Archive for the ‘Welfare State’ Category
Up to a hundred activists came to the Welfare Conference, held on Friday in Congress House. As the introductory speakers made plain the Liberal-Conservative Coalition, assisted by large sections of the media, have launched a frontal assault ion the basic principles of an equitable benefit system. Instead of helping people in need they have attacked the most vulnerable.
Eleanor Firman (Disabled People Against Cuts, DPAC and UNITE) illustrated what this has meant on the ground. As a result of cuts in housing benefit and the bedroom tax their group in Waltham Forest had had to defend those facing eviction.
She talked of how the Work Capability Assessment targeted disabled people. Those not meeting the government’s criteria – enforced through a flawed system run by private companies (ATOS and now Maximus), could expect to be treated with “harshness”, to the point of being left destitute. This was only one example of how welfare ‘reform’ was making people’s lives a misery. The answer was to challenge the DWP with the help of bodies like UNITE Community and, where they still exist, Law Centres.
Workshops covering benefit sanctions, the basis of the benefit system, unpaid work, and equality were held.
In the one I attended, on Sanctions, participants concentrated less on particular stories of injustice than on the nature of the arbitrary regime. We tried to bring together a rejection of all sanctions with proposals for real social security for all. Disabled needed to be assessed not by private companies and computerised questionnaires, a source of many sanctions, but by clinical criteria, – the work of GPs. The power of ‘work coaches’ to decide to withdraw benefits – whether they should eat or have a home – should be removed.
There were fruitful discussions throughout the day. Groups talked through proposals for a universal minimum income, others investigated the socialisation of basic needs, “universal goods in kind’, proposed by the Greek party, Syriza. A group of us looked into the use of Blogging, Twitter and other social media to spread an alternative message to the media hate campaigns.
Others planned activities on Monday the 2nd of March Day of Action against Maximus and the 19th of March Day of Action Against Benefit Sanctions. Further protests against benefit sanctions are planned to coincide with May Day.
Stop Sanctions: A Priority.
In the afternoon Richard Exell, the TUC’s senior Policy Officer on these issues, spoke. He cast aside his prepared notes. Instead he talked of how public opinion had been swayed behind the Coalition’s polices. Cautious about demanding an end to all sanctions Richard observed, however, that the way they had left hundreds of thousands destitute may help to alter popular attitudes. The children of claimants, through no ‘fault’ of their own, were left hungry and dependent on food banks and charity. Now they will affect those in low-paid work who received benefits. There was a need to develop alternatives to this and to Universal Credit.
Paula from DPAC stated that the introduction of the new system, with its new complicated ‘claimants’ commitment’ spelled ‘Armageddon’ for those reliant on benefits.
A set of principles and demands – drawing on the Centres’ Charter for the Unemployed is being drawn up. It will include demands for a decent level of benefits, an end to sanctions, and opposition to all forms of workfare – to make volunteering really ‘voluntary’ – a higher minimum wage, rent controls, and decent jobs for all.
These will be put into a coherent form at a further meeting on the 25th of March. The finished programme will be designed to take into union bodies and wider afield.
In a speech that touched on the way activists can change government and party (Labour) policy Lynne Groves drew on the way the Bedroom Tax had been challenged, and cuts in social services opposed. Activists and the wider public were urged to get involved in UNITE Community Branches, open to all.
At the end of the meeting Kevin Flynn noted the seriousness and richness of the debates that had taken placed. Amongst other points he welcomed the “historic formation of the National Union of Bloggers”.
The breadth and depth of the experiences of those attending this meeting – about 100 strong – were striking. The words ‘the labour movement’ really came to life. There was strong participation of the disabled, young people, women, and black people. Those attending came from a wide variety of work backgrounds: from heavy industry, clerical and service work, to the voluntary sector. Delegates attended from all over the country, from Newcastle, Liverpool to the West Country and even South London.
It was, as always, a real pleasure to hear Northern accents. The discussions were more than good-natured and creative. Everybody had something to contribute. It was, in short, bloody great!
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.
“Austerity anger returns to eurozone streets as France’s far-left unions call a day of action, but not clear how many workers will take part.”
