Cait Reilly VS The DWP: What are the consequences for young people?

Victorious geology graduate Cait Reilly

Two weeks ago, the government suffered a serious legal defeat over its workfare programmes. Cait Reilly, a geology graduate who was volunteering at a museum before the job centre compelled her to work for free at pound-land, brought the case against the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Tory officials immediately tried to palm the court ruling off as a technicality rather than a moral indictment of their unpaid labour schemes. We were told that new regulations had been brought in which put workfare on an unambiguously legal footing. A spokesman said “These new regulations mean there will be no break in the support we’re able to offer job-seekers  and we continue to have the power to remove benefits from those who aren’t serious about getting into work.”

One cannot help but admire their nerve. For the government, the only thing standing between job seekers and absolute poverty is their ability to force the unemployed into unpaid menial work – never mind that benefits for the unemployed are a legal entitlement, effectively paid for through national insurance contributions by the claimant themselves throughout their lives. Anybody disinclined to fantasise about the career-enhancing effects of cleaning floors, wage free, for a chain store, is branded “not serious”.

There is  one sense in which the ministers and spokesmen are correct. The court ruling was based on a technicality – an important one, concerning whether or not placements are mandatory or voluntary – but a technicality nonetheless. So, despite the ruling, the government has kept a flow of absurd and bellicose justifications for workfare coming thick and fast. “It is right that we expect people to take getting into work seriously” said employment minister Mark Hoban. Presumably Hoban feels this is consistent with forcing Reilly, a young woman who had found useful volunteer work with a museum, to abandon it. The government will not pay out any money to claimants who have been illegally sanctioned “until all legal avenues have been exhausted”. Iain Duncan Smith boasted that most young people ‘love’ the schemes. He also took it upon himself to personally attack Cait Reilly, implying that she was a workshy scrounger who saw herself as too good for shelf stacking. The fact that Reilly was already doing voluntary work in a career-relevant field, and that she currently works part-time for Morrisons, did not give him pause. The right-wing press joined in with the attempted character assassination. Jan Moir of the Daily Mail recommended that Reilly “grow up” – because after all, workfare “is hardly like being incarcerated in a Nazi prisoner of war camp”.

The vacuous arguments and slurs we are offered as a defence of the policy only serve to demonstrate how untenable the position of the DWP is. Ministers cannot handle the slightest sustained challenge over this. Thus, in a heated exchange with James O Brien, IDS went completely off message and began shouting about JSA being a wage which the taxpayer provides as remuneration for the labour of the claimant.  This is of course at odds with the DWP statement clarifying that JSA is precisely not a form of remuneration for work, but rather a benefit which claimants are legally entitled to. For a senior minister to make such a gaffe is indicative of the intellectual poverty of the arguments justifying workfare.

And yet young people cannot afford any complacency. As things stand, workfare is going to continue. Despite the wealth of empirical evidence demonstrating that workfare is a failure, public opinion remains somewhat sympathetic to the idea of compulsory unpaid labour for the unemployed. This means that although we should celebrate the court ruling, Reilly’s success will be a Pyrrhic victory if we do not simultaneously take up the battle over workfare politically as well as legally. We must fight hard to show workfare for the sham that it is. It does nothing to improve a claimant’s chances of finding work – it makes them worse. It does nothing to end the “something for nothing culture” – it celebrates and enshrines it, with corporations as the beneficiaries. It doesn’t make things ‘fair’ for the existing workforce – it destabilizes their position by providing free labour for the companies which employ them. It treats young people not as talented victims of capitalist crisis, but as feckless trash who should be punished in order to massage the employment figures.

How can we win that fight? In the last year, a series of protests over workfare made national headlines. These protests did not have the advantage of great numerical strength. Nonetheless, even in relatively small numbers they were able to force large swathes of companies to pull out of the schemes by making the issue a topic of national debate. The court ruling, though based more on technicality than politics, is another significant blow. If pressure is maintained by a solidaristic mass movement of young people, of the kind which exploded onto the streets in the student movement of 2010, it is likely that workfare will be broken.

Osborne’s Autumn Statement: The Effect On Young People

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As George Osborne and the sniggering millionaires of the Coalition front bench delivered their autumn statement last Wednesday, it was impossible not to feel a sense of déjà vu. Here we are again, with the chancellor admitting that he had failed to meet the deficit target, failed to meet the debt target and failed to restore significant growth to the economy. Here we are again with the continuation of austerity despite its failure to even succeed on its own terms, to say nothing of its terrible social legacy. No matter how high unemployment remains, no matter how many disabled people die after being declared fit for work and no matter how sluggish the recovery remains, Osborne is determined to stay the course. As one senior treasury official put it, “We do have a plan B: it’s to keep doing plan A for longer”.  So what will the consequences of the relentless pursuit of plan A be for young people in Britain?

The major headline from Osborne’s statement was his real-terms cut to the welfare budget, amounting to £10 billion by 2018. The effect this will have on young people will be painful, particularly through the corrosive effects it will have on families. Camden Council began to research the effects of austerity on families earlier this year via a series of interviews, and the findings were grim; the researchers noted rising tensions among families, more arguments, panic about the future and even a rise in domestic violence. This is a toxic environment for young people to grow up in, and will only aggravated as yet another raid on the welfare budget is carried out.

But in fact, the effect of the autumn statement on young people is best measured by what it left out rather than any new headline proposals. In large part, the attacks have already begun; the significance of the autumn statement is in its belligerent refusal to recognise their deleterious effects and its insistence they must continue for many years. In fact, the Tories have made it clear many times that even after the deficit is ‘under control’, there will be no restoration of funding to public services. Unless challenged, the cuts will be permanent. With this in mind, let us consider what has happened to young people under the Coalition government, none of which is scaled back or reversed in Osborne’s statement.

A significant plank of the austerity programme as applied to young people has been the workfare programmes. Casting our minds back one year ago, to the Autumn statement of 2011, we find Osborne telling young people that if they do not ‘engage with the offer’ of workfare (mandatory unpaid work placements) then they face losing their benefits. Opponents of this scheme were accused of wanting to keep young people out of valuable work experience in the service of outmoded left-wing ideology. Its advocates claimed that this would go some way to solving the problem of record youth unemployment which had sprung up during the rule of the coalition government. As usual, the unspoken assumption of the policy was that the main thing holding young people back was their own lack of initiative – workfare and the threatened loss of benefit was the only thing that would overcome it. Fast-forward to the present. How has this victim-blaming policy fared? The reality is that it’s been a catastrophic failure for young people. The Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion estimates that a mere 2.1% of those on the Work Programme have been able to find paid work as a consequence, which is to say that the figures are actually worse than the government’s own assessment of what would happen if Jobseekers were simply left to find their own work. The existence of workfare also destabilises the job security of the paid staff of the ‘providers’. Why would an employer pay staff to do a job that can be done for free by a benefit claimant? The autumn statement contained no recognition of the failure of this policy, and no attempt to combat the high levels of youth unemployment in Britain with anything but more of the same.

Another cut which hit young people hard was the removal of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), which provided an economic lifeline of £10 to £30 per week to students from poor backgrounds, provided that attendance is near-perfect. Both my partner and I were recipients of this grant while we were studying for our A-Levels, narrowly escaping the cut. My personal experience was that my family would have been able to support me in terms of putting a roof over my head, but would not have been able to cover the costs of travel or books for study. My partner had left home for personal reasons at the beginning of her A-Level studies, and received no family support – she was just barely able to make ends meet on a combination of EMA and income support, frequently needing to walk a two hour journey to college to save on bus fare. I can say with certainty that we could not have studied without EMA unless we were able to find part-time work for the duration of our courses. Finding work in the present economic climate is very far from guaranteed, and would have compromised our study time if we had found it. Campaigns which fought to save EMA compiled convincing evidence that many other people have found themselves in the same situation, and now colleges have unsurprisingly witnessed a drop-off in applications. The tripling of tuition fees for university students has caused a similar drop-off in applications, although this has been less severe; this may well be down to the poor prospects for jobseekers at present. Between the cutting of EMA and the tripling of fees, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are being pushed out of education. Osborne’s response, in this statement as in all his previous ones, is to bury his head in the sand and carry on.

If we want to see these changes reversed, we’ll need to struggle. The student movement in 2010, despite demonization in the media and heavy police repression, came close to stopping the government in its tracks. A similar movement in Quebec succeeded this year by linking effectively and inspiringly with the wider struggle against austerity. If they can do it, so can we.

Can the Tories become a workers party? Neil O Brien’s strange suggestion

Neil O Brien suggests that the Tories can become a workers party. The main plank of O Brien’s argument is that Cameron must resist lurching to the right, because the conservatives don’t have a majority, Labour are thrashing them in the polls, and the conservative vote is terrible in urban areas outside the south east – particularly among ethnic minority voters.

