Does work work?

Lord McKenzie of Luton, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Lords) at the Department for Work and Pensions, today "called on the expertise of businesses, government and charities to discuss and agree what constitutes 'good work'." As he explained, "we need to figure out exactly what 'good work' is, so that we can ensure workplaces are happy, healthy and productive".

Here we go again. To Labour, everything is standardisable and reducible to the average or the lowest common denominator, and then enforceable by government mandate. In their eyes, my idea of what constitutes "good work" must be the same as yours, which must be the same as everyone else's. All they need to do is work out what this standard of "good work" consists of, and then insist that all jobs conform with this standard.

Why cannot I decide whether a job is acceptable to me, and accept or refuse employment offers accordingly? If the quality of my job disappoints, why can I not be left to decide whether it is sufficiently disappointing that I should look for a new job? If I can find nothing better than my existing job, am I better off having my unsatisfactory job regulated away (assuming my standards of satisfaction conform with the average), or putting up with something less than perfect until something better comes along? Why does government need to intervene in this area? My terms of employment are a matter for me and my employer alone.

If there is any justification, it is that some jobs on offer are of such low quality that no one should be forced to take them, and that employers offering such jobs should be forced either to raise their standards or to do away with the jobs. If welfare is sufficient that one can survive outside employment, no employer offering such a poor job should be able to recruit successfully. If this measure is needed, it is an admission that government welfare-measures are inadequate. The solution is not to intervene in the details of everyone's employment, but to ensure that welfare is structured in such a way that the level of minimal provision for the unemployed is sufficient that no one will take a job whose conditions are not worth the additional income.

When you get down to it, what this is really about is that those on the lowest rung are little if any better off working than if they are on the dole. That is likely to make them very dissatisfied with the quality of their job. The Chancellor is determined to cling on to his micro-managing approach of means-testing benefits and withdrawing them if job-offers are refused or if jobs are accepted. To salve his conscience, he needs to feel that these jobs will be serving some other purpose than increasing household income, hence the emphasis on the "health and well-being" benefits of employment. And for that to be convincing, he needs these menial jobs that add little to household income to be of a standard that they deliver that objective.

He is fooling himself. These jobs cannot be improved by regulating the standards of all employment. Besides imposing unnecessary cost and bureaucracy on the vast majority of employers offering perfectly acceptable employment, that will simply result in employers of the low-paid either finding ways round the regulations or simply withdrawing those jobs. If he wants to improve the standards of employment and welfare for the lowest paid, he needs to ensure that people can keep a fair proportion of their wage, which will remove the greatest cause of dissatisfaction, and that no one is forced to take a job whose quality is so low that it is not worth the additional income. The replacement of our byzantine superstructure of welfare measures and personal taxation regimes with a Basic Income and Flat Income Tax, plus the elimination of the Minimum Wage, would achieve this more efficiently and completely than any micro-managing solution. People would then be free to make their own decisions about whether a particular job satisfies their requirements, rather than trying to force everyone into a Procrustean employment bed.