Furore over Britain's manual labour plans for unemployed

9th November 2010, Comments 0 comments

Britain's government faced a furore Tuesday over plans to make the long-term unemployed do unpaid manual labour or lose their handouts as part of efforts to slash the country's huge welfare bill.

The head of the Anglican Church has led opposition to the reforms but Prime Minister David Cameron's coalition government that came to power in May says it will both help jobless people and also help tackle Britain's massive deficit.

"Our changes will make work pay and create the biggest package of back-to-work support ever seen," Work and Pensions Minister Ian Duncan Smith wrote in an article in the right-leaning Daily Mail newspaper.

Under the plans, which will be formally announced on Thursday, long-term claimants of unemployment benefit would have to carry out four-week placements of 30 hours a week doing unpaid tasks such as collecting litter.

If they fail to do so they will see their weekly 65-pound (75-euro, 104-dollar) welfare payments stopped for three months.

The proposal is the latest belt-tightening measure to emerge from the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, which last month unveiled the deepest spending cuts Britain has seen for decades.

The cuts are set to cost almost half a million jobs, slash government budgets by around a fifth and dramatically reduce the welfare state, with savings of seven billion pounds in that area alone.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the leader of the Church of England, said on Sunday he had a "lot of worries" about the work plan for the unemployed.

"People who are struggling to find work and struggling to find a secure future are I think driven further into a sort of downward spiral of uncertainty, even despair when the pressure's on in that way," he told the BBC.

Douglas Alexander, the work and pensions spokesman for the Labour opposition, accused the government of "focusing on the work-shy but offering nothing to the workless".

Unions and charities have also slammed the plans.

But Duncan Smith rejected their claims, saying that it was the "current system which locked people into despair."

"Asking someone who has been out of work for a long time to get involved in a programme of work to boost their self-esteem is not a recipe for despair, but a way to repair their shattered lives."

He also accused opposition politicians who had likened separate plans to cap housing benefit payments to Nazi atrocities of trying to "scare as many people as possible for cynical, short-term gain".

Several British newspapers meanwhile rounded on Williams for his comments.

The Daily Express described the bearded archbishop as a "hairy lefty" with "ivory tower" views, while The Times said he should be more concerned by the Church's problems.

The government says Britain's record 154.7-billion-pound deficit is a legacy of the previous Labour government which was in power from 1997 until last May and insists drastic action is needed to tackle it.

© 2010 AFP

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