Thursday, 28 March 2013

More unravelling

I'm sorry to post only links to news items, but they are coming thick and fast, and showing how Iain Duncan Smith's grand plans continue to unravel.
First, there's an article on the Guardian's website with more evidence that the "There are no targets and no league tables" claim doesn't hold water.  It includes a link to the "scorecard" - a league table by any other name - and full accounts by two different JCP staff on how the system works.  The figures are interesting; 85,000 sanctions in January alone, with 24,000 of these coming from Work Programme providers.  So are Duncan Smith, Mark Hoban, Lord Freud and Neil Couling (the Jobcentre Plus manager) knowingly telling porkies?  Probably not.  They have never issued an instruction explicitly saying, "You must punish at least x per cent of claimants to get them 'off-flow'".  The pressure is more subtle than that.  But the effect is the same.  What's needed now is a full response from Duncan Smith
Universal Credit is also in trouble.  A report tonight (see the Independent) says that the trial of this will be scaled down.  There were going to be 4 areas piloting it in a month's time; now it's going to be just one, a jobcentre in Ashton under Lyne.  They don't have the experience, training or computer programmes in place to do any more at present.  Embarrassing.
And with the bedroom tax starting on Monday, the National Housing Federation, representing 1,200 housing associations, says that it will hurt the most vulnerable (also in the Independent).  There's no need for it in many areas, and nowhere for the displaced to move to.  They also point out that where disabled people have to move out of specially adapted homes, it will cost millions more to adapt their new homes.  This all comes on top of Frank Field MP telling councils to brick up doors or knock down walls to avoid the tax, and Nottingham apparently re-designating lots of properties as one-bedroom.
One wonders whether any of the media have invited Iain Duncan Smith to be interviewed, particularly by someone who knows the subject.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The drip, drip of bad publicity

I've congratulated the Guardian on its coverage of the wreckage of welfare "reform"; and now we have to add the BBC to the roll of honour.  The TV news may not carry much, but its website has several items of interest.  The first was a story yesterday by the excellent Mark Easton, headlined "Foodbanks used by thousands of jobless, figures show".  The jobcentres have referred about 6,000 people to the foodbanks in the last year.  You would think that would be a matter of some shame for Iain Duncan Smith, but no.  "Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said directing people to food banks was a short-term method of alleviating their financial problems.  'I've said to Job Centres, sort their problem out. If it is a case of food banks, Job Centres are meant to help passport people through to that so they can get them stable, so they can deal with their problems.'"  He also said that he's proud of the fact that his government changed the law to allow the jobcentres to refer people to the foodbanks.  "What would you prefer?" he asked.
Also yesterday, the Guardian reported that an attempt to get the issue of targets for sanctions included in the forthcoming enquiry into the sanctions regime was defeated in the House of Lords.  The article is well worth reading for the peculiar argument of Lord Freud.
An even more worrying report in the Guardian says that "food stamps" will arrive in Britain next month.  Vouchers in the form of payment cards will replace emergency loans.  For those who don't know the history, there was once something called an emergency grant, for those on benefits who needed one-off items like a bed or a cooker.  They were replaced by loans, thus shattering the notion that there was a minimum income which people needed to live on.  Now even that is gone, replaced by these "vouchers" which will block their exchange for alcohol, cigarettes or gambling.  Perhaps this is why Alec Shelbrooke was persuaded to withdraw his private member's bill to pay all benefits via such cards.  "Don't worry, Alec," the minister might have said.  "We're bringing it in gradually."
The BBC reports a pronouncement by Frank Field MP.  He used to be a welfare minister in the Labour government, and came up with some pretty drastic ideas for welfare reform which were never implemented.  Now, he's advising social housing landlords to brick up doors and knock down walls to get rid of spare rooms, and so get round the "bedroom tax".  It's an interesting idea.
Today the BBC has published an excellent article on its website detailing all the new benefit changes.  Essential reading.  It also reports that a judicial review of the housing benefit changes is to go ahead after the government lost an attempt to stop it.
Finally, Iain Duncan Smith attended an event in Edinburgh hosted by Capita to deliver a speech on pensions reform.  He was heckled by a determined protester, Willie Black, who called him a "parasite" and a "ratbag".  You can read about it in the Guardian or watch it on the BBC's website.  Enjoy.
I wonder if the BBC's coverage has sparked more formal complaints from Mr Duncan Smith.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Sanctions - shocking story

