Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The future of "welfare", part two

I've been putting off writing this.  It's easy enough to write about the history of social security, but the future is necessarily speculative.  And it becomes increasingly obvious that there may not be a future for welfare at all.  This appeared yesterday in an article in the Telegraph by Peter Oborne: "Iain Duncan Smith's brave and ambitious programme to reshape the welfare state along the lines envisaged by Beveridge 70 years ago is making some progress."  This is so nonsensical that one must assume that Oborne wasn't taught history at his public school.  Yet this is part of the narrative with which this government is destroying the whole concept of social security.  It will become, again, the punitive last resort of the 1834 Poor Laws.  Running it will be a profit opportunity for private companies, with no involvement of the tatters which remain of the public sector.  There will be a huge role for charities.  Universal Credit, if it ever happens, will signal the final killing-off of the idea of National Insurance.  Benefits, already no longer seen as a right, will cease in their present form.  Welfare will have been reformed out of existence.
This is not inevitable, unless a Conservative government comes in in 2015.  Even with a Labour government, though, the future looks precarious.  One hopeful sign is that some Labour thinkers have talked about returning to the contributory concept in social security.  I believe that this is essential.  Benefits, as of right, should be paid if the claimant has contributed over, say, 6 months in the preceding year; paid at a fairly high level for a limited period - again, say 6 months.  Once those contributions run out, then benefits should fall to a level set as the minimum someone needs to live on decently.  This minimum should be sacrosanct.  No one's income should fall below it.  There would have to be means-testing, but not of the old kind.  And "conditionality"?  Yes, there would have to be the condition that the claimant is looking for work, if that's possible.  Sickness and disabilities would attract the same minimum income but recognise additional needs.
Housing benefit is a huge cost, and it's money paid to landlords, not to the claimant.  There should obviously be a big push on building and buying more housing in the public sector.
And there should, equally obviously, be massive job creation.  That's not easy in a capitalist economy, but it could be done, through local authorities, for instance.  Unless there are jobs to go to, as we are seeing at the moment, long-term unemployment will remain high.
What we need is not tinkering around the edges.  Nor is it the kind of change which this government is engineering, based on personal aggrandisement and contempt.  We need an agreed set of principles on which to base a system which doesn't divide people into skivers and strivers.  Any thoughts?

