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Britain's Conservative government announced big changes this week to the country's social safety net. The message: prove you're trying to work or lose your unemployment check. Critics worry welfare is becoming workfare as Vicki Barker reports from London.
VICKI BARKER, BYLINE: It was a one-two punch for more pillars of Britain's social benefits system. First, chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, told the Conservative Party's annual conference that starting next April, some 200,000 long term unemployed will be offered three choices: undertake community work, report to a job center every day, or take part in a full-time intensive program to work on the personal issues that have kept them out of the workforce. If they don't, they'll lose that benefits check.
GEORGE OSBORNE: No one will be ignored or left without help. But no one will get something for nothing. Help to work and in return, work for the dole, because a fair welfare system is fair to those who need it and fair to those who pay for it, too.
BARKER: Next, in the Conservative crosshairs: the 1 million so-called Neets. That stands for young people not in education, employment or training. Prime Minister David Cameron telling party faithful that unemployed under 25s will no longer automatically qualify for jobless or housing benefits. Cameron trying to change a culture in which kids as young as 16 leave school for a life and a home on the dole.
PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: Go to school, go to a college, do an apprenticeship, get a job. But just choose the dole? We've got to offer them something better than that.
BARKER: The Neets will be offered a choice, too.
CAMERON: This is what we want to see: everyone under 25 earning or learning.
BARKER: The response to both proposals was skeptical. Birmingham automotive worker Chris French has been unemployed for 3 1/2 years.
CHRIS FRENCH: I've spent two years on the government's back-to-work program, which is totally nothing. As for going into the job center every day, I've offered to go in there every day. I'm going in once a week and I'm being told they're struggling to find me a place once a week.
BARKER: As for yanking those housing benefits for under 25s, homeless advocates say many of these young people are deeply troubled, fleeing chaotic, even dangerous backgrounds and could just end up on the streets. The government insists the vulnerable will be protected. But Campbell Robb from the charity Shelter says the numbers just don't add up.
CAMPBELL ROBB: Housing benefits can make a difference to young people when they've had a hard time. Either you get rid of it for so many people that it has devastating impact, or you have so many exemptions that the policy just won't work.
BARKER: It's not clear if or when cuts to the under 25s would take effect. The proposal won rapturous applause at the Conservative Party conference. But Joe Twyman, of the polling organization YouGov, says it is not favored by most other British voters, whose votes David Cameron will need in the next election.
However, when it comes to dealing with those Britons who've spent years, sometimes decades, collecting unemployment, Twyman says even the socialist opposition Labour Party has acknowledged that workfare is the public's will.
JOE TWYMAN: Since the economic crisis, people's positions have shifted and now there's a recognition, for instance, that a change of the welfare system has to occur.
BARKER: These are the latest Conservative cuts to welfare, but decidedly not the last. George Osborne also announced this week his austerity measures will continue for another six years. That's assuming, of course, the Conservatives are re-elected in 2015. For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.
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