Friday, 30 August 2013

Hatred and the Express

I'm increasingly baffled by the Daily Express and its editor Hugh Whittow.  He appears to have three main preoccupations: 1) the death of Princess Diana  2) exaggerated weather forecasts and  3) hatred of all benefits claimants.  If he could get all three into one story he would no doubt be delighted.
That hatred of people who claim benefits - and "hatred" really is not too strong a word - is now descending into lies calculated to make targets out of the sick, the disabled and the unemployed.  There are writers (I won't call them journalists) on the paper who are happy to cobble stories which are becoming increasingly bizarre.
Take Alison Little and Jan Disley.  They produced a piece yesterday which conflates two bits of "news", with no justification whatever.  One was about a fraudster who faces jail for claiming around £94k that she wasn't entitled to.  Quite right too.  Nobody, least of all genuine claimants, would ever defend her behaviour.  But how's this for a headline: "Benefits Britain shame: Welfare cheat swindles £94k while 3.5m homes have NO ONE working".  Not only does the one have nothing to do with the other.  The Express has cited what was actually claimed as good news for the government by everyone else.  And in its first three sentences the writers manage to imply that the workless household figures are getting worse, "out of control", when in fact they're improving.  The Indus Delta site has a neat summary, taken from the ONS figures.  There's a sort of acknowledgement of this by the Express: "Although the number of families dependent on welfare was very slightly down from last year's 3.7m, opponents of Britain's benefits culture said the official figures were still extremely worrying."  And those opponents include, unsurprisingly, the the boss of the odious and misnamed Taxpayers' Alliance.  So, whatever it takes to stoke the hatred is permissible.
But that's not enough.  Today a writer called Giles Sheldrick produced another bizarre piece: "scarcely-believable excuses of benefit cheats revealed".  (Note that "scarcely-believable".  Not brave enough to say outright that they were lying.)  The piece is scattered with the familiar hate phrases; "generous handouts" and "lifelong layabouts" are just two.  They talk about "some of Britain's most deceitful individuals hellbent on conning the welfare state out of £1.2bn", without any explanation of where that figure comes from.  They issue "a fresh call to hard-working and honest families to 'shop' those who view welfare as a limitless cash machine", linking dishonesty and unemployment.  And, despicably, they say that IDS's reforms come from "frustration that a generation of lifelong layabouts trapped on benefits creates an annual £208bn welfare bill - £1 of every £3 raise in tax revenue".  Note the carelessness of the verb "trapped" when that's not what he means.  But, more importantly, note the way in which the benefits bill, which includes pensions and working tax credits, is said to be spent entirely on layabouts.
We heard this week that attacks, verbal and physical, on disabled people are increasing as morons, stirred up by this sort of vicious and dishonest writing, accuse them of being scroungers and worse.  That's the tip of the iceberg.  Hatred begets hate crimes.  Why Whittow is doing this I can't imagine.  Maybe it's down to his paper's owner, Richard Desmond.  But the freedom of the press doesn't cover the freedom to spread this sort of vicious dishonesty.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

A4e in "mass email blunder"

Now here's a story about A4e.  It's appeared today on the Plymouth local newspaper site, but happened more than a month ago.  A4e has the contract in Plymouth for what used to be called direct payments for social care and is now known as Independent Living Services.  Most councils chose to keep this in-house, but A4e won a number of contracts to deliver the service.  This story concerns an administrative blunder when a mass email to 157 people included, by mistake, an attachment listing the personal details of service users, i.e. people with disabilities.  They've said sorry and done all the necessary things, but the council isn't best pleased, and neither are the service users and their relatives.
It's not the first time A4e has leaked data by mistake.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

