Emma Harrison: nice work if you can get it (February 2012).
Archive for the ‘Unemployment’ Category
Blair’s Welfare Legacy.
Before people get bogged down in the rows over the Labour leadership election, it’s perhaps better to look again at some of the policy legacies of New Labour which need challenging.
This is not just economic strategy (the acceptance of austerity post 2009), foreign policy, or internal party organisation.
It’s bedrock issues about the ‘Third Way’, a politics “in favour of growth, entrepreneurship, enterprise and wealth creation but it is also in favour of greater social justice and it sees the state playing a major role in bringing this about” (Anthony Giddens).
A key aspect of the Third Way, for both Blair and Brown, was reform of the Welfare State.
In the area of unemployment it was important to equip people with the means to compete on the labour, ‘global’ market, to ‘encourage’ them to so in return for benefits. There would be no rights to social security without ‘obligations’. That is to follow what the out-of-work were obliged to do what the state, or rather the private companies and Third Sector bodies contracted to ‘train’ them, told them they needed to do. In other words, the state claimed rights over the unemployed.
In January 1998 Tony Blair, Prime Minister, outlined the basis for the approach (Independent).
The reform of our welfare state is not to betray our core principles of social justice and solidarity. It is to make them live, breathe and work again for the modern age. Over the last 18 years we have become two nations – one trapped on benefits, the other paying for them. One nation in growing poverty, shut out from society’s mainstream, the other watching social security spending rise and rise, until it costs more than health, education, law and order and employment put together.
“When I look at the welfare state, I don’t see a pathway out of poverty, a route into work or a gateway to dignity in retirement. I see a dead end for too many people. I do not believe this is how Attlee or Beveridge intended things to be. I want to clear the way to a new system. Long-term, thought-out, principled reform is the way forward.
Case for Welfare Reform.
This was one of the 5 Pillars of Blair’s government repeated in 2002.
A welfare state based on rights and responsibility where we gave opportunity to people on benefit to get into work; but demanded responsibility in return; where we came down hard on crime; but offered ways out to those committing crime..
These were the schemes to “Get people into work” introduced by New Labour, under Blair, and then, Gordon Brown,
The New Deal (renamed Flexible New Deal from October 2009) was a workfare programme introduced in the United Kingdom by the first New Labour government in 1998, initially funded by a one-off £5 billion windfall tax on privatised utility companies. The stated purpose was to reduce unemployment by providing training, subsidised employment and voluntary work to the unemployed. Spending on the New Deal was £1.3 billion in 2001.
The New Deal was a cornerstone of New Labour and devised mainly by LSE Professor Richard Layard, who has since been elevated to the House of Lords as a Labour peer. It was based on similar workfare models in Sweden, which Layard has spent much of his academic career studying.
The schemes were delivered by private companies and the ‘voluntary sector’.
After some ‘training’ and endless ‘job search’ (sitting in a room with a computer endlessly applying for posts) most people were sent on ‘placements’ in companies, the public and charitable sector. This was nominally set at 30 hours a week, but in many cases the hours went to a full 40.
They were (initially) given an extra £15 a week on top of their dole, and their travel expenses. It would be needless to add that this meant their work was paid well under anything approaching the minimum wage. There were none of the labour rights given to the employed, and obviously cases of bullying and exploitation were quickly signaled. A more common result was that some people proved ‘unsuitable’ for placements, or, in some cases, simply did not turn up for their placement.
Many examples of work experience were much more positive, but it was extremely rare for anybody to find a job in the place where they were sent, or for it to help directly anybody getting work. Indeed some felt that the fact that you had participated in the scheme functioned on your CV as a mark against you. It became part of the way people were trapped in a “dead end”.
We have a lot recently about ‘sanctions‘ against claimants. These happened under the New Deal for, amongst others, the reasons just given.
Well this, during the New Deal, was the position under New Labour (2009) just before the Coalition (2010) came to power.
