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(en) Britain, Anarchist Federation, Organise! #75 - Back to work, or backs to the wall?

Date Thu, 16 Dec 2010 12:07:14 +0200

Behind the June 2010 headline of Iain Duncan Smith’s extra £4m of welfare benefit cuts lies a sustained attack on claimants that was well under way before Labour lost the General Election. At the time of writing we are waiting for the Con-Dem’s autumn spending review that may well introduce some nasty surprises, but the plan is already clear. The government’s Work Programme that replaces Labour’s New Deal next year will have the same emphasis on forcing a large percentage of unemployed claimants into some kind of work placement or training, on to a lower rate of benefit, or hassle them off benefits altogether. Other welfare payments such as Disabled Living Allowance and Attendance Allowance are also facing renewed attack, something that will affect carers as well as their recipients.

Pathways to nowhere

Under the Blair/Brown Labour government a number of new back-to-work schemes were begun. One of these was Pathways to Work, aimed at getting as many people with disabilities off Incapacity Benefit (renamed Employment Support Allowance) on to Job Seekers Allowance and then, supposedly, into work. Pathways to Work used private companies such as Action for Employment (A4E), Reed in Partnership and Working Links in addition to Jobcentres to manage placing people in ‘jobs’, defined as something lasting 13 weeks or more and 16 or more hours per week. The process also included medical checks foisted on ESA claimants to inform the decision to say someone is healthy enough to work, called the Work Capability Assessment. These checks were, and still are, run by another private company, ATOS Healthcare, which employs doctors or nurses to judge a person’s ‘fitness’ using a computerised questionnaire that is in reality designed to get people on to JSA.

The money involved in implementing this programme was quite staggering. £760m was spent on Pathways to Work, but between 2005 and 2009 the number of people on incapacity benefits was reduced by just 125,000, according to an assessment by the Commons Public Accounts Committee that reported in September 2010. Plus the committee said it could not be clear how many of these were due to the Pathways project anyway! Furthermore the programme had contracted work to private providers who ‘seriously underperformed’ and had lower success rates than Jobcentre Plus, saying ‘All the contractors employed to deliver Pathways have performed well below their contractual targets despite the Department paying service fees earlier than planned in order to improve performance. The target job rate agreed with contractors was to move, on average, more than one in three of the claimants required to participate in the programme (37%) into work over the life of contracts. To date, on average, providers have found work for 12% of mandatory participants.’

It also known that the private providers were ‘cream-skimming’ claimants, that is to say, selecting those most likely of getting a ‘job outcome’ and ‘parking’ the rest. This was because the companies were under a system of ‘payment by results’ for 70% of their income, although the other 30% was guaranteed.

The implication of all of this, is that most people who are moved on to JSA from ESA after a degrading medical test just lose money with little hope of getting a job, with the provider’s selection process affecting up front those least able to get a job. Not surprisingly there have been huge numbers of appeals.

The government has now brought forward Labour’s deadline to move existing IB claimants onto ESA to 2011 instead of 2014, with pilots in Aberdeen and Burnley starting in October 2010. This means many claimants will face the Work Capability Assessment sooner. The Coalition has also got its teeth into Disability Living Allowance, a non-means tested benefit that is available by right for those on incapacity benefits as well as those persons with disabilities who are working. It is supposed to be a compensation for the increased costs that people face due to disability, but from 2013 all 2.9 million DLA recipients will undergo a medical assessment which is likely to be similar to the ESA one. Disabled-people’s Direct Action Network (DAN) campaigners previously took action against Labour’s attack on DLA and are unlikely to let the Tories off lightly.

Your flexible enemy

Flexible New Deal was another Labour scheme, one which has been terminated by the Con-Dems, but whose aims will now be rolled into their Work Programme. This is a workfare scheme where you have to do some kind of work (often the same as voluntary work run by charities, but in this case compulsory), in order to get benefits. In opposition, the Tories complained about Labour’s implementation of FND as they wanted to have a small number of very big providers, but essentially there was a consensus on privatisation of Jobcentres and introduction of workfare as quickly as possible. In fact David Freud, a banker whose report Labour based much of their Welfare Reform policy on, jumped ship to advise the Conservative Party shortly before the General Election.

