Guest Blog – Jess Steele, Chair of CREATE Consortium

The Community Allowance will enable community organisations  to pay local people to do work that strengthens their neighbourhoods without disrupting their benefits. This is a win-win-win proposal that helps individuals make progress to become more independent, gets the work that needs doing in poor neighbourhoods done by the people best placed to do it, and channels the energy and trust of civil society towards the big aim of using our welfare spend as an investment in social change rather than a net that traps people in poverty.

The sheer obviousness of the solution has always driven me onwards in this long campaign and has never failed to convince anyone who listened for 20 minutes, though their responses have varied from a conviction that it can be achieved ‘within the system’ to world-weary warnings not to ‘rock the boat’ or smash our energies against the intricately-constructed, ideologically-defended brick walls of the Department for Work & Pensions.

But I have known so many people on benefits, and so many local organisations that wanted to employ them, that there has been inspiration enough to keep insisting that the system itself must change. It is fundamentally outmoded, modelled on the Victorian ‘doctrine of less eligibility’ that sought to make ‘relief’ so truly awful that people would do anything to avoid it. It is an on-off switch that mirrors a world of work that has been disappearing for generations, a ‘safety net’ congealed into a trap, a revolving door that while the economy grew could spin the ‘work-ready’ off the books and keep ‘those left behind’ spinning on the spot. It is notoriously bureaucratic so that even the Benefit Simplification Unit has been a Dickensian irony locked in the basement of Adelphi House pondering clause 54.b (ii).

The campaign route has been littered with government ministers who thought they were important at the time but lasted only to the next reshuffle or, more recently, to the next squabble. Some of them returned as is the tendency of long governments with decreasing majorities. At last, pressure by us and many others paid off – from April 2010 anyone on Employment Support Allowance or Incapacity Benefit will be allowed to earn up to £92 a week without risking either their core benefit or housing benefit. But the 900,000 people on Income Support for Incapacity are not included; nor are lone parents or carers, or those hundreds of thousands on Job Seeker’s Allowance who disprove the myth that JSA claimants are ‘job-ready’ even when the jobs exist. Moreover, claimants will still need to declare these earnings opening up opportunities for error and misinformation while failing to reward people who are trying to work with the greatest gift of all – getting the system’s claws out of their back to create a breathing space in which to rebuild their lives free from fear.

The guest contributions for this blog come from many perspectives but all share a common view. All our writers understand that the longest journey starts with a single step. Sir Trevor Chinn describes how crucial it is to ‘get up, do something’. Taking the first step into small-scale work is the only way out of poverty and the small amounts of mini-job wages can make a big difference. People need to be allowed to take responsibility, encouraged and supported rather than punished, but the system is oversensitive to small earnings. Dame Barbara Stocking uses that key phrase – the system is ‘no longer fit for purpose’. Muhamed Yunus recently captured the challenge – if someone on welfare earns a dollar, match it with a dollar, don’t crush that willing initiative by confiscating the first one as if it were ill-gotten.

Julia Unwin CBE makes the point that the Community Allowance is a multi-faceted solution – not just about individual poverty but also addressing “the appalling and risky under-funding of community based organisations” and “getting the work done” for local neighbourhoods. She describes the latest in the long line of respected research studies and policy documents, including several from DWP itself, that have urged reform of the earnings disregard. She is clear that the grassroots Community Allowance complements rather than replaces other welfare to work approaches.

The big divide is between people like Dame Barbara Stocking of Oxfam who know that “there is enormous untapped potential in some of the poorest communities, and above all in the people who live in them” and those who cannot believe that poor people and poor neighbourhoods have not brought their stigma upon themselves. Sadly, the former tend to be those who work in and with local communities, whereas the latter too often guard the powers of Whitehall and Westminster. In a UK-wide benefit system, it seems there is no scope even for Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish experiments let alone truly localised opportunities.

And Beveridge… how pleased I was to learn of his doubts from Hilary Cottam of Participle, how he realised that his grand plan had left out the crucial role of the citizen and collective action in a true welfare society. It reminded me of Sybil Phoenix OBE telling me how initially she was impressed with the housing estates of the 1960s, and then how through experience she came to a new understanding. This is how we learn and make change – when people of integrity admit that all is not well. The Beveridge 4.0 concept is a powerful opportunity, a ‘new lens’, a thread of bright cotton leading us towards new thinking that could become the new normal.

Julian Dobson’s anger with the “Kafkaesque satire…where the well-off felt the badly-off were getting a better deal” reflects the disillusion of a generation who waited for Labour, cheered the Policy Action Team reports with their focus on evidence and now are repulsed by political pandering to “the coherent story of popular sentiment”. The “different story” he describes is the one that those of us on the ground in poor areas know best, “a story that begins with the people, not the prejudice”.

At a time when consensus is finally emerging that the welfare system is seriously unfit for duty, the Community Allowance solution works across all the party divides because it makes so much sense and costs so little. As Neil O’Brien from Policy Exchange puts it, we have to “allow claimants to take small steps to a full job”. There have been people and communities left behind throughout the boom, but now in the teeth of recession we face challenges that can only be met by using public spend differently.

Please revisit our blog over the next few weeks to read our guest contributors’ perspectives on the Community Allowance in full and do get in touch if you’d like to write something yourself.

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