So, we are always hearing about the millions of people who New Deal has supposedly helped get such jobseekers back in to work off benefits. You have also heard about how poorly New Deal participants are treated and perhaps you have your own experiences to back up this, but Ipswich Unemployed Action can reveal that over 679,820 sanctions have been awarded to lucky New Deal participants since the year 2000.
Here is one case study of the system worked (2010).
A4e don’t have premises in Ipswich – they wholly subcontract out to Reed in Partnership who lease space inside Crown House (near Tower Ramparts). Initial comments on A4e/Reed in Partnership:
- A4e were the biggest New Deal Prime Contractor – in the spotlight for fraud and overcrowding
- A4e tried to shut down sites giving criticism such as sister site New Deal Scandal (including for reporting their finance director resigned/got demoted after fraud allegations) and also closed the original Watching A4e website
- Reed in Partnership were the first to deliver New Deal in 1998 – they were caught in a £3 million fraud
- Looking at past history – A4e and Reed in Partnership seem a good match
- Reed in Partnership are accused of harassing past participants impersonating the DWP Fraud team (*)
- Emma Harrison (A4e not the model/actress) has refused to acknowledge or talk about a4e’s failings
- Reed in Partnership and Reed etc. are also part of the same group yet they are pretty much isolated from each other (no website links to each other etc. or mention about parent company).
- A4e promised a cafe like environment and a chill-out lounge – neither exist in Ipswich
- You can’t make a Tea or Coffee – participants are advised to ask staff for one
- Flexible New Deal participants have to pick FIVE (5) job areas – 2 more than a Jobseeker’s Agreement (3 job areas)
- Reed in Partnership staff have to have at least 6 months experience in high pressured sales environment
- Reed in Partnership Ipswich is TOO SMALL – OVERCROWDING – Ofsted apparently have raised concerns – rumours have speculated that someone was sanctioned for being a few minutes late (bus came late) solely because the room was too full for the person to join
- Reed in Partnership uses profiling – AVOID GIVING TOO MUCH INFORMATION AWAY!
- Reed in Partnership forces participants to sign a disclaimer giving them the ability to apply for jobs on your behalf etc. and to contact future employers (probably pretending to be DWP)
- Ask for a 7 journey supersaver card – if you don’t ask you wont get – this is easier then finding the cash to get on the bus and waiting for it to be reimbursed later
- Reed in Partnership offers “decoy training courses” under various different names such as “JOURNEY” – these wont help you secure employment – waste of time – consists of asking questions about the person next to you, what famous people you would like to meet/have dinner with, and the usual shit (interview modules, CV modules).
- Reed in Partnership contradicts themselves and will stab you in the back. Advisers have noted about a) travel costs to work b) budgeting the minimum money you require etc. and provided modules in their courses regarding “making sure you are better off, in work” HOWEVER the next moment all participants are TOLD to apply for any job – NMW – few hours from home etc. Seems like they are trying to prepare people for sanctions. Its not fair to advise people not to spend half your wages on travel to and from work, yet the next moment sanction them for 6 months money for refusing a job which matches this entirely.
- Reed in Partnership have an ongoing legal dispute with Yell (Yellow Pages) – and Flexible New Deal participants are banned from accessing yell.com – rather an important resource for speculative applications. Whether this is an injunction preventing yell being accessed or not is unknown at this stage.
To put it simply, the ‘training’ courses and all the rest were, in many people’s eyes, worthless.
Then there was this: A4e Fraud.
On Thursday, the website Ipswich Unemployment Action provided a link to an internal A4e document (pdf), that appeared to indicate poor performance on behalf of the embattled welfare-to work company, which has won more than £200million in contracts with the department of work and pensions.
A4e boss Emma Harrison paid herself £8.6m last year. Nothing unusual for a top banker perhaps. But her company is funded by the government to find jobs for unemployed people. And it’s being investigated for fraud
The article contains this paragraph,
Just lately, you may have seen some of the slightly more negative coverage of Harrison and the company she founded in Sheffield, 21 years ago: A4e (it means “Action For Employment”), who were decisively glued into the heart of the welfare state by New Labour, and have seen their importance increase thanks to the coalition. They specialise in that very modern practice known as “welfare to work”, and their only income in the UK comes from public contracts. The company’s promotional blurb characterises what it does as the simple business of “improving people’s lives”.
