A letter in The Times

Sir, Simon Szreter (“Elizabethans knew how to boost our productivity”, Thunderer, Jul 12) tells us that we should bring back the principles of the Elizabethan Poor Law. Those principles were that the impotent poor — the disabled — should and would be taken care of through that system of progressive taxation upon land. The able-bodied poor, unable to work through some economic happenstance, would also be cared for, but at the cost of their working on some task while they were — say, those on jobseeker’s allowance having to sweep the streets or stack shelves. The idle poor were sent to the House of Correction, or possibly prison. My suspicion is that there would be a lot of votes today in a system that jailed the workshy. I think Szreter very brave, in that Yes Minister sense, for proposing it.
Tim Worstall
Senior fellow Adam Smith Institute, London SW1

31 thoughts on “A letter in The Times”

  1. The effects on the market-clearing price for shelf-stacking labour, and voluntary employment of shelf stackers, by providing shelf stacking for nowt are [insert answer here].

  2. Bloke in cornwall

    @BiG – technically their not being provided for free, just being paid by someone other than the company getting their shelves stacked…

    I do think that people who are able to work and can’t find any should be given “jobs” to do to earn their money – maybe things that are no longer viable to pay for due to minimum wage increases? We seem to have stopped doing any street tidying / maintenance so let’s get them doing that

  3. “being paid by someone other than the company getting their shelves stacked”

    Therein lies the problem.

    I think I am owed several unemployed persons’ labour (based on the taxes I pay), to do things that I don’t have time to do because I work to pay taxes. But then I’d not spend the money on volunteer labour.

  4. I agree idle loafers sponging off the social are a problem by the way, it’s just, as Tim (used to) teach a lot, economics at the margin, economics as trade-offs, and effective >100% tax rates on people moving from the social into paid employment.

  5. Shelf-stacking is probably a poor choice of example – though we could charge supermarkets the going rate for enforced labour, I doubt they’d want their shelves stacked by such. But there’s plenty of other socially useful work that needs doing, along the lines of community service.

  6. The cloggies experimented with this kind of thing at the same time as our own dear Elizabethans.

    They developed a large wooden crate equipped with a manual pump. The idle loafer in receipt of dole was plonked in the crate. Water was slowly poured into it. The idle L then had to pump it out.

    All worked swimmingly until they got a bastard who really was so lazy he preferred to drown.

  7. Some years ago, I lived in Germany and the wife of a colleague worked in an Arbeitsamt, dole/unemployment office. During one particularly harsh winter, those claiming dole were given protective clothing and tools and were sent to clear streets of snow before receiving their unemployment benefit. There were no complaints, no howls of anger or protest, and no union disagreement. Wonder if such a system would work here?

  8. Making them work, and enforcing it, will be expensive (although possibly worthwhile). As a start, I would suggest just making them turn up at a benefits office, all day, every day, 9-5 Monday to Friday (perhaps 10-4, to reduce the impact on public transport, but as close as possible to a proper working day). After all, if you’re claiming unemployment benefit, you’re saying you’re available for work. Provide facilities for job search and making applications while they’re there, but don’t do much more than clock them in an out for now. See what that does to the claimant numbers first, then move on to other things.

  9. Or just stop welfare to anyone not physically or mentally incapable of working.

    Those outraged by this can then voluntarily club together to pay dole, and the rest of us can voluntarily decide whether or not we want to chip in, and how much.

  10. ” Provide facilities for job search and making applications while they’re there, ”

    Pah! I went through just such an enforced turn-up scheme. I had much better facilities and access to job-seecking information *at* *home*.
    I got to the point of *not* going through job listings for the two days beforehand so there was sufficient for me to go through on the day. It only takes so long to go through all of today’s vacancies, if you keep pushing you’re just reading those you read yesterday and the day before and last week.

    And even then all I could do was filter stuff to deal with later at home. All my CVs are on my computer *at* *home*. All my portfolio is on my computer *at* *home* or in document wallets *at* *home* or in project boxes *at* *home*.. All my reference work is either on my shelves or on my computer *at* *home*. There were effectively expecting me to take my office into the job centre once a week.

  11. I think you missed the point, jgh. It’s not to aid people seeking employment. It’s to deter those not seeking employment.

  12. Incidentally, your objection is a fine example of the entitlement culture. No-one is personally obliged to give you an income, lets you eat. But they do vote for a system that enables it. That a genuine jobseeker might be obliged to attend somewhere for the working day would be a cost to the jobseeker. The benefit is he gets that money. Because if the taxpayer feels there’s too many freeloading on the system, eventually they’ll vote to not give you the money, freeloader or not..

  13. @ Richard
    What jgh said plus
    The second time I got made “redundant” (I wasn’t but a cheaper colleague was short of work so a new MBA-qualified manager chose to sack me instead), I signed in at the local Jobcentre who didn’t have a single job listed that was suitable – because all the suitable ones were in London. They didn’t even have a copy of the FT where finance jobs are listed.
    One of the guys there was decent and I reported to him how many days (if any) I done some casual work and how much money (if any) I’d earned and he calculated how much benefit I should get (I was more concerned about retaining my entitlement to state pension) but there was a sub-manager who was a complete arse who wanted me (with 2 degrees and 6 professional qualifications) to apply for any unskilled job on offer locally even if their weekly rate was less than my daily rate. I had to make formal appeal against his decision that I should lose my pension credits (and UB) if I looked for an appropriate job while doing what work I could find.

  14. @ BiS
    jgh’s point is that the Jobcentre *hindered* his attempt to find work. You seeme to have completely ignored that.

