Beyond the workfare state, edited by Mick Carpenter, Belinda Freda and Stuart Speeden

Policy Press, 2007, viii + 192 pp, pbk, 1 861 348722, £19.99, hbk 1 861 348739, £60

Part I of this evidence-based approach to labour market exclusion reports on case studies in labour market discrimination and inequalities. As we read these reports of qualitative and quantitative research amongst discriminated-against groups and in disadvantaged communities, a consistent message emerges: active labour market projects simply designed to get people into employment as quickly as possible serve neither the economy nor clients’ long term interests. What’s needed are better entry-level jobs and solutions to structural inequality and discrimination in employment. Transition-focused approaches lead to just that: brief transitions into the labour market. A broader approach which promotes individuals’ autonomy and capabilities, which values their ability and right to make decisions as to whether to enter the labour market and if so how, and which removes disincentives to labour market entry, is recommended.

In part II some detail is added to the prescription. First comes a history of New Labour policy. In the early years, enhanced childcare provision, tax credits, and a fairly gentle ‘active labour market’ approach, along with improvement in economic conditions, led to a fall in unemployment. Then the fall slackened, and deindustrialised areas in particular continued to record high unemployment rates. Then sanctions increased and a target-driven approach experienced diminishing returns and a substantial transfer of claimants from Jobseekers’ Allowance to Incapacity Benefit.

The final chapter outlines a ‘capabilities and human rights approach’. ‘Capabilities’ are human ‘functionings’ within and outside the formal labour market, and they include what people valuedoing; and the rights relate to the provision of well-rewarded good work, to greater equality, and to a better work-life balance.

When you read this book you should start with chapter 2 and read chapter 1 last. Chapter 1 is called an ‘introduction’ but actually it’s the ‘conclusions’ chapter. It really ought to have been at the end of the book.

The editors conclude that a top-down welfare-to-work regime exhibits diminishing returns, but that the type of employment reintegration which works is characterised by local discretion, flexibility, the ability to work outside bureaucratic structures, and ‘a voluntary rather than a sanction-based relationship between project workers and service users in which power to act fundamentally rested with the latter’ (p,4). Such an alternative approach is particularly needed for people for whom short-term skills enhancement currently leads to insecure low-skill employment which offers little economic improvement compared to a life on benefits.

The editors find a significant contradiction at the heart of workfare approaches: ‘External surveillance and sanctions, and encouragement to internal motivation and effort’ (p,5). Their view is that ‘genuine empowerment can only come from freely exercised choice, and …. this …. is the only realistic and socially just way of tackling labour market exclusion’ (p.6). They ask for a ‘human capital’ approach which addresses such problems as benefit traps. This is the way to improve excluded groups’ relationship with the labour market, not sanctions. According to the evidence, a capabilities and human rights approach works.

A Citizen’s Income gets a mention, but only as a possibility of freedom from the labour market which might lead to the meeting of community needs (p. 165). A Citizen’s Income would also, of course, address one of the barriers to a capabilities and human rights approach: benefit traps. By reducing marginal deduction rates a Citizen’s Income would make employment pay,and it would make it more feasible for people to decline low-wage poor-quality employment, thus improving employment, increasing low wages, and ensuring that net incomes would increase as earned income rose.

This book contains important evidence and relevant conclusions, and everyone interested in labour market participation should read it.