I'm obliged to an anonymous comment which gives a link to an interview in a phone-in programme on Radio Merseyside.  It can be found 2.06.50 in.  A caller said that he is on the Work Programme with A4e and was supposed to be doing jobsearch today with them.  But he got a phone call from his son's school to say that the 10-year-old was ill, feverish.  As he collected his sick child from school he got a phone call from A4e to say that he would be sanctioned.  The interviewer established that this meant he would lose his JSA but he didn't know whether it would be for weeks or months.  The woman from A4e, said the client, was almost sympathetic, but said she had no choice.  This accords with the provider guidance issued by the DWP which says that a "sanction doubt" must be raised whenever someone fails to comply, e.g. misses an appointment, and cannot be rescinded if the explanation is accepted.  The interviewer, Roger Phillips, said that it was the responsibility of the DWP and the minister, and they would be following it up.  I hope we get to hear the response.

Earlier I had heard a short report on the BBC news by Mark Easton on the implications of Universal Credit. He spoke to a man in Glasgow who had been sanctioned (and is therefore destitute) because he failed to do jobsearch by computer; he can't use a computer.  Easton pointed out that under UC all clients will have to use a computer.  He put the problem to Iain Duncan Smith, who said that 90% of people can now use a computer.  A worker in the constituency (I didn't catch from what organisation) said that two thirds of the people there can't, and anyway using one in a public place like a library was not acceptable for such private business.  Cut back to IDS who said that they will discuss it with councils and if necessary "make adjustments".

Monday, 25 March 2013

Who cares?

If it weren't for the Guardian we would know nothing about the retroactive legislation to save Iain Duncan Smith's face, nor the mealy-mouthed response of Labour.  We wouldn't have heard about the argument about sanctions.  Today, for instance, we read that the head of Jobcentre Plus, Neil Couling, has sent a letter to staff reminding them that "there are no national targets for applying sanctions and individual targets should not appear in performance agreements."  The article says, "Numerous jobcentre staff have contacted the Guardian since last Friday's story on targets for sanctions to claim such targets are part of the jobcentre culture. There may be a dispute about definitions that is fuelling the disjuncture about what is being said at national level, and what is reported at local level."  
But we learn that 40-odd Labour MPs had the gumption to vote against the bill – good for them. Labour's line is that they have secured an enquiry into sanctions. Well, unless they ask the people who have been, and are being, affected by these punishments, any enquiry will be at best pointless and at worst a whitewash.
Why are the rest of the media so silent on the issue?  I did hear the legislation raised briefly on BBC Radio 4's The Westminster Hour last night, but it was skated over very quickly.  The rest of the press has no interest at all.  I think it's because it's complicated.  The Guardian has a political editor, Patrick Wintour, who  knows the subject; and the Guardian is "left wing".  Occasionally the Independent publishes a considered story.  But that's about it.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Targets - what about the Work Programme?

The revelations about targets for punishing the unemployed were raised in Parliament yesterday, as the Guardian published more evidence.  They've been receiving information from Jobcentre staff around the country showing how widespread the practice is.  "It was also reported that staff in a jobcentre in the West Midlands were this week told that the team who submitted the most Stricter Benefit Regime 'Refusal of Employment' referrals would be rewarded with Easter eggs. The staff were told there was drive on this particular type of sanction."
Labour's Liam Byrne asked about all this in the Commons.  Now, Labour is in a difficult position.  They are refusing to oppose the retroactive legislation to legitimise the £130m wrongly taken from people in sanctions.  Apparently the DWP is setting up an independent enquiry into the use of sanctions in return for this co-operation.  But Byrne asked the question, and Iain Duncan Smith repeated that there are no targets; and the head of JCP has issued reminders.  The original leaked email came from Walthamstow, and the MP for that area, Stella Creasey, after reading it out, asked who was responsible?  IDS repeated that there are no targets.  Another Tory, David Gauke, congratulated IDS on cutting the benefits bill.
So far this has all been about Jobcentres.  No one has mentioned Work Programme providers.  There will be no official targets, of course.  But if staff at the DWP have been ignoring their ministerial bosses and issuing league tables and incentives to make people destitute, it seems unlikely that they've confined this practice to Jobcentres.