The Jamie Oliver row

This may sound well off-topic, but bear with me.
I used to like Jamie Oliver but I grew weary of him.  Not his fault, really.  He's done a good job with his Fifteen Foundation, and with his campaign to improve school food, and lots of people like his cooking and buy his books.  I tend to go off people when they sign an advertising contract, but that's just me.  However, he has waded into a controversy he should have stayed well clear of.
If you don't know what I'm talking about you should read this Telegraph article first.  Those of you who are unemployed will note the old cliche about television sets.  If you are on benefits YOU SHOULD NOT HAVE A TV SET.  Never mind that you bought it when you were working.  Never mind that it was given to you.  Give it away.  You're living on hand-outs, you don't deserve it.
He's promoting a TV show on "money-saving meals".  (Ironically, you won't be able to see it if you've got rid of your TV!)  He "urged families to go to their local market rather than supermarket".  (What do you mean, you don't have a local market?)  The Child Poverty Action Group is allowed to make a measured but very sensible response.  Not all the 234 comments are quite so sensible.
Then read this response in the Guardian.  This angry piece by Alex Andreou attracted nearly 10 times as many comments, and I'm not surprised.  It's a very articulate rant, and I agree with him.  Another response, which I also agree with, comes from Joanna Blythman in the Telegraph again.  She focusses on the food question, and she makes the point that, "It may indeed be possible to live on £10 of food a week, but in an affluent Western economy, why should anyone have to?"
Just in case he hadn't got enough publicity, Oliver gave an interview to Good Housekeeping magazine in which he opines that migrants are needed to staff all the restaurants because they are tougher than young British workers, who can't do the long hours.  The Independent headlines this view as "Young Brits are lazy", while the Express, of course, loves it.
It's all part of the pattern; the picture is painted of feckless, idle people.  There's a row, but no one's mind is changed.  And TV companies and wealthy celebrities feed off other people's misery.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Still watching

I was taken to task recently for not writing about A4e on a blog devoted to A4e.  As I said at the time, there is no news about A4e.  But, when you think about it, that in itself is noteworthy.
I started the original website (which A4e got closed down) and then this blog because A4e had a very high profile, and I believed, drawing on my own experience, that the reality didn't match the hype.  And the reality needed to be out there.  Others obviously agreed.  But the tide of publicity rolled on, as did the number of contracts scooped up by the company.  Allegations of fraud had little impact, except to raise the profile even higher.  Emma Harrison revelled in all the publicity, basking in the glow of her own celebrity, collecting her CBE and being appointed adviser to government.  Her fall from grace came suddenly and unexpectedly, and the new bosses had to pick up the pieces.  That meant seeking as little publicity as possible, a strategy that was common sense as well as, surely, the advice of the PR person brought in to help, George Bridges of Quiller.
It worked for a while.  But then Harrison was lured back into the limelight by Channel 4 News, and gave that car crash of an interview.  Less spectacular, but of no help at all, was the behaviour of Jonty Olliff-Cooper, with his offensive tweets.  But the publicity dies down, and no one apparently cares any more.
But it's a different world out there for A4e.  The competition is much fiercer in those sectors they used to find most profitable.  The contracts aren't just handed to them any more.  Companies have come in from overseas, and the really big guns here - Serco, G4S, Capita - have spread their tentacles into what was once A4e's core business.  The smaller-scale stuff from local councils has dried up.  The last financial results available, as of March 2012, showed A4e in trouble.
So we carry on watching A4e, wondering if the company will even survive.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Is anyone surprised?

This story appeared today on the BBC news website - "Swansea firm frustrated at system after job advert".  While the employer in Swansea was frustrated, few "job-seekers" will be surprised.  Why were people from as far away as Glasgow and Peterborough applying for warehouse jobs in Swansea?  The account doesn't mention that the jobs were on UJM, but we can assume that they were.  Perhaps they were coming up as local jobs, even to those many miles away, because that's what happens.  Certainly, of the 100 applicants many would simply be applying because they had to, with no intention of moving from, say, Glasgow, in order to take the job.  The story suggests that there were no more unemployed people in Swansea, which is unlikely.  We are not told anything about the jobs or the pay.  Nor are we told whether the people she short-listed were then told that they couldn't claim the costs of attending the interview.  A spokesperson for the DWP (must be a woman, or they wouldn't have used that term) said the usual things about "tough new penalties" for those failing to turn up for interviews.
A curious thing about this story is that it assumes that it's the jobcentres which are responsible, when it's more likely to be Work Programme providers.  But one thing you can be certain of - the system of forcing people to apply for a quota of jobs won't change.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Four stages of deceit

It's very noticeable that the government now has four ways of deceiving us over figures which ought to show the effects of their actions.