And there was this,
When New Labour was in power, A4e forged close links to its ministers. One of A4e’s consultants is David Blunkett, the former work and pensions secretary who advocated private involvement in welfare reform.
Mr Blunkett declares on the register of MPs’ interests that he is paid up to £30,000 a year by A4e. There is no suggestion of impropriety by Mr Blunkett, but he may be embarrassed by the probe.
It is the widespread view amongst activists that New Labour paved the way for the present punitive social security system, the shambles of Workfare (now being abandoned) and full-flown sanction-regime, not to mention the blatant profiteering by private companies now running substantial sections of the welfare state.
A root and branch challenge to this legacy is needed.
Palme D’or Triumph for the Daniel Blakes of the Whole World.
Some good news, at last.
Ken Loach has won the Palme d’or at Cannes for I, Daniel Blake.
“Daniel Blake is a 59-year-old joiner in the North-East of England who falls ill and requires state assistance for disability from the Employment and Support Allowance. While he endeavours to overcome the red tape involved in getting this assistance, he meets single mother Katie who, in order to escape a homeless persons’ hostel, must take up residence in a flat 300 miles (480 km) away.”
France 24 reports,
The 79-year-old Briton attacked the “dangerous project of austerity” as he accepted the festival’s top prize from actor Mel Gibson and Mad Max creator George Miller, who headed this year’s jury. “The world we live in is at a dangerous point right now. We are in the grip of a dangerous project of austerity driven by ideas that we call neo-liberalism that have brought us to near catastrophe,” Loach said, adding: “We must give a message of hope, we must say another world is possible.”
And, he continued, “Necessary”.
Le Monde’s review noted that ‘welfare reform’ forms the heart of the film. That in the UK there is a veritable ‘crusade’ against the disabled, to root out those feigning illness (“la chasse aux tire-au-flanc a pris les allures d’une croisade) in a “néo-victorienne” Britain.
Moi, Daniel Blake n’est pas une satire d’un système absurde. Ken Loach n’est pas un humoriste, c’est un homme en colère, et le parcours de l’ouvrier privé de travail et de ressources est filmé avec une rage d’autant plus impatiente qu’elle est impuissante.
I, Daniel Blake, is not a satire about an absurd system. Ken Loach is not a humourist, he’s full of anger, and the progress a worker without a job, and without assets, is filmed with an indignation that is as exasperated as it is impotent.
This Blog is not an uncritical admirer of Ken Loach. He is against austerity and for social rights, the cause of the left. But his more specific politics, which include a lengthy membership of Respect and support for the cultural Boycott of Israel, as well as no known activity against Islamist genociders, or support for the Kurdish people in their fight for dear life against ISIS, are not always the same as ours.
Nor are all of Loach’s films, for all of their skill and intensity, always as deep as they set out to be.
Of the most recent The Angels’ Share (2012) is amusing but slight tale of Scottish scamps. It is not free, for all its would-be irony, of whatever the Caledonian equivalent of Oirishness is,. The Spirit of ’45 (2013) may seem a strangely uncritical account of the post-war Labour government. Jimmy’s Hall is a fine story set in the Irish Free state. But it is straining things for this emssage to pass, ” The behaviour of the state’s police is shown and explained to be occurring at a time when Stalin was in full control of the Soviet Union and it is obvious that the state and church are fearful of forces that threaten to destroy them. It is this tension between the ideals of Christianity and the fear of the church and its natural tendency to be reactionary that is the central issue that the film explores.”
It can still be argued that the trio have strong narrative coherence, and, in the case of Jimmy’s Hall, insights into the history of republicans, and the left, in the Irish Free State, and the characters swept up in the struggle for independence, the civil war, and their fate in in the aftermath, as well as cinematique beauty.