Friday, 22 March 2013

More from the Guardian on targets for sanctions

Well done to the Guardian for keeping on the case of the sanctions targets and league tables, because no one else seems to be interested in what should be seen as hugely important.
Yesterday the paper revealed a leaked email from a Jobcentre manager proving that there were targets for punishing people by stopping their benefits.  Mark Hoban denied there were any such targets.  Today the Guardian follows this up with a denial from Iain Duncan Smith.  "There are no targets for any sanctions whatsoever", he says, and staff will be reminded of that.  He said that "the order not to employ targets had gone out to jobcentre staff on innumerable occasions".
There's a sense of deja vu about this.  A full year ago the Guardian revealed that there were targets for sanctions.  IDS said that the report was "claptrap" but then the DWP admitted that it was happening.  So twelve months on, it's still happening.  And Duncan Smith and Hoban either know it is and are not telling the truth; or they genuinely didn't know and their civil servants are running rings round them.  Either way, the victims are ignored - except by the Guardian, which has a short film about what happens to them.
There's a parallel with the denials that there are targets for Atos to get people onto ESA, despite all the evidence to the contrary.  Maybe there's a problem with IDS's definition of "targets".

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Targets for sanctions

I've just seen this article on the Guardian website, headlined "Jobcentre was set targets for benefits sanctions".  A leaked email proves that, despite Mark Hoban's denials, there are league tables for Jobcentres' "success" in punishing people, and the information to compile these tables could only have come from the DWP.  The author of the email, a JC manager, says that she has been warned to "show an improvement", and that sanctioning only 6 people out of 300 is "not credible".
It's embarrassing for the DWP and for Hoban.  But, as usual, only the Guardian has published it.  Do tweet the article if you can.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

"Misleading and insulting"?

That's what Mark Hoban calls criticism of the "work experience" schemes.  He's written a piece for the Telegraph explaining away the need for emergency legislation and justifying what most call "workfare" with the usual buzz phrases.  I won't bore you with them.  As always, the comments under the article are much more informative than the article itself.

But the Left Foot Forward website has an interesting piece called "Five things the government won't tell you about workfare".  What the five points amount to is that the schemes don't help people get into work.  So all that Hoban and the government are left with is what the last administration actually called "work for your benefit", and they are happy to cite the findings of a survey, that 85% of respondents believe that unemployed people should do just that.  So who is being misleading?

Labour, by the way, has decided to abstain in the vote on the emergency legislation (which stops the government having to pay back the £130m they took from claimants while the schemes were illegal).  There are a lot of Labour people unhappy about that.  But there's talk of Labour pressing for an enquiry into the sanctions regime.

As a postscript, a piece on the BBC News website reports a housing association, Eastlands Homes, sending a disgusting newsletter to its tenants.  They asked people affected by the welfare cuts, "Can you really afford Sky, cigarettes, bingo, drinks and other non essentials?"  They've apologised.  But it's very telling that someone responsible for the newsletter could put it out in the first place.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Will we get more results?

We were told that more Work Programme performance data would be published this month.  I would be very surprised if that happens.  It would be only four more months after the last lot, and one cannot imagine that there's been such a dramatic improvement that the government will be keen to publish.  Without that improvement, A4e and the other providers will be in real difficulties.  The attachment fees were just about keeping them ticking over, and we know that A4e were in trouble a year ago.  So, will we soon hear about contracts being ended?
While we wait and wonder, you might care to read a couple of DWP documents.  There's an impact assessment justifying the legislation to ensure that they don't have to pay back the £130m wrongly taken from people who were sanctioned while the compulsory work schemes were illegal.  Then you could look at a number of documents which tell "the DWP reform story", downloadable from their website.  They call it a "communications toolkit".
Last week we were told that under Universal Credit, enquiries would have to be made via an 0845 phone number - in other words, expensively.  In fact, this was raised a year ago by the Mirror.  Last November the DWP confirmed this but said that "free claimant access phones" would be available in "a large number" of Jobcentres.  So that's all right, then.
One other item: there's an article about the Trussell Trust and food banks on the Independent's website.  What caught my attention was a comment by someone calling himself Marchie1053 - scroll down and find it.    He draws attention to the close links between the Trussell Trust and the Conservative party.  Interesting.  