The Guardian newspaper, which so clearly marked out the unions involved, is running something close to a “live” feed on today’s protests in France.
In fact the demonstrations are backed by four union federations, CGT (left, formerly aligned closely to the Communists but now an independent ‘class struggle’ union), FO, (centrists, formerly aligned to traditional social democrats with a Trotskyist minority and Right-wing, Gaullist supporters) Solidaires (Close to the Noveau Parti anticapitaliste) , FSU (the main teaching union, with public sector workers, left-of-centre to left). – Le Monde.
The Front de gauche has called for support, as well a section of the (governing) Parti Socialiste.
The dispute is focused on the gradual lengthening of the contribution period to obtain a pension (increased to 43 years minimum , which will finally come into full effect in 2035.
The mobilisation has wider targets, the defence of ““Salaire, emploi, conditions de travail” – wages, jobs and working conditions.
The CGT has also brought in the wider issue of austerity,
La CGT, avec d’autres organisations syndicales en France et en Europe, considère qu’une rupture est nécessaire pour réorienter les politiques sociales et économiques, et renouer avec la croissance, la création de richesses pour une autre répartition.
The CGT, with other unions in France and Europe, considers that a clean break is needed to shift the present social and economic policies, and resume growth, and the creation of prosperity on the basis of a different distribution of wealth.
Map of French ‘far left’ demonstrations today.
The Appel Unitaire lists a broad range of representative left-wing individuals and groups backing the demonstrations. (1)
Nous ne pouvons accepter la paupérisation programmée des futurs retraité-es, la destruction des solidarités sociales, l’idéologie absurde du « travailler toujours plus » dans une société productiviste et inégalitaire. Cet engrenage favorise l’extrême droite et menace à terme la démocratie. Comme en Europe du Sud et dans bien d’autres pays du monde, la société doit se mettre en mouvement. Pour y contribuer nous organiserons partout des réunions, des initiatives de rue, des ateliers d’éducation populaire et nous soutiendrons les initiatives prises par le mouvement syndical. Nous voulons un système de retraites solidaire.
We cannot accept the programmed impoverishment of future pensioners, the destruction of social solidarity, and the absurd ideology of “working harder” in a consumerist and inegalitarian society. This backwards turn favours the far right and ultimately threatens democracy. As in Southern Europe and in many other countries worldwide, the social movements have to act. Our own contribution will come from organising meetings, initiatives streets, popular education workshops as widely as possible in support the initiatives of the trade union movement. We want a pension system based on social solidarity.
La mobilisation approuvée par 56% des Français says the CGT.
Not for Blue Labour.
Mukul Devichand opened with this,
These voices are the gurus of a new circle at the top of the Labour Party. They’re highly influential: in charge of writing the policies for Labour’s next manifesto and crafting Ed Miliband’s key speeches. And if you thought Labour would simply tinker around the edges of welfare, and reverse some of the cuts, you’d be rrong if this group had its way. Labour long ago jettisoned the idea that the central government could run industry. In this week’s Analysis, we’ll explore how this group also wants the central state to walk away from a top down model of welfare.
Following this Maurice Glasman opined, “The state is necessary, but as a external administrative neutral force it undermines relationships. It can undermine humanity.”
If that is an indication of the quality of New Labour thought we socialists on the dole can rest easy in our beds, till late afternoon if we wish.
The state is a relationship that can undermine humanity, might have been a more coherent idea.
But we let this pass.
Sir Robin Wales, Mayor of Newham then took another step backwards.
Here are his thoughts on the Welfare state,
I think the problem has been we forgot what it was originally set up for. It cuts people’s legs off. It rewards people the more need they can demonstrate. It does things for people and that’s a mistake. So for example on housing, if you come in and say, “I’m homeless, I’m in need,” we’ve rewarded in the past, we’ve rewarded people. The more need they have, the more likely it is we’ll support them. So you’ve got to show, you’ve got to prove that you can’t do things. That’s the wrong way to do it.
Perhaps Sir Robin has found a way of abolishing need.
