Saturday, 7 May 2016

Right Wing ThinkTank Proposal to Cut ESA Support - Objection Email Ignored

I wrote an email to the Right Wing ThinkTank Reform in February 2016 and followed it up in March in relation to their proposals and justifications for cutting the ESA Support Group Benefit down to the same level as Jobseekers' Allowance. You can read their full article available on their website at the following link.

Below is my, as yet, unanswered email to Reform (their email is available on their website). My objections to their comments are in bold. Be aware that there have been a couple of changes since their proposals and my emails including the resignation of IDS.

Dear Reform

Re the above article on your website, I and countless other disabled people are under no illusion as to your agenda so we are not at all convinced and have no confidence in your barely concealed agenda in the above mentioned paper. But let's look at some of the statements contained in it:

"In the quarter to May 2015, just 1 per cent of claimants in the ESA Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) – those deemed able to carry out activity to help them move towards work – left the benefit. The employment rate for disabled people in the UK is just 48 per cent, compared to 81 per cent for the rest of the working-age population."

The reason that rates of employment are far lower among disabled people is because - er - they're disabled. The clue is in the name. Surely it's occurred to you that their rates of employment are largely due to the fact they cannot work in the sense you are talking about because of their disabilities and conditions, which may be physical, mental, both, invisible and/or fluctuating.

You go onto say that "the evidence shows that work is good for people’s health and wellbeing and being out of work is detrimental to it, including for many people with mental and physical disabilities". 

Please cite the evidence and research.  Indeed, research has shown that some work may be good for some disabled people some of the time.  And the evidence shows this needs to be good work, well-paid work and that people need to have control in their working environment. There is evidence to show that poorly paid, menial and inappropriate work is actually detrimental to health.  I will speak from my own experience here. I need to be at home most of the time (due to mental health and phobias as well as mental and physical fatigue and other physical disabilities).  If you really cared about supporting disabled people, why are there to be swingeing cuts to self-employment under Universal Credit?  Many disabled people, by virtue of the fact they are unable to put in the hours, will never be able to earn a living.  This is something the government and their think-tanks never address. You come out with soundbites such as 'be aspirational' and 'supporting the creative industries'. So where's the financial support for our disabled artists and writers and musicians?  The arts are precarious. Disability is precarious. The disabled artist is doubly clobbered. This is why disabled people rely on ESA. They need the finances just to exist and you must be fully aware of this.  There is no more wiggle room; disability incomes have been slashed to the bone. You mention the 21st Century constantly while still relying on a very outdated 20th century model of people going out of their houses to work and doing a 35 hour week.  That isn't 21st century thinking at all.  Oh...and there's always been Permitted Work for those disabled people who wish to work.

You state: "Nonetheless, international evidence does show that the rate at which sickness benefits are set can have behavioural effects – particularly on claim duration. The Government should therefore set a single rate for out-of-work benefit."

Where is the evidence for this?  This panders to the ludicrous and false idea that sick and disabled people aren't 'really' disabled and that if their already meagre income is cut 'they will soon get a job'. This is a very dangerous argument because this government haven't even collected follow up data regarding long term outcomes for disabled people who are no longer claiming disability benefits.  Governments can manipulate the figures all they like to demonstrate that lower numbers on disability benefits equate with successful job outcomes but until robust longitudinal follow up studies have been done to prove this your argument doesn't stand up. What evidence certainly does show is that the proposed cuts will disproportionately affect disabled people, widen inequalities and undermine the UK’s human rights obligations. (The Equalities and Human Rights Commission). A scathing letter by the head of the EHCR warns that official assessments of the cuts impact on disabled people “contain very little in the way of evidence” and “limited analysis” of the consequences for claimants.

You argue: "The current WCA combines an assessment  of eligibility for benefits with an assessment of a claimant’s capacity for work. This much criticised model inadvertently encourages claimants to focus on demonstrating how sick they are, rather than engaging in an open conversation about what they might do with support."

The WCA is already a very stringent unfair benefit and extremely difficult to 'pass'.  It was the last Coalition government who made it the monster that it is and 'unfit for purpose'.  But it was originally introduced to focus on what a disabled person could do, rather than what they couldn't do.  Now that the number of disabled people on this benefit doesn't suit your agenda, you suddenly decide the WCA isn't fit for purpose after all (although not for the same reasons that disabled people have been telling this government and the previous one all along). Forgive me, but when has this government or its overpaid health assessors from overpaid private companies ever 'engaged in an open conversation about what (a disabled person) might do with support'? This requires trust and faith in the system and the assessors. But faith and trust is at an all time low, this is why Atos had to be replaced with Maximus to carry out these assessments.  But faith and trust in Atos' replacement hasn't increased among disabled people because the system is rotten. Your think-tank and this government will never gain the trust of disabled people by just delivering more of the same.  You don't consult us. When disabled people have produced their own reports this government has ridden roughshod over them eg the Spartacus Report. 

You state: "The Government should implement a single online application for the benefit, including a ‘Proximity to the Labour Market Diagnostic’ to determine a claimant’s distance from work and a health questionnaire."

Forgive me, but 'proximity to the Labour Market Diagnostic' sounds like a lot of gobbledegook or a euphemism for the people you want to target to force into work and sanction with benefit cuts if they don't comply.  What on earth does 'proximity to the Labour Market Diagnostic' mean anyway?  I am agoraphobic which literally means 'fear of the market place' so I will always be far from it. For people like myself with phobias it is utterly terrifying to think that some very superficially trained clerk could possibly understand the terror of being trapped and controlled on a daily basis.  Surely you want something more humane and compassionate?  It is fear that incapacitates, fear that holds people back, it is fear that prevents people like me from taking risks.  You don't eradicate fear by bullying and coercing people, or by cutting their already meagre income. It is your own actions that will move people like me 'further from the market place' as you like to call it. If on the other hand you took a wide view of work, to include education, voluntary work, the arts, caring, parenting etc with carrots rather than sticks, you would see a very real change. 

You state that: 'Unlike the ‘pass/fail’ WCA model, the assessment should take a broad view of a claimant’s multiple health-related barriers to work, including ‘biopsychosocial’ factors.'