Loach will, nevertheless, be remembered for Poor Cow, Kes, Land and Freedom, and smaller, less technically polished, but robust films such as Raining Stones, Riff Raff and the Navigators, which demonstrate that ‘social realism’ is not always worthy but unwatchable didacticism, and Bread and Roses, which shows politically engaged drama at its best.
That said by tackling head-on the effects of the ‘reform’ of the British Welfare state I, Daniel Blake, hits at a sensitive nerve, and, frankly, righteous indignation is an emotion that’s widely shared about this. Its tale of people pushed from pillar to post, has been compared to Loach’s exposee of homelessness in the 1966 television play Cathy Come Home ,
The Minister in charge of the system of oppression bearing down on Daniel Blake, Iain Duncan Smith, is now a leading Brexit campaigner.
Appropriately Loach stands on the other side of the European Referendum debate, the solution is ultimately voting to stay. “we need to “make alliances with other European left movements”.
Sivadhasan is a Tamil Tiger soldier during the last days of the Sri Lankan Civil War. After the armed conflict resolves, his side loses and he is forced to move to a refugee camp. There he decides to move to France to take a fresh chance at life. However, in order to secure political asylum, he requires a convincing cover story. He is given the passport of a dead man, Dheepan, and pairs with people he barely knows posing as his family. Along with his supposed wife, Yalini and his supposed 9-year-old daughter, Illayaal, they get on a ship bound for Paris. Upon arrival, he lands a job as a resident caretaker and starts building a new life in a housing project in Le Pré-Saint-Gervais, a northeastern suburb of Paris, which turns out to be another conflict zone for him.
I saw Dheepan only a few weeks ago.
One hopes that Loach’s picture will not take so long to get to our screens.
On Lâche Rien!
Several thousand people launched an occupation of the place de la République, Paris, at the end of Thursday’s demonstration against the new labour law. The group, Convergences des luttes (converge of struggles) was behind the initiative. Up to 4,000 people were present at the height of the protest.
The left weekly, Politis, says it’s the birth of a new, unprecedented, movement (Nuit debout», acte de naissance d’un mouvement inédit).#
A statement read to the crowd from the philosopher and economist Frédéric Lordon observes,
Il est possible que l’on soit en train de faire quelque chose. Le pouvoir tolère nos luttes lorsqu’elles sont locales, sectorielles, dispersées et revendicatives. Pas de bol pour lui, aujourd’hui nous changeons les règles du jeu. En donnant au capital des marges de manœuvre sans précédent, cette loi est génératrice de la violence néolibérale qui frappe désormais indistinctement toutes les catégories du salariat et, par là, les pousse à redécouvrir ce qu’elles ont en commun : la condition salariale même.
It’s possible that we are in the middle of doing something. Those in power tolerate our struggles when they are local, by a particular social or employee group, separated, around specific demands. Today they have run out of luck: we are changing the rules of the game. Giving capital unprecedented freedom, this (labour) law creates neo-liberal violence which will henceforth hit every type of employees, and for that reason, pushes workers to discover the thing they have in common: the condition of being a wage-earner.
Le Monde asks if this is the first step towards a movement, which many compare to the Spanish ‘indignados’ (the indignant) which gave rise to Podemos, that the supporters dream will sweep the country.
The occupiers took decisions on the basis of a 80% majority of support for motions (that is, not “consensus” model that bedevilled the Occupy movement).
A key proposal is to draw up, cahiers de doléances, the lists of grievances that preceded the French Revolution. They hope to spread the movement across France.
This morning the CRS removed 500 occupiers from the Square.
Est-ce l’amorce d’un mouvement qu’ils rêveraient « lame de fond » ou peut-être « déferlante » ? Est-ce l’annonce d’un « sursaut citoyen » qui mettrait dans la rue des Français de toutes conditions avides de protester et débattre, en criant leur défiance abyssale envers leurs élus et envers un système ? Est-ce le prélude d’un processus dit « révolutionnaire » ?
Whether they carry the “wind of revolution”, as one participant stated, remains to be seen.