Friday, 27 December 2013

.... and a happy New Year

While the more fortunate of us were tucking into our turkey on Christmas Day, even if it was courtesy of a charity in a homeless shelter, Iain Duncan Smith was composing a piece for the Daily Mail.  There will, it says, be "No hiding place for those who opt for a life on benefits".  He didn't have to think too hard about it.  All the familiar cliches and lies are there, like "lifestyle choice".  On the benefit cap, for instance, "around 19,000 who would potentially have been subject to the benefit cap have already moved into work".  That's two fingers up to the government's own statisticians who told him that the statement was dishonest.  But the main point of the piece is to trumpet the new scheme "that will require 6,000 jobseekers to spend 35 hours a week at a supervised jobsearch centre.  People who have been out of work for several years or those who are lacking motivation [my italics] will be required to spend up to six months looking for and applying for jobs in return for their benefits."
More dishonest twaddle.  This is about sanctioning as many people as possible as quickly as possible.  Even if they turn up on time and do as they're told, they'll be sanctioned for "lacking motivation".  Some will go into the cash-in-hand economy (which hurts the rest of us) and some will simply be homeless.  But it will give the repellent IDS the chance to say that he's got them to sign off.  There's no detail about who will run these centres, but they will certainly provide jobs for loads of security staff.
The Mail likes this stuff so much that it has an editorial comment on it.  The clever chappy who wrote it thinks that IDS's initiative "will doubtless provoke howls of indignation from the liberal establishment".  (Who are they, you may well ask.)  "It is a robust approach and there are those on the Left who will say it's cruel.  They said the same about the benefit cap, the 'bedroom tax', the unpaid work programme and universal benefit [sic]."  I could go on quoting, but it's too nauseating.
The lie about the numbers being driven to get a job by the benefit cap was published by the Telegraph on Christmas Eve, with elaborations and the statement from IDS that it had "pushed 250 people back into work every week".  (For those who are not clear why this is a lie, it was pointed out by the statisticians that there is constant "churn", some people coming off benefits and some coming on, and there is no way of knowing how many of those signed off as a direct result of the cap.)
More embarrassing for IDS (no, okay, he is never embarrassed) was the Christmas Eve news that 32,000 people had not received their benefits because of an "error" by the DWP.  Not to worry; if they rang up before 5.00 pm they would get the money within 3 hours.  Presumably, if they were lucky enough to hear about this, the unfortunate could phone a premium rate number -something which the government has now decreed should stop.  The DWP will have to give out private local rate numbers - a victory for Margaret Hodge and her Public Accounts Committee.
Boxing Day brought an interesting exclusive in the Independent.  Labour has decided that outsourcing public services is not necessarily a good thing.  They've recognised that the contracts don't provide better competition or drive down prices because "what we have in this country now is an oligopoly of a few companies that are not competing effectively and are providing poor value for money for the taxpayer."  Hallelujah!  Yes, Labour started it, but if they've now seen the light we can only rejoice.  Perhaps they'll also do something about the scam reported in the Guardian on Boxing Day.  The GMB union is taking a case to court against a marketing company, PerDM, which apparently employs people on a fake self-employment basis and then pays them way below minimum wage.
It's not going to get any better, folks.  The best we can hope for in 2014 is that there are more real jobs, and some of those desperate for work and a viable income will escape from the clutches of this appalling government.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Tidings of comfort and joy

After I had read this piece in the Observer last night, I put it together with something a friend had told me the day before.  The friend had been helping to set things up for Christmas at her local church, when a woman came in looking for "the food bank".  She was very pale and looked ill and exhausted.  There isn't a food bank in that part of the city, so my friend volunteered to drive her home.  In the process she learned something of her story.  It was the usual thing - very long delays and complications in getting her benefits through.  That's one of the problems which the Trussell Trust want to discuss with Iain Duncan Smith.  But he's refusing to meet them, accusing them of publicity-seeking, scaremongering and having a clear political agenda.  Not, of course, like the political agenda which led the UK government to turn down a £22m grant from the European Aid for the Most Deprived fund specifically for food banks.
I am no longer a Christian by most people's definition; but I still regard Christian values, and the teachings of the gospels, as a pretty good guide for living.  Iain Duncan Smith does profess to be a Christian - a Roman Catholic.  Maybe he went to Mass this morning.  So I wonder how he squares that supposed faith with his actions and attitudes.  Oh yes, I know that terrible things have been done in the name of Christianity, and of every religion.  He's hardly unique.  But the psychology is fascinating.  I could cite any number of passages in the gospels which should give him pause for thought.  How about Matthew chapter 25, starting at verse 34?  Or if you prefer one of the Old Testament prophets, there's a piece of advice in Micah, 6 v.8.  In the old translation it says, "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God."  The three qualities - justice, mercy and humility - seem entirely lacking in IDS.
When IDS or the DWP mess up, the cost falls on the hapless benefit claimant and / or taxpayer.  Hugh Muir in the Guardian returns to the story of the botched procurement process for the Universal Jobmatch site.  He originally reported back in March this year that there were three bidders at the start, Steria Ltd, Methods and Monster Worldwide.  Steria challenged the evaluation process, so it was run again, but Methods started legal procedures and were paid off.  The DWP wouldn't say how much it had cost to stay out of court.  But now, with the DWP annual report published (very late) there's a clue.  There's a payment of £950,000 "to compensate a supplier for reasonable costs incurred in connection with procurement activities".

