give them something meaningful to do? Job Centres, like all public services, have been cut to the bone.

And what if these people have children, and there’s nobody to care for them? Are we going to provide wraparound childcare while their parents turn up for 35 hours a week to pick up litter or write CVs for non-existent jobs? Wouldn’t it be simpler to pay them to look after their own kids. Except that would be getting something for nothing, wouldn’t it?

While we are on the subject of kids, it is sobering to reflect on the contrast between the ruthless efficiency with which benefits are removed from people the moment they show up late for a Job Centre Plus appointment with the catalogue of missed meetings with health care professionals that invariably form the background to stories of severe child abuse. Here is one example from an article on Amanda Hutton, who presently stands accused of letting her four year old son starve to death:

After Hamzah was born health visitors repeatedly called but failed to get into the house…Dr Ward said meetings were called about the situation, involving police, council and health authorities… October 2009, after repeated failed appointments, Hutton’s GP surgery removed the mother and child from patient lists, in line with normal practice.

BBC News Page (Leeds/Bradford) 27/09/2013

So we have a Government that’s far more efficient at penalising poor people who don’t show up at appointments connected with getting a job – no matter how reasonable their excuses – than cracking down and stopping people’s benefts when they refuse to answer reasonable questions about the welfare of their kids. A government that can leave a single parent penniless because she missed her bus and got to the Job Centre ten minutes late, but pays out child benefit without question for a little boy whose dead body has been rotting in his alcoholic mother’s bedroom for 20 months.

Thanks, that speaks volumes about where our national priorities lie.

These welfare proposals are not about economics. They are about ideology. They are about punishing poor people by making their lives so ghastly that they would rather drown themselves in the river with their illegitimate babies than throw themselves on the mercy of what used to be called the Welfare State.

Of course, there’s always charity. The Big Society and all that. They had it in Dickens’ day, too:

A few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth.  We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.  What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge.  “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer.  I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry.  I help to support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.

(Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Stave 1)

I suspect that what is really at the back of the Tories’ minds as they come up with these hellish proposals is another concept that would have been all too familiar to Dickens and his audience.

How can it make any sort of economic sense to make penniless people work for nothing, when they have kids that need looking after? Unless you are thinking about putting the kids under the same roof. Now we’re getting somewhere. What a great idea! Separate the little darlings from their weeping parents at the gate, put the adults to some useful employment (picking oakum, for example) and leave the children to rot with minimal food, care, comfort and supervision. Why didn’t we think of that before?

Oh hang on, we did. The trouble with the Victorians was they had absolutely no concept of branding. They should have called them Employment Facilitation and Training Centres.

But they didn’t. They called them workhouses. Coming soon, to a community near you.


4 thoughts on “The shadow of the workhouse – George Osborne’s hidden agenda?

  1. I have been thinking on where these policies might be going, and here is what I see. Those on benefits are made to work full time, or have all money taken away. The government passes the contracts of, say, 100 unemployed people onto pound world who pays the government a fee for each worker. Everyone who already works at pound world loses their jobs because the company can get their drones cheaper from the government. Then those newly unemployed are passed onto another company, who pays the government, fires more full time employed people, and the cycle continues until everybody is working full time for £50 a week, and is penalised if they take a day off work.

  2. The problem with workhouses, as the Victorians found and as our ConDem masters may well find, is that they aren’t actually very economic. That is, it’s quite difficult to make money out of them.
    They cost to build, they cost to run. Punitive regimes can be expensive. Also, in spite of the suffering and humiliation that was quite deliberately visited upon the poor, aged and infirm, they failed to respond to the treatment, which was of course for their own good, by becoming wealthy, young and fit.

    1. An interesting point, but isn’t it also a desirable quality (for the Govt) that workhouses remove destitute people from the streets and allow an illusion of prosperity to be maintained?

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