The Tendance’s favourite recent French left group, HK et les Saltimbanques, sang.
We wish the young comrades well!
This music really sums up the wrongs of the world and how to fight back.
More here: «Nuit debout» : expulsés à l’aube.
Le 31 nous ne sommes pas rentrés chez nous après la manifestation.
Au plus fort de la nuit, nous étions plus de 4 000 Place de la République.
Concerts, débats citoyens et projections ont ponctué cette nuit qui s’est déroulée sous les hospices de la bienveillance et de la fraternité.
Mais à 5h45, la police a encerclé notre rassemblement pacifique, et maîtrisé jusqu’au bout, avant de nous contraindre à quitter les lieux manu militari et sans explication.
Nous nous insurgeons contre cette violence injustifiée étant donné la légalité absolue de notre occupation de la Place.
Nous appelons dès aujourd’hui, toutes les forces progressistes à rejoindre et amplifier ce mouvement en nous rassemblant à nouveau Place de La République dès maintenant ce 1er avril et jusqu’à dimanche soir au moins.
Une assemblée générale est prévue vers 17h. Et ce soir des débats et de la musique encore…
Vendredi 1er avril depuis la Place de la République
France Mass Protests: Unions and Students against ‘reform’ of the Code du travail, the “Loi Myriam El Khomri”.
Students Join Demos Against Plans to Weaken Workers’ Rights.
End of term protests threaten François Hollande’s labour legacy
French president trying to cement his place in history with sweeping reforms to the country’s rigid employment laws.
François Hollande is facing one of the biggest tests of his presidency as his sweeping labour reforms sparked protests by a potent mix of leftwing students and French trade unionists.
Student unions and youth demonstrators were staging sit-ins and street marches on Wednesday, teaming up with unions and striking rail workers in a wide-reaching protest movement that could prove highly toxic for the president. It is the first such collaborative protest against the Socialist government since Hollande came to power four years ago.
Reports the Guardian, neatly illustrating a report with a good reason why leftists do not trust the paper.
The “sweeping reforms” to the “rigid employment laws” were opposed by over a million people who signed this petition below:
Loi travail : non, merci !
The Petition gives is a list of some of the key measures.
☞ En cas de licenciement illégal, l’indemnité prud’homale est plafonnée à 15 mois de salaire.
In cases of illegal redundancies the amount awarded to those who win their case is limited to a ceiling of 15 months wages.
☞ Les 11 heures de repos obligatoire par tranche de 24 heures peuvent être fractionnées.
The day’s rest day – at present 11 hours per 24 hours – can be divided into sections (that is, distrinuted over the whole day).
☞ Une entreprise peut, par accord, baisser les salaires et changer le temps de travail.
A company can, by agreement, lower wages and change working hour.
☞ Les temps d’astreinte peuvent être décomptés des temps de repos.
Standby time can be counted as breaks.
There follows other technical changes – including those affecting apprentices- essentially allowing employers more ‘flexibility’ and their employees the possibility of working more hours according the employers’ needs.
☞ Une mesure peut-être imposée par référendum contre l’avis de 70% des syndicats.
This is the key point: a company will be able to organise a referendum on new working arrangements directly appealing to the employees without the intermediary of the trade unions.
☞ Une entreprise peut faire un plan social sans avoir de difficultés économique.
Laws on redundancies will make it possible to offer a proposal to get rid of people (plan social) whenever they wish.
☞ Après un accord d’entreprise, un-e salarié-e qui refuse un changement dans son contrat de travail peut être licencié.
Anybody who doesn’t knuckle down to the new arrangements can be sacked.
☞ Par simple accord on peut passer de 10h à 12h de travail maximum par jour.
By a simple agreement bosses can increase working hours from 10 to 12 hours a day.
Salarié-e-s ou non : cette réforme nous concerne toutes et tous !
Interpellez la ministre du travail et demandez lui de renoncer à ce projet.