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Ho, ho, ho says Iain Duncan Smith

There was a debate in parliament yesterday on food banks.  You might have missed this, because only the Mirror and the Independent reported it.  The BBC ignored it completely - I wonder why.  The debate was forced by a petition started by blogger Jack Monroe which received 143,000 signatures; but the Tories treated it with contempt.  The Mirror's report is fascinating (start at the bottom).  IDS didn't speak, leaving it to Esther McVey (who is rapidly proving herself to be the most stupid person ever to become a minister).  Both of them left the debate after an hour, a departure noted as "unusual" by Speaker Bercow.  Tories apparently smirked throughout, bursting into laughter at stories from Labour MPs of the hardship forcing people to food banks.  Labour's Sir Gerald Kaufman described McVey's speech as the nastiest he had heard in his 43 years as an MP, according to the Independent.  All that effort put in by Monroe and others achieved nothing, because the Tories are impervious to criticism, and because the public didn't get to hear about it.
The Guardian's website yesterday carried an excellent, though depressing, article on the impact of all the government's austerity measures.
The latest Work Programme figures are out.  The headlines are a bit confusing.  They say that after 2 years around 22% had achieved a job outcome.  But then they say say that 1 in 6 "who had spent sufficient time on the programme to do so" had achieved a job outcome, and that's only 16.7%.  Use the tabulation tool to get tables.  A4e seems to have performed at about average.  We'll have to wait till January to see what effect this has had on A4e's finances.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Sanctions are good for you!

There's an excellent article on the Guardian's website today.  But what really caught my attention was a comment underneath it:
"In an effort to counter some of the bad press that the new tougher benefit conditionality and harsher sanctions have received the DWP intranet carried a 'good news' story last week.
8 case studies were published detailing the thanks that had been given to various staff for sanctioning or threatening to sanction jobseekers. A typical comment was something along the lines of 'Getting sanctioned was my wake up call. It was the kick up the backside I needed to understand that looking for work was my full-time job. I now have a part-time job in a fast food restaurant and I take extra hours as and when I can get them. I'd like to thank my adviser for getting me to take job-seeking seriously'..."
The poster went on to say that s/he was wholly unconvinced by this tosh - as, of course, are the rest of us.  One is reminded of the sort of fake testimonials you get on the literature of producers of rubbish.  And it's creepy.  Who are they trying to kid?  This site is only available to staff, so presumably they're trying to convince the staff themselves that attacks of conscience can be dismissed.  Let's hope they don't succeed.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The future of "welfare", part one

In my last post we looked at the history of the concept of welfare, or social security.  An understanding of that history is essential to any discussion of the future.

First, let's get to grips with Iain Duncan Smith's concept.  There are those who believe that he wants to end the welfare system altogether.  I don't think that was his intention when he came into the job.  He had a messianic sense of his personal mission to transform it, certainly.  First, with the Work Programme, he was going to put the majority of the unemployed back to work.  But the first year's results were so terrible that his own party were furious with him.  The second year was little better, and it was obvious to everybody that people were only finding work because the economy was picking up.  The long-term unemployed, young people and those kicked off incapacity benefits onto ESA, remained stubbornly out of work.  IDS turned his wrath on them.  They were the enemy, scuppering his vision, and he has become more and more determined to punish them.  Then, Universal Credit was going to remould the system, "making work pay"; and it would bear his name as its creator for ever, just as the NHS was the creation of Aneurin Bevan.  But that hasn't worked either.  So IDS is an angry and disappointed man who has no place in the future.

I have said before that the mindset of the right today reminds me very much of the climate of opinion which produced the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.  There was then no real concept of a "public sector".  Governments and councils (corporations) could hire people to carry out the work.  And there was no thought of insurance against misfortune for the masses, at least not administered officially.  The poor did create "friendly societies" into which they paid a few pennies a week, as well as burial clubs which ensured that there was money for a decent funeral.  But National Insurance had to wait until 1911.  It has now become almost irrelevant.  Worst of all, we have gone back to the notion of the deserving and the undeserving poor, with the former being thought of as very few in number.  (In the mind of the right, of course, there are contradictions.  There's plenty of work out there if people were not too idle to do it; but some unemployment is necessary for capitalism to work.  People should equip themselves with skills and qualifications; but employers shouldn't have the expense of training their workforce.)
A clear demonstration of the "new" thinking comes in an article in the Express today.  It's not so much in the plans put forward by a member of the Conservatives' policy board, Nadhim Zahawi MP, as in the phrases he uses.  Take, "Mr Zahawi said that the welfare state was established as a 'last resort, not a lifestyle choice'" and it was "trapping people into a life of dependency on the state".  Later he says that he wants to "help the next generation think more carefully about their relationship with the welfare state".  His words show no understanding of how "the welfare state" grew up, or why.  He sees it as a project set up by the tax-paying majority to provide benevolently for the non-working minority, rather than as what it was; a system of mutual aid and insurance.  Not a "safety net" (as he also describes it) but a guarantee of security for all.
The right has, in effect, scrapped all the thinking which produced the progress of the twentieth century, the progress towards social security paid for out of general taxation.  Indeed, it has gone further than its 19th century predecessors by putting all services in the hands of profit-making companies.  In this vision of the future there would only be private insurance against misfortune, not public provision.  The state pension will have less and less value at the same time as the pension age rises, so private pensions will replace the state pension.  What about those who never earn enough to pay private insurance?  Tough.  Perhaps they'll come round to the idea that for those who really can't do anything for themselves and would otherwise be littering the streets, there should be special hostels ....

It doesn't have to be like this, as I shall explore in another post.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

A brief history of "welfare"

I've been considering this post for a while, but two things came together this morning to push me into writing it.  First there was this excellent piece by Zoe Williams on the Guardian website setting out her view that Iain Duncan Smith wants to end social security altogether.  Then there was a comment from Chris_2812 asking if I'd chosen my nom de plume for a reason.
So, here's a brief history of welfare / social security, and I'll get on to the future of it after that.  I am not bothering to check my facts here, so if I get something wrong, feel free to tell me.

Back in the days of small communities, right into what we call the Middle Ages, there was only the security of family and clan.  Those who could work, did.  Those who couldn't had to rely on the community.  For everyone who wasn't part of the elite there was the constant threat of famine and starvation.  Disease, injury and warfare took its toll, and most people died young by our standards.
The spread of Christianity, particularly of the monastic movement, provided a basic form of help.  The monasteries would give out food, provide a refuge and what healthcare was possible.  Wealthy individuals and craft guilds, as well as churches, set up "hospitals" for the "aged poor".  There was still famine if a harvest failed, and there were still warring aristocrats destroying what little you had, but the monasteries, convents and abbeys were the only source of help the poor had.  So when Henry VIII closed them all down in the 1530s and confiscated their wealth, the consequences were terrible.
The start of something we would recognise as a welfare system came in the reign of Elizabeth I, with the Poor Laws.  The unit of local government was the parish, and each was run by a committee or "vestry".  These were given the power to levy an annual rate on property and use the money to pay "relief" to those in need.  It could be humiliating to ask for this relief, of course, and you wouldn't get it if you were considered to be undeserving.  Nor would you get it if you didn't belong to that parish, so people who had travelled in search of work would be turfed out if they didn't find it.  If an unmarried mother sought relief, she had to name the father of the child, and the man was then served with a "bastardy order", forcing him to pay for the child's maintenance.  Parishes set up buildings known as Charity Halls, or, sometimes, workhouses to provide lodging for those who needed it.  The system lasted into the 19th century, but it was creaking by the end of the 18th.  In 1795 one parish, Speenhamland in Berkshire, devised a way of compensating agricultural labourers for falling wages and rising grain prices; they would top up the wages.  But the men who paid the rates were also the employers who paid the low wages, and they didn't see why they should subsidise someone else's wage bill.  So the system failed.
There had to be changes.  But this came at a time when the elites were increasingly fearful of the potential power of the masses.  The American War of Independence had been followed by the French Revolution.  The British government set up an effective network of spies and militias, and the increasing civil unrest was ruthlessly put down.  Poverty became increasingly prevalent with industrialisation, and there were many riots and protests.  There was also growing agitation for electoral reform.  This atmosphere resulted in a blueprint for the system of "relief" which was based on making it as unattractive as possible.  In 1834 parishes were combined into unions, each of which set up a workhouse.  These would be the only source of relief.  (In fact, there was always some form of "out-relief" which paid a pittance to paupers who were not in the workhouse.)  The regime in these places was notorious.  Men and women were separated, so elderly couples who had been married for many years were forced apart.  Children were effectively sold as apprentices to the factory and mill owners.  Adult paupers were put to work on humiliating physical labour.  Yet these places were the only resort for those who could not fend for themselves.  The system lasted well into the 20th century, and most of us have ancestors who died in the workhouse.  When I was a child, old people would still talk about claiming benefits as "going on the parish".
The start of change came in 1908 with the Old Age Pensions Act.  Some, but by no means all, elderly people were given small pensions which kept them out of the workhouse.  In 1911 came the National Insurance Act.  People in work paid their "stamp" to ensure that, for a limited period, they would be paid if they were sick or unemployed.  As the century went on, a system of social security grew.  There were means-tested payments for those who didn't qualify for the NI-based, or contributory, benefits.  This means-testing wasn't just about any money you had in the bank.  Inspectors would come to your home and assess what assets you had, even down to the quality of the clothes you were wearing.  Sickness benefits grew up separately.  For some reason, it was always thought that a sick person needed more money to live on than someone who was simply out of work.  These higher payments provided an incentive to "go sick" rather than claim unemployment benefit, and this suited governments at times because the sick were not counted in the unemployment figures.  Disability benefits also grew piecemeal.
The last Conservative government (which fell in 1997) tried to make some changes.  The contributory benefits were kept low while the non-contributory "income support" rose, thus destroying the whole concept of contributory benefits.  They introduced tests for people on disability benefits; and they were planning to stop housing benefits for single people living alone.  The incoming Labour government stopped this.  Labour brought in tax credits for some categories of workers, to top up poor wages (with much the same effect as the Speenhamland system); but they also chipped away at the concept of "income support" as the minimum which anyone needed to live on, by turning emergency grants into crisis loans.  The current government has ditched the concept altogether.  I don't need to go into what else the current government has done.

I hope this quick gallop through history sets the scene for considering the future of social security.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

A damp squib

A lot of people were looking forward to Iain Duncan Smith's appearance in front of the Work and Pensions Committee, believing that there would be an interrogation that would skewer him and expose his sins.  Those people were always going to be disappointed.  By all accounts he got more and more bad-tempered under questioning.  When Glenda Jackson MP had a go at him he accused her of "conflating so many issues here, it's almost becoming risible".  (Yes, I'm sure we were all amused.)  Debbie Abrahams MP was accused of "moaning".  What she raised has only been reported, as far as I can see, in her local paper, the Oldham Evening Chronicle.  She has a whistle-blower, a JCP employee with 18 years experience, who told her about quotas for sanctions and how "claimants are being set up to fail to meet benefits criteria - without regard for justice or welfare".  IDS's response?  He is unaware of the claims.  "I would like to see the evidence for it.  He's making allegations about people who work very hard.  I'd be prepared to meet him to discuss it but there is someone in charge of this they should meet first.  If he's got an issue to raise I would want to know".  Well done for trying, Ms Abrahams, but this is yet another lie from IDS.
As for those dodgy statistics - it wasn't his fault.  Surprise, surprise.  It was actually Grant Shapps' fault.  Well, one story was, let's not talk about the others.
The main focus was on the progress, or lack of it, on Universal Credit.  He admitted to a write-off of £40m on the IT so far, but, hey, what's £40m when you're IDS?
Among all the accounts in the press, the one in the Spectator is the most informative.
One suspects that Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, would have given him a worse time and wound him up more spectacularly.  The PAC might even have raised the matter of sanctions, and all the cruelty being perpetrated by the DWP.  But in the end it wouldn't have changed anything.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Burying bad news

