Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Time to privatise unemployment insurance?

The rate of unemployment when the nation is at full employment level is often debated; estimates range up to 5%, with a cluster of estimates around the 3% mark. This so-termed Frictional Unemployment recognises that at any time people will genuinely be between jobs for anywhere between a few days and a few months. The vacancy is there, the worker is there, but it takes a little time for the two to meet.

Our system of unemployment benefit used to recognise that a different kind of support was needed for this short-term joblessness. A higher basic rate of benefit was paid dependent on the applicant's NI contribution record - if you spent more time in work than out of it you probably qualified - and on top of this an earnings-related supplement, based on recent previous income, damped the shock of temporary adjustment. This higher-rate provision lasted, I think, for six months before benefits reduced to the long-term one size fits all never-worked rate. And it was not means-tested - which meant in many cases that the combination of benefit, redundancy payment and savings allowed workers to move between jobs without having to endure the horrors of penury.

As the long-term benefit rates became more generous and millions of citizens found a life on the dole to be a rational economic choice, this special treatment for those genuinely between jobs was abolished to pay the bigger bills. This not only places a grossly unfair burden upon those involuntarily unemployed with a high probability of finding work within a few weeks or months but acts as a disincentive for firms to shed staff and hinders a full transition from the 'job for life' culture to one of flexible labour markets.

We should therefore think about splitting the unemployment benefits system. The private insurance sector, or mutuals and friendly societies, could easily provide a system similar to the old unemployment benefit system for those opting-out of a proportion of NI contributions. This would cover maybe somewhere between a fifth and a third of the jobless at any one time.

For the rest - those who have never worked, those voluntarily unemployed and the small proportion of those who whilst not disabled are so lacking in physical or mental ability so as to make them virtually unemployable (council parks departments used to employ such people in some numbers, tasks such as collecting litter and leaves and sweeping being within their capacities) - Welfare needs to be ultra-local, with means-tested benefits administered and paid almost at the neighbourhood, parish or ward level, overseen by a panel of local citizens. The choice of an anonymous 'entitlement' from the State must end. The closer the relationship of the wallets and purses of taxpayers and the pockets of tax recipients the better.

Jobs will be found for unemployed school and college leavers. The indolent, once in the local spotlight, will find that idleness is not a comfortable lifestyle choice, and perhaps we will even find local suitable employment for those with limited abilities. Above all, local transparency and the community's will to get all their number into work will extend the dignity of work, the benefits of 'belonging' and social self-respect to those who now endure the painful slavery of Welfare dependence. It's got to be a better way.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I favour a system where the three main unemployment benefits (job seakers allowance, housing benefit and council tax support) are combined into one with a fixed benefit value aiming towards the lower end and directly tied to the individual.

At the age of 18 everyone will have their personal benefit account credited with one years benefit. (Available only to people in this country at the age of 18 with British passports). Part of the national insurance contribution would then be levied to top up this account, with the option to pay extra on top. The government would provide a further top up at fixed rates according to how much each individual was depositing (So someone on minimum wage would get a higher percentage government top up than someone on £50000pa, but all would get some top up to act as an incentive to pay money in.)

It is from this account that all the above benefits are paid. Individuals would have control over how much they got out of it when they were out of work i.e they could take the absolute minimum to survive on (say £150 a week) to make it last longer, or they could take much larger sums out, in the knowledge that if they use it up they don't get any more(suitable maybe for someone who has just lost a good job and has various monthly fixed costs such as repayments but is confident of getting a new job quickly).

This money would be real money, unlike current national insurance payments which get put into general government expenditure.
A 5% interest rate would be paid on all investments.
The balance of the account would revert to the individual on reaching retirement age or be considered part of his estate if death occurs before this.