Signez la pétition et RDV sur http://loitravail.lol
Put simply the project, under the name of El Khomri, but piloted by Prime Minister Manuel Valls and his Economics Emmnual Minister Macron, is designed to introduce as much as possible of the British/US model of “flexible” working.
For an expert analysis, by an acknowledged authority in the field, see Gérard Filoche:
Valls, who received a mere 5.63% % of the vote in the 2011 Parti Socialiste ‘primary’ to select a Presidential candidate, has met strong opposition from his his own party MPs and activists. He is described as being, with Italy’s Matteo Renzi, the last of the true believers in the Blair Third Way project – giving priority to adapting economies to ‘globalised markets’.
The result is that some consider that the PS is on the verge of a split. A more probable result, given that breakaways from the Socialists have a long history of marginalisation, the latest being Jean-Luc Mélechon’s descent into populism at the head of the small (well under 10,000 members) Parti de Gauche, is political paralysis.
To use Léon Blum’s words, the Hollande Presidency will be seen not as a “conquest of power” nor even a successful “exercise of power” but a descent into manoeuvring to impose the plans of a minority of the Socialist Party and the – majority – of French employers and the Right.
France faces a wave of protests Wednesday over unpopular labour reforms that have divided an already fractured government and raised hackles in a country accustomed to iron-clad job security. Follow our live blog for the latest news.
Youth organisations and unions have called for protests across France over labour reforms on the same day as a rail strike over a wage dispute that is set to cause transport chaos.
High school pupils are expected to take to the streets alongside unions, ecologist movements and university students over the controversial reforms.
France’s Socialist government has faced massive blowback — including from within — to measures that would give bosses more flexibility in hiring and firing, in a bid to turn around a record 10.2 percent unemployment rate.
The reforms spell out simple conditions such as falling orders or sales, or operating losses, as sufficient cause for shedding staff. They would also cut overtime pay for work beyond 35 hours — the work week famously introduced in the 1990s in an earlier Socialist bid to boost employment.
An online petition against the El Khomri draft law, named after Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri, has attracted more than a million signatures while a poll showed seven in 10 people were opposed to the proposed changes.
Meanwhile, trains are expected to suffer “severe disruption” due to a strike as workers demand salary increases. The Paris Metro will remain largely unaffected.
It is not at all popular: L’Humanité reports:
Protests against Austerity – supported by all the trade union federations – are taking place in Belgium today.
They are demonstrating against the latest round of cutbacks of the Michel Coalition government (a centre-right cabinet backed by the hard-right Flemish nationalists of Bart de Wever).
On the spot news here (in French).
Tout autre chose/Hart boven Hart (Another thing Completely/ Heart Over Heart) – a citizens’ movement partly inspired by Podemos – took to the streets yesterday in Brussels for a ‘parade’.
The parade consisted of ten blocs, each representing the theme “Any other horizon”. These were “common goods by and for all,” “tax justice”, “a place for every generation,” “solidarity against poverty”, “dignified work”, “a nurturing environment,” “value our diversity “,” ecology: it makes sense, “citizens without frontiers “and” dare democracy! “. Podemos, MOC (Mouvement Ouvrier Chrétien) and sp.a. (socialisten en progressieven anders, a small left split from the Flemish Socialist Party) joined with a float “against capitalism” during the parade. Pro-Palestinian protesters, too, decided to make their voices heard during this event.
Reports Le Soir.
Russia Today says,
Rainy weather in Brussels did not stop tens of thousands of people from protesting against austerity measures introduced by the new Belgian government. Attendance estimates from police and organisers differed sixfold.
The rally saw somewhere between 17,000 and 20,000 people on Sunday, RTFB broadcaster reported, citing police estimates. Meanwhile, march organisers claimed that up to 120,000 people participated.
Some are wondering if Belgium is about to experience a Podemos type movement.
How Should We Look at Work?
The Work Agenda: What happened to the leisure society? Rory O’Kelly.
Chartist Free E-Book.
O Laziness, have pity on our long misery! O Laziness, mother of the arts and noble virtues, be thou the balm of human anguish!
