London: Britain unveiled plans to withhold handouts for up to three years for those who refuse a job Thursday in the biggest shake-up of the post-war welfare state, a day after violent protests rocked London.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition government also plans a “universal credit” instead of the current system of separate benefit payments for housing and childcare as part of reforms aimed at cutting Britain’s massive deficit.
The first signs of anger against the austerity drive erupted on Wednesday when thousands of demonstrators stormed the headquarters of the ruling Conservative party in London over plans to increase university tuition fees.
“This government is unashamedly pro-work,” Work and Pensions Secretary Ian Duncan Smith said in a speech to a volunteer group before he unveiled the plans before parliament.
The government wants to introduce a sliding scale of penalties for those who either decline a job offer, fail to apply for a job they are advised to or do not turn up for mandatory four-week manual labour placements.
The weekly 65-pound (75-euro, 104-dollar) unemployment benefit will be stopped for three months for those who violate any of the conditions. That would rise to six months for a second violation and three years for a third.
The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, which took power in May, describes the plans as the most radical since Britain’s wide-ranging welfare state was put in place just after World War II.
Welfare now accounts for roughly a third of government spending.
Speaking in South Korea where he is attending the G-20 summit, Cameron said: “It simply has to pay to work. You can’t have a situation where if someone gets out of bed and goes and does a hard day’s work they end up worse off.
“That’s not fair. And it sends entirely the wrong message, both to those on benefits and to the hard-working majority who are being asked to support them,” he added.
Officials say the universal credit payment will make two and a half million people better off, but critics say plans to cap housing benefit in particular amounts to “social cleansing” that will drive the poor out of Britain’s cities.
The leader of the world’s Anglicans, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, said on Sunday he had a “lot of worries” about proposals to make long-term claimants of unemployment benefit carry out month-long placements of 30 hours a week doing unpaid tasks like clearing litter.
“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.
Ministers hope the reforms will be approved by parliament and made law next year.
Under the existing system, claimants who do not cooperate with officials can lose their unemployment benefit for 26 weeks maximum but aides insisted this rarely happens.
Around 1.5 million people in Britain currently claim unemployment benefit, formally known as jobseekers’ allowance.
Welfare was one of the areas hit hard by the deepest public spending cuts in decades announced last month.
The government is battling to reduce a record deficit of 154.7 billion pounds inherited from the previous administration under Labour’s Gordon Brown.
Cameron condemned as “completely unacceptable” the actions of the students in Wednesday’s riots, which left 14 people injured including several police oficers.
The protests say plans to increase the maximum tuition fees charged by universities to 9,000 pounds a year are unfair.