The spectre of rising unemployment

Every time we have a recession in this country, we start to talk about and take notice of unemployment. If this discussion on the BBC website is anything to go by, there’s not a lot of public sympathy for the unemployed – with the view that they are ‘scroungers and spongers’ seemingly prevalent. But I think we should have focussed more on long term unemployment when things were going well and the economy was growing. Unemployment is not just a problem for times of recession. What seems to happen is that we decide to worry about the holes in our boat during a storm – when the holes would have been easier to repair in calmer weather.

It is definitely true to say that there is an underclass of people in Britain whom we have failed to get back to work. It is also, sadly, the case that the ranks of unemployed are going to be swollen in coming months because of the fallout from the recession. What is masked when you just look at the headline numbers is that the new additions to the list will, in many cases, be the first to find work again. The residual long term unemployed will still be just that. When employers have vacancies to fill, recently redundant workers are the most attractive prospect. One analogy I have heard is that candidates are like flowers in a flower shop – the freshest get chosen while the wilted are left to wilt further.

There are many who believe that unemployment is something we just have to accept – there isn’t enough work to go around. I actually don’t believe that. Unemployment is a vicous circle. It harms our economy. More unemployed means more of our taxes used in paying benefits – and the unemployed are never going to boost our economy by spending more on goods and services. The good news is that the opposite is also true: employed people have more disposable income, and demand more goods and services. This in turn creates jobs. More people in work means more tax collected and less of that spent on benefits – leaving governments more to invest.

So we must not ever reach the stage where we feel we should tolerate residual long term unemployment. Our government is currently going into billions of debt to try to prop up our economy. They would do well to invest that money into getting the long term unemployed back into work. I believe that everyone who has been unemployed for more than six months should be receiving sufficient attention to address why they are in that situation. There are 600,000 vacancies in our economy today. Long term unemployed people are not getting those jobs either because they need support and help – or because they don’t want them. We need serious strategies to tackle both of those scenarios.

Examples where we might need to support candidates include: help with CVs and interview techniques, provision of childcare and provision of education and training. The latter could be basic numeracy or literacy or a practical skill like plumbing. Anything that is going to make someone more employable.

The second category is more difficult – but we cannot shy away from this: there are people out there who don’t want to work. I know – I have met such people. Family A is a couple with two children who live in a 3 bedroomed council house. They have openly told me that they don’t want to work and think I am a fool because I do. Actually, they do both work – on a casual, cash in hand basis. It pays for their holidays and other little luxuries. They have Cable TV and they recently bought a caravan (I kid you not). The stark fact is that we cannot afford to allow families to work the system like that. We have to make some brave political choices if we are going to force the ‘won’t works’ to face up to their responsibilities.

Long term unemployment is a blight on our generally quite wealthy society. But we should be looking to tackle it – in good times as well as hard times.