What could a 21st Century Workhouse look like?
The danger with predicting a repeat of history is the very messy way in which history partially repeats, subjected to the changing circumstances of the day. Someone commented on my choice of words in a previous post, daring me into a bet on whether or not this government would reintroduce the Workhouse system for administering the poor. They say “don’t feed the trolls”, but I’ll never learn…
There are many reasons why such a project couldn’t be tackled by a 21st Century government without some modification. First and foremost, there are now health and safety laws that might drastically alter the way in which such accommodation might be designed. Second, there is the issue of the way work has changed over the years. Its possible that some small places for “work” to occur might be attached to such accommodation, but the wider “work for your benefits” side is unlikely to be attached.
The Conservatives clearly don’t like Housing Benefit. Its not an efficient way of handling the poor, and it creates a sense of entitlement and dependency. Now, I don’t have a problem with either entitlement (there’s more than enough to go round) or dependency (after all, I am who I am because of everyone). Its also expensive and it looks like giving people something for nothing.
There is, however, a law that says councils must attempt to house the homeless, especially under certain conditions, such as their having dependents or being too ill to consider leaving on the streets. The big conundrum is essentially in figuring out the inviolability of this law, and what would happen in the current business-friendly context.
There are many companies that might be interested in running a facility for housing people no longer thought worthy of housing benefit. Its likely that the accommodation would be quite like a non-en-suite student halls – with many bedrooms to one kitchen. It would essentially be entirely optional whether anyone chose to live there, beyond the rule that anyone who stayed on Job Seekers housing benefit would loose it after, say, two years. The money would be paid directly to the company owning the accommodation for its “service” of keeping Britain’s streets tidy and administering any in-house “work for welfare” schemes.
The connection between this and any supposed route back to work is harder to speculate on, simply because it might be one of any number of approaches. I would assume, for starters, that anything that did happen would fit the category of “working for benefits” – essentially, you would be supplied with work to do to earn your place in the shelter, for which you would be rewarded with so little actual money that earning your way out would simply be impossible. A sort of job centre/volunteering office on the premises (probably pretty much in the entrance way) springs to mind. It might be that some menial work would take place within the facility as a quick and easy starting point for people to earn their right to be there; I hear a prison not far away takes laundry contracts such that local hotel users are unwittingly supporting prison labour, something frowned upon under international law.
An entry control system that logs based on swipe cards might be employed alongside CCTV, primarily for security purposes but obviously with the advantage that an “adviser” could query what activities caused someone to leave or return at the times on the records. The “voluntary loss of liberty” theme should be fairly clear. There’s nothing to stop people moving back in with their parents, after all (unless their parents happen to be living in similar conditions). We can be fairly certain that such advisers would be more inclined to fill people’s days with activities than to find people work beyond the centre.
All I know is this: if Cameron wants to continue his current policies and doesn’t accept offers of enterprising solutions in housing the less well-off, he’s going to have to find a lot of space for the trailer parks that form a huge chunk of America’s outworking of the hyper-liberal and individualistic economic policy he seems to be so gleefully importing. Right now, the trailer parks look more likely, but only just.