+ Workfare by stealth – Employment Support Allowance
Carerwatch made the following plea to Ed Balls through the Compass site
Mr Balls, will you read this article and believe me when CarerWatch tell you that every word written here by Madeleine Bunting is the truth as seen on the ground by disabled people, those with ill health, and their carers.
Talk to your cabinet colleagues and try and get them to understand how wrong it is to push ahead with these reforms. The idea of penalising the sick and their carers for not doing what an official thinks they should do is flawed. Past a certain level of sickness way short of where Mr Purnell is setting the cut off the basic decision about what you do about coping with the illness is down to the sick person and society should support them with respect. These reforms are flawed any way but at a time when they can’t be backed up with real help and real jobs they are cruel. Mr Balls speak up for us in cabinet and help us defend those with ill health/disability from Mr Purnell.
Workfare has arrived in Britain, smuggled in with slippery rhetoric This harsh, ineffectual and woefully timed welfare reform is sailing ahead with barely a whisper of debate
This is shabby politics. The government has poured billions into propping up a bankrupt financial system, and only whimpers ineffectually about millions being paid out in bonus packages to bankers courtesy of the British taxpayer. But while its lavish generosity to one set of citizens seems to have few limits, it is hard at work on welfare reforms aimed at another set of citizens which pare back even further the meagre sums on which they are expected to keep body and soul together.
The only thing these two sets of citizens seem to have in common is their capacity to provoke popular resentment: the bankers and the benefit claimants are used as media bogeymen to frighten good taxpayers.
So the welfare reform bill sails into committee stage in parliament this week at an unseemly speed, inaugurating a system of workfare and considerably expanding conditionality in return for the jobseeker’s allowance of just £60.50 a week now offered to the unemployed. No one apart from a desperate and despairing coalition of poverty groups and trade unions seem to much care that this curiously scanty bill gives the secretary of state for work and pensions sweeping and vaguely defined powers to remove benefits from anyone who does not or cannot comply with a raft of “work preparation” activities.
Workfare has finally arrived in the UK, but not with trumpet blasts of outrage: it’s been smuggled in with lofty rhetoric about “personalisation”, “individually tailored” advice and support which will enable people to “take control of their journey back to work”. It sounds like a brochure for private banking or a fancy therapy. James Purnell, the work and pensions secretary, has become a slippery wordsmith: “Conditionality is an ugly, technical term,” he admits in an article published last week in the Institute of Public Policy’s quarterly journal, “so we should restate its meaning plainly. It is about encouraging people to take up support for what we know works.” So there you have it, the iron fist in the velvet glove.
Lone parents with children as young as one will be expected to start “preparing for work” and actively seeking work when their youngest child is seven. The presumption throughout is that everyone – with the exception of only the severely disabled and parents of very young children – should seek paid work. If they don’t comply, they could lose their jobseeker’s allowance, although parents would be able then to apply for a hardship allowance. (If that sounds complicated, wait until the harassed jobcentre employee has to handle all the applications, appeals and complaints.)
To howls of anguish from anti-poverty campaigners, Purnell offers reassurance that sanctions are a last resort. But in evidence to the select committee last month his bluff was called. He was asked what would happen if a mother rejected a jobcentre personal adviser’s offer of childcare because it was too far away and poor quality. Purnell liked the example. It showed, he said, how “the system will be able to be personalised”, but “in the end it will be the personal adviser’s decision with the possibility of appeal, because if we did it the other way round that would clearly have the potential to drive the cart and horses through the conditionality regime”.
How this kind of intrusive, directive personalisation is compatible with a claimant “taking control” is beyond me. Is this what Purnell means by his favourite concept of “active” welfare? Welfare policy is conducted in an utterly bankrupted language of political euphemism that bears no relation to the precarious lives of people living on benefits. The careful spending, the rationing of fuel, the cheap food, the constant need to borrow from family, friends and, at worst, loan sharks – this is a world that for a long time now has been vilified. In the boom years of the winner taking all, the most popular term of abuse was loser; swaths of people not able to support themselves were blamed for their own predicament.
But the greatest irony of all is that the welfare reform bill trundles through parliament in a dramatically different era from that in which it was conceived (by no less than a banker, David Freud). First, it was designed when there were jobs. With predictions that unemployment is likely to swell by at least a million this year and possibly more next, it beggars belief that an entire system is going to be built on insisting that people hunt for non-existent jobs. Besides, the system is going to be submerged in a tsunami of claimants. Who will have time for a “personalised” interview on confidence-building as queues lengthen outside jobcentres? The private sector providers that the government wants to deliver this service have seen this problem and are upping their fees or backing out. But the government blithely insists recession is no reason to reconsider.
The bill is very unlikely to achieve any of its objectives. It won’t get more people into work and it won’t save money. Purnell has repeatedly justified these reforms in terms of reducing child poverty. Like many other Labour ministers over the last 10 years, he repeats the mantra that work is the best route out of poverty. But last week’s report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation blew that claim out of the water in spectacular style. Its research found that the majority of children living in poverty in 2005-6 had at least one parent in work. It showed that millions of children and their parents are trapped in poverty no matter whether they work, and for all its vaunted ambition on child poverty, Labour has nothing to offer them.
The intriguing thing is whether the recession could lead to a sea change in attitudes to poverty. As a million people lose their jobs through no fault of their own, will we learn again to value the concept of social security? Might people begin to see that beyond the tabloid panics about benefit scroungers, there are plenty of people tangled up in the benefits system who hit hard times through illness, disability or redundancy? With the recession, a whole new section of society will discover the bewildering, petty world of welfare, where benefit levels are set at punitively low levels, well below the government’s absolute poverty measure. You can’t manage on benefit levels – you are not supposed to; they are designed to force people back into work. But the big question is what happens when there isn’t the work? How do you justify that kind of poverty?
No one has any problem with helping people into work, it is evident good sense; but there is no point wrapping it up in sanctions. All the research (including that of the Department of Work and Pensions) shows that sanctions don’t work. Claimants see them as just one more aspect of a complex, punitive, unpredictable system.
The tragedy is that there is no debate either in parliament or outside it. There is little to tell Labour from Tory (which is why the government’s welfare architect, David Freud, had no qualms jumping ship to the Tories). Labour backbenchers have been supine, dazzled by Purnell’s promises of Scandinavian-style welfare that combines high employment rates with strong conditionality, but they forget that Scandinavia has superb childcare systems, generous benefits and family-friendly employment. Too late, we will wake up to a badly designed, ineffectual and harsh welfare system that many will unexpectedly find themselves falling back on.