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Why workfare doesn’t work - by author of labour camp book

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Professor John Field
Professor John Field, from Stirling's School of Education, who has just published his new book.

The Government’s “workfare” programme - offering compulsory work experience to people on benefits – has been described as “expensive and ineffective” by a University of Stirling academic.

Professor John Field has just published a comprehensive new book taking readers from the labour colonies of the late Victorian and Edwardian Britain to the government instructional centres of the 1930s.

“Looking back at the various schemes of the inter-war years, it is possible to draw a number of lessons for present-day debates around ‘workfare’,” said Professor Field. “Making unemployed people work for their benefits is expensive, partly because of the amount of supervision that’s necessary.

“There’s a high risk of reducing people’s employability rather than improving it.

“Men who went through the British government work camps during the 30s were no more likely to find work at the end than those who did not – and, in some years, the job placement rates were lower for the trainees than for those outside the camps.

“This is because training schemes can serve to stigmatise the participants in employer’s eyes, and because they remove the unemployed from the networks that might help them hear about jobs.”

The labour camps came to an end as war broke out in 1939. They offered voluntary training and a chance to get fit for the long-term unemployed.

Professor Field’s new book, “Working Men’s Bodies” (Manchester University Press, £65), examines the story of the camps, the men and women who created them, as well as those who inhabited them.

“If you really want to motivate people, you need to have large scale showpiece projects,” he said. “The great success among inter-war work camp movements was Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps in the USA, where unemployed men undertook work of real national significance, and their contribution is still remembered and celebrated today.

“So the bottom line is that compulsory work-for-benefits will only work if it is universal, expensive and prestigious – if we assume that its main aim is to get the unemployed into work and off benefits.

“In this context, it's worth noting that the UK Government's own mandatory work programme has been found expensive and ineffective.”

The 1930s work camps – officially called “instructional centres” - dealt with around 200,000 men. It’s estimated that fewer than 10 per cent of those who attended found work back home.

Said Professor Field: “One other possible aim of mandatory work-for-benefit is, of course, to win political approval. There is always a constituency of voters who want government to be tougher on welfare claimants.

“Pleasing this group is a lot easier than it was in the 1930s, when the National Unemployment Workers Movement led a number of lively campaigns against what it called ‘slave camps’. No similar movement exists today, and politicians can accordingly expect little or no organised protest against their treatment of the unemployed.”

“Working Men’s Bodies” is based on thorough archival research and reminiscences of those involved. It will interest anyone specialising in modern British history, and those concerned with social policy, training policy, unemployment, and male identities.

The book covers therapeutic communities for alcoholics, epileptics, prostitutes and “mental defectives”, as well as alternative communities founded by socialists, anarchists and nationalists in the hope of building a new world. It explores residential training schemes for women, many of which sought to develop “soft bodies” fit for domestic service, while more mainstream camps were preoccupied with “hardening” male bodies through heavy labour. 

“Working Men’s Bodies: Work Camps In Britain, 1880–1940”, by John Field is published by Manchester University Press. (272 pages; ISBN: 978-0-7190-8768-4). It is available from good bookshops and through

More about the book on the Manchester University Press website

Professor John Field talks about work camps on the BBC website 

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