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.

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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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