Skills push for benefit claimants

The prime minister today set out plans for a new crackdown on benefit claimants as part of a government bid to boost the skilled workforce.

Gordon Brown previewed a new carrot-and-stick approach, billed as a new balance of rights and responsibilities.

Lone parents and those on incapacity benefits will be encouraged to seek training to re-enter the workforce, with the implication that benefits could be withheld from those refusing to participate.

Speaking at the Confederation of British Industries (CBI) annual conference, Mr Brown said the best welfare for people could be training to help them find skilled work in the future rather than benefits to tide them over today.

The prime minister announced anyone signing up for unemployment benefits will now also need to sign up for a skills review, offering them advice and training if needed.

“This could be taken into account in their benefit entitlement,” he said, in an indication the government is prepared to withhold benefits from those not actively seeking work.

In an attempt to offer a ‘carrot’, Mr Brown announced welfare secretary Peter Hain will reform the 16-hour rule, which currently sees benefits withheld from people undertaking more than 16 hours of training a week.

In his annual address to business leaders, Mr Brown repeatedly stressed the need to improve skills, reiterating past warnings that the number of unskilled British jobs is set to fall by more than five million.

Under new government plans, lone parents will be required to undergo training in order to start skilled work at the same time as their child starts school.

In a bid to offset criticism, Mr Brown promised parents would soon gain more rights to request flexible working, telling business leaders that employers also want more flexibility.

As previewed by Mr Hain last week, new reforms will also focus on the skills and abilities of incapacity benefit claimants, requiring those that can work to do so.

Mr Brown promised: “Work for those who can, education or training for those with no skills, and treatment for those who need medical help including mental health problems.”

The prime minister again set out the argument for raising the school leaving age, arguing it can no longer be assumed a teenager can leave education with no qualifications and get unskilled work.

He warned the unqualified and unskilled would have to acquire a skill to become more easily employable, citing a lack of skills rather than jobs as the new barrier to full employment.

Mr Brown said: “While in the old days it was seen as the duty of government to create work for the inactive, in the new world there has to be both a duty on the government to help the inactive become employable and a duty on the inactive to take up these opportunities.”