The unemployed face losing benefits if they refuse jobs or won’t do unpaid community work.
Four leading commentators offer their reactions, beginning with a reminder that we’ve been here before.
The operation was led by the grandiosely titled Central Board of Management for Highland Relief, which consisted mainly of businessmen, lawyers and accountants drawn from Edinburgh and Glasgow. They were determined to exact a price from the Gaels in return for meals. The provision of relief-free aid was an anathema and allowing dependence on charity, even given the dire circumstances of the people, was a moral outrage.
Instead it was an unshakeable principle that work had to be given in return for the distribution of the meagre doles deemed just sufficient to prevent starvation. A visitor to the Highlands in 1847 would have witnessed innumerable gangs of men, women and children digging ditches, building roads and constructing piers, many of which either lay uncompleted or were never put to any practical use. Today, crumbling piers and “destitution roads” of the famine period can be found scattered throughout the region: physical symbols not only of the hungry 1840s but also of the attempt to impose an alien ideology on a population weakened by food shortage and the gathering pace of clearance and destitution.
Worse, however, was still to come. As the crisis dragged on year after year, influential voices on the Central Board began to blame the people themselves for the continuing destitution. They had brought the famine upon themselves, it was argued, through their own innate indolence and lack of work ethic. Therefore the recovery of the Highlands could only depend in the final analysis on the moral reformation of the Gael. If self-help and a commitment to labour did not exist they would have to be taught by those responsible for the administration of support.
Thus was imposed the destitution test, a whole day’s work in return for one pound of meal. The theory was that only those who were actually facing starvation would be willing to accept relief on such terms. As one leading official put it, “the pound of meal and the task of at least eight hours hard work is the best regime for their moral disease”.
An elaborate bureaucracy of inspectors, relief officers and overseers was set up to enforce the test. Most of them were retired naval officers well-experienced in the imposition of stringent discipline. In their correspondence these men were fond of quoting from the Bible such aphorisms as “in the sweat of thy face shalt though eat bread”, while another favourite line was from St Paul: “If any would not work, neither should he eat.”
Providing the meal allowance to the poor only once a fortnight rather than on a daily basis was designed to develop habits of prudence and saving among them. The labour books which recorded in great detail hours of work done also included comments on the perceived moral weaknesses of those in receipt of the dole. At the same time, several newspapers in the southern cities launched a series of vitriolic racist attacks on the Gaels who had for too long been dependent on the charitable generosity of industrious Lowlanders. Now, they were receiving their just deserts through the imposition of a harsh regime which would remove their moral failings once and for all.
It was an extraordinary outcome. One of the greatest philanthropic schemes in Scottish history had been subverted by a small group of ideologues who believed the Highlanders were poor through their own fault and not because of any environmental or economic constraints affecting the region where they lived.
Nor had any they any comprehension of the work cycles of a subsistence-based peasant society, so profoundly different from those of the world of industrial capitalism, or of the inherited skills needed to survive in such an inhospitable land. Predictably, this deeply flawed experiment in social engineering soon came to naught. Gaeldom did recover but only when the potato crop improved and prices for cattle and fish started to rise again. The customs and traditions of the people proved to be more resilient than the policies of those who possessed the power to interfere in their lives.
Are there any parallels between some of the Government’s welfare reforms and this dark episode in Scottish history? Readers will decide for themselves.
Professor Tom Devine is Scotland’s leading historian and author of numerous books including Scotland And The Union: 1707 To 2007
By Bob Holman
In 2002, Iain Duncan Smith, then leader of the Conservative Party, visited Easterhouse. People at our project, Family Action in Rogerfield & Easterhouse, were willing to show him what life was like at the hard end. He was amazed at the depth of poverty and impressed by the efforts of unemployed residents to improve local life. He wrote later: “I came away a changed man.”
His sincerity was shown when, on losing the leadership, he formed the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ). “It must not be a distant think tank,” he stated. “It will have staff who are practically involved with poor people.”
This former Thatcherite changed to become an untypical Tory. The CSJ gave awards to locally-run community groups in deprived areas and I served as one of the judges. It also had a committee to investigate asylum seekers, and its radical proposals included one which stated that all should have access to legal advice and be allowed to work. In 2005, Iain Duncan Smith drew attention to the maldistribution of assets and, when a study found that the gap between rich and poor was widening, he declared that this was frightening.
Today, Iain Duncan Smith is Minister for Work and Pensions. The Coalition Government has made it more difficult for asylum seekers to get legal aid. It has lowered housing benefit with the deliberate intent of pushing those on low incomes into inferior accommodation. IDS has gone along with these policies. He has also failed to keep his promise for legislation to ensure grants for small voluntary groups.
Now he is launching the Universal Credit. To be sure, it will make the complex welfare system more straightforward and he has pushed through his proposal that, when the unemployed move into a low-paid job, they can retain some benefits for a period. These are real achievements.
But there are two areas which seem contrary to his previous position. First, unemployed people who refuse job offers are to be compelled to do unpaid tasks like sweeping the streets and could eventually lose benefits for up to three years. This is at odds with the Iain Duncan Smith who previously showed respect for the unemployed. Children in people’s families would face abject poverty of the kind which horrified him in 2002.
Second, he no longer criticises inequality. Benefit cuts will make the poor poorer. Meanwhile, no effective action is taken against the huge tax evasion and avoidance of the rich. At the last Tory conference, VIPs were given a dinner at £400 per head with champagne costing £1500 a bottle. There were no protests from Iain Duncan Smith.
