GP Taylor: My father cleaned the streets rather than go on the dole: where has that work ethic gone?

IN the early 1980s, I was unemployed. It wasn’t for long, but it certainly affected the way I looked on life. I felt quite worthless, as if I didn’t fit in and had no hope. Whether we like it or not, at some point the work we do is a part of our identity.

In any conversation with someone new, the talk quickly turns to what you do for a living. When I was on the dole, I hated saying I was unemployed. It went against the work ethic that I had been taught by my father.

He was a man who once had two jobs in order to look after his family – bootmaker by day and barman by night. The one thing he never would shy away from was hard work. Later in life, he was made redundant. Rather than go on the dole, he swept the streets. Work and life were things he cherished and made him proud. Even though we were not rich, we never went without. The British work ethic that was once held so dear in this country appears to be on the wane with some people. It is easy to see that there is an underclass that is making a very good living being busy doing nothing. One of the things my father would say was “a worker is worth his salt.”

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It is only with hindsight that I understand the ramifications of what that really meant.

In a society where people pay high taxes for less and less, is it really right that those who are long-term unemployed get money thrown at them for not working?

Our benefits system is one of the best in the world; it is something for us to be proud of. However, in tough economic times, those who are unemployed should be asked to work for the money they are given.

With a Government planning more and more cuts, couldn’t those on the dole be made to provide a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay? Currently, the Jobseeker’s Allowance pays £51 to £102 per week. Wouldn’t it be better for people to have to earn that money in some way? Even paying the average minimum wage, it would mean that those getting the benefit would be available to work for 12 to 15 hours per week. It would be quite easy to have these people on worthwhile community projects and proper work experience. At last they would be able to feel they were not cast off by society. New skills could be learnt, new friends made and no-one could accuse them of living and sponging off state handouts.

I know how doing voluntary work while unemployed helps. Not wanting to be seen as being on the scrap heap at 21, I got a job as a volunteer with Social Services, this eventually led to full-time employment. Even though I wasn’t being paid, I had a great sense of worth. I was available for interviews and could start work at any time and yet was part of something very worthwhile. Figures released by the Guardian Data Project that looked at those involved in the recent lootings show that the majority of those put before the court did not work. Around 75 per cent of those were under 25. That in itself says so much about the society we live in.

The announcement this week by Justice Minister Crispin Blunt that jobless criminals will have to do a five-day week of hard work, including one day hunting for a job, does not go far enough. Working for your dole should not just be reserved for the criminal classes. According to the Minister’s announcement, unemployed offenders will be forced to work a minimum of 28 hours over four days, with the fifth day spent looking for full-time work. Blunt has stopped short of what the public wants. The time of the free meal is over and idle hands have to be taken away from the devil making use of them, especially as we approach 2.5 million unemployed. The London liberals who place the recent violence at the door of lack of opportunity would have to eat their words. Such a plan would provide young people with training, work experience and work-related discipline.

As Iain Duncan Smith looks at the welfare system, making the unemployed earn their money should be considered. There is a whole pool of talent left idle.

Many of those people on the dole want to feel useful. This would be an ideal way of people getting back into work. It is the Big Society in action. Such a system would be quite easy to operate. If someone refuses to do the community work, then the Government could refuse to pay them. This might perhaps spur some of them on to find jobs that they really want to do. Tough times call for tough measures. The genuine unemployed would understand the fairness of the system and the slackers and benefit bingers would soon be found out and struck off the register – no work, no money – simple.

I think it is fair to ask someone to work for the money given to them. Handouts are a thing of the past. When I lived in a vicarage, I once got a tramp asking for food. I exchanged food for some work in the graveyard. I was amazed that I never got another visit while other vicars did. Believe it or not, some people want money for nothing and that is not part of the heritage of this country.

Imagine a resource of nearly two million people working on projects that would benefit the places where we live. Social enhancement could be set as a priority. Those taking part could be proud of the fruit of their labours and no longer would unemployment be seen as a place for idleness.

In the light of recent events in our cities, it would be far better for IDS to implement a policy such as making unemployment into work rather than tinker at the edges.

GP Taylor, from Scarborough. is an ordained Anglican priest, writer and broadcaster.