Friday, 18 April 2014

Religion and the war on the poor

In Easter week it's appropriate that the focus should be on Christianity.  David Cameron's Easter message, his declaration that he is a Christian in a Christian country and his mini-sermon, has drawn scornful comments.  But most of the journalists who have been cynical about it are atheists, and so while they are right in many respects they miss the point.
Cameron, along with Duncan Smith, is under fire from the leaders of all the mainstream Christian churches.  They first wrote to try to draw his attention to the misery which his policies were causing to individual people, real people.  IDS's response to his own church's leader was, "He's wrong; I wish he'd talked to me first."  There's no way through that insane arrogance.  Cameron waffled about having a moral mission.  The church leaders have written again.  And that's what has brought on the sermon about the big society.  Neither he nor IDS ever address what the churches are saying about the real cases of hardship.  Is Cameron trying to set himself up as an alternative focus of Christian authority?  Is he trying to appease the Tory shires church-goers who loathe gay marriage etc.?  Does he really believe what he is saying?
Many have pointed out that there might be another agenda here.  The Tories are happily dismantling the welfare state and leaving casualties to be picked up by the charities, many of them church-run.  Perhaps they envisage a US-style system where huge, wealthy church charities do the job which the state has hitherto done here.  But we don't have huge, wealthy church charities in Britain, and bleating about the "big society" isn't going to create them.
While Cameron hasn't openly declared war on his opponents, Duncan Smith has.  He can rely on the likes of Stephen Glover in the Mail to write preposterous nonsense on his behalf, and on councils like that in North Lincolnshire, where they have decided that "residents who smoke and have satellite television" are not eligible for hardship payments if they are hit by the bedroom tax.  But IDS's arch enemy is the Trussell Trust, which he accuses of "running a business" and therefore having a vested interest in the proliferation of food banks.  That'll go down well with the thousands of volunteers, in Trussell Trust and other food banks, who are giving their time and energy freely to help those in desperate need.  An excellent article on the subject appeared this week in an unexpected place - the Economist magazine.  I recommend it.  It draws attention to the soaring number of sanctions.  A similar point is made by the Citizens Advice blog, and it expresses concern that with the new regime of 4-week minimum sanctions duration this is going to get much worse.
Of course, readers of the Daily Mail don't know anything about that.  In a baffling article yesterday someone called Matt Chorley, their political editor, ranted about the "welfare state we're in" and, since Mail readers need pictures, included lots of helpful graphics.  What's peculiar is that he happily acknowledged that a huge proportion of the bill is the state pension.  And pensioners react badly to being told that they're on "welfare" when they've paid in all their working lives on the basis that they would get a pension at the end of it.  So this may well come under the heading of "shooting yourself in the foot".
There's some minor news about A4e.  Two of its non-executive directors, Sir Hugh Sykes and Steve Boyfield, have stepped down, replace by Neil MacDonald and Sarah Anderson.  It's not significant.  Non-execs are only supposed to serve for 9 years, and for Sykes and Boyfield that period was up.
So, if you can, have a happy Easter.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

More lies v. truth

You couldn't have a better example today of this government's contempt for the truth, and how the media collude with them.
On the one hand there are two articles, in the Express and the Mail.  The very names tell you what's coming - a platform for Iain Duncan Smith to lie about some made-up figures.  They are the same article, really.  The Mail says: "Half of those caught out by benefits cap are 'spurred to seek work': New figures show the system is working".  This is based on an Ipsos Mori poll of "more than 1,600 capped households" showed that 28% did more to find work.  Pretty thin, you might say.  Even thinner is the finding that 11% of capped households have found work, although you'll have to get your calculator out to work that one out.  This gives IDS the excuse to claim that the cap is changing people's behaviour, etc, etc.  This is the sort of nonsense which he was rebuked for, but he takes no notice.  
The Express's version oozes hatred, as usual, referring to "handouts", "welfare bonanza", "workshy", "creaming off" and on and on, but it's the same lie based on the same dubious figures.  Bringing in Jonathan Isaby of the Taxpayers Alliance to parrot the right things hardly enhances the credibility of this rotten propaganda.
So for an antidote we turn to the Guardian, and first to an article by Patrick Wintour.  The same Ipsos Mori poll which delights IDS also shows that a third of people affected by the cap have had to cut back on essential items.  Just as important are the findings of Citizens Advice.  The increased ruthlessness of the sanctions regime is driving people to loan sharks and hindering them from looking for work.  They point out that on the Work Programme twice as many people are sanctioned as find work.
And then there's an excellent article by Polly Toynbee.  The latest employment figures will show that more people are in work; but in the last 3 months all the increase is down to self-employment.  And most of it is down to desperation.  Toynbee goes on to look at Help to Work.  Since nobody actually calls it that, let's refer to it as workfare.  She says: "For once, instead of rushing in, the DWP has done a good control trial on this with 15,000 unemployed. The pilot's results, however, were sneaked out just before Christmas with no press release. That's no surprise when you uncover the findings.  First the unemployed were given a 13-week warning period to act as a deterrent, and then 26 weeks of either 'intensive Jobcentre Plus support', or the workfare 'community action programme'. Or they went into the control group with nothing special. Here's what happened: exactly the same number in the control group – 18% – found themselves jobs as those doing the forced community work. Just 1% more found jobs from the group with jobcentre support. In other words, workfare didn't work. Although 68% of the control group were still on unemployment benefits at the end, so were 66% of those who did the community work and 64% of those given jobcentre support."
Help to Work is only two weeks from launch, but there hasn't even been an announcement of the contractors, and Toynbee couldn't get an answer out of the DWP.  She concludes that the only reason for going ahead with this is that it takes people out of the unemployment figures for 6 months.  " Incidently," she says, "these sad long-term cases will do more than twice the maximum any court can sentence a thief to on Community Payback. To be out of work is now officially morally worse than committing a crime."

