Questions over Welfare to Work

There were sceptics in plenty when the welfare-to-work consultation was launched (page three). Unwillingness to be beguiled by fine words and multi-million pound promises is understandable. The 1980s were littered with attempts to improve job opportunities for the young. In too many cases the result was temporary or dead-end positions and little transferable training but enough massaging of the unemployment figures to satisfy Conservative spindoctors. Is there reason to think that Labour ministers are offering more than old wine in new bottles?

Brian Wilson argued that lessons had been learnt. The key difference in the welfare-to-work scheme lay in its "gateway" period, up to four months on pre-employment guidance and support before a job or training place is allocated. Treating the young unemployed as individuals and not as statistics to be ticked off as they move on to a training scheme or into some kind of a job is vital, but it will be expensive. Yet instilling confidence in people whose school lives may have been unproductive and whose careers either never started or were prematurely stalled is the first step.

Welfare to Work will offer a range of opportunities but it will also make clear that spurning help bears penalties: social security will not prop up shirkers. But are there jobs available? How many will turn out temporary or mindless? Will a substantial group of the unemployed prove impervious to training regardless of their initial eagerness? Still, it is encouraging that once the grandiloquent rhetoric inevitably attached to a multi-million pound national project is set aside, scepticism diminishes.

Training providers and FE colleges believe there will be a large pool of good students. They see business prospects for themselves but realise that unless Welfare to Work is made effective, it will go the way of previous schemes, dashing commercial opportunities along with individual hopes. The Government's advisory task force will have to keep in balance naive optimism, scepticism and real progress on the ground.

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