I would like to think by this you are meaning a more humane compassionate test but there has been absolutely nothing since the Coalition government in 2010 that has given disabled people confidence in the government's motives towards disabled people.  I can list just a few of the countless changes that have gone in the opposite direction: closure of the ILF, cuts to housing benefit in the form of the bedroom tax, cuts to DLA, sanctions introduced for people on ESA, closing of Remploy factories, cuts to Access To Work, cuts to Legal Aid and access to justice and now slashing 33% of the income of some of the poorest people in society - those in the ESA WRAG.  The latest proposals to change the qualifying criteria for PIP are just the latest in a long line.*

We are also under no illusion about the use 'biopsychosocial factors' which hides a chilling reality.  Here are just a couple of the comments taken from the following blog but they are typical of a much wider rejection of this approach of the BPS model for the reasons listed below:

#1 "The Bio-Pscyho-Social model was ... introduced by the American psychiatrist George Engel in the 1970s as a holistic and patient-centred alternative to the reductionist medical model. It has its roots in Parsons’ Sick Role theory, which in turn was influenced by the Freudian notion of ‘secondary gains’ of illness.

Unfortunately the BPS model has provided a handy excuse for medical professionals, academics, private insurance companies and government welfare departments to deny the reality of illness or disability.

For instance, some psychiatrists have proposed a BPS explanatory model for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, and other so-called ‘Functional Somatic Syndromes’, which they believe have no physical basis but are perpetuated by irrational illness beliefs.

The Government’s benefit policy has indeed been shaped by research carried out at the UnumProvident Centre at Cardiff University. The researchers have, among other things, advised the DWP to adopt a BPS model of disability assessment. Apparently, the old system, which was based on the outdated medical model, ignored the psychosocial nature of many chronic conditions, hence encouraged ‘illness behaviour’, trapping people into benefit dependency."

#2 "...The bio-psycho-social model is a very crude way of trying to apply the social model to chronic illnesses without changing society and making it more accommodating. 

Rather, it's trying to marry the social model with a medical model with a resulting ideological monster, a social mess and a re-emerging culture of patronising disabled people. 

In my mind, its a very cynical and disingenuous attempt to acknowledge the social model while twisting it to a political agenda of disability benefit cuts. This model also fits into the ideas of Lawrence Mead and his "new paternalism."

The end result is that the DWP can look as if they are doing what disabled people want including recognising their wish to work and be seen to be equal, but then saying, if that is the case, then you are fit to work and be treated "normally" like all other unemployed people. 

Moreover, the use of the bio-psycho-social model is able to then go on to blame the individual if they reject this notion of being fit to work. If the disabled person rejects this recognition of being equal and wanting to work, then they therefore they must be workshy - and they are viewing themselves as incapable. They therefore need help with their way of thinking...

This model goes back to making disability a psychological and individual issue, while acknowledging ideas of disability rights. Its clever, but can only be argued if you ignore swathes of academic evidence and argument, and ignore the person's condition. 

Changes to the working environment are completely ignored, and prejudice and a failure of employers to accommodate people's needs untackled. "

You state that "those with mild or moderate health conditions that, with support, could be managed should be expected to take reasonable rehabilitative steps – some level of conditionality should therefore be applied".

So what actually are 'mild to moderate conditions'?  All people who have passed the WCA which - as you very well know is one of the most stringent and difficult to pass in the world - have all got serious and/or chronic health conditions otherwise they would have failed the WCA. In fact, so stringent is the WCA that even those with serous conditions do fail it, because the bar has been set so high. That is the problem when you set the bar too high: you then get too many 'true negatives' rather than 'false positives'. But figures show that over half of appeals against ESA “fit to work” decisions are successful – and that thousands of people who are deemed “fit to work” are actually ill. But you seem quite prepared to risk hounding more and more sick and disabled people.  I really would like to know what health conditions you have in mind because the policy makers never ceased stressing how 'it wasn't the condition itself but the way it affects a person'.  But now you seek to class some conditions into one or other category.  

Are you seriously trying to suggest that people with serious and chronic conditions don't already do what they can to make their health as good as possible? 

I also think you will find you are on very dangerous ground with trying to make financial payments 'conditional' on medical treatment.  There are many examples but let me just give you a couple:  many people with anxiety may have tried  'talking treatments' in the past but to no avail and find what has helped them most is antidepressants.  However, the antidepressants themselves may have side effects such as fatigue or aggression.  The converse may also be true, a person with depression may have tried antidepressants but had to come off them because the side effects made them worse. It would be wrong and frankly dangerous for anybody other than a GP to prescribe treatment. 

In fact, former GP Sarah Wollaston and now Tory MP for Totnes and chairman of the health select committee, claimed  in The Telegraph in 2014 that stripping benefit claimants of their allowances if they refuse to undergo treatment for depression would be "unethical and completely ridiculous". She said that forcing people into counselling would present "profound ethical issues". She said: Consent is a very important principle and to link some kind of compulsion to that treatment would be grossly unethical. There would be a serious risk of a doctor being challenged and taken to the GMC. "You would get people going to GPs having a prescription so they could demonstrate they have got treatment. Enormously wasteful of time. Far better to get on with parity of esteem. "This kind of thing is enormously damaging for the Conservatives. No 10 urgently need to squash this. Do they think this is ethical? Do they think there is any evidence this will work? I have long supported the principle of offering individual placement and support to help get people into work, but this needs to be immediately clarified."

I don't suppose you will listen to me, I am just one of thousands of disabled people after all (though one of thousands who think the same as me).  Ignore me, and others like me, if you so choose, but you may find it will all come crashing about you sooner than you know in spectacular style.  I'll leave you with this thought. The culture and the system in the 1960s and 70s was very much against children who were being sexually abused at that time.  Years later and society can't believe they were ignored or not taken seriously. Now the same is happening with disabled people.  Policy, with the help of a long-serving campaign to undermine out-of-work disabled people in the media, is very much against the disabled person at the moment: a paternalistic, punitive and 'we-know-best' approach.  But you don't know best.  And the tide will surely turn.