I still believe Iain Duncan Smith is a good man. But there are two Iain Duncan Smiths. There is the one who mixed regularly with people at the hard end, listened to them and gave priority to their interests.
There is the other one who certainly promotes welfare reform but also identifies closely with the very politicians he once called the governing elite.
The danger is that the Iain Duncan Smith who I have known for eight years may now be overcome by the class-ridden practices of Cameron and Osborne. I hope not and wish him well.
Bob Holman is the author of Keir Hardie: Labour’s Greatest Hero?
(Lion Hudson, £10.99)
By Claire Fox
In the furore about the Government’s plans for job-seekers to undertake a month of community work, it’s become clear that too many of my peers on the left regard welfarism as a sacred cow that brooks no challenge. I am sceptical of the details of Iain Duncan Smith’s reforms: compelling the jobless to do “voluntary work”, instead of offering real jobs, is barmy. But surely all of us should welcome any shake-up of the debilitating grip of welfare dependency.
The idea that encouraging the long-term unemployed to get back to work is a malevolent right-wing plot shows how far welfarism has redefined what it means to be unemployed. Unemployment -- as a political phenomenon -- used to be about demanding decent jobs for all (remember those “right to work” marchers). How sad that today it’s considered radical to do no more than defend the right to long-term benefits. This fatalistically accepts unemployment as a natural state of affairs, a version of “the poor will always be with us”.
Where once unemployment was understood as a temporary interlude during which the “safety net” of state assistance was useful while you looked for a new job, it has become a long-term state of being: not because people have become lazy, but as a consequence of exactly the sort of pernicious welfarism we should oppose.
Take the way incapacity benefit incites individuals to declare themselves as unfit to work. The exponential rise since the 1980s of those classified by the state as incapacitated (although it’s inconceivable that so many millions have become so gravely ill) has helped institutionalise joblessness as an individual terminal problem rather than a social phenomenon.
Having to constantly prove yourself as incapable saps morale and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It has also framed the assumption that being unemployed is interchangeable with being vulnerable. Even the new “workfare” scheme is posited as about increasing claimants’ self-esteem, as though joblessness were a psychological weakness.
It is telling that anyone who criticises the welfare status quo is dubbed anti-poor and accused of scapegoating the weak. Welfarism views benefit claimants as pathetic objects of pity, unable to cope without official support. Defenders of the status quo portray the unemployed as a special untouchable caste, less capable of taking control of their own destiny than the rest of us.
If you fell on hard times, sleeping on your mate’s sofa, borrowing money from friends and relatives, your sense of pride would lead you to urgently seek a job, any job, to start paying back debts and get your own place, however difficult the challenge. If you sank into a depressive state of inertia, those who respected you would intervene, shake you out of it, even give you an ultimatum, and you would know it was for the best.
If instead your nearest and dearest simply indulged you in a state of semi-permanent dependence on their sofa, you would know they thought you were a hopeless case and be either insulted or demoralised at their lack of faith in your potential. It is for this reason that historically, working-class people would often do anything to avoid becoming a “doley”, viewing state hand-outs as demeaning, at best a necessary evil. It’s this spirit of independence and self-reliance we need more of, not more welfare.
Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas
By John Christie
St Luke’s Gospel records that Jesus went to the synagogue in Nazareth, and read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah: “God’s Spirit is on me: he’s chosen me to preach the message of good news to the poor.”
How are we to square Jesus’s words with what is proposed regarding benefits in return for work? The benefits system was born from a sense of justice which has a clear basis in Christian teaching, recognising that we all have a duty of care for the wellbeing of those who are living in poverty. There is a burden of care laid upon us to care for the weakest in our societies.
Punitive measures targeted at poor people are not the answer to economic problems. Dependency is not a sin that requires sanctions to overcome it. Rather interdependency is a fact of life, for us all; we depend on each other, rich or poor. Perpetuating the myth that only those in receipt of benefits are dependent -- and using that as the basis for policy -- is divisive and undermines the social cohesion which the Government seeks to foster. Indeed it is the experience of the Church that many people on benefits are already performing a considerable service of care to others in our communities -- a service for which they deserve our gratitude, not our condemnation.
Recognising that compassionate care is a virtue, how are we to express this at a time when the country faces hard decisions? How do we reconcile the aim of employment with the simple reality that for many there are no jobs available? A key matter is ensuring people maintain their dignity. This means that any new arrangement in the welfare system must not create a false distinction between the “haves” and the “have-nots”.
If, as a society, we demand something in return for welfare benefits then we are putting a price on both compassion and grace. Here, I think, we have the crux of the issue. How can we ensure that people have enough on the one hand while on the other we encourage those who are unemployed and able to seek work to do so, assuming that jobs are available?
There will be little argument that one of the key goals in benefit reform must be to make it easier for people to move from unemployment to paid work. To have any realistic chance of achieving this the Government should concentrate on training, job creation and support for new enterprises, including start-up assistance for small, businesses.
It is important to invest in projects that encourage and enable people to find work -- education, training, apprenticeships and so on. The Church of Scotland is exploring the potential for micro-credits to kick-start enterprise in poor communities. Micro-credits are small loans to help people who would normally find it hard to borrow to be able to develop a business. They avoid the need for loan sharks and create a mutual relationship between lender and the borrower, thereby building bridges between the affluent and the poor.
Such innovative start-up assistance would represent not only good news for those people currently struggling against poverty, but good news for us all.
Right Rev John Christie is Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland