Saturday, 28 June 2014

What news?

I haven't been able to blog for a while.  But now, looking over what's been happening, I have to conclude that nothing is changing, except for the worse.  Iain Duncan Smith has lost another court battle, this time to keep secret the damaging documents on the mess that is Universal Credit.  But it won't make any difference.  The ruling will be ignored.  The Financial Times devoted an article to Labour's intentions on outsourcing and the Work Programme.  They would get rid of the big, centrally organised contracts and devolve the responsibility down to a more local level.  This is similar to the system which operated up to 2006.  But Rachel Reeves said nothing about payment by results.  She did say that outsourcing companies would have to pay their workers more than minimum wage.
Labour has forced a debate in the Commons next Monday on the shambles in the DWP.  Expect no Tories except the minister to attend, and certainly expect no coverage at all in the media.
And that brings me to the growing concern about BBC bias.  A friend of mine - intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed - was completely unaware that a peaceful demonstration by around 50,000 people against austerity had happened in central London.  Like many other people (reportedly a majority) she relies on the BBC for news; and the BBC didn't report it, until very late and then as a tiny item.  If there is political bias in the BBC it matters far more than the built-in ideology of the printed media.
It used to be said - and still is by right-wingers - that the BBC is biased towards the left.  That can't be sustained any longer.  We know that in 2010 Mark Thompson, then head of the BBC, had a meeting with David Cameron in 10 Downing Street and agreed not to attack the new government's approach.  Four years on we see Conservatives and their agenda dominating.  Remember that the BBC decides what is news.  Producers or editors choose what to put in their bulletins, what items to include in politics programmes, who to interview and what approach to take.  If they don't report something, most people won't know about it.
In the run-up to the May elections people began to complain about the amount of coverage that UKIP was getting.  This apparent determination to promote UKIP was also evident in the aftermath of those elections.  Of course, the BBC spokespeople, as well as individual editors, insisted that they had merely given "parity" to the various parties, based on their electoral support.  It was nonsense, because it wasn't the issue.  UKIP and its policies were being allowed to set the agenda; immigration and Europe dominated.  After the elections one would have thought, from the BBC's coverage, that UKIP had beaten Labour, and the Tories hadn't actually taken part.
One could understand, though not excuse, the reluctance of the BBC to cover issues related to the DWP.  But this dodging of issues extends across many areas of government business.  When did we last hear an analysis of what's going on in the NHS?  In Justice?  And when did we last hear an opposition spokesperson interviewed with the same respect and deference accorded to the government?
Tory-supporting presenters and interviewers now no longer have to pretend to neutrality.  Andrew Neil will tear into Labour MPs, talking over them, sneering at them; the contempt is very obvious.  The Tory MPs with whom he dines get a very different treatment.  Andrew Marr and John Humphrys are not much better.
Before you say that this has nothing to do with the subject of this blog, think again.  If you rely on the BBC for your knowledge of what's going on in this country then you will have a very limited and partial view.  You will know nothing about A4e and only a little about the other outsourcing companies.  You will not understand the inherent dangers of outsourcing and privatisation.  And we will wake up in May 2015 to a majority Conservative government which will complete the flogging-off of all our public services for private profit.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Incredible attack on the BBC

I've only just seen this incredible story in the Mail; I thought the news feed was a parody at first.  But no.  Iain Duncan Smith is furious and has complained bitterly because the BBC led its news bulletins with the story "with more criticism of the Government’s changes to the bloated benefits system".  George Osborne is said to be miffed as well.  "Mr Duncan Smith claimed the corporation had run five negative stories this week alone about sickness and disability benefits, and ‘ignored’ a major announcement on an extension of his flagship new universal credit."  The attack goes relentlessly on.  "‘Who is the biggest opponent of welfare reform? Not a weak Labour Party, but the relentlessly negative BBC,’ he said.  We have successfully introduced the benefits cap to make sure a life on benefits must not be more attractive than working and we have achieved record employment, with more women in work than ever before.  But the BBC news appears to consistently rely on a narrow band of commentators who are overwhelmingly negative."  The DWP has lodged a formal complaint.
This is absolutely chilling.  It confirms what we knew; that the BBC has to tread gingerly because of overt threats to its funding.  But it's a direct undermining of democracy.  The state broadcaster must report only what the government wants it to report.  It must never criticise.  It must allow a minister to say whatever fiction he wants to.
Iain Duncan Smith is a very dangerous man.  He has the mindset of a dictator, delusional and unhinged, and he is being allowed to wreak havoc.  The BBC must not give in to this blackmail.

Welfare week

The subject of welfare (which I will stubbornly continue to call social security) has been prominent this week.  It wasn't only Labour's announcement of its policy, although that may well have sparked it off.  The BBC belatedly discovered the scandal of ESA, the delays and the failure of the Work Programme to help those supposedly able to work.  Of course, being the BBC, it headed the story with the speculation that the cost would mean that the government breaches its self-imposed cap on total welfare spend.
Then the Public Accounts Committee reported on the even bigger mess of PIPs.  An embarrassed Mike Penning was allowed to get away with blaming Labour, and insisting that it was now fixed.  But it all added to the impression of government that "something must be done".
Where was Iain Duncan Smith?  He was proudly announcing that Universal Credit is being "rolled out" to 90 Jobcentres in the North West.  But it will still only apply to single unemployed people with no complications, and there are no predictions beyond that.  It was unfortunate timing; another major failure was added to the list.  The Economist, normally Tory-supporting, published a devastating article headed "Universal discredit" rubbishing everything this government has done on "welfare reform".
Last night BBC's Newsnight had a discussion on the subject between Owen Jones and Nadhim Zahawi.  The former is a socialist and columnist who is often critical of Labour.  The latter is an ultra-loyal Tory whose expenses claims caused a furore and who will trot out the party line.  The innate bias of the BBC was evident in the use, several times, of the term "welfare dependency" and in using a clip from Benefits Street as if it was an appropriate illustration.  And IDS's lackey Christian Guy from the Centre for Social Justice was presented on the film as he was an independent expert.  Who "won" the argument depends on who you agree with.  These discussions rarely change opinions.  But at least the subject is now being discussed.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Labour's new policy

Off topic for this blog, of course, but of great interest to many of our readers; Labour's announcement today of its policy on unemployment benefits.
There's a great deal of misinformation out there, some of it deliberate from the right-wing media.  For a straightforward account see Patrick Wintour's article in the Guardian.  I'll simply say what I think, and leave it to readers to agree or disagree.
Labour wants to return to the contributory principle, and I support that.  If you've been working you've accumulated entitlement to help when you're out of work.  That's how National Insurance was conceived, and it's what most people think is fair.  If for whatever reason you run out of contributions, or have never made any, you are still entitled to help, but on a means-tested basis.  That was the system for years.  It doesn't work if you increase the non-contributory benefit (known for years as Income Support level) but don't increase JSA at the same rate.  The differential erodes until there is no distinction.  To avoid that is expensive.
The policy on youth unemployment has caught the headlines.  Those who leave school without adequate skills will have to go onto training to acquire those skills, and will get a training allowance for doing so.  If they don't, they will get benefits but means-tested according to their parents' income.  There are obvious difficulties with that, and Labour has said that those who don't live with their parents will be means-tested differently.  They have not said that the training will be effectively workfare.  If that was the case, or if outsourcing companies were involved in any way, I would be dead against it.  What they seem to be talking about is courses in FE colleges and the like.  I was rather worried by Labour's Stephen Timms today saying that the threshold was "level 3", i.e. A level.  That's too high.  But I don't have a problem with the principle.  Any young person who has had a job will automatically be entitled to JSA.
Those who are outraged by the ideas underlying this policy seem to be claiming that everyone should be entitled to benefits regardless of whether they have made any contribution, including youngsters who come out of school unprepared or unwilling to get a job.  Personally I disagree.  I believe in a society based on the old Marxist maxim: to each according to his need, from each according to his ability.
So wade into the argument if you want to.  But base your comments on facts.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Keeping us in the dark

