Claimants should be paid for community work, ministers told
by Julian Dobson
New start magazine
Far-reaching proposals to enable regeneration agencies to pay benefit claimants for community work were this week put to welfare reform minister Margaret Hodge.
The proposed ‘community allowance’ has been submitted by the National Community Forum in response to the government’s welfare reform green paper. Participants would be exempt from benefit clawbacks up to an agreed level if they take on socially valuable roles such as running school crossing patrols or taking part in environmental projects.
Individuals claiming benefit would be entitled to an exemption certificate by taking up accredited ‘community regeneration work’. Opportunities would be offered by local agencies in deprived areas and would consist of sessional, short-term or part-time opportunities that could form a bridge into work for claimants.
Earnings could be capped at a weekly level for 26 weeks, or up to a total amount over a longer period of time, without affecting claimants’ benefit status.
The scheme, known as Create, has been developed by the Community Forum’s benefits working group. Jess Steele, the group’s chair and deputy chief executive of the British Urban Regeneration Association, said it would involve a radical change in attitudes to worklessness.
‘The approach we have taken is rethinking the very idea of economic activity,’ she told a conference organised by Bura this week.
She said £92bn a year was being paid out in benefits that could be harnessed to give local residents the opportunity to do work that could transform deprived communities. This work was not being done because residents were afraid of losing benefit entitlement.
‘Fifteen percent of the population live in deprived areas,’ Ms Steele said. ‘Changing those areas is not just about squeezing people into jobs. We need to show the government just how much is saved by sustained community work.’
The proposal was welcomed by Joe Montgomery, director-general of the ODPM’s tackling disadvantage group. He said the Community Forum’s work on benefits was an ‘object lesson in how you can get good ideas if you can involve citizens in conversation and dialogue’.
But Ms Hodge defended the current earnings disregards, which limit the amount claimants can earn without losing benefit. The levels for incapacity benefit claimants were not bad, she said.