Thursday, 10 April 2014

G4S "cleared"

The news slipped through.  The Telegraph reported it briefly, the BBC website more fully.  But, apart from Paul Lewis on Twitter, no one else has noticed, or thinks it's important.  G4S can again bid for government contracts.  Yes, after bodging contracts and then, along with Serco, defrauding the government over the tagging contract to the tune of £109m, the company was temporarily barred from bidding for its slice of public money.  But now, "The Cabinet Office said G4S had taken steps to address weakness in its operations and its 'corporate renewal plan represented the right direction of travel to meet our expectations as a customer'."  And this comes while the Serious Fraud Office is still investigating.  So keen is the government to get G4S back into the fold that they are not even waiting for the outcome of that.  
What's the urgency?  Well, there were those prisons which Grayling wanted to privatise but couldn't because Serco and G4S, the only bidders, had been banished.  And there are more contracts coming up.  We still haven't heard who the providers are to be for Community Work Placements.  And another nice little earner is up for grabs, barely noticed.  This is the Health and Work Service (HWS), contracts to "intervene" in the lives of people who are off work sick and get them back to work.  Read about it here.  It won't be payment by results, and it needs the consent of employees.  One can expect the usual suspects, including A4e and, of course, G4S, to be bidding.
It makes no sense at all to people outside the weird world of government procurement and outsourcing that providers which have failed to deliver and have ripped you off should be welcome to bid again.  The Public Accounts Committee was astonished that previous performance couldn't be taken into account.  

Monday, 7 April 2014

Turning the screw

I didn't see all of the interview with Iain Duncan Smith on the Andrew Marr programme yesterday.  Just enough to realise that it would be no different to all the rest.  But after I'd had to switch off he was apparently asked about the Maria Miller case, and said that there was the danger of a witch hunt against her.  That's what has made all the headlines, of course.  No one cares what he said about "welfare".
But if it was a bland interview (with the usual lies) it was because he was too embarrassed to make the announcement he had been planning.  We had it anyway.  As the Telegraph headlined it on Saturday, Benefit cheats face higher fines and losing their homes.  Not good timing.  What it amounts to is that there will be a crackdown on fraudsters, who could be forced to sell their homes.  How many benefits cheats actually own their own homes, he didn't say.  And pensioners who claim top-up benefits they're not entitled to will also be rooted out.  Fine.  But even IDS could see that the announcement didn't sit well with the latest scandal about an MP and her second home.
The other announcement about turning the screw on the unemployed was given to Esther McVey.  It was left to the Guardian to give a full account of this; but whose idea it was to headline it including the stupid phrase "to end 'signing-on culture'" I don't know.  Apparently McVey hadn't at that point actually made the announcement, but the paper had an advance copy.  She chirrups: 
"With the economy growing, unemployment falling and record numbers of people in work, now is the time to start expecting more of people if they want to claim benefits. It's only right that we should ask people to take the first basic steps to getting a job before they start claiming jobseeker's allowance – it will show they are taking their search for work seriously.  This is about treating people like adults and setting out clearly what is expected of them so they can hit the ground running. In return, we will give people as much help and support as possible to move off benefits and into work because we know from employers that it's the people who are prepared and enthusiastic who are most likely to get the job.  This change will mean people start their claim ready to look for work and will show they are serious about finding a job as quickly as possible."
That is so absurd and deeply patronising that you wonder if she knows anything at all about the system as it is, or about the history of social security.  What these new measures amount to is that in the week between losing your job and being allowed to sign on you must i) register with Universal Job Match and ii) produce a CV.  
Yes, that's the UJM which has been shown to be hopelessly riddled with fraudulent and duplicate vacancies, and which most reputable employers now avoid.  But you must register with it.  And as you do, you can contemplate the fact that your internet connection will have to go because you can't now afford it.  A CV as well?  Perhaps you've never had to have one and you need a bit of guidance.  Tough.  If you go to sign on without one - or perhaps without one which passes muster with the JC "adviser" - you'll be turned away.  All those people who don't have access to a computer, and wouldn't know how to use one if they did, will be left floundering.  And all those who haven't heard about the new rules, and naively thought that they were entitled to state benefits if they were out of work, will be turned away because they are not "taking their search for work seriously".
Many experienced claimants have by now sussed what is going on here.  It's just a new way of delaying benefit payments, perhaps for ever.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

The testament of IDS, and the Tory agenda

You probably know that Iain Duncan Smith is on the Marr programme tomorrow (BBC1, 9.00).  Lots of people have been contacting Marr and the show's producers asking for a real interview, lies challenged and all that, but we don't have any real hope.  There's a piece written by Smith on the Telegraph website today which amounts to his testament.  Ludicrous, delusional, stomach-turning - but that's the line he will take, and the increasingly toadying BBC will let him spout it and thank him for gracing them with his presence.