We've all been going on about media bias towards the Tories, particularly in the BBC, for ages now.  So it was no surprise that when Iain Duncan Smith appeared on Question Time last night there were no questions chosen about any of the "welfare" issues in the news - despite the fact that they also had the shadow minister for "welfare reform".  The internet was buzzing with excitement.  But no.  Iraq, Islam in schools ..... and we waited in vain.  The Salma Yaqoob, with whom I had disagreed on everything else, decided to have a go at IDS.  He hated it.  Chris Bryant joined in, refusing to be shouted down.  A middle-aged man in the audience (I can't remember whether this was before or after the spat) told IDS exactly what he thought of him and was cheered.  Dimbleby hastened to move on.  The cynics among us decided that assurances had been given to IDS that there would no no hard questions for him.  But his face, when he found himself under attack, was a sight to behold.  He really doesn't like it.
But there has been a small chink in the BBC's protective wall.  The appalling delays in processing PIP assessments have been well known for months.  Suddenly the media decided it was a story.  Mike Penning was on the Daily Politics yesterday, apologising and being very lightly grilled by Andrew Neil.  This morning the Today programme took it up.  A good journalistic report was aired and then a Labour MP (I'm sorry, I've forgotten her name) commented clearly and ably.  No DWP spokesman was available, apparently.  But what we didn't get was the background to this debacle; no discussion of the wider implications of outsourcing.
Another issue we wouldn't know about but for the internet is the report that the Trussell Trust had been threatened that the government might try to shut them down because the DWP wanted to discredit them.  It was an obscure website, civilsociety, which first reported this.  Strangely, I can't now get at the article.  But Channel 4 News took it up the following day (see Jackie Long's blog) and today the Independent weighs in, having done some digging.  Citing "sources" they say that the man who did the threatening was "Conservative MP Andrew Selous, parliamentary private secretary to Mr Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary."  He denies it vehemently, but the Indy is confident enough to do a profile of him.  It's an excellent article.  But where is it in the rest of the media?
And there's the row about the Oxfam cod film poster.  The Daily Mail got outraged about it; but there's been no debate on the BBC, and other papers have ignored it.
Until the mainstream media do their job properly the Tories will continue to get away with murder.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Question Time

Iain Duncan Smith is on BBC's Question Time tonight.  Don't expect any hard questions, however.  It's clear from the line-up that the intention is to lead on the issue of Islam in schools.  If you're thinking that it depends on what questions the audience ask, you'd be wrong.  I was in a QT audience 10 years ago, and I don't suppose much has changed.  The producers select those questions they want to use.  However, since another panel member is Labour's Chris Bryant, who is the shadow welfare minister, there will probably be a discussion on employment.  There's a useful summary on FullFact which could help with that.
It's also possible that the Oxfam graphic will be raised.  Tories hate it and are attacking Oxfam's charitable status because they've become "political".  The Daily Mail has the right-wing response, but there's a very sensible article by Richard Murphy on the Tax Research UK site.  There could be a lively argument on this, especially as Ian Hislop is also on the panel.  I don't suppose for one moment that IDS will be asked about threats to shut down the Trussell Trust.
The programme will inevitably be a disappointment, but Twitter should be fun.