Yours sincerely

* Since I wrote this email there have been retractions to the proposed changes to PIP after the Budget fiasco, causing the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Jeremy Corbyn's Speech, Camden, August 3rd

As Jeremy Corbyn tours the country in his Labour Leadership campaign, he gathers the crowds and often there are overflows and people queuing up to hear him. He has galvanised young and old alike, in his refreshing, no-frills approach. He's not afraid to tell it as it is, he doesn't do kowtowing or personal attacks.  People like him because of it.  People are fed up with slick, corporate, presidential-style politics.  People are sick of the Westminster bubble and the politics of greed and dog-eat-dog. Here is a man who offers an alternative. Here's a man who speaks for the ordinary man and woman on the street, the poor, the vulnerable, the sick, the disabled. Here's a man who isn't afraid to use the AA word - that is, Anti-Austerity.

For people who say he's turning the clock back to the 80s, I'd say to them, better that than what the Tories are doing: turning the clock back 100 years, pre-NHS, pre-Welfare State, to a time when inequality was huge; taking us back to the harsh and bleak time of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (a few of my recent blogs have examined this).  But actually I don't think he is turning the clock back.  It's more a case of these things coming in cycles, of pendulums swinging and the time being ripe for change.  This is a very different era than the early 80s.

We had 30 odd years of consensus politics and a social contract in the post-war decades based on Keynesian economics, and since then we've had 30 odd years of monetarism and market forces running rampant.  It may just be that we're at the end of that 30 year period and Jeremy Corbyn's campaign is the catalyst we need in this country. I like to think so, although I know that all those in whose interest it is to keep the status quo will fight tooth and nail to undermine and denigrate his campaign.

And so to the speech he made on August 3rd 2015 which I have transcribed as best I can from YouTube and where I couldn't hear properly I've replaced it with an ellipsis.  There was an overflow and people queuing around the block to hear him. A banner from the Fire Brigades Union beneath him read ‘Jeremy Corbyn Straight Talking, Honest Politics’. 

“This is a campaign at one level about The Labour Party leadership but on another level it’s about a lot of other things…this is about an alternative …when we lost the election in May, many of us were pretty devastated by that defeat…there was some good stuff in that Labour manifesto….the banking crisis was not caused by firefighters, street cleaners, nurses, teachers, or anybody else in our valuable public services…it was caused by deregulation, it was caused by speculation, it was caused by sheer levels of greed…and whilst taking the banks into public ownership was absolutely the right thing to do the problem was they weren’t kept in public ownership…they were allowed to carry on in their own sweet way.

“So when we got to the 2010 election, we were offering more austerity, more cuts, more punishment of the poorest in this country.  David Cameron claimed we were all in it together. I don’t think so, David Cameron, I don’t think we’re all in this together at all. I think you think everybody else is in it together except you and your party and the people around you.

“We’ve had five years of opposition, we’ve seen what the Coalition has done, the number of jobs that have been lost in the public sector, the wage freeze, the lower wages for those in the private sector, the zero hours contracts, the brutality of much of the benefits system and what it’s doing to the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.

“So when we came to the 2015 election, surely we should have been able to offer something more than austerity and say that we believe the function of government is to deal with the poorest in our society to ensure that poverty is eliminated and promote an economy that is expanding with jobs, opportunities and work for all…

“We recognise what an achievement it was for the Labour movement when we got the NHS in 1948 before I was born and also in the same year we got the welfare state. But somewhere along the line we’ve lost our way…Benefits Street…abuse of people who are justly, legally and correctly claiming that to which they’re entitled. Somewhere along the line we’ve allowed the cheapness of the media to take over and abuse people on disability benefit, abuse people and passed people as fit for work when they clearly are not. People have committed suicide as a result of that. Can we be bold enough and strong enough as a party and as a Labour movement to say we want to live in a society where we don’t pass by on the other side when somebody is going through a crisis, we don’t pass by on the other side when a family is forced to live on the street because they can no longer afford the flat or house that they’re living in. …we don’t pass by on the other side and let the poorest defend for themselves whilst the richest keep on getting richer and richer at our expense with their investments in property which they use as a cash cow for the future?  Can we be proud of wanting to live in a civilised society where everybody cares for everybody else and everyone cares for each other. Surely that is something worth aspiring to.

“…it’s the twenty first century world where people have had enough of free market economies…we’ve had enough of being told austerity works, knowing full well that it does not. So let’s be practical about the things we want to do…to create an economy where we invest in high skills manufacturing industry…in sustainable development, in green energy jobs, green energy resources, real infrastructure, council housing, and giving people a decent place to live…where we don’t have a housing policy that deliberately drives people out of central London as a whole process of social cleansing, as a combination of high rents and insufficiency of benefits. This can be done.  Our students leave university with massive debits – fifty thousand, sixty thousand, seventy thousand pounds worth of debts. What sort of a start in the world is that for young people who’ve studied hard, worked hard and achieved a great deal at university…my generation had free university education…I personally didn’t take it up…but I had that opportunity, it’s not mine to take away from the next or subsequent generations.  By increasing corporation tax by 4.5 per cent we could achieve free university education for all – a price worth paying.

“I’m inspired by all these people who’ve come together who are put off by personality politics, by the politics of personal abuse, the politics of celebrity and want something stronger. So I’m not indulging in personal abuse of anybody.  I don’t do it, I never have, never will.  There isn’t time, it’s a waste of energy.  It outs people off. I want on September the 12th whatever the result is to be together, to stay together, to keep on being together in order to develop the policies that will bring real social justice, that will help bring peace to the world, that will help being a just and environmentally sustainable world. We can together do it. Let’s be strong. Thank you very much.”

To hear the full speech on YouTube, click on the link below.

Jeremy Corbyn speech, Camden, 3rd August 2015

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Notes From The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists - Begging, Charity, Scraps and Food Vouchers For the Poor

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell was written a hundred years ago and described as 'a classic representation of the impoverished and politically powerless underclass of British society in Edwardian England, ruthlessly exploited by the institutionalized corruption of their employers and the civic and religious authorities'. This series of blogs is from the notes I made from the book. In this one I'm highlighting the comparisons that can be made of the treatment of the poor and the role of charities offering help to the impoverished in terms of food and vouchers.  

"Nearly every other firm in the town was in much the same flight as Rushton and Co.; none of them had anything to speak of to do, and the workmen no longer troubled to go to the different shops asking for a job.  They knew it was of no use. Most of them just walked about aimlessly or stood talking in group in the streets, principally in the neighbourhood of the Wage Slave Market near the fountain on the Grand Parade. They congregated here in such numbers that one of the residents wrote to the local papers complaining of the 'nuisance', and pointing out that it was calculated to drive the 'better class' visitors out of the town.  After this two or three extra policeman were put on duty near the fountain with instructions to 'move on' any groups of unemployed that formed. They could not stop them from coming there, but they prevented them standing about.

