The unemployed and the unemployable

A brief, partial review of two recent BBC Television programmes, and some comment on the issues raised therein relating to petty offenders, poverty and social exclusion.

Earlier this week, the BBC’s short documentary series The Lock Up highlighted one of the problems of the underclass. Perhaps underclass is too tepid a word to describe a couple of the characters the viewer met here, underclass of the underclass might be a more fitting title. One of them was Michael who was arrested for stealing a large quantity of — cheese.

In the Hull police station where this documentary was filmed, heroine addict Michael said he’d been in gaol “a lot o’ me life” and described himself as “a bit of a compulsive thief”. Although 44 years old he looks older, but says he has been on drugs nine years, having started late in life. Michael said he has a daughter, and added with admirable candour, “I’m not exactly a great role model, am I?”

There was no mention of him working when he was younger, though presumably he did. As he was being shipped off to court the following morning, one of his gaolers said with equal candour that Michael was stealing to fund a drug habit, but that with the arrest, feeding him in the police station and calling out a doctor, it had cost the police ten or fifteen times the cost of the theft to process him. It might be added that this figure is a gross underestimate, because at court he was fined £100 for each theft with £85 costs. There appear to have been two charges; the programme showed CCTV footage of him stealing other goods from a shop.

The programme is currently available on iplayer; for those who are able, grab it while you can; those who are not, look out for it on YouTube.

Michael is or appears to be homeless; if he is not actually living on the streets then he will have very basic hostel accommodation. It may be that the clothes he stands up in are the only ones he owns; the viewer was certainly given that impression when he was processed.

In view of this, one has to question the wisdom of fining him and ordering him to pay costs, because to do so begs the question, from where will he obtain the money to pay such a fine?

If he doesn’t pay the fine, he will be ordered back to court, possibly under warrant, and if he does attempt to obtain the money to pay it, he will almost certainly end up in court again anyway, for theft. People like Michael end up serving what has been called a life sentence on the instalment plan. The reason for this is not far to seek, the only legitimate way such a man could pay a court fine is by finding a job, but no employer in his right mind would employ anyone like him, not in this day and age. True, he might pick up the odd bit of menial cash-in-hand work here and there, but more than the odd bit, and he would probably end up in court again, this time for benefit fraud. People such as him are trapped in a downward spiral.

The same point was addressed last night on the BBC’s Question Time programme that was broadcast this week in Wormwood Scrubs prison, and which included serving prisoners in its audience. One made the point that many prisoners are discharged with a £38 grant and a black plastic bag containing all their worldly possessions, so it is hardly surprising that like Michael, many of them soon find their way back to the police station, court, prison...

With high unemployment throughout the so-called developed world, and cuts in public services made to fund government deficits throughout Europe and beyond, even many highly qualified people are finding themselves under pressure. So what is the solution?

Firstly, we must recognise the simple fact that in this hi-tech world, some people are to all intents and purposes unemployable. Two or three hundred years ago this problem did not exist; the Michaels of this world would probably have ended up in the workhouse, or more likely have been killed off by natural selection, to put it brutally and crudely. For people who were both able-bodied and willing to work, there was plenty of it: back-breaking labour dawn to dusk, and for a pittance. No sick pay, no holidays worth mentioning, certainly no paid holidays, and no pension. No one in his right mind would trade a comfortable Twentieth Century lifestyle with antibiotics, supermarkets, holidays in the sun, Internet access, and all the other goodies for a life of drudgery in a world in which electricity was unknown, and where even the super-rich would envy the lifestyles of most ordinary people in today’s Western world.

The previous Labour Government massaged the unemployment figures by moving people like Michael onto disability and similar benefits. Now, the Coalition Government is committed to getting these people “back to work” and to make sure that work always pays, in other words to reduce means-tested benefits to a level where people currently caught in the poverty trap will be forced to take any job going in order to keep their heads above water.

It would make more sense for the state to acknowledge the simple fact that the likes of Michael are unemployable in the modern world, and to pay such people a non-means tested benefit with strings attached, namely to steer clear of the criminal justice system. Perhaps to this end they could be relocated to rural areas where they could be housed in small hostel-type accommodation with communal facilities and minimal supervision, with assistance and training on hand for those who wished to attempt to better themselves. Although this may seem like rewarding anti-social behaviour, it is far superior to what currently happens, the constant processing of these people by the police, courts, prisons, and various aftercare services, none of whom seems to have had much success altering their behaviour now or at any time in the past.

Such an approach would also free up resources to deal with dangerous, hardened criminals rather than social pests. We could then also look at alternatives means other than paid work of distributing purchasing power to other people who are becoming progressively excluded from society, such as the rapidly increasing, unemployed graduate class.

[The above op-ed was first published May 20, 2011.]

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