He began by stating,
The Soviets learned in 89 that it didn’t work. We still think we should run things centrally and we’re one of the most centralised states and a democratic state in Europe. It’s nuts. We need to do more in terms of pushing power and responsibility and opportunities down locally, and I’d argue that if we’re going to make the welfare state work there needs to be a much stronger local element where the community and the values of the community can be put to work. You cannot put something that meets an individual’s needs, you cannot structure that from the centre.
As Devichand wryly observed, the Soviets are not around to answer back.
He by contrast has set up Workplace, a local alternative to Job Centres,
The government’s Work Programme is a disaster, and it’s a disaster because it’s designed by civil servants to be run nationally and you don’t start with the employers. We go to the employers and say could we present people to you who are job ready, who are the right people you want? And the result is that not only do we get five thousand people into work; half of them are long-term unemployed, a large number are young people.
The Work Programme is in fact thoroughly decentralised.
It is delivered, in scores of different ways, by private providers, mostly companies, but including ‘social enterprises’ and charities.
This is the result of extensive lobbying by these providers (who’ve become the ‘unemployment business’) as first encouraged by David Blunkett, closely linked to one company (he served on its Board after setting the system up), A4E).
The system is unemployment business driven and nobody knows exactly what they’re going to get.
It is also news that Workplace is unique in going to employers, since that is exactly what all Work Programme providers do.
The root problem is deeper and simpler: there is not the work for the unemployed to be fitted into.
To test the success of Newham’s scheme we got people saying that they agreed that graft should be rewarded and skivers left out. This was not ,
a gathering of the local chambers of commerce; it was a crowd of the recently unemployed in East London, albeit hand-picked for us by Newham Council….
We are reaching the realm where the inhabitants of Cloud Cuckoo Land go to get away from their mundane lives.
It is a sad indication of the ‘debate’ set up by Blue Labour that it was up to the Fabian Society General Secretary, Andrew Harrop, to talk some sense.
That the reasons why welfare is ‘centralised’ (that, is we all have the same rights and benefits are aligned to need) is that Beveridge,
wanted a uniform, consistent system, so that it was based on your citizenship rather than more arbitrary factors, and there’s still a lot of truth in that insight.
Polly Toynbee pointed out that if we decentralise welfare in the way Blue Labour want
In the end you might get some councils who say actually we care more about our municipal flowerbeds.
This is not a joke.
A percentage of Council Tax benefit has been made payable by those on benefits and decentralised under the Liberal-Tory Coalition.
Those in Liberal or Tory areas can pay twice or event three times what you pay in Labour ones. Poor areas have high charges, rich right-wing ones, despite their reserves, still shift the burden as far as they can onto those on the Dole.
Toynbee later observes,
I think Labour MPs know so well, they are so rooted in their own communities, many of which are very poor, what can’t be done. They know very well that you can’t take money away from the very weakest and very poorest and they won’t let it happen. So I’m pretty confident that this will end up being a creative policy with a lot of good ideas, that it will spark all sorts of things off, but don’t let’s imagine it’s a new 1945 settlement.
A creative policy?
The Analysis programme did not go far into this.
But the rest of Blue Labour’s ideas, about contributive benefits, are equally askew. They would create a gap between sections of the unemployed. They would (and are) be hard and expensive to administer.
Countries that operate these schemes , like France, have had to introduce minimum levels of benefit to all, regardless of contribution, and still suffer from continual deficit crises in their systems.
The Living Wage is equally no panacea for low pay. With rents still rising, and the inflation rate on goods that the less well-off buy going up, it does not mean the good life for all.
Jeremy Cliffe, of the free-market Economist concludes,
The Attlee government, Labour’s perhaps most venerated and mythologised government, set in place a Welfare State which involved the benevolent state pulling levers, transferring wealth from those that had it to those that didn’t, and this involves moving on quite dramatically from that. And I think there are many in the labour movement, perhaps understandably those who have worked in the Welfare State, who see their constituents dependent on support in various forms from the Welfare State, those who are close to the trade Union Movement which is obviously rooted in the last fifty or so years of British political economy who are not comfortable with this.
Dropping the reference to the “benevolent state” (Cliffe just couldn’t resist saying that, could he? Still who can deny that a 1st Class Degree from Oxford teaches you things) and what do we have at fault?
That there is a “transfer of wealth“.
Is this something Blue Labour is against?