Want welfare? You'll have to earn it, say Britain's Tories.

The Conservatives announced plans this week to require long-unemployed Brits to do volunteer work, train, or make daily visits to job centers to retain their welfare checks.

Phil Noble/Reuters
British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne leaves his hotel on the second day of the Conservative party annual conference in Manchester, England, on Monday. Mr. Osborne proposed tougher new welfare rules to try to win over working voters who are grappling with depleted spending power ahead of the 2015 election.

Every two weeks, "Mark" takes the six-minute walk to his local government-run job center in Stockwell, south London. Here, he has a brief chat with one of the staff, and tells them what efforts he has made to look for work. That done, £142 ($228) is deposited into his bank account, enough to last Mark (who declined to give his real name) the next fortnight.

This system, known as “signing on,” is the means by which 1.4 million Britons receive unemployment benefits. And as it battles to reduce one of the biggest budget deficits in Europe, the government is cracking down on it.

This week, the government announced that starting in April next year, people who have been unemployed for three years will be required to earn their government income: either by doing full-time volunteer work, turning up daily at the job center, or undertaking an intensive program to tackle whatever problem is causing their inactivity.

The move – the toughest yet imposed on Britain's unemployed – was announced by George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer, at the Conservative party conference this week.

“For the first time, all long-term unemployed people who are capable of work will be required to do something in return for their benefits to help them find work,” said Mr. Osborne, standing beneath the party's new slogan: "For Hardworking People."

“No one will be ignored or left without help. But no one will get something for nothing.”

Tough love

Britain's long-term unemployed are causing particular concern because their numbers are growing. While the unemployment rate is considered surprisingly low given that the country only emerged out of recession fairly recently – it has fallen slightly this year to 7.8 percent – the number of Brits who have not worked for two or more years is at a 17-year high, at 474,000.

Even the Labour party – which appeared to take a dramatic swerve to the left at its own conference a week earlier, with its leader, Ed Miliband, promising to put a cap on energy bills – wants to make benefits conditional.

The new Help to Work program, probably the most attention-grabbing policy to come out of the Conservative conference, will impose tough sanctions on people who have been long out of work – a tactic the government believes will prove effective over time.

Currently, if someone has not found work after two years on an existing scheme known as the Work Program – which uses private companies to help the unemployed find work – they continue turning up at the job center. There are no compulsory programs.

Beginning in April, people who refuse to take part in the new program will lose four weeks of benefits for their first breach of the rules and three months' worth for a second offense.

“We need more programs for people who have been out of work for a long time,” says Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Social and Economic Research.


Mr. Portes, however, like many, points out that the government's own research into mandatory work schemes for the unemployed shows they have had little success. Data published by the government last year showed that in recent pilot tests of the "workfare" program, less than 10 percent had found employment a year later.

“Three hundred million pounds on one experimental program seems an appalling waste of taxpayers' money,” Portes says.

In addition to concerns over the efficacy of mandatory work schemes, there are worries over how exactly this one will be implemented.

Joe Irvin, chief executive of the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action, an umbrella body for charities, says he hopes that the new scheme, with its emphasis on volunteer work, will take charities' needs into account in its design.

“Politicians often think there are no costs to volunteering, but volunteers need to be supervised, managed, and trained,” he says.

Exactly how the scheme would affect those who were unable to work because of illness, disability, or their care for a sick relative is also being questioned by charities – and job seekers themselves.

Populist move

The new program was in part touted to mollify some right-wing Conservative members of Parliament, who feel let down by their right-of-center leadership over issues from gay marriage to immigration.

It was also proclaimed loud and clear for voters' ears. With a general election less than two years away, and the opposition Labour party ahead in the polls, the Tories want to highlight the policies for which it has public backing.

Trimming the welfare bill is certainly one of these, with working Britons feeling their governments have too long gone easy on the jobless. Research published last week by Policy Exchange, a think tank, found by a margin of nearly 5 to 1 the public supported the introduction of “workfare” for the long-term unemployed.

“People are pretty tough on this,” says Ed Holmes, a senior research fellow at the Policy Exchange.

And yet, he adds, Britain spends less than most other European countries on getting the unemployed into work, around 0.3 percent of gross domestic product. Denmark, which has significantly cut its number of long-term unemployed, spends 1.3 percent on such measures.

But the move is also part of Britain's attempt to reduce its biggest budget deficit in peacetime.

Any savings made from the new scheme will add up to a tiny shaving off Britain's total welfare bill of £160 billion. Of that, nearly half is spent on the universal state pension and around £5 billion on job seekers' allowance.

Mixed response

For people signing on in Stockwell, there was a mixed response to the changes coming next spring.

“Well, it's rubbish and they'll have to find me child care,” says Natasha, a single mother who declined to give her last name.

She adds that her existing benefits often do not stretch to cover enough food for her and her young daughter. When that happens, she asks her mother, who is also unemployed, for assistance. But “sometimes she can help me, sometimes she can't.”

Mark, who has been unemployed for seven years, was more upbeat.

“I totally think you should do something to earn your benefits and I want to work,” he says. “But I've hurt my leg and I can only stand for an hour so it will have to be something sitting down.”

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