Getting Attached: New Routes to Full Employment, by Max Nathan

(Fabian Society, 2001), 36+iv pp, £6.95. (A revised version appears in Working Brief, issue 128, October 2001, published by the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion.) Order this book
Responding to the achievements of the government’s ‘New Deal for Young People’, to recent trends in the labour market, and to greater flexibility of employment patterns and to an increasing stratification of the labour market (with the low-skilled and low-paid now more separated from the high-skilled and high-paid, with little in between), Nathan recommends a new ‘welfare to work’ strategy which he calls an ‘attachment’ approach. This is a development of the New Deal with personal advisers and ‘attachment accounts’ accompanying people into employment and staying with them while they experience the rather more chaotic employment patterns of today’s labour market. Nathan recommends a devolved approach, with the design and implementation of attachment strategies at local level, and an approach which serves the employer as much as the employee. The approach is long-term: “It would aim to provide tools for long term labour market navigation. It would do this by fusing Welfare to Work, workforce development and business support” (p.2).
The first chapter is a most useful survey of the current state of the labour market, which concludes that there are “widening divisions between a stable, highly paid service elite, a declining male industrial proletariat, and a pool of low skilled, low stability jobs in services, filled mainly by women. It is becoming harder and harder to move from the second and third of these to the first” (p.10). The second chapter discusses the government’s ‘welfare to work’ programme and its successes, and then recommends that government schemes become more devolved so as to serve very different local conditions in different places. The third chapter suggests that the new Working Age Agency (currently being created by the amalgamation of the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency) should become an Attachment Agency, with the aim of keeping people attached to employment, not simply of getting them into it.
The conclusion contains four paragraphs. The first two and the final paragraphs are about the attachment strategy – the subject of the book – and they operate on the same assumption: that work is paid employment. But the third paragraph is different: “It is not enough to end welfare as we know it. Work, too, must be transformed. We need to rethink ‘work’ to include a much broader range of constructive activities. We should recognise that full-time paid work is not always suitable for everyone, all of the time – whether the jobs are there or not. There is a strong efficiency and equity case for such changes. Broadening work will enable communities to build social and economic capital. Given the extent of many people’s detachment from the labour market, it will open up useful new routes for moving these people back towards paid work. Broadening work will also visibly extend choice in the labour market, and better match people’s needs with possible activities. In doing so, it will recast the balance of rights and responsibilities for the better” (p.31).
What the book as a whole lacks is any discussion about the tax and benefits system which is the context for individuals’ and families’ labour-market decisions. Working Families Tax Credits have lessened the poverty trap which Family Credit helped to create, but at the cost of more complex employer-based administration – and they have done nothing to solve the administrative problems which people face when they move in and out of employment. Both the attachment strategy and the broader discussion of how we should understand ‘work’ need a context. What we now need from Nathan is a discussion of the different world towards which the third paragraph of the conclusion is pointing us, and a discussion of the tax and benefits system which such a world will require. If the present publication is anything to go by, such a book should be a good read.
Malcolm Torry