Other parts of Labour’s Welfare Reform Act (2009) that are being taken up by the Con-Dems include subjecting single parents with young children to the rules of Job Seekers Allowance or face loss of support. New Labour had said those on Income Support with children over seven would have to claim JSA by October 2010. The coalition government has lowered the child age to five and say it will be introduced by October 2011. Carers will also be affected by the more recent changes; the coalition’s Green Paper for Social Care is considering changing access to Attendance Allowance, a benefit to support carers’ of people over 65. Changes to DLA will likewise affect those who support disabled people as carers or personal assistants

Housing Benefit

One particularly regressive new initiative from the Con-Dem’s that will affect a lot of claimants and low paid workers is a cap on Housing Benefits. From April 2011 the government plans to drastically cut the rates of housing benefit, so if your rent is more than the defined maximum amount then the benefit will not be enough to pay it. The limits are £250 a week for a 1 bedroom property, £290 a week for 2 bedroom, £340 a week for a 3 bedroom and £400 a week for a 4 bedroom property or larger. Tenants in London will be hardest hit because of the relatively higher rents there and it is estimated that the average amount of money lost per household will be £23 a week. Another vindictive cut to housing benefit from 2013 will be its reduction to 90% of the full amount that will affect JSA claimants who have been signing on for over a year.

There is a lot more detail of course, and much that is still to be announced, but the picture is one of a continued erosion of the social wage, begun by the Tories in the 1980s and 90s, taken forward by New Labour, and now accelerating under the Con-Dem coalition.

Fight welfare reform

The question remains though – how can this be opposed? Successive governments have made pariahs out of all benefits claimants so that ‘public’ sympathy is low. The disability and carer lobby is vocal but is mostly acting by reformist means, aiming to refine detail of implementation of the reforms by obtaining the ear of a friendly politician rather than by demonstrating or taking direct action. There is a noticeable, but limited, resurgence of independent claimants’ action groups and a few Unemployed Workers Centres remain, mostly providing advice whilst struggling from loss of TUC support, so that a critical mass and funded base for sustained campaigning is lacking. The No to Welfare Abolition has faltered, in part because of tension between styles of campaigning and partly due to the sheer number of fronts that could be the focus for action; only a small number of activists are involved with any one of them. After two well attended conferences in Manchester, a third planned for 11th September was delayed. However, there will now be a network meeting in London organised by London Coalition Against Poverty (LCAP) the on the weekend of the Anarchist Bookfair in October (23/24th October). This may focus minds on direct action but this is really a regional rather than a more widespread initiative. ECAP is likewise campaigning in Edinburgh. But it does seem that the Britain-wide connections and sharing of experiences of direct action are nowhere near as strong as they were when the national Groundswell network was operating in the 1990s in opposition to the introduction of JSA (for details see back issues of Organise! and Black Flag magazine, issue 230) even with near universal access to the internet amongst activists.

Fighting back

What can be done to change this situation? There will no doubt be a great push on the Left to build up an anti-cuts campaign after the Spending Review. In any anti-cuts movement there will be a need to continually stress the issues of claimants, because the cuts are not only about the workers in the public sector who make up the majority of the Left’s audience, but are also about their effect on heavier users of public services and those who depend on benefits, who are often the same people in practice. It is especially vital to engage with young people ‘Not in Employment, Education or Training’, the so called ‘NEETs’ who are a prime target for the welfare reforms but who have little experience of what we still had at the start of the 1980s and scant interaction with the remains of a fighting labour movement.

We also need to create an awareness that the ‘third sector’, which is supposed to be a major player in the realisation of the social enterprises that form the basis of Cameron’s Big Society, must be watched very carefully. Those organisations whose income is dependent on public money will be looking to please the Coalition to get their slice, even if they are a bit critical. This means that many third sector organisations will want be involved with workfare schemes, in the guise of public good, as they were in the 1990s when Project Work was introduced by the Conservatives, continued as Labour’s New Deal. Finally, the role of Labour in dismantling welfare must be highlighted at all times. This article has shown how little is actually new in the Con-Dem’s plans. This is yet another reason why the Labour Party itself must not be allowed to form any part of the emerging anti-cuts movement.
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