Monday, 9 June 2014

How the Daily Mail lies to you

The basic story is straightforward.  When people find that their benefits have been cut, disagree with the decision and take their appeal to a tribunal, they find that DWP officials only turn up to 4% of the hearings.  There were 250,000 benefits tribunals last year, a surge in numbers after Iain Duncan Smith turned the screws.  You can read all this on the Telegraph's website, where it notes that "Last year, in cases where a presenting officer turned up, the DWP’s decision to cut the benefits was upheld 57 per cent of the time.  Where they did not turn up, the Government’s success rate fell to below half, at 49 per cent, according to figures obtained by Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary."  Given that this is a Tory paper, it's a fair report.
But then look at the same story in the Mail.  The headline slants it as "claimants win legal right to keep money".  But in the very first sentence we have: "Benefits claimants cheats are able to keep money they are not entitled to ...."  And this is the slant throughout.  IDS is nobly trying to clamp down on cheats but the tribunals are failing to deal with this because there aren't enough DWP officers turning up to put the case in person.    It's a lie.  There's no other word for it.  Those 250,000 people are not "cheats".  But that's the Mail's hate-filled agenda.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Question on A4e

Just a quick post on a discussion I came across on a business forum website.  It's here.

An employer looking for two part-timers in his warehouse has an offer from A4e.  If he takes people aged 18-24 from the WP (he doesn't say that, but it's what it looks like), employs them for 16 hours a week minimum and keeps them in work for 26 weeks, A4e will pay him £1,100 each.  He regards this as a government subsidy.  The sad thing is that he's reluctant because of the likely quality of the people he will get who have "possibly never had a job in their lives".
Another person explains the scheme but complains about "appallingly slow administration".  He also raises the "downside" that someone who is long term unemployed "may find work an unusual commitment".  Someone else says that they looked at the scheme but were put off by the paperwork.  He also says that "the quality and commitment of some of the 'applicants' was not what we wanted to be associated with."  The last comment simply says that you can't trust A4e.

So A4e's reputation is well and truly tainted, which is an impediment to them helping their clients.  But worse is the attitude of employers, occasionally justified, that the long-term unemployed are not worth the risk.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Nothing works

Remember the Work Programme?  Of course you do.  But, like so much of what this government has done, the WP has been forgotten by most of the media; and its successor, "Help to Work", is just being ignored.

But the businesses contracted to deliver the WP have to plough on until 2016.  And A4e has resumed its practice of inviting MPs into their local offices to admire what they're doing.  Rob Wilson, Tory MP for Reading East, said, “I was very pleased to hear that A4e has seen a reduction in client numbers because of the success of the Work Programme getting people back into work and off benefits.  Clients are supported by A4e staff after starting work to help ensure they are able to manage in their job.  This extra support is essential to keep people in the new job.”  John Bercow, Tory MP for Buckingham (and Speaker of the Commons) was equally impressed by A4e's work in Milton Keynes.  Another cheer-leader is Dan Finn, Professor of Social Inclusion at Portsmouth University.  He's written a piece on Serco's own website asking, "Is it working?" and concluding that it is, with a few caveats.  And yet ....  Huge amounts of money have been spent on this, with very low targets which are not being met.  It was meant to solve unemployment and certainly hasn't.

So IDS came up with "Help to Work".  It was supposed, after a delay, to start yesterday, but there's another delay.  Could that be because of the difficulties in finding placements for all those sentenced to workfare?  There's a good piece on the Ekklesia website, and another on ThirdSector's site.  A growing number of voluntary organisations and local councils have signed up to a boycott of the scheme.  If they can't find placements with charities and councils the firms with the contracts will have to offer this free labour to private companies.  But, ostrich-like, "A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: 'Referrals to the placements have begun and the placements will begin shortly. There has been no delay.  Charities are under no obligation to be in the scheme, but those who are recognise the benefits of it.'"

Despite the fact that everything he has touched has turned to dross, Iain Duncan Smith believes it's all wonderful.  If you can stomach it, read his speech on welfare reform in Berlin.  And if we needed confirmation that IDS has a headlock on the BBC, it comes in the Express.  Talking about the Tories' promise of an EU referendum, "Iain Duncan Smith lashed out at the BBC for failing to give enough prominence to Mr Cameron’s promise of an in-out vote in 2017.  The Work and Pensions Secretary said 'most people' do not even know about the pledge.  A BBC spokeswoman said: 'We are satisfied that we have covered the EU referendum promise.'"