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Benefit threat to unemployed

The Government will withdraw Jobseekers' Allowance if basic skills training is not taken up. Steve Hook reports

IT is bad luck if you live in Nottinghamshire, where the Government has put the legend of Robin Hood into reverse by taking money from some of its poorest inhabitants.

The tough approach is being taken by Malcolm Wicks, the lifelong learning minister, who has selected the county for an attack on Jobseekers' Allowance claimants who fail to take up the chance to improve their basic skills.

If successful, it could be rolled out across the country.

Those who have been claiming for more than six months are expected to get their payments of pound;53-a-week withdrawn for two weeks if they fail to take up free basic skills training.

"In North Nottinghamshire," said Mr Wicks, "unemployed people who have poor literacy and numeracy skills, but who refuse to take up learning to bring their skills up to scratch, risk losing their Jobseekers' Allowance for a short period."

Nottinghamshire has been picked because it is one of nine Pathfinder areas which are testing ways to improve basic skills. It has above-average training for the unemployed.

"I think there is a danger that this will be counter-productive," said Paul Convery, of the Unemployment Unit and Youth Aid. "People on Jobseekers' Allowance must look for work and must accept help to improve their employability but I think it is a mistake to put this too much into the foreground by simply saying they stand to lose benefit.

"For many people there is a stigma attached to thei lack of basic skills and we need to find imaginative ways of overcoming that. Threatening to withhold their benefit is not imaginative."

The pilot, which does not include Nottingham itself, is one of a number being tested as part of the Government's attempt to target Jobseekers' Allowance claimants and parents with children in neighbourhood nurseries. Up to 900 neighbourhood nurseries are being set up across England .

An incentive scheme has been introduced in Wearside, which includes Sunderland, involving pound;10-a-week payments which will be made to people who undertake basic skills training. They will also get pound;100 when they have improved their literacy and numeracy.

In Leeds, a mixture of both Jobseekers' Allowance schemes will operate.

"In North Nottinghamshire it's just stick, in Sunderland it's just carrot, and in Leeds it's a mixture of stick and carrot," said a spokesman for the Department for Education and Employment, who stressed the national scheme could include elements of both.

He stressed there will be hardship payments for people who have had benefit withdrawn.

In the city of Nottingham, the Government will try out a "fast-track" programme, where a 10-minute test devised by the Basic Skills Agency will be offered to assess individual needs.

The schemes are part of the DFEE's strategy to improve the skills of 750,000 people by 2004. There are an estimated seven million people in the country who lack basic numeracy and literacy skills, placing Britain near the bottom of the European basic skills league.

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