Paul Lafrague. The Right to Be Lazy. 1880.
One of the sections of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twentieth Century deals with the justification of colossal salaries and wealth. The media, he observes, is full of stories about business ‘stars’. They are used to indicate how graft and talent are rewarded. There is a “just inequality, based on merit, education, and the social utility of elites.” (1) Everything is slanted to suggest that that the majority of high-earners and the well-off deserve their rewards. Criticisms of pay and bonuses come when these are gained without apparent hard work.
Piketty enjoys pointing out that is impossible it is to demonstrate any connection between effort and reward in the modern economy. The part of social wealth going to Capital, and the well-off, increases regardless of individual cleverness or toil. Much depends on “luck”, the ability of top mangers to fix their own pay, and the influence of the wealthy to press for low taxes. Entrepreneurs, like Bill Gates, turn into rentiers, with more cash as they get older, they live off an initial innovation that was rarely one person’s discovery in the first place. In sum, to those that have, shall be given.
Many accept this case. But there are deeper problems. It is not just that certain kinds of elite work are valued, leaving others – the majority – aside. Why is ‘work’ itself such a self-evident virtue that it makes those not-in-work look as if they are afflicted by vice? O’Kelly begins the excellent and thought-provoking The Work Agenda, by stating, “Work is seen as good in itself and maximising the number of people working and the amount of work done as self-evidently right.”
This assumption looks strange in the light of 1960s (and much later) predictions about automation and the ‘leisure society’. Paul Lafargue looked forward to a time when, thanks to the abundance created by technology, slogging your guts out was not the goal of existence. The 1970s and 1980s saw criticisms of ‘productivism’ and the cult of labour in socialist ideology. André Gorz’s Adieux aux proletariat (1981) took up these ideas. He suggested that in a “post-industrial” society people should control what is produced. They could share work according to need, and wants, with a universal guaranteed income, and more and more free-time. More modestly the French left in the late 1990s thought that the 35 Hour week would be a step in this direction.
Today, however, O’Kelly says, the obsession with the absolute value of ‘work’ blocks people from considering a “rational way of sharing the output of a society across all the members of society.” Many people may well spend time on benefits, over the course of a lifetime. Others, of a whole range of reasons, may be on them for much longer. Structural long-term unemployment is a feature of all Western societies, as is the need to help those who are incapacitated
Instead of recognizing this, and adapting social spending to it, governments, from Tony Blair onwards, have tried to push everybody into work – regardless of their medical condition, the needs of the labour market, and the rights or wishes of those to be pushed in this direction.
Putting the Disabled to Work.
The Work Agenda does not dwell on the ideology of work. Instead it is devoted to how the doctrine is used to undermine the basis of social benefits. This is most obvious from changes to the benefits for the disabled. The idea that ‘work is the best form of welfare’ is applied to the sick (which covers a multitude of diverse categories of people). There is an economic rationale, “Getting people into work is pursued primarily as a way of reducing transfers between working and non-working people; in simple terms: the cost of benefits.”
Fitting square pegs into round holes barely begins to cover the injustices that have resulted from these policies. Known to the general public through the scandals surrounding ATOS, and the ‘assessments’ of those claiming disability benefits, these are part of a much wider picture. O’Kelly’s background in the social security system helps him come to grips with the detail. He clearly knows the operations of what is now the DWP inside out, and uses them to great advantage.
The Work Agenda lays out the history and rationale of the present structure, “The driver behind the Welfare Reform Act 2007 and the creation of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) was the belief that by changing the definition of incapacity sick or disabled people could be made capable of work.” As he notes, “Until recently the medical situation was taken as an objective starting point to which the benefit system then had to respond. The great change in 2007 was to take the needs of the benefit system as the starting point (my emphasis) and to change clinical definitions to conform to those needs.” This was, as we know, a Labour government, or ‘New Labour’, that made this turn.