The professions of unemployed continued every day, and the money they begged from the public was divided equally amongst those who took part.  Sometimes it amounted to one and sixpence each, sometimes it was a little more and sometimes a little less.  These men presented a terrible spectacle as they slunk through the dreary streets, through the rain or the snow, with the slush soaking into their broken boots, and, worse still, with the bitterly cold east wind penetrating their rotten clothing and freezing there famished bodies.

The majority of the skilled workers still held aloof from these processions, although there haggard faces bore involuntary testimony to their sufferings. Although privation reigned supreme in their desolate homes, where there was often neither food nor light nor fire, they were too 'proud' to parade their misery before each other or the world.  They secretly sold or pawned their clothing and their furniture and lived in semi starvation on the proceeds, and on credit, but they would not beg.  Many of them even echoed the sentiments of those who had written to the papers, and with a strange lack of class-sympathy blamed those who took part in the processions. They said it was that sort of thing that drove the 'better class' away, injured the town, and caused all the poverty and unemployment.  However, some of them accepted charity in other ways; district visitors distributed tickets for coal and groceries.  Not that that sort of thing made much difference; there was usually a great deal of fuss and advice, many quotations of scripture, and very little groceries.  And even what there was generally went to the least-deserving people, because the only way to obtain any of this sort of 'charity' is by hypocritically pretending to be religious: and the greater the hypocrite, the greater the quantity of coal and groceries. These 'charitable' people went into the wretched homes of the poor and – in effect – said: 'Abandon every particle of self respect: cringe and fawn: come to church: bow down and grovel to us, and in return we'll give you a ticket that you can take to a certain shop and exchange for a shillings worth of groceries.  And, if you're very servile and humble we may give you another one next week.'

They never gave the 'case' the money. The ticket system serve three purposes. It prevents the "case" abusing the "charity" by spending the money on drink.  It advertises the benevolence of the donors: and it enables the grocer – who is usually a member of the church – to get rid of any stale or damaged stock he may have on hand.

When these visiting "ladies" went into a workman's house and found it clean and decently furnished, and the children clean and tidy, they came to the conclusion that those people were not suitable "cases" for assistance. Perhaps the children had had next to nothing to eat, and would have been in rags if the mother had not worked like a slave washing and mending their clothes. But these were not the sort of cases that the visiting ladies assisted; they only gave to those who were in a state of absolute squalor and destitution, and then only on condition that they whined and grovelled. 

In addition to this district visitor business, the well- to– do inhabitants and the local authorities attempted - or rather, pretended – to grapple with the poverty "problem" in many other ways, and the columns of the local papers were filled with letters from all sorts of cranks who suggested various remedies. One individual, whose income was derived from brewery shares, attributed the prevailing distress to the drunken and improvident habits of the lower orders. Another suggested that it was a divine protest against the growth of ritualism and what he called "Fleshly religion", and suggested a day of humiliation and prayer.  A great number of welfare persons thought this such an excellent proposition that they proceeded to put it into practice. They prayed, whilst the unemployed and the little children fasted.
....Meantime, in spite of this and kindred organisations the conditions of the underpaid poverty stricken and unemployed workers remained the same. Although the people who got the grocery and coal orders, the "nourishment", and the cast off clothes and boots, were very glad to have them, yet these things did far more harm than good. They humiliated, degraded and pauperised those who received them, and the existence of the societies prevented the problem being grappled with in a sane and practical manner. The people lacked the necessaries of life: the necessaries of life are produced by work: these people were willing to work, but were prevented from doing so by the idiotic system of society which these "charitable" people are determined to do their best to perpetuate.

If the people who expect to be praised and glorified for being charitable were never to give another farthing it would be far better for the industrious poor, because then the community as a whole would be compelled to deal with the absurd and unnecessary state of affairs that exists today – millions of people living and dying in wretchedness and poverty in an age when science and machinery have made it possible to produce such an abundance of everything that everyone might enjoy plenty and comfort.  If it were not for all this so-called charity the starving unemployed men all over the country would demand to be allowed to work and produce the things they are perishing for want of, instead of being – as they are now – content to wear their masters'  cast off clothing and to eat the crumbs that fall from his table."

The idea of 'change not charity' is what Tressell's protagonist Frank Owen is undoubtedly referring to. The working poor and unemployed of Mugsborough need a change to the system and tackling of the causes of this poverty rather than being given charity which perpetuates poverty and keeps the poor beholden to the charities.

Other blogs in this series:

Notes From The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists - Employers and Employment

Notes From The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists - 'Those Foreigners'

Notes From The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists - The Causes of Poverty are not laziness, drunkenness or machinery

Notes From The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists - Slavery

Notes From The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists - The Rotten System, Poverty and the Harsh Treatment of The Unemployed

Friday, 17 July 2015

Notes From The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists - The Rotten System, Poverty and the Harsh Treatment of The Unemployed

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell was written a hundred years ago and described as 'a classic representation of the impoverished and politically powerless underclass of British society in Edwardian England, ruthlessly exploited by the institutionalized corruption of their employers and the civic and religious authorities'. This series of blogs is from the notes I made from the book. 

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Frank Owen, the main protagonist argues that he and his workmates shouldn't condemn their employer for being selfish because the system demands it. "We must be selfish or we shall be hungry and ragged and finally die in the gutter. The more selfish we are the better off we shall be. In the 'Battle of Life' only the selfish and cunning are able to survive: all others are beaten down and trampled under foot...It is the system that deserves to be blamed…'

Owen calls for a better system. He asks of his workmate, Easton 'whether it's possible to arrange things that we may be able to live like civilised human beings without being alternately worked to death or starved?'  Here Owen is calling on Easton to act for a better system rather than being defeatist and assuming things are beyond his control. He argues: 'If you were to commit some serious breach of the  law, and were sentenced next week to ten years' penal servitude, you'd probably think your fate a very pitiable one: yet you appear to submit quite cheerfully to this other sentence, which is — that you shall die a premature death after you have done another thirty years' hard labour...when there's no work, you will either starve or get into debt. When —as at present — there is a little work, you will live in a state of semi-starvation. When times are what you call "good", you will work for twelve or fourteen hours a day and - if you're very lucky - occasionally all night. The extra money you then earn will go to pay your debts so that you may be able to get credit again when there's no work....If it were proposed to make a law that all working men and women were to be put to death - smothered, or hung, or poisoned, or out into a lethal chamber - as soon as they reach the age of fifty years, there is not the slightest doubt that you would join in the uproar of protests that would ensue. Yet you submit tamely to have your life shortened by slow starvation, overwork, lack of proper boots  and clothing, and through having often to turn out and go to work when you are so ill that you ought to be in bed receiving medical care.' 