In the big news towards the end of this week, stories about "welfare" got rather lost.  Iain Duncan Smith finally admitted that his Universal Credit target isn't going to be met; but everybody knew that.  Various reports should have caused trouble for the government, but few noticed.  There was a report pointing to the failure of HMRC to police the minimum wage legislation properly, said the Guardian.  Only a couple of employers have ever been prosecuted, and only one named and shamed, although 10,777 firms have been investigated.  On the same day the Independent's Charlie Cooper wrote about the "public health emergency" of food poverty.  That's the verdict of a group of expert doctors and academics, following a report commissioned by Defra - a report which, in a familiar move, the government has not published, claiming that it needs a "review and quality assurance process".  The Trussell Trust, which runs a lot of food banks, says that they've tried to talk to the DWP, but been refused a meeting.  Meanwhile the experts cite recent figures showing a surge in the number of malnutrition cases diagnosed in English hospitals.
The people who read those two articles probably didn't read another in the Express.  The paper which has done so much to spread hatred of the unemployed found a story which ticked a different set of boxes.  "Veteran loses his jobseekers benefits for selling poppies" it yelled.  The 60-year-old former soldier gets £71.20 a week and has done everything he can to find work.  However, he "admitted" to the jobcentre that he'd spent 24 hours over a two-week period selling Remembrance Day poppies.  He was promptly sanctioned for a month for not "actively seeking work".  The response from the infamous, anonymous DWP spokesperson was predictable: "We make it clear to people what the rules are and they risk losing their benefits if they don't play by them.  Sanctions are only used as a last resort."  The Express's outrage is commendable.
But none of this made much of an impression on the public as a whole, and it all faded away as other news monopolised the media.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Five A4e staff on fraud charges

Thanks to ITV News (the only ones so far who've reported it) we know that, in addition to the nine former A4e staff who were arrested on fraud charges, another four are to be charged.  The CPS says:
"It is alleged that on or before 18 March 2011 A4e employees Ines Cano-Uribe (Contract Manager), Sarah Hawkins (Quality Co-Ordinator), Serge Wyett (Operations Manager), Matthew Hannigan Train (Team Leader) and Hayley Wilson (Recruiter) conspired to forge documentation in relation to services provided by A4e, with the intention of convincing Department for Work and Pensions auditors that the documentation and claim for payment were genuine. One of the women, Ines Cano-Uribe, already faces two existing charges relating to the alleged fraudulent activity at A4e."

It seems to confirm that the charges relate to forging job outcome claims.  These five will appear at Slough Magistrates' Court on 6 January.

Monday, 2 December 2013

A good read

A couple of publications from the DWP might prove interesting reading for those who are unemployed.

The first is entitled "Jobseeker's Allowance Back to Work Schemes" and tells you how Jobcentre Plus "will help you find work".  It doesn't get off to a good start, since there's a grammatical clanger in the second paragraph, but then, in seven sections, it tells you what to expect.  I won't go through all of it, but the section on the Work Programme might cause some amusement to those of my readers who have experience of it.  Then we come to a section entitled "Explaining benefit sanctions".  Read it carefully, after reading the WP section, and it's clear that the DWP is perfectly happy that someone can be made destitute on the whim of an "adviser".

The second document is a final evaluation of what they're calling "The Jobcentre Plus Offer".  (The use of buzz words like "Offer" is supposed to make it sound more like the private sector.)  Half of it is about how the "Offer" is perceived by claimants.  It's upbeat about the finding that "Most claimants gave a positive assessment of the support on offer by Jobcentre Plus".  But then it says that "most" is actually three fifths, or 60%, which means that 40% were not happy.  But hey ....

Iain Duncan Smith is appearing in front of the Work and Pensions Select Committee on Wednesday (unless he manages to postpone it again).  Let's hope that the members of the committee ask the right questions.