O’Kelly argues (on the basis of close acquaintance with the civil service decision-making) that there never was a time when large numbers of people were classified as medically unfit in order to reduce the unemployment figures. There were always rigorous tests. What has changed is that governments have decided to change their nature.
Now it might seem reasonable – and it’s repeated often enough – to assert that there are large numbers of people who “choose” not to work. But in the case of invalidity benefits there is a simple way of determining this: medical advice. Present legislation is designed to alter the character of this criterion. Instead even ill people can be judged “capable” of working – according to a fairly loose test of what being able to carry out basic tasks is, including those even those objectively unwell can do. This O’Kelly says, means. “Effectively moving sick people into employment without improving their health”. This process is “likely simply to transfer the costs of sickness from the benefit system to statutory sick pay and private sick pay schemes.”
The problem then is not that ATOS is a particularly venal organisation – though opinions might differ on this after the company’s dissembling and bleating about being harassed. It is the changed nature of the tests for incapacity that drives the injustices that they have caused.
A persistent case is that mental troubles are rarely easily definable according to a check-list of questions and a short interview with an assessor. There are plenty of other not always ‘visible’ illnesses. As the pamphlet indicates, “It is a striking fact that the classes of people whom the government is most anxious to take off benefits for incapacity overlap very largely with those whom no rational employer (in either the public or the private sector) would want to take on.” As somebody who has sat, during various employment courses, with people with very serious mental-health issues, and others with deep health problems, we might equally ask why they are obliged to take these “preparation for work” training schemes.
Back to First Principles.
Returning to question the principles he began with, O’Kelly makes the observation that “Work (i.e. paid work) is essentially economic activity; the creation of goods and services. It is not a form of welfare, it is not a form of therapy and it is not a punishment. It can of course be used in any of these ways, rather as a stiletto heel can be used to hammer a nail into a wall. It does not do the job very well, however, and it is not very good for the shoe either.”
The work agenda is used, in effect, to “Micro-manage the lives of the poor”. Not only the disabled on what is now the Personal Independence Payment (PIP), but anybody on benefits,
are now subjected to close surveillance over their lives. This erodes personal autonomy, and increases dependency. The DWP, and private companies gaining rent from public contracts, are entrusted with the power to grossly interfere in people’s lives. They claim rights over claimants. They have fewer and fewer responsibilities to them.
For those “success stories” who get off benefits, O’Kelly notes, “The present system does also however offer scope for giving notional employment (or self-employment) to people who are able to do very little and who will continue to get the great bulk of their income through the benefit system whether nominally ‘employed’ or not. Some of these people will get psychological benefits from ‘working’; for others the effect will be the reverse.”
It might be suggested, as O’Kelly does, that the Ministers in charge of these policies have little experience of the world of ordinary work themselves. More insidious is the influence of the welfare-to-work industry. They influence policy to an undue degree, essentially with their claims to propel people into the – self evidently good – world of work. That claimants dislike them and that they are unable to meet the demands of their contracts (notoriously over the Work Programme) and capable of dissembling about their operations, is ignored.
In the meantime few people question the absolute value of this “work”, or why so many people spend their lives in low-paid, insecure, unrewarding employment. Or why those with Capital get so much more, including a slice of the revenue of those obliged to claim benefits – forced onto the welfare-to-work schemes run with the profits of wealthy private contractors foremost in mind. The culmination of this process will come when claimants will, as the Help to Work programme intends, have to work for their benefits. (2)
(1) Page 419 Capital in the Twenty-first Century. Thomas Piketty. Harvard University Press. 2014.
(2) Picketty suggests that some free marketers propose the following “Instead of holding public debt via their financial investments, the wealthiest European households would becomes the direct owners of schools, hospitals, police stations, and so on. Everyone else would then have to pay rent to use these assets and continue to produce the associated public services.”(Page 541 – 2 Op cit). This is in effect happening in the United Kingdom, beginning with PFI. The welfare-to-work industry in effect is given a chunk of the welfare state and everybody’s taxes are used to pay rent to the owners of their enterprises.
You can read The Work Agenda as a free E-Book by clicking here.