3  Margaret Legum: Open Letter to Peter Hain

Peter Hain is the new British Government's Minister for Work and Pensions, and was originally a South African activist. His first announcement on taking office was the intention to introduce legislation to insist that lone parents get paid work when their children are over 12.

Dear Peter,

I presume on a common political history to comment on to your new Ministerial decision to force lone parents into paid work. This is a global issue; and as a South African I fear its `tough love' motivation will reinforce our government's anti- welfare approach justified, like yours, as in the interests of poor people.

I could understand the policy if we were short of workers rather than jobs. If it were war-time or a siege economy, or the aftermath of a disaster, where all hands are needed to restore or maintain an economy. But the reverse is true in virtually every country.

The long-term global reality is that full employment at anything like a decent living wage is a thing of the past in the global market. Digital technology in the competitive market means that although one country may temporarily snatch jobs from others by reducing wage bills, the trend is inevitably to jobless growth as companies reduce labour costs competitively. They have to, otherwise they fail.

Clearly this economy doesn't need the labour of single parents. Meanwhile children already deprived of a second parent, usually in traumatic circumstances, must suffer their remaining parent's preoccupation with obtaining and holding down paid work as well as the existing double quota of unpaid parenting and domestic work.

They must accept the care of unrelated professionals, instead of their parent, and the stress related to conflicting time demands.

Of course everyone would like to work for a living. It can be fulfilling and enjoyable. But no one wants to do miserable work for a pittance at the expense of their children; and lone parents do not deserve the implication that they are lazy and useless if they make a home for their children full-time.

Someone close to me is a single parent who would get a medal, if such were offered, for struggling to find and keep a job that enables her to care for her children. The job she has badly paid of course - aims to rescue and relieve children who have lost their way for lack of decent parental attention. If you ask her, that battle is already lost before you force parents into paid work.

What exactly is the point of the policy? Surely not the welfare of the children. Where is the evidence that most children do better under professional care than parental? Surely not the needs of the lone parent. They are free to seek work in any case: more choose that option than can find jobs.

You say it is about `getting them out of poverty'. You could do that simply by raising the level of benefit. Indeed you would be doing the economy a service. With few exceptions, all consumer goods and services are in surplus while millions do without them for lack of buying power. The world economic problem is not about production but about distribution of income. The logic and the ethics of the proposal suggest to me this policy is a hangover of the last Conservative era in which `welfarism' became the bugbear. It ascribed all social and economic ills to the `dependency' culture that followed from people's entitlement to certain rights regardless of their income or capacity. Rather than admit that the tax implication of those policies irked richer people, it was given a phoney positive philosophic framework, and became an ideology: entrepreneurship and opportunity.

Unfortunately, we in South Africa got our liberation at the height of that ideology. Just when we needed to build human capacity by supporting people through the apartheid legacy, we were told to avoid `dependency', embrace `opportunity' and challenge our people to seek work, knowing there is none. It is very cruel. So I am sorry you are setting as far as I am concerned a further bad example in saving tax under the pretence of providing opportunity.

Margaret Legum

South African New Economics Foundation (SANE)

from The Social Crediter, Winter 2007

Margaret Legum, co-founder of the South African New Economics Foundation, died on 1st November, 2007