Owen goes on to illustrate the rotting system using dilapidated house as an example. '..Suppose some people were living in a house...and suppose they were always ill, and suppose that the house was badly built, the walls were so constructed that they drew and retained moisture, the roof broken and leaky, the drains defective, the doors and windows ill-fitting, and the rooms badly shaped and draughty. If you were asked to name, in a word, the cause of the ill-health of the people who lived there you would say — the house. All the tinkering in the world would not make that house fit to live in; the only thing to do with it would be to pull it down and build another. Well, we're all living in a house called the Money System; and as a result most of us are suffering from a disease called poverty. There's so much the matter with the present system that it's no good tinkering at it. Everything about it is wrong add there's nothing about it that's right... We must get rid of it.' 

Owen questions how it is that 'the benefits of civilisation are not produced in sufficient quantity to satisfy the needs of all? How is it that the majority of the people always have to go without the most of the refinements, comforts, and pleasure of life, and very often without even the bare necessities of existence?'
Owen illustrates this with the scenarios of those workers who thought they were lucky to work " two hours' overtime every night – till 7:30 – without stopping for tea. Most of these arrived home about eight, completely flattened out. Then they had some tea and a wash and before they knew where they were it was about 9:30. Then they went to sleep again till 4:30 or five the next morning.
     They were usually so tired when they got home at night that they never had any inclination for study or any kind of self-improvement, even if they had had the time.  They had plenty of time to study during the winter: and their favourite subject then was, how to preserve themselves from starving to death.
      This overtime, however, was the exception, for although in former years it had been the almost invariable rule to work till 7:30 in summer, most of the firms now made a practice of ceasing work at 5:30. The revolution which had taken place in this matter was a favourite topic of conversation amongst the men, who spoke regretfully of the glorious past, and things were busy, and they used to work 15, 16 and even 18 hours a day. But nowadays there were nearly as many chaps out of work in the summer as in the winter…."

Owen goes on to say that "this beautiful ideal  - 'Plenty of Work'  - appealed strongly to the Tory workmen" who seemed "to regard themselves and their children as a sort of machines or beasts of burden, created for the purpose of working for the benefit of other people. They did not think it right that they should Live, and enjoy the benefits of civilisation. All that they desired for themselves and their children was 'Plenty of Work'. "

Owen observes how his fellow workers were for the most part "tame, broken-spirited, poor wretches who contentedly resigned themselves to a life of miserable toil and poverty….their servile lives were spent in grovelling and cringing and toiling and running about like the little dogs at the behest of their numerous masters. And as for the benefits of science and civilisation, their only share was to work and help to make them, and then to watch other men enjoy them..."

Owen sees how the men "hankered after a little pleasure, a little excitement, a little fun, and they found that it was possible to buy something like those in quart pots at the pub. They knew they were not the genuine articles, but they were better than nothing at all, and so they… bought beer ... and after a time their minds became so disordered from drinking so much of this beer, that they cared nothing whether the rent were paid or not…." 

Owen further observes that his fellow workmen are able to "converse intelligently on any ordinary subject…until the topic of Parliamentary elections was mentioned… it then almost invariably appeared that they were subject to the most extraordinary hallucinations and extravagant delusions, the commonest being that the best thing that the working people could do to bring about an improvement in their condition, was to continue to elect their Liberal and Tory employers to make laws for and to rule over them! At such times, if anyone ventured to point out to them that that was what they had been doing all their lives, and referred them to the manifold evidences that met them wherever they turned their eyes of its folly and futility, they were generally immediately seized with a paroxysm of the most furious mania, and were with difficulty prevented from savagely assaulting those who differed from them….they were usually found in a similar condition of maniacal excitement for some time preceding and during a Parliamentary election, but afterwards they usually manifested...melancholia. In fact they alternated between these two forms of the disease. During elections, the highest state of exalted mania; and at ordinary times – presumably as a result of reading about the proceedings in Parliament of the persons who, they had elected – in a state of melancholic depression, in their case an instance of hope deferred making the heart sick…."

Owen notes that "Even under the present silly system of restricted production, with the majority of the population engaged in useless, unproductive, unnecessary work, and large  numbers never doing any work at all, there is enough produced to go all round after a fashion. More than enough, for in consequence of what they call ; "Over-Production", the markets are periodically glutted with commodities of all kinds and then for a time the factories are closed and production ceases. And yet we can all manage to exist - after a fashion. This proves that if productive industry were organised on the lines advocated by Socialists there could be produced such a prodigious quantity of everything, that everyone could live in plenty and comfort. The problem of how to produce sufficient for all to enjoy abundance is already solved: the problem that then remains is - How to get rid of those whose greed and callous indifference to the sufferings of others, prevents it being done."

