Melanie Phillips

4 January 2010

In search of the work ethic

Published in: Daily Mail

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After the holiday break, many are returning to work today with possibly something less than the highest level of enthusiasm.

Whatever their grumbles, however, people are not only grateful to have a job at all, given this country's economic woes, but are also overwhelmingly committed to the importance of working.

The 'work ethic' is written into the DNA of our culture. Those who are able-bodied but don't work are subject to virtually automatic disapproval.

Even with the recession inflating the number of unemployed to around 2.4 million, the welfare system creates widespread resentment that it feather-beds the workshy.

People in work look at the number of immigrants finding jobs in Britain and wonder why so many of their fellow Brits aren't choosing to do those jobs themselves. There is a widespread perception that welfare cheats are endemic to the system. This much is already the common currency of political debate.

I have written about worklessness and welfare for longer than I care to remember. I have generally taken the view that, while welfare should help those who are genuinely unable to work, in practice it has perversely encouraged people to remain out of a job.

But it's all too easy to pass such judgments when you are a journalist with a comfortable income, tapping out opinions on a computer. How do they match up to the reality of life on the breadline?

BBC Radio 4 decided to test this out. In two programmes, the first of which is broadcast tonight, I was invited to undertake a personal journey to discover whether the work ethic had indeed been replaced by taxpayer-subsidised fecklessness.

With my producer, Charlotte Simpson, I went to the north-east of England, an area of very high deprivation with the highest rate of youth unemployment in England.

What I found was in many respects somewhat chastening. I met people living near Blyth, Northumberland, who were struggling to get a job in places where there was precious little work to be found.

Many young people seemed to be just being shunted from vocational course to vocational course without ever getting a job. When asked, they all said they wanted to work in order to retain a sense of self-respect.

But since there were no jobs to be had near where they were living, why didn't they 'get on their bike' and travel further afield? After all, it seemed there were jobs to be had in Newcastle.

It was as if I had suggested they might fly to the moon. They couldn't travel even a few miles because they couldn't afford public transport, let alone a car. Bikes didn't seem to be on their radar.

The core reason for this narrowness of horizons and expectations seemed to be a vicious circle of demoralisation and hopelessness, sapping energy and initiative. And in many respects, the welfare system merely made this worse.

For instance, the Government's job centres were often nowhere near those housing estates where unemployment was concentrated. For people who have all but given up, even travelling to the job centre is often beyond them.

So it obviously makes sense for job centre advisers to go to them. I visited one such outreach scheme which was clearly making a great difference, with advisers going out on street corners, into supermarkets and even knocking on doors to look for those who wanted help to find a job.

People who had assumed they had no skills, or that there were no jobs or that they wouldn't be better off working were being shown -- to their surprise -- that they could, in fact, find jobs that were worth their while.

But such outreach schemes were cut back years ago in a spasm of bureaucratic reorganisation. Well, just how idiotic is that?

Then there's the 'poverty trap', by which people find they are scarcely any better off -- if at all -- in work than on benefits.

As one woman who was married to a chronically sick man told me, after being advised by a benefits adviser to claim child-tax credits they found they lost their entitlement to free school meals, housing benefit, free prescriptions and income support.

It rapidly became clear to me that the byzantine complexity of the welfare rules meant that hardly anyone seemed able to provide a coherent and authoritative picture.

But for a number of people, the only available jobs would indeed leave them just marginally better-off than they would be on benefit. So it's hardly surprising if they conclude that working just isn't worth it -- or that so many are tempted to fiddle the system.

Of course, the drawback of a radio programme like this is that those who agree to be interviewed are a self- selecting sample. Not surprisingly, no one who was on the fiddle agreed to speak to me.

But one 18-year-old boy did fit a depressing stereotype. Despite the fact that he had never had a job since leaving school at 16, he had a baby son by his girlfriend -- who fell pregnant, she said giggling, when she was drunk at a party.

When I asked this teenage father whether he would accept a job he found boring in order to support his family, he said he would not; he would rather live indefinitely on welfare.

This boy hadn't seen his own biological father for years; he seemed to have no responsible male role model in his family. And now he looked set to give his own son the same message.

For the real work ethic, the kind that drives people to endure hardship in order to get a job, I had to go to the army of immigrant labour that does the many menial jobs in London that white people refuse to do.

One Nigerian man leaves home before four every morning to get to the first of his two daily jobs in central London as a cleaner, getting back home at 10.30 at night. At weekends he sleeps, so he rarely sees his family.

Then there is the harassed mother from Ecuador, trying to look after her young children in between her two jobs cleaning lavatories an hour's bus ride from her home -- all with no holidays, no sick pay and, with both jobs on the minimum wage, sometimes not enough money for food.

Mention welfare benefits to such people and they recoil. They were brought up in families that expected to work.

But here was the rub. They all came from countries without a welfare safety net. Their cultural 'work ethic' was arguably formed by fear of destitution -- and in this country their desperation to work, not to mention their poor English, exposed them to exploitation.

So I was left with the uncomfortable question of whether the work ethic is only created by fear of the awful consequences of not working.

Surely none of us would want to go back to the harshness of pre-welfare state Britain. But that leaves us with the dilemma of how we can reconcile compassion for the truly needy with incentives to work.

By the end of these encounters, my views had been both softened and strengthened. I developed a greater sympathy for people struggling to motivate themselves to work. But I also developed an even deeper belief that the current system, which seems to undermine them at every turn, must as a matter of urgency be reformed.

In Search Of The British Work Ethic, tonight and next Monday, 8pm, BBC Radio 4.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography

Books

  • The World Turned Upside Down
  • Londonistan
  • The Ascent of Woman
  • America's Social Revolution

Contact Melanie

Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
Northcliffe House
2 Derry Street
London W8 5TT

Contact Melanie