It was Stanley Baldwin, Conservative Prime Minister in the 20s and 30s, who said that the press had "power without responsibility - the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages".  It seems to me to apply to individuals who write for particular papers, giving support to the likes of Duncan Smith without any glimmer of knowledge of the subject.  Take a piece by Simon Heffer in today's Mail online.  I suspect it was the subs who wrote the disgusting headline - Let's get the feckless to buy food - not fags and booze.  But that's Heffer's thesis.  Yes, the push is there again to determine what the poor are allowed to spend their pittance on by giving them swipe cards to ensure that they don't buy any luxuries.
Who is Simon Heffer, you may ask, and what qualifies him to pronounce on this subject?  Well, he was educated at King Edward VI's School, Chelmsford, and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he read English and subsequently took a PhD in modern history.  He wrote biographies before joining The Daily Telegraph as a leader writer in 1986 and later held the posts of chief leader writer, political correspondent, parliamentary sketchwriter, comment editor and deputy editor.  He has since rejoined the Daily Mail and edits a new online comment section, called RightMinds.  That CV, I suppose, makes him an expert on the subject of welfare reform.
What he's advocating is familiar, but I want to pick out one sentence.  "Retailers would be invited to sign up as part of an approved merchant scheme and would  benefit by having guaranteed custom in return."  Think about that for a moment.  And then turn to an article in an American online newspaper, slate.com.  In the US the poorest get food stamps, which haven't been actual stamps for a long time.  It's all electronic now, and it's the system which Heffer wants to see here.  The major supermarkets reap huge profits from the system, because people are forced to buy their food there; and the biggest beneficiary is Walmart, which owns Asda over here.  The figures are not disclosed, because of that old get-out clause "commercial confidentiality", but when the numbers on food stamps go down, so do the profits of the supermarkets.
Now, call me suspicious, but could it be that behind the cant about saving the poor from their fecklessness and saving the taxpayer from exploitation, there's another agenda?  Could it just be that there's a massive profit opportunity here?

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Ingeus sold and WP extended

There's an interesting report in the Financial Times today about developments in the Work Programme.  Ingeus Deloitte, the company which originated in Australia, has been sold to an American company, Providence Service Corporation.  The Work Programme business, says the FT, is worth £150m a year to Ingeus, "which is understood to have won such a large share of the market by bidding more cheaply than rivals".  Despite the failure of the WP to help the vast majority of those referred to it, there are obviously profits to be made.  And Provident can simply take over Ingeus's activities by bidding for the offender rehabilitation contracts (and anything else on offer).
The other interesting point in the article is that the Work Programme contracts are due to end next year, but they are expected to be extended to 2016 "to avoid the general election".  (Labour has already said that they wouldn't renew the contracts if they get into power.)  By this stage the "attachment" payments should have ended; would we be told if they haven't?  The contracts didn't seem to be generating much profit for the providers, but Provident obviously thinks that the potential is there.  Richard Johnson, formerly of Serco, says that can only come from cutting costs, but it's hard to know how companies like A4e can cut costs any further.
It makes me wonder, again, whether A4e is in line for a buy-out.  Would Emma Harrison be prepared to sell her 85% stake in the company?

Sunday, 30 March 2014

More hate-mongering

I don't know whether Iain Duncan Smith and Richard Desmond have ever met, but they certainly work to help each other.  Desmond is the owner of Channel 5 and the Daily Express, and he uses both to demonise the poor.  After Channel 4 had screened the infamous Benefits Street, it was Channel 5 which hosted the "debate" on the subject.  Now, Desmond's channel is making a series of its own.  No title has been decided, they say (but the makers of Benefits Street said the same, and they lied) but it's about the benefits "culture", and they are in the process of filming.
We can see how they go about it through the protests of one of the cities unwillingly involved.  Hull has a lot to be encouraged about at the moment, in the midst of one of the worst unemployment rates in the country.  But now the film-makers have been leafletting the poorer estates seeking gullible people to take part, and have already done some filming.  Local councillors are furious, but seem helpless to prevent it.
Of course people should have the freedom to take part, if they are given accurate information and understand what they're doing.  But what about the people who live in the area and have not consented to this?  Benefits Street led to children who live in James Turner St being bullied.  Other residents felt that they had been stigmatised simply for their address.  Many of those who did take part believed that they were misled by the film-makers.  If there's a redress in law, none of them can afford to sue.
I have a suggestion.  Send Katie Hopkins to live on one of these estates for a while.  I'd watch that.