Owen is scathing of the "Disciples of Christ … who professed to believe that all men are brothers and God their father …who continue to organise "Rummage"and "Jumble" sales and bazaars, and to distribute their rotten cast of clothes and boots and their broken victuals and soup to such of the brethren as were sufficiently degraded to beg for them. The beautiful Distress Committee... had found that no fewer than 672 were deserving of being allowed to work for their living. The committee would probably have given these 672 the necessary permission, but it was somewhat handicapped by the fact that the funds at its disposal were only sufficient to enable that number of brethren to be employed for about three days. However, by adopting the policy of temporising, delay, and general artful dodging, the Committee managed to create the impression that they were Dealing with the Problem.
     If it had not been for a cunning device invented by Brother Rushton, a much larger number of the brethren would have succeeded in registering themselves as unemployed on the books of the committee.  In previous years it has been the practice to issue an application form called a "Record Paper" to any brother who asked for one, and the brother returned it after filling it in himself. At a secret meeting of the Committee Rushton proposed…a new and better way, calculated to keep down the number of applicants. The result of this innovation was that no more forms were issued, but the applicants for work were admitted into the office one at a time, and were there examined by a junior clerk... the clerk filling in the form according to the replies of the culprit.
      "What's your name?"
      "Where do you live?"
      "How long have you been living there?"
      "Where did you live before you went there?"   
      "How long were you living at that place?"
      "Why did you move?"
      "Did you owe any rent when you left?"
      "What was your previous address?"
       "How old are you? And when was your last birthday?"
      "What is your trade, calling, employment, or occupation?"
      "Are you married or single or a widower or what?"
      "How many children have you? How many boys? How many girls? Do they go to work? What do they earn?"
      "What kind of a house do you live in? How many rooms are there?"
      "How much rent do you owe?"
      "Who was your last employer? What was the foreman's name? How long did you work there? What kind of work did you do? Why did you leave?"
      "What have you been doing for the last five years? What kind of work, how many hours a day? What wages did you get?"
      "Get the full names and addresses of all the different employers you have worked for during the last five years, and the reasons why you left them?"
      "Give the names of all the foremen have worked under during the last five years?"
      "Does your wife earn anything? How much?"
      "Do you get any money from any Club or Society, or from any Charity, or from any other source?"
      "Have you ever received Poor Relief?"
      "Have you ever worked for a Distress Committee before?"
      "Have you ever done any other kind of work than those you have mentioned? Do you think you would be fit for any other kind?"
      "Have you any references?" – and so on and so forth.
      When the criminal had answered all the questions, and when his answers all been duly written down, he was informed that a member of the committee, or an authorised officer, or some other person, would in due course visit home and make enquiries about him, after which the authorised person or other person would make a report to the committee, who would consider it at the next meeting.
     As the interrogation of each criminal occupied about half an hour, to say nothing of the time he was kept waiting, it will be seen that as a means of keeping down the number of registered unemployed the idea worked splendidly."

The author describes a situation where Owen has "not been doing very well during these last few months, although he was one of the few lucky ones who had had some small share of work. Most of the money he earned went for rent, to pay which they often have to go short of food. Lately his chest too had become so bad but the slightest exertion brought on fits of coughing and breathlessness, which made it almost impossible to work even when he had the opportunity; often it was only by an almost superhuman effort of will that he was able to continue working at all. He contrived to keep up appearances to a certain extent before Rushton, who, although he knew that Owen was not so strong as the other men, was inclined to overlook its a long as he was able to do his share of work, for Owen was a very useful hand when things were busy….He never had the money to go to a doctor or get advice, but earlier in the winter he had obtained from Rushton a ticket for the local hospital. Every Saturday throughout the year when the men were paid they were expected to put a penny or two-pence in the hospital box. Contributions were obtained in this way from every firm and workshop in the town. The masters periodically handed these boxes over to the hospital authorities and received in return some tickets which they gave to anyone who needed and asked for them. The employer have to fill in the ticket application form with the name and address of the applicant, and to certify that in his opinion the individual was a deserving case, "suitable to receive this charity". In common with the majority of workmen, Owen had a sort of horror of going for advice to this hospital, but he was so ill he stifled his pride and went. It happened that it turned out to be more expensive than going to a private doctor, for he had to be at the hospital at a certain hour on a particular morning. To do this he had to stay away from work. The medicine they prescribed and which he had to buy did him no good, for the truth was that it was not medicine that he – like thousands of others – needed, but proper conditions of life and proper food; things that had been for years past as much out of his reach as if he had been dying alone in the middle of the desert…."

Owen has a gloomy view of the future since "all around was the state of dreadful anarchy; abundant riches, luxury, advice, hypocrisy, poverty, starvation, and crime. Men literally fighting with each other for the privilege of working for their bread; and little children crying with hunger and cold and slowly perishing of want…the gloomy shadows enshrouding the streets, concealing for the time their grey and mournful air of poverty and hidden suffering, and the black masses of clouds gathering so menacingly in the tempestuous sky, seemed typical of the Nemesis which was overtaking the capitalist system. That atrocious system which, having attained to the fullest measure of detestable injustice and cruelty was now fast crumbling into ruin, inevitably doomed to be overwhelmed because it was all so wicked and abominable, inevitably doomed to sink under the blight and curse of senseless and unprofitable selfishness out of existence for ever, its memory universally execrated and abhorred.
     But from these ruins was surely growing the glorious fabric of the cooperative Commonwealth…."

In summary, I found the parallels to what is going on today think we made enormous strides in the twentieth century but now we see a turning back of the clock: people on JSA being humiliated and being thankful for being dragooned onto Workfare, the running down of the NHS, children living in poverty, the return of the 'deserving' and the 'undeserving' poor and the worst aspects of Capitalism where inequality and greed is once again heading out of control.  

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Notes From The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists - Slavery

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell was written a hundred years ago and described as 'a classic representation of the impoverished and politically powerless underclass of British society in Edwardian England, ruthlessly exploited by the institutionalized corruption of their employers and the civic and religious authorities'.

This series of blogs is from the notes I made from the book.  This one examines what the main narrator (Owen) says about slavery and how the workmen for Rushton are treated worse than the slaves:

"It would have been much better for them if, instead of being 'Freemen', they had been slaves, and the property, instead of the hirelings, of Mr Rushton. As it was, he would not have cared if one or all of them had become ill or died from the effects of exposure.  It would have made no difference to him. There were plenty of others out of work and on the verge of starvation who would be very glad to take their places.  But if they had been Rushton's property, such work as this would have been deferred until it could be done without danger to the health and lives of the slaves; or at any rate, even if it were proceeded with during such weather, their owner would have seen to it that they were properly clothed and fed; he would have taken as much care of them as he would of his horse.
      People always take great care if their horses. If they were to overwork a horse and make it ill, it would cost something for medicine and the veterinary surgeon, to say nothing of the animal's board and lodging. If they were to work their horses to death, they would have to buy others. But none of these considerations applies to workmen. If they work a man to death they can get another for nothing at the corner of the next street. They don't have to buy him; all they have to do is to give him enough money to provide him with food and clothing - of a kind - while he is working for them.  If they only make him ill, they will not have to feed him or provide him with medical care while he is laid up.  He will either go without these things or pay for them himself. At the same time it must be admitted that the workman scores over both the horse and the slave, inasmuch as he enjoys the priceless blessing of Freedom. If he does not like the hirer's conditions he need not accept them. There are no ropes on him. He is a Free man. He is the Heir of all the Ages. He enjoys perfect Liberty. He has the right to choose freely which he will do — Submit or Starve. Eat dirt, or eat nothing."

