Monday, March 26, 2007

TUC Social Policy Forum: Welfare Reform Bill

I posted this on Union Futures but think it is useful for this blog as well.

“Can work, won’t work” (John Hutton)

The anger was palpable at today’s TUC Social Policy Forum regarding the dreaded Welfare Reform Bill. The delegates were a mix of trade unionists, welfare rights advisers and disability activists. The morning kicked off with a summary of the Welfare Reform Bill by a low-level civil servant from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Personally I found this a major problem as one of the unholy trinity of Brown/Hutton/Murphy should have been answerable not some junior civil servant. I wonder if the TUC did try getting a minister…. If not, why not? What struck me about the talk by the DWP representative, other than defending the indefensible, was the language.

Everything is about “customers” and “stakeholders”. It is expected that all existing “customers” in receipt of Incapacity Benefit will be migrated onto ESA (Employment and Support Allowance) by 2008. She reiterated that there will be proper safeguards and that nobody will lose their money. Reassuring? Don’t think so!

The next speaker was from Disability Benefits Consortium discussed the problems of the Welfare Reform Bill. I have to say as an activist in the mental health user movement it kinda disappoints me seeing the organisations represented by the Consortium as there aren’t grassroots activist based campaigns involved. Speakers on the panel and from the floor spoke of the need to hear the claimant’s voice yet organisations which claim to represent the very people have no activists at the forefront of the campaigns (my experience is with MIND).

Sue from the Consortium spoke of conditionality and sanctions where ESA claimants will be compelled to engage in work-focussed interviews and other activities under threat of deductions of up to 25% of their benefit. Personal Capacity Assessment (PCA) will be tightened up so it will be harder to prove you are unfit for work. Who will monitor the effectiveness of the changes to the PCA?

The Consortium argued for an independent organisation to carry out the work. New Labour said no but the Lords said yes. Medical assessments are contracted out to a private company called Atos Origin who are frankly useless at assessing people. They have lost the contract to…… Capita. None of these private companies are “fit for purpose”!

A claimant will have 5 days to give “good cause” why they cannot attend these activities and if they don’t their benefit will be cut by around 25%. The personal advisers based at Job Centre Plus don’t like this as it is their job to build up trust and this will be compromised when telling a claimant their money is being cut. From the DWP’s own research has shown that Job Centre Plus staff have very little understanding people with mental health problems and people with learning difficulties.

The other aspect of the Bill is the issue of employers’ attitudes. Onus of conditionality and threat of sanctions is on the claimant i.e. the powerless yet the same isn’t applied to employers.

1. 18% of employers say would exclude job applications from people claiming Incapacity benefit due to mental distress.

2. 10% would exclude people claiming IB because of physical health difficulties.

3. 90% of employers’ say it would be impossible or difficult to employ a visually impaired person.

4. 60% of employers’ discriminate against dependency issues such as people with a criminal record, mental health issues and incapacity.

So..who the hell is gonna do the employing?

New Labour speaks about partnerships with employers’ yet they won’t be penalised or sanctions applied to them for discriminating against disabled people. It should be about tightening up the Disability Discrimination Act, improving working practices and better flexibility for people not increased discrimination, stigma and fear. I know from personal experiences how hard it is to get a job with a “mental health history” that hangs around your neck like an albatross.

One PCS member spoke about how the DWP has sacked a number of people who have been off work sick. Another Unison member spoke about supporting people who have sacked because of sickness and how it is so hard to find another job and especially if the sickness if stress-related.

The Welfare Reform Bill is not anchored in reality. Emphasis is placed on the claimant’s “rights and responsibilities” but employers’ get let off the hook. The civil servant from the DWP said if people are being discriminated by employers’ then they could have a case under the DDA. BUT as someone rightly pointed out, how is this gonna happen with the tightening up of legal aid under the Carter proposals?

Claimants will be caught between a rock and a hard place. In the afternoon there was a brief discussion by the PCS about contracting out Job Centre Plus under the Freud Review and the ongoing butchery of the civil service by Gordon Brown. There will be closures of Job Centre Plus offices and there will be 11 regional super contracts going begging. Jim Murphy spoke recently to Faith groups about involving them in running welfare provision. The Salvation Army may lead a bid…!!

The “Third Sector” hasn’t the capacity to run welfare though the private sector does so it will be the continuation of marketising public services. Who will these organisations be accountable to? Their shareholders who demand maximised profits? It was argued that these private companies will engage in “parking and creaming”, which means they will “park” people they consider hard to get into work and “creaming” off those will they consider easy to get into a job. Hardly treating people equally or responding to the needs of the claimants, is it?

It was also argued that the language to describe claimants has worsened. Such as “feckless poor living the good life screwing the welfare state”! Yes, those people who live on £57.45 a week… absolute fortune! And we will see a division between the “deserving” and “undeserving poor”.

And public perception of the unemployed will be only worsened with negative stereotypes perpetuated by the likes of New Labour.

What is to be done?

These proposals came out of the meeting… more abstract than concrete and activism was kinda muted.

The TUC are consulting with other unions and unemployed centres to come up with a paper to take on Freud.

Maybe… a coalition led by the PCS alongside disability activists, welfare rights advisers and others from the Labour movement (with the backing of the TUC) to campaign against the Bill/Freud Review.

Also with strike action by