So this would be a purely strategic concession to the political reality that the conservative party does not do well with workers. O Brien cites precedent in Sweden as evidence that Cameron could push in this direction and succeed. He also claims that the political will exists for Cameron to do this. So will Cameron take his advice and change his party to cater to a demographic they despise? O Brien argues that signs already exist showing this possibility:

“It’s easy to forget how much Cameron has changed his party. Would previous leaders have backed gay marriage, introduced a bank levy, increased capital gains tax, carved low-wage workers out of the public-sector pay freeze, or introduced a pupil premium for poorer children?”

A pedant might add that amidst this deluge of progressive policies the coalition government has embarked on the biggest assault on the living standards of the working class since the Geddes axe nearly a century ago.  A dinosaur leftist living in the past might remind him of the comments made by Greg Barker, who boasted about making cuts ‘that Margaret Thatcher could only dream of’ (video below).

There’s going to be no war on joblessness from Cameron, as O Brien hopes. Only a war on the jobless. There’ll be no cracking down on private utilities, and certainly no ‘break with free-market orthodoxy’.  The coalition government have brought us close to a triple-dip-recession with their austerity programme and are suffering heavily in the polls. Their solution is the same as the doctors who prescribed bloodletting centuries ago – keep piling on the pain, against all evidence that what you’re doing isn’t working, and hope for the best. Osborne is cutting a further 10 billion from the welfare budget. The challenge to Cameron’s leadership is from Boris Johnson, from the right.

Moreover, this is simply not something the tory party will ever do. As Owen Jones heard from a tory grandee during his final year as an undergraduate:

“What you have to realize about the conservative party is that it is a coalition of privileged interests. Its main purpose is to defend that privilege. The way it wins elections is by giving just enough to just enough other people.”

At most it is capable of the tactical managerialism of Disraeli – the present government has no intention even of doing this.

O Brien’s argument is silly, but it can be accepted as serious because of the refusal of the Labour party to act in the interests of workers. Greg Barker defended his comments by pointing out that Alistair Darling had agreed that cuts harder than Thatcher’s would be necessary before the election – and this is a fair point as far as it goes. Miliband continues to promise cuts, even when it gets him booed and howled at on TUC demonstrations. With the internal democracy of the Labour party smashed, the failure of John Mcdonnell to mount a viable leadership challenge, and the tendency for the social democratic parties of Europe to line up behind austerity, not much hope can be held out for them in this respect.

With this in mind, we should build TUSC, which has the potential to be an actual party of the working class – and simultaneously build rank-and-file presence in the unions to pull off the general strike that the TUC is ‘considering’. The work is far from easy, but the success of Syriza and to an extent the Front Gauche shows the possibilities that are at our fingertips. If we get half the breakthrough that these organisations have we will have taken a huge step forward in Britain, and there will be no more absurd talk of the Tories as a workers party.

Iain Duncan Smith tells bereaved 13 year old to ‘go to the job centre’: Statistics, stories and the left

It’s sometimes said that the left concentrates too heavily on statistics, and that we should use more individual stories in our arguments. The right does this by wheeling out caricatures of families who supposedly milk the benefits system and have iPhones or whatever other luxury at the expense of the taxpayer. There are obvious problems with the political logic implicit in these stories. We might begin with the fact that benefit fraud costs the country 1.6 billion per year – a figure utterly dwarfed by the 16 billion of benefits that people are eligible for but do not claim each year. We could go on to add that there are issues which cost the taxpayer far more than benefit fraud – principally tax evasion, which the PCS union estimates to stand at 120 billion a year. There is also the sense of an assumption behind these stories that benefit recipients should not be living well – much of the ire in the articles which present these stories is reserved for the ‘luxuries’ which the fraudsters are enjoying, like holidays or high quality televisions. It is as if there is something obscene about benefit claimants actually enjoying themselves, as if their proper place in life is miserable economising and drudgery. If the problem was simply with people living well on money that they have not directly earned, then there would be comparable rage from the press against those who live off unearned inheritance – but in reality, these writers find something specifically wrong with poor people enjoying their lives.

But I digress. The fact remains that these stories are actually very effective. My co-workers in my last job held many ideas which were politically astute. They recognised that parliament, with its cabinet of millionaires, was wholly disconnected from the needs of ordinary people. They were sharply sceptical about the media and the potential for spin and distortion in the news they watched and read. But at the same time, at least once a week, one of them would make a comment about the apparently vast numbers of people who had ‘never worked a day in their lives’, had been sponging benefits off the state for years and were simply inherently lazy in their character. Every time it happened I would try to make some of the above points, but it was an almost completely futile exercise – I would present an argument involving some facts and figures, and they would give me a worldly smile and simply reiterate whichever story they had most recently come across as if it settled the argument. After a few weeks of this cycle, I eventually managed to get one of them to hesitate and then ask me where I got my information from, so I printed off some documents showing where I’d got the data and brought them in the next day. He nodded, said it was interesting, and by the next week he was repeating the same rubbish as he always had. So clearly, the stories work. With that in mind, here is a story which many others have raised recently, and which ought to utterly discredit the coalition government. It’s the story of Brian Mcardle.

57-year-old Brian Mcardle, a man who was paralysed down one side of his body, blind in one eye and unable to speak was declared several weeks ago to be fit for work by Atos . Brian died the next day. Mcardle’s 13-year-old son, Kieran, wrote a letter to Iain Duncan Smith, saying that his father had been ‘hounded to death’ by the sham assessments. He pleaded with IDS to recognise that Atos was killing people like his father. IDS sent a cold, cut and paste response telling the boy he could discuss his father’s claim with the local job centre. The letter can be seen here at political scrapbook. The silence from the right on the story is deafening. Right-wing blogger Guido Fawkes appeared on the political scrapbook comments thread and could only offer the mediocre (and incorrect) criticism that the story was three weeks old. Mcardle’s death happened several weeks ago, the letters between his son and IDS only came out recently.

The heartlessness of IDS’s response to Kieran Mcardle should not come as a surprise. In his recent appearance on question time, he was absolutely rattled when Owen Jones tried to raise the issue of disabled people dying shortly after fit to work verdicts from Atos. Jones included Mcardle’s case. Losing his temper completely, he exploded into an incoherent finger wagging tirade at Jones, which can be seen on the YouTube clip below. Iain didn’t even try to address the content of the point about Atos, instead ranting vaguely about the need to get people off benefits, which he seemed to imply Jones + the left had no interest in. In the Britain of mass unemployment and workfare, belligerently repeating the ‘get people off benefits’ mantra amounts to little more than a threat – but this is all par for the course for the Tories. His response shows that he doesn’t give a shit about the people who die because of his policies, or about the grieving relatives left behind. It also shows the vulnerability of the Tories on this issue, with a senior minister having to resort to substanceless ranting in front of millions of viewers. We should push and keep pushing on the issue of Atos and the attacks on disabled people. 32 people a week die after being found fit for work by Atos. Lives are at stake.

Chris Skidmore: Ally of poverty

Meet the private-schooled and Oxford-educated Chris Skidmore, conservative MP for Kingswood.

Skidmore has written an article in the Telegraph suggesting that, for young people, Jobseeker’s Allowance should take the form of a loan, which you must pay back once in work. For Skidmore, this would create an added incentive to work, would save the government £1.3 billion, and the debt would only amount to 20 grand even if you were unemployed continuously from 18-25, less than the tuition fee loan.

Perhaps the most pathetic way that Skidmore defends his proposal is by hiding behind the enormous cost of tuition fees as a means of downplaying the viciousness of what he’s suggesting –  a ridiculous sleight of hand. Skidmore wishes to use the fact that students now leave university with a lifetime of debt – something his party had to fight hard to impose – as an excuse to saddle the young unemployed with debt in turn, and keep them in poverty once they have found work.

Skidmore, like all other Tories, simply assumes a priori that benefit claimants are uninterested in work, and that the solution to the mass unemployment is to harass and threaten the unemployed until they pull their finger out. To that end, we have seen:

The maximum sanction for JSA go up to three years.

Direct spying on claimants.

Workfare – slave labour for chain stores, which decreases the chances of future employment for the worker, and decreases job security for existing staff.

The threat to remove housing benefit from under 25s.

Hundreds of thousands of disabled people kicked off Disability Living Allowance.

This is to name only some of the attacks. Skidmore is naturally untroubled by the fact that economic crash, brought about by the neoliberal policies his party (plus the Lib Dems and labour) pushed for, has created mass unemployment. Never mind that. Never mind their huge program of job cuts. Never mind the 5.2 unemployed per vacancy. It is all the fault of the victims! The unemployed must be bashed over the head with debt, until their misery generates a viable job opportunity out of thin air!

The most disgusting part of Skidmore’s article is his agreement with the phrase “a democracy can only exist until the majority discovers that it can vote itself largesse out of the public treasury”. After the scandal of MPs expenses, the vast scale of tax avoidance, the bankers bonuses and the £750 billion hoarded by corporations, you might reasonably expect some tactical hesitation from the Tories about making a statement like that, but no – through the wizardry of the Free Enterprise Group, we now know that it is the poor which abuses democracy and votes itself largesse.

We need to wipe the smirk off his face. A european-wide general strike ought to do it.

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