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

A brief history of "social housing"

Forgive me for straying well away from the main focus of this blog.   In the current controversy over the bedroom tax or "spare room subsidy" no one seems to recall the history of what is now contemptuously called social housing.

A hundred years ago the large majority of the working class lived in private rented housing.  There were charities which had built "model dwellings"; some big employers like George Cadbury and James Reckitt had built estates for their workers.  But for most, housing was overcrowded and often squalid.  An inside toilet was an unheard-of luxury.  People moved house surprisingly frequently, perhaps doing a "moonlight flit" to escape rent arrears.  There were no regulations to protect tenants.  A few councils began to construct decent housing for rent.  But the real impetus for this came with the end of the Great War in 1918.  A big building programme was intended to create "homes fit for heroes" and the age of the council house began.  There was an added surge after the destruction of World War II.

Millions of us grew up in council houses.  There was no stigma attached to this.  The vast majority of tenants were working, but would never be able to afford the deposit on a mortgage.  Even if they could, most had a horror of taking on that sort of debt.  They were content to pay their rent and let the landlord take care of repairs and maintenance.  In the 1970s government encouraged other housing providers to enter the field, as housing associations.

And then came Margaret Thatcher.  A whole new lexicon was created, reflecting the free-market vision.  Anyone with aspirations would want to "get on the housing ladder".  Only life's losers would want to live in rented accommodation, and only those with special needs should be in "social housing".  Thatcher decided to dismantle the whole structure (and, in the process, destroy the power of local councils) by forcing the sell-off of houses at discount prices to their tenants.  Councils were not allowed to use the proceeds of the sales to build more housing, so the stock declined much faster than HAs could supply the deficiency.  People were encouraged to take on massive debt, and twenty-somethings were given a dozen or more mortgages for buy-to-let properties.  The only people who could get the tenancies of social housing were those perceived to be unable to afford to go private but in urgent need.

It has been a resounding victory for the political right.  As in other areas of our national life, a century of progress has been rolled back.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Can we afford Iain Duncan Smith?

Yet another policy of the Work and Pensions Secretary has had to be altered after a period in which he has refused to listen.  The "bedroom tax" is still a disaster.  But Iain Duncan Smith has conceded changes to allow foster carers and the parents of armed forces personnel to keep their "spare" bedrooms for when they are needed, without financial penalty.  But confusion still reigns, as they're now saying (I'm watching BBC's Newsnight) that the money is coming out of the discretionary fund.  And as the Guardian points out, it's only 3 weeks until this all kicks in.  And despite claims from Cameron and other Tories that the families of disabled children and others are exempt, that isn't true.  It's up to the local authorities to find enough from the one-off inadequate fund to cover those who apply.
As we pointed out last month, this is just the latest in a long list of messes which Duncan Smith has created. And another is looming.  A pilot of Universal Credit, in which social housing tenants on housing benefit were paid the HB directly rather than it going to the landlord, has resulted in a big increase in people defaulting on the rent.
Can you imagine keeping your job if you did it as consistently badly as IDS is doing his?  The country can't afford to have this man in any position of power.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Thank God for the bishops

It's Sunday.  So it's appropriate that the letter from the Church of England bishops condemning what the government is doing to welfare benefits should be in the news today, together with a statement from the new Archbishop of Canterbury.  Welby chose to focus on children.  According to the Telegraph, he said, "As a civilised society, we have a duty to support those among us who are vulnerable and in need. When times are hard, that duty should be felt more than ever, not disappear or diminish. It is essential that we have a welfare system that responds to need and recognises the rising costs of food, fuel and housing. The current benefits system does that, by ensuring that the support struggling families receive rises with inflation. These changes will mean it is children and families who will pay the price for high inflation, rather than the Government.”
On TV, the spokesman for the bishops was the Bishop of Ripon.  He was pugnacious, vehement and in command of the figures.  He slated the use of derogatory language like "scroungers" to describe those forced to claim benefits.
Iain Duncan Smith has had to respond.  According to Sky News he is "a committed Christian"; no wonder that on TV he looked a bit hurt and bemused.  But he repeated what he obviously believes, and which he spelled out in the Independent:  “This is about fairness. People who are paying taxes, working very hard, have hardly seen any increases in their salary and yet, under the last government, the welfare bill rose by some 60 per cent to £200bn.  That means they have to pay for that under their taxes, which is simply not fair.  That same system trapped huge numbers, millions, in dependency – dependent on the state, unable, unwilling to work.  What is either moral or fair about that? That’s my challenge to the bishop.  There is nothing moral or fair about a system that I inherited that trapped people in welfare dependency, some one in every five households has no work, that’s not the way to end child poverty. Getting people back to work is the way to end child poverty. That’s the moral and fair way to do it.”
His argument is ridiculous.  By far the largest part of the welfare bill is pensions.  People are without work because they can't get work.  Nothing he and his government are doing is going to help that situation, and pushing individuals and families into deeper poverty and hopelessness, dependent on charity for food and eventually homeless, is going to conjure jobs which pay wages which people can live on.
I don't want to get embroiled in religious arguments.  Throughout the centuries Christians (as well as adherents of other faiths) have been able to persuade themselves that anything they wanted to do could find justification in Holy Writ.  I could point IDS to Matthew chap.25 v. 31 onwards; and then he might try the epistle of James, chap.5.  But I suspect that it wouldn't shake his conviction or trouble his conscience.
But thank God for the bishops.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