  1. Spin.  We've been used to that for many years.  It means that you publish the figures but play down the negative, never mentioning it, and play up what look like the positives.  We saw a very good example of this with the second year Work Programme figures.  A week before their publication, the industry was encouraged to put out a raw figure of how many "jobs" had been secured, and this was all the politicians talked about, ignoring the fact that, as a percentage of the total on the programme, this was way down on the minimum targets.
  2. Lie.  This can be done in many ways, which don't actually look like lying.  There was Osborne's claim to have created half a million private sector jobs.  This was untrue.  The figure included thousands who were unemployed and on benefits but doing mandatory work activity.  It also included everybody working in FE colleges; they were simply reclassified from the public to the private sector.  But the lie was repeated ad nauseam and the truth drowned out.  Then there's Iain Duncan Smith's habit of linking unconnected facts and figures to arrive at a picture he "believes" (wants) to be correct.  
  3. Don't publish.  This has become a popular method of deceit.  The publication of the first year's WP data was delayed for as long as they dared, in the hopes that another couple of months would produce a figure which could be successfully spun.  It didn't work that time.  But now we have an apparently indefinite delay on the publication of the sanctions data.  No plausible reason has been given for this, so we have to assume that they simply want to suppress the figures.
  4. Don't collect.  This appears to be the latest trick.  We read on Sunday in the Mirror that IDS has dropped the rule requiring Jobcentres to collect data on why they are giving people food bank vouchers.  The Labour MP Dave Watts says that this is in order to hide the fact that the DWP often fails to process benefits claims within the regulation 16 days.  But "the DWP said the rule was axed as councils now have more responsibility for giving emergency help."  This is patent nonsense.  
Are these four methods sufficient to manipulate the truth in the way the government wishes, or will there be more?

Friday, 16 August 2013

Helpless - and furious

I feel increasingly helpless.  I'm getting more and more comments, often on old posts, from people who are desperate because they, or someone in their family, has had their benefits stopped.  It's heart-rending, and there's virtually nothing I can do except advise them to go to the CAB.
The situation is made very clear in an article in the Observer online today by the food critic Jay Rayner about "Food Bank Britain".  He doesn't just focus on the Trussell Trust, although they feature.  He also looks at the Real Aid charity in Hull.  The experience is the same.  And Chris Johns of Oxfam's UK Poverty Programme is clear why it's happening.  It's not just changing benefits provision, he says, but "the way government agencies temporarily remove benefits for perceived misdemeanours: a failure to sign the right paperwork, or apply for the right training scheme."  And then the same agency that sanctioned them gives them a food bank voucher.  In Fulham there's a woman getting food from the Trussell Trust who is her husband's full-time carer and has three children.  The benefits agency discovered an overpayment of £600 in 2009, they insist (although the woman says she would have noticed) and have stopped their benefits for a month to recoup it.  (Just as an aside, it used to be the case that overpayments couldn't be reclaimed if the mistake was not made by the client.)  Other cases are cited.  In Hull, Real Aid don't use vouchers, but charge £1.50 for the food.  A lot of people actually prefer this.  And they are giving the help to people who are working or who are pensioners, because they don't have enough money to buy food.
The article cites the claims of Lord Freud, who doesn't accept that the increase in the use of food banks has anything to do with increased need.
The evidence is overwhelming, but the government doesn't care.  It still refuses to publish the data on sanctions.  Why?

And then we get this.  The most disgusting, lying, vile piece rubbish that the Express has managed to come up with, in collaboration with the equally disgusting Iain Duncan Smith.  What is there to say?  It's a torrent of lies, of words designed specifically and unashamedly to lie.  I am too furious to be coherent about it at the moment.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Confusion - and a rant from IDS

Are Tesco and Next importing foreign workers because they cost less than British ones?  It's the claim by Labour MP Chris Bryant, indignantly denied by the firms concerned, and it's all a bit confused at the moment.  Many of us have little doubt that Bryant is right in general; but it's necessary to get the details absolutely right.
That's never been a consideration for Iain Duncan Smith.  He has penned an extraordinary rant in the Mail today.  The headline is: "For those eyeballing benefits as a one-way ticket to easy street, I have a wake-up call for you: those days are over! Says IAIN DUNCAN SMITH".  That in itself is enough to get jaws dropping among benefits claimants.  But the bizarre statements have yet to come.  Did you know that "there are 4,000 single people making more in benefits than many individual people would earn from work"?  Just try working out what that means.  You'll notice that there's no mention of the fact that this is all down to the cost of rents.  But IDS wants Mail readers to know that by the end of September those people will be subject to a new cap of £18,200.  Then there's the Claimant Commitment" which "transforms the relationship between the claimant and the system.  Claimants will sign an agreement to undertake certain activities in order to get their benefits in return.  Our advisers have the power to sanction people who don't uphold their part of the bargain.  No longer can people just turn up to claim benefits with no onus on them to better their situation."
What can one say to that?  Does he not know that the current system is already exactly what he describes?  And why won't he publish the sanctions figures?  Well, probably, but it's not truth or accuracy which matter, it's feeding the prejudices of the public at large.  And that seems to be the case with yet another poverty entertainment show tonight.  Channel 4, which once did such a good job with Benefit Busters, now prefers to give us a series which harks back to the start of the welfare state in 1949 and see how today's unemployed would fare.  The Mail, of course, has no doubt.  It uses the term "handouts", which had no place in 1940s thinking.  It says that "benefits were originally conceived as a temporary helping hand in times of trouble, not a lifestyle choice".  There's that phrase again, the lie which says that all unemployed people have made a choice to be so.  I won't be watching.
Duncan Smith's past is coming back to haunt him, and I'm starting to understand why he hates the BBC so much.  Well before the scandal broke over MPs' expenses, there was a lesser scandal of MPs employing their relatives on the government payroll, often for doing nothing at all.  One of the MPs caught up in this was IDS himself, who was leader of his party at the time.  The BBC's Michael Crick discovered that he was paying his wife, Betsy, £15k a year.  "Betsygate" was uncomfortable for IDS, but it was worse for some of his staff.  A blog points us to evidence given to Parliament by his aide Dr Vanessa Gearson in October 2003.  It's long and detailed, but well worth a read.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Zero hours and food banks

