If you didn't see the Panorama programme last night, you really should. It's on iplayer. It's called Workers on the Breadline and is a real eye-opener for those who think poor people are all idle and feckless. It looked at working people whose incomes have to be topped up by tax credits. (The presenter used the word hand-outs a lot, and I objected to that, but perhaps he was just reflecting the language of the right-wing press.) There were couples where both partners worked (and had no more than three children) but even with WTC were living on the edge; and there was a single man, Jason, working in a zero hours job, earning around £10k a year and getting only £300 a year in WTC. These were real people, struggling (and in Jason's case drowning) and knowing that it will only get worse. It was pointed out that working overtime or extra hours isn't the answer because you lose most of your benefit, and for people with children the cost of childcare is impossible. I haven't seen the BBC do anything this competent and important for years, so it's sad to learn that they're ditching all investigative reporting from Panorama. There were no politicians waffling; the positions of the two main parties were set out succinctly. And two authorities offered no solutions, admitting that Britain has become a low-skilled economy and wages are far too low. While education and skills would seem to be important, one said, if you come out of university and the only work you can get is stacking shelves, that in itself isn't the answer.
There was a disturbing report from Liverpool on Saturday that half the jobs on Merseyside are now temporary agency jobs. (See this Liverpool Echo piece.) Agencies like Prime Time get hand-outs from the government to take people on under the Work Programme then pay them so little that, after travel costs, they can come away with £3.72 an hour.
This is a lunatic downward spiral. Of the families featured on the Panorama programme, one husband and wife both work at Tesco. But they can't afford to shop there. All the big supermarkets are losing market share to the discounters. And that's just one obvious result of how making people suffer frozen wages and benefit cuts impacts on the economy as a whole. Those at the very top rake in a bigger and bigger share of the nation's money, but they don't spend it down at the supermarket.
What is the answer, then? Raising the minimum wage is an obvious part of it, despite the protests of business that they can't afford it. Genuine skills training has to be in there too. Jason said in the programme that the only way he could see of getting a better job was to have a driving license, but he obviously couldn't afford driving lessons. Why not set up a free driving school for people in his position? And anyone who has spent years working in a particular industry and then loses his job should be re-trained. Another component is to get rid of all the free labour, workfare schemes which allow companies to avoid actually hiring people.
The answer is not the Work Programme. Both Labour and the Lib Dems have come round to the idea that local councils have to be in control of this. They couldn't just end the contracts but they could negotiate changes which would give councils the power to commission programmes suited to the needs of their areas, and to use the money currently being wasted on the WP to fund the the schemes many councils are already operating in conjunction with skills training organisations.
The status quo is not an option for much longer.