Litter-picking on the dole

For some time I have regularly been asked : “why can’t unemployed people be made to pick up litter ?”.

Well – it now looks a bit more likely that this might happen. In his speech last Thursday, Iain Duncan Smith (Secretary of State for Work and Pensions) set out his broad plans for improving the welfare system so that the unemployed are given greater incentives to get into work and so that the whole system is made fairer.

Although he didn’t specifically mention that “the unemployed will be forced to do menial jobs such as picking up litter and cleaning graffiti in exchange for dole cash” as the Mirror had expected the day before, the feeling seems to be that this is one of the options being considered by the government. To my mind, there are various aspects of this idea that need careful thought.

First of all, as someone who fervently believes that picking up litter and keeping our neighbourhoods clean and tidy is not only the responsibility of all of us but also an activity that can have an extremely positive affect on our communities and on the relationships of the people who live in them, I am concerned that such enforced activity by people on benefits sends out the wrong message. It could be interpreted as saying that it doesn’t matter if your neighbourhood is a tip – we’ll send in the chain gang to clean it up for you – and we’ll do it again when you’ve mucked it up again.

Second, I am always concerned that forcing people to clear up an area is seen as a punishment and so stigmatises the act of picking up litter. For this reason, some people are concerned over the use of Community Payback teams (formerly “Community Service”) to clean up litter and graffiti. I have, on more than one occasion, been asked when I have been out litter-picking if I was “on Community Service”. When huge numbers of ordinary citizens are happy to spend time cleaning up their area, presenting litter-picking as an undesirable activity isn’t the first thing that we want to hear. And why is it always litter-picking that is mentioned as the stereotypical activity for unemployed people ? Why not pay them also to visit lonely people, do gardening for those who are unable to do it themselves or go shopping for the house-bound ?

There are various other issues often raised in connection with anyone (be it a team of offenders or a team of unemployed people) engaged in litter-picking – not least that they must be careful not to be doing work that is the preserve of the local council (or they could ironically, be doing someone else out of a job).

But, overall, I think that there is a key requirement to Mr Duncan Smith’s potential plans for the unemployed to pick up litter that would make the idea a whole lot more socially acceptable and, also, more socially effective. I strongly suggest that, if litter-picking really is an activity that Mr Duncan Smith and his team have in mind for the unemployed, then make it so that they pick up litter in the company of and under the guidance of local volunteers.

The advantages of this are many. First, they will be carrying out a normal activity in a normal social setting, with other ordinary citizens who are doing it for love and certainly not for money. This will not only make the unemployed people feel a lot more positive about the task but they will also benefit from some constructive social interaction as a result (which, in my view, is one of the strong arguments for letting Community Payback teams operate in conjunction with volunteer litter-pickers, something that is already done successfully in some areas of the country). Also, litter-picking may well be something that unemployed people will continue to do when, one hopes, they are successfully back in work. In other words, the activity will be a strong inducement to behaviour change and will help to ensure that the “don’t litter” message spreads faster and deeper in our society.

So, Mr Duncan Smith and your team – please consider carefully how this type of scheme will operate. There are great opportunities to be taken and huge gains to be made if you configure this concept creatively and with society’s wider needs in mind.

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