It's the silly season, when the politicians and lots of the journalists are on holiday so there's no news.  But life goes on for the rest of us.  And there have been two topics still being covered.  The first is the prevalence of zero hours contracts.  From an original estimate of 250,000 people on these, it keeps climbing.  We now hear that Sports Direct, Burger King and Domino's Pizza, and now Curzon and Everyman cinemas all employ the bulk of their staff on this basis.  The BBC tried its best to present a "balanced" view - it works well for lots of people - but it's increasingly obvious that zero hours works principally for the employer and leaves vast numbers of workers struggling to survive.
And then there are food banks.  The Independent published an excellent piece yesterday headed "Summer of Hunger".  Here's something which government ministers would never think of; the school holidays mean that the one good meal a day which the children of struggling families is no longer available, and that pushes the family over the edge.  The Trussell Trust gives detailed figures for the rise in numbers seeking help, and they make an interesting observation.  "We see a lot of people who've had their benefit sanctioned in ways which, on the face of it, seem inappropriately punitive.  We meet people who've had their benefits stopped because they were late for an appointment."  Remember that the DWP won't publish the figures for sanctions, claiming with ever-decreasing credibility that they're doing quality checks on the data.  A development officer for the Trust in the north west is convinced that the doubling of need in that region is down to welfare reform of various kinds.  They give figures; eight years ago the proportion of people referred to them because of benefit problems was 20% - it's now 52%.  But the DWP is still in denial.  A spokesman said, "The benefits system supports millions of people who are on low incomes or unemployed and there is no evidence that welfare reforms are linked to increased use of food banks."  That is patent nonsense, and they know it.

Saturday, 3 August 2013


I'm sure we were all looking forward to hearing Iain Duncan Smith questioned about his and his department's use of statistics on 4 September.  But according to a blog, this is not now going to happen.  The writer quotes Sheila Gilmore MP, a member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee as saying that the Department's Annual Report isn't ready, and since the main purpose of the meeting was to examine that, it's had to be postponed.  How fortunate for IDS.  As fortunate, perhaps, as the fact that they're still examining the quality of the sanctions data, so can't publish that either.  At what point do we conclude that facts are being deliberately suppressed?
One fact that hasn't been suppressed (it's been leaked) is an internal survey of civil servants working on Universal Credit.  The Guardian has the details.  Staff talk about terrible management, poor decision-making, no communication and dishonesty.  It's utterly damning.
Then there's ATOS.  It's been disclosed that the company has been paid £754 million for its sickness and disability testing since 2005.  £754m.  That's your money and my money.  The Independent reports that Lord Alton has got the National Audit Office to investigate the contracts, calling them "a licence to print money".
So-called zero hours contracts are not IDS's responsibility, but the consequences of them are.  Yet it's only the Lib Dems, including Nick Clegg and Vince Cable, who are expressing concern.  The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has just upped its estimate of how many people are working on these terms to 250,000, but this is almost certainly too low.  Are people being forced to apply for, and take, these jobs under threat of sanctions?  
Finally, an unusual reference to A4e in a regional paper.  The company still occasionally gets PR pieces in local papers, but this one, in the Oxford Mail, won't please them.  It quotes a 27-year-old woman who says that the WP wasn't very effective for her, and her adviser had no time to spend with her.  She got help from the charity Crisis Skylight, whose CE says that the WP has been a huge disappointment, offering minimal support.  Strangely, the county's Tory MP, Sir Tony Baldry, doesn't completely disagree.  He acknowledges that the need in the area is for people with skills and qualifications, and they are not getting those.