"Enlighted women"?

There's a very odd little item on A4e's own website, on its news page.  It's headed "Supporting International Womens [sic] Day with Jessica Lee MP".  (Lee is a Conservative, by the way.)  Under that it simply says, "A4e are delighted to welcome Jessica Lee to our Derby office, on International Womens [sic] Day, to help empower our female customers to aim high!  The day will consist of a series of talks from our panel of enlighted [sic] women."  There's an awkward link to an agenda.
It really is time that A4e improved this sort of thing.  They have a new website, but apparently still no proofreader.
(In case you're wondering, it should be Women's.)

Friday, 1 March 2013

Universal Jobmatch mandatory from Monday 4 March

Thanks to the poster who pointed us to this on the PCS union site.  From next Monday, 4 March, it will be compulsory to sign up to Universal Jobmatch.  The DWP is supposed to be announcing it today.  You should note the following:

  • It is supposed to be at the discretion of the adviser rather than a blanket approach.  But you can be punished if you "unreasonably refuse", so assume that every claimant will be forced to sign up.
  • Because of EU laws on cookies, you cannot be forced to sign up on your own home computer - so don't.  Use the computers in the Jobcentre, the WP provider office or a public access place such as a library.  The PCS says that fixes are being worked out to enable cookies to be removed from home computers, and when that's done they will make it compulsory to register there (assuming you have a computer at home).
  • It is still the case that you don't have to give your adviser access to your account.  Don't tick the box.  You are allowed to provide alternative proof of sign-up and jobsearch, such as screenprints.
If you are going to be affected by this, I recommend printing off the PCS page.

The law of unintended consequences

We have written about the likely consequences of the "bedroom tax", the deduction from the housing benefit paid to people in social housing who are considered to be "under-occupying", i.e. have spare bedrooms.  There is a severe shortage of smaller accommodation in the social housing sector for them to move into, and falling back on private rented housing will cost more in housing benefit.  But now we hear that Universal Credit is going to cut the amount of private rented accommodation available.  According to the Telegraph, the Nationwide, the biggest buy-to-let mortgage provider, is not going to offer any more loans to landlords.  The reasoning is that under UC the housing benefit is paid not to the landlord but to the claimant; so the likelihood is that a lot of rent won't get paid and so landlords will default on their mortgages.  Net result - a lot of homeless people.  I don't think that's quite what Iain Duncan Smith intended.
And there's another hole which the government has dug for themselves, or rather for local councils.  Those councils have had their support for means-tested council tax benefit cut by £500m, and many councils have had to charge people on benefits who currently don't pay anything.  The Guardian reports that up to 84% of those hit with the charge are not likely to pay it.  While some councils will pursue people for payment, others will consider that the cost of going after what are small sums is just not worth it.
Another snippet of news: new figures from the ONS show that in 2012 a quarter of all workers earned less than £12,800 a year.
Finally, hats off to a group of churches, the Methodist and United Reformed Churches, the Church of Scotland and the Baptist Union, who have published a study called The Lies we Tell Ourselves.  They accuse the government of deliberately misusing evidence and statistics to misrepresent the plight of the poor. There's a summary on the BBC's website.  (Be careful, BBC, they'll be complaining about bias again.)