  15. @john77. Yes, that’s a cost. If it’s higher than the benefits, don’t claim the benefits.
    Look at it from the taxpayer’s point of view. Paying benefits is a cost. If what you get out of it is more than the cost, you willingly pay it. If not, you don’t. Just because you have a Welfare State at the moment doesn’t mean it’s inevitable. We certainly don’t have anything like the UK system here.

  16. This sort of thing’s beyond me:

    “The second time I got made “redundant” …, I signed in at the local Jobcentre who didn’t have a single job listed that was suitable – because all the suitable ones were in London. They didn’t even have a copy of the FT where finance jobs are listed.”

    Whenever I’ve found people will no longer pay me for what I do, I find something to do they will pay me for. Hence I’ve learned to do a lot of different things. I’ve never signed on in my life. But, then, I’ve always had the attitude – nothing is forever -so mostly I’ll have the next thing lined up before the current one goes stale. Or enough stashed away, it’s not a problem. Insurance, either way.

  17. @ bis
    I have paid national insurance since I was 17 (except while at university) so I was entitled to claim on my insurance policy when made redundant.
    If a private sector insurance company made it more costly to claim on my insurance than the value of the claim the directors would be jailed for fraud (or hospitalised, depending on whom they picked on first). The DWP is not fit for purpose.

  18. @ BiS
    Before they changed the rules, if you didn’t have a complete contribution record you didn’t get a full state pension so I was told to sign on, while searching for work. I did find work through my own efforts but it took some time to find enough to pay NI Contributions.
    Before I was made “redundant” I was working 50+ hours a week on average so I had neither reason nor time to “line up” alternative sources of income.
    You are continuing to avoid jgh’s point – attending the Jobcentre made it harder to get work

  19. I’m not evading his point. Attending the Jobcentre is a benefit for the taxpayer. That’s who should be calling the shots, here. It is, after all, their money.
    50 hours a week seems remarkably frugal. What did you do with all your spare time?

  20. And if you believe ‘National Insurance’ is an insurance scheme there’s a bridge crosses the East River I might be able to interest you in.

  21. Job seekers allowance is £73.10 per week. Minimum wage is £8.21 per hour. So allowance is for 8.9 hours work per week.

    I know there are other benefits to be taken into account, but I people have to hang around for their money it shouldn’t be for more hours than they obtain.

    Also, when calculating those hours don’t forget our contributions. I agree with @bis, for a lot of us this isn’t charity — we’ve paid in over the years we have a right to insurance.


  22. Ditto to most of those comments. If you’ve paid in you’re entitled to six months’ JSA *regardless* *of* *circumstances*. If I’d paid buildings insurance and my roof got blown off, would you insist that I shouldn’t claim?

    Also, probably similar to john77, I only turned up so they’d credit my National Insurance contributions. During the time other than the hour or so a day it took to go through job vacancies I’d do hobbiest software development (stuff people won’t pay for), historical archive research (stuff people won’t pay for) (I’ve just this afternoon got another four pages of the 1925 local directory transcribed), weed the pavement in front of my house (stuff people won’t pay for), cut the local hedges (stuff people won’t pay for), report blocked drains to the council (stuff people won’t pay for), clear the snow in winter (stuff people won’t pay for).
    Oh, and potter around the house catching up on repairs and maintainance – stuff nobody is going to pay me to do.

  23. If The People don’t want the state to operate an unemployment insurance scheme, then yes go ahead and instruct the state to leave that business sector, but at the same time you must stop forcing me to contribute to it, and I’ll contribute to another scheme of my own choice.

    But the *whole* *point* of casting an insurance net over the entire population is to spread the insurance risk across the entire population, lowering the specific risk per participant.

  24. @jgh
    You’re treating it as an insurance scheme & it never has been. There’s no “fund” of contributions. There’s no contract of entitlements. The government of the day can change the rules at its whim. NI’s just another form of taxation.

  25. So it’s a badly run insurance scheme, but there is an explicit set of rules that say we deduct X from you and as a result you are entitled to Y of temporarily unemployed (JSA or whatever they call it now) so it is considered a form of insurance by people, albeit one you have no choice about

  26. bloke in spain said:
    “I think you missed the point, jgh. It’s not to aid people seeking employment. It’s to deter those not seeking employment.”

    Yup. Start it on those who have been claiming for longest. Those who find a job themselves in a few weeks clearly don’t need any encouragement. Of those who don’t, many do.

  27. BniC said:
    “So it’s a badly run insurance scheme, but there is an explicit set of rules that say we deduct X from you and as a result you are entitled to Y of temporarily unemployed”


    Payment doesn’t give any ongoing entitlement.

    At the moment, they deduct X from you. At the moment, you are entitled to Y if you become unemployed. But the fact that you paid the required X last week does not entitle you to Y next week, because they can (and do) change the rules.

    A decent private insurance policy for unemployment would cover a much longer term, with future prices and cover calculated in a way written into the contract at the start for the full term.

    That’s why “National Insurance” is not a real insurance scheme.

  28. @ BiS
    What did I do with all my spare time? 3-4 hours per day commuting, best part of an hour finding somewhere that sold something edible for lunch queueing up eating it and returning, odd bit of housework, going for a run twice a week, sleeping.

  29. @ BiS
    There doesn’t need to be a fund to make it an insurance scheme. You are enhgaging in a straw man argument

  30. @ jgh
    I did various odd jobs that had been neglected for years but a lot of my time was spent jobseeking and keeping up with all the reading that I needed to do in order to be able to do a job if I got one. In due course I picked up enough small contracts to be paying self-employed NI contributions but that required me to spend at least two-three hours a day on background reading to keep myself up-to-date on a range of subjects.
    Oh, I did start work on a research project which I never finished: bit over a thousand hours work over the years before it became not worth the effort because the market had changed.

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