Are short-term solutions the way forward?

Labour shortages are focusing policymakers’ minds, but are they coming up with the right solutions when it comes to the most vulnerable?

woman with empty purses


The Government seems to be in panic mode when it comes to labour shortages, and with some reason as employers warn that they are a major barrier to economic development and, in some cases, could threaten their survival. The last few weeks have seen all sorts of headlines about getting doctors to reduce the number of sick notes they write and tax and benefits schemes to get the retired into jobs as well as projects to get the mentally ill back to work and an intensive job search pilot to get people into work after 13 weeks out [or face sanctions if they don’t comply].

Panic sometimes doesn’t lead to sustainable policies, however, and a good part of the problem is the result of Government policy in the first place – from Brexit to its years of underfunding the public sector – a sector it just doesn’t seem to rate because it doesn’t produce money, even if it is essential for all the other sectors to function.

I was listening to a call-in programme about the state of the police at the weekend and all the police officers who rang in blamed chronic underfunding and the loss of experienced officers for the big drop in the solving of crimes ranging from burglary to harassment stalking.  It’s not just the police, though. Everything is linked up. We were recently involved in a stalking case and it didn’t go to court not just because of police problems [understaffing and delay], but problems with the CPS. All aspects of the justice system are at breaking point, with huge backlogs in everything from employment tribunals to civil cases. The same goes for social care, for schools and for the NHS.

So who is carrying the can for this? It certainly doesn’t seem as if those responsible are. Instead it is, as always, the most vulnerable, whether they are refugees coming in on boats [a top priority as we are constantly being told] or those on benefits. That includes part-time workers who could face sanctions if they don’t work enough hours.

While working more hours can help families out of long-term poverty, there needs to be the right infrastructure in place to support that, such as affordable childcare or a properly functioning health and social care system. A blanket approach, fuelled in the case of the intensive job search, by money rewards and league tables for getting the most people back to work is likely to result in gaming the system rather than ensuring people get into the right jobs for them and stay in them. After all, we’ve been here before when Job Centres were revealed to have targets and league tables when it came to moving claimants to tougher regimes. The danger is that it is just more short termism.

The same goes for reducing sick notes, quite apart from the fact that it interferes with doctors’ independence. If someone is mentally unwell and should be off work, keeping them in work will surely only make the problem worse, resulting in potentially longer periods off sick. Each case needs to be taken on its own merit and the people making any decisions need to be experts – as GPs are. Undermining that expertise is not going to solve any of the many problems we face.

Some Job Centres are partnering up with other organisations to address the individual problems people face in getting back to work. Understanding those issues for each individual and linking up with those who can help, for example, with finding flexible work or financing upfront travel or other costs, is vital. We know that the longer someone is out of work the harder it is to get back and that confidence lost is hard to regain. That is the reasoning behind the 13-week pilot. Research shows that after 13 weeks out of work a person’s chances of getting back to work deteriorate rapidly. But everyone has a different story, often those stories are hugely complex and there are big questions about whether a punitive approach works. Complexity may not provide easy sound bytes, but unless it is acknowledged and short termism is replaced with a focus on the longer term economic, social, physical and mental health of the country it may only provide a sticking plaster solution.

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