Today, it is the low paid in work, the poor, the sick, the unemployed who are being treated in this cavalier way by the DWP and their paid private stooges.  With not enough jobs and/or benefits to go round, we can see how both the worst of the private companies and governments can exploit the vulnerable.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Australia Today, Britain Tomorrow - how government-funded corporates and charities are getting rich off the unemployed

'THE JOBS GAME' was aired on Monday 23rd February at 8.30pm on ABC in a programme called 'Four Corners' in Australia. Linton Besser was the reporter. 

Below are the notes I made from the programme as the UK government looks to Australia (as well as the US) for models on how to remove the unemployed from their books:

Each year the federal govt pays private agencies about one billion pounds to help people find a job.

As unemployment rises so to does the amount of money the govt pays to private agencies, ostensibly to help people find work. One fundamental problem – there are many more unemployed people than there are available jobs.  National Employment Service was privatised 17 years ago and spawned a big industry run by commercial and not-for-profit agencies. Some people have become very wealthy off fees charged for various retraining and job search programmes.  Ministers declined to take part in programme but whistleblowers have stated that fraud and criminality is going on. This shouldn’t surprise govts as only 40 per cent of fees were found to be verifiable.  It is a multi-million tax-payer funded industry.

The first person to be featured in the programme is Kim, from Elizabeth Adelaide, home to the most extreme unemployment in the country – almost 1 in 3 people. Unemployment hasn’t been this high in Australia for 12 years and the govt has a programme to get people back into work. It’s called Job Services Australia and it costs 1.3 billion dollars a year. Four Corners reveals corruption at the heart of a scheme designed to help the most vulnerable and how it’s turning the unemployed into a commodity.

No businesses have been sanctioned even when systemic fraud has been found.

In 1998 the Commonwealth Employment Service (CES) was effectively privatised during the Howard years. Described as a mixture of government, private and community organizations competing to connect the right person to the right job.

It’s now called Job Services Australia and when you’re unemployed it’s compulsory to report to a Jobs Agency run by charities as well as four profit operators. When you arrive you’re classified by your level of disadvantage: if you didn’t finish school, don’t have access to transport, have a mental illness or substance abuse problem or if you’re indigenous, you’re deemed harder to place in work. The worse off you are the more your agency makes. When you walk in the door, the agency is paid up to $587, find a job and the agency claims up to $385, stay in the job for 3 months and the agency claims up to $2900 hit the 6 month mark and up to $2900 more. Along the way the government allocates up to $1100 to help improve your chances of getting a job, this covers things like learning to drive a car, new clothes for a job interview or even wage subsidies to make you more attractive to an employer. They have funds for marketing and training. All in all the programme has cost the taxpayer almost 18 billion dollars since 1998.

There are just not enough jobs in Australia so companies become opportunist.  In Australia there are about 780,000 unemployed people competing for 150,000 job vacancies.

Kim Devlin has been obligated to sign on with Max Employment (Maximus) every fortnight for two and half years but has never been put forwards for a job interview.

Max Employment is actually one arm of a giant multinational traded on the US stockmarket despite a controversial history in the welfare sector in America it has come to dominate Australia’s jobs programme. In her meeting with Max Kim discovered that the resume that Max sends out on her behalf is riddled with errors eg name spelt wrong, her grandmother who’d died was listed as a referee and Maximus hadn’t included the training that they’d helped her with.

Kim has actually been ‘parked’. In employment parlance this is what happens to thousands of jobseekers when agencies put them in the ‘too-hard basket’. Prof Bill Mitchell says: ‘They would take their first fee from the govt for taking them on and they quickly worked out it would cost them too much in resources to get them skilled so they’d just park them and forget about them’.

Rupert Taylor-Price, a software provider to many agencies has access to vast amount of data that flows between the govt and its contractors. He would say that about 1 in 10 people have a significant interaction with the system that results in them having a better chance of employment. “It’s a bit of luck really..if you get the right service provider at the right time…sometimes someone will feel very passionate about a jobseeker and will put a lot of energy in..”

If an unemployed person fails to attend a meeting at Max or fulfil other obligations, their payments are suspended. It’s what they call ‘breaching’ and some argue that this is the scheme’s true purpose.

Bill Mitchell goes on: ‘That’s been a scandal in Australia history, the breaching where an unemployed person is fined, that is they lose their income support if they don’t satisfy certain attendance rules, documentation rules and record-keeping…there’s a whole industry of punishment and coercion and monitoring of the unemployed when there’s not enough jobs anyway.’

This is what’s happened to Kim. She says she’s been breached unfairly many times including when her consultant failed to turn up for their scheduled appointment. Sometimes it’s because the secretary hasn’t handed in the signing sheet.

Four Corners requested an interview with the minister who oversees the scheme – Luke Hartsuyker– he declined. But the public servant who ushered in the programme 16 years ago Peter Shergold says that despite its flaws he believes the programme is working. (NB – is this where IDS gets his ‘I-believe-it-ergo-it-must-be-true’ idea from? – Moggy.

Another jobseeker, Adam, signed up with for-profit agency, ORS Group. Last year its turnover was 66 million dollars. They didn’t get Adam one job interview. Adam had been in a coma for 19 days after being hit by a car and was lucky to survive. He was in hospital for 3-4 months, a rehab centre for 6 months. After 10 months with ORS Adam found himself a job at a wine bar. Although ORS hadn’t found him the job they still claimed fees as a result of Adam’s success but they had to obtain his signature to do so. Adam claimed that the last time he’d signed anything with them was before the date he got the job since once he had the job he didn’t have any reason to go in there. The reporter shows him a document with his supposed signature 6 months after he started his job at the wine bar. He said they’d asked him to sign blank forms.

Four Corners obtained many of thes e forms signed by former ORS clients and tracked down these clients whose signatures appeared on the documents. In some cases the job details seemed completely fabricated. One woman said that this wasn’t her writing and that she didn’t write like that. She produced her signature, which was wildly different and the whole document looked like a complete forgery. Another woman was very shocked when shown the document because she didn’t fill it in. She claimed her signature was Photoshopped in because her signature always crossed the line and this one didn’t.

Dozens of claims have been examined by Four Corners and 75% of them relied on suspect paper work with clients repeatedly disputing the company’s records. Hours were bumped up, wages were inflated and in several cases their claim forms appeared to be forged.

A company whistleblower claimed that such fraud is rampant and that ORS routinely lodges false claims worth millions of dollars. He said about 80 per cent of claims that came through had some sort of manipulation on them from a forged signature with everything completely falsified to manipulation of a date or the hours worked…he’d seen thousands that had been manipulated. He said details are regularly whited out and altered, that signatures are cut and pasted from one form to the next, the photocopied documents are uploaded to the company’s server and the originals are destroyed. He said the management know this is happening. He said ORS promote staff who are prepared to do whatever it takes to earn fees for the company. It seems to have become normalised throughout the organization so that when you have brand new staff members join it’s drilled into them from the very beginning because they see everyone else doing it, that’s it’s normal culture throughout ORS to white something out, to manipulate a document a jobseeker has signed. The whistleblower said he was driven to speak out after a particularly disturbing incident. An older unemployed man had his payments cut off and he was forced onto the street all thanks to a false claim lodged by ORS. This man had to pay back money to the government because he had supposedly worked when he actually hadn’t. He subsequently couldn’t pay his rent so he became homeless. He actually came to the ORS office with a shopping trolley with as much of his belongings he could fit in it because he had nowhere else to go. The whistleblower said it was ‘gut-wrenching’ and ‘it hit home that we’d actually done that to a person’.

These stories should come as no surprise to the federal government. In 2008 another ORS whistleblower, Brooke Purvis, came forward with almost exactly the same story. She was told for an audit that ‘if the signature’s not on it get it anyway you can’. The department of employment decided not to investigate this whistleblower’s claims, citing a lack of evidence. But 3 years later ORS staff in Tasmania made similar allegations. The whistleblower Brook Purvis claimed that at least half of the claim for fees were suspect. Periodically ORS prepare for govt audits to check the validity of claims already made by the company. One of the whistleblowers claimed that emails are sent out once a month to  all managers saying if they’re not correct they need to get new evidence. Four Corners obtained one email from July 2013. In it an ORS manager reminds the company’s senior employees that they should not be claiming fees ‘unless all evidence requirements are met’. But then she asks: ‘’Could all sites that did not achieve 100% please forward the correct and updated documentary evidence. I will then review and upload and remove the old evidence…Just to reiterate I will delete the old evidence and upload the new’. In a statement ORS said they only deleted evidence when it was incorrect, extraneous or redundant.

Jobseekers who have found work aren’t often interested in returning to their agencies to fill out forms so ORS send them gift cards.  They enticed them in and asked them to sign for their gift vouchers. But the whistleblower said that three quarters of the time the paper they were giving them to sign was the evidence they needed to sign them off to say they agreed that this had been undertaken. The giftcard helps them to pay for fuel or food and so they are more focussed on the gift card than the form they’re actually signing.

A common practise is for agencies to push their clients into a category of greater disadvantage because it attracts a higher fee. They looked in files trying to search for things that may get them reclassified. Brooke Purvis said they were told to reclassify as many people as possible. Companies put them on train courses run by themselves and the provider will receive a payment from the govt.

Max Employment also has its own training arm. Jobseekers were often funnelled into irrelevant training so that Max’s registered training organization arm could gain a fee. It was in Max’s interest to place the maximum amount of people on one of their courses.

In 2009 governmnent investigators were alerted to a training scam in Max’x offices in Sydney. Four Corners obtained a copy of their confidential case report. Max were enrolling vastly more people into training programmes than was physically possible. 141 jobseekers were receiving training on site at Max Employment in a training room that could fit only 15 jobseekers at a time.  Even if the jobseekers only attended the course for two minutes or never attended at all as long as they had the signature that said they had been Max Employment could claim anyway.

Brooke Purvis said that the taxpayer money funnelled into the training programme could have been spent in so much better ways eg getting jobseekers driving licenses which would give them a bigger chance of getting a job than it would sitting in a classroom.

Another way the system is exploited is through the use of wage subsidies where the govt pays companies to take on the unemployed. Employers are suddenly offered cheap labour but when a person’s subsidy expires they can be simply replaced after 12 or 26 weeks.

Some of the countries most venerated charities have also gamed the system. The Salvation Army and the Catholic Church are among the not-for-profits who’ve had to repay millions of dollars for making false claims. In 2005 a government investigation targeted The Salvation Army in Victoria. During a taped interview a staff member made admissions of unethical and criminal behaviour relating to fraudulently upgrading jobseekers to the highly disadvantaged classification, thereby increasing payments and bonuses for staff. The charity had to repay 9 million dollars but the govt would not say if anyone was prosecuted even though criminal offences including falsifying documents and forgery had been committed by The Salvation Army recruitment consultants.

One person from The Salvation Army had refused to involve The SA in the Jobs Programme as he said it was incompatible on the one hand helping support families and individuals on the one hand and on the other being the person who decided to cut off their unemployment benefit. “On the one hand trying to be their friend and supporter, on the other you’re an agent of the state.”

Another person who ran one of the non-for-profit agencies said you get this dreadful irony where a major charity will breach someone for failure to do something and then send them round the corner to get some emergency relief from another part of the same agency. Charities are being forced to behave increasingly like commercial operators in a race for govt contracts.

Ian Whitchurch used to be a departmental auditor. In 1999 he warned the govt that fraud was rife. He’s still seeing similar problems that he identified back in 1999.

The govt has been removing audit requirements rather than increasing them. In a free market red tape is generally a bad thing but this isn’t a free market, this is a government contract. Red tape in this industry is regulation and it’s making sure that public funds are accounted for.

ORS declined to take part in the programme but told Four Corners it had a relatively low rate of errors and it was not familiar with allegations of doctored records but would be concerned if they were correct. The Govt has made some changes, due to be implemented in July 2015 but these changes haven’t addressed the fundamental economic dilemma at the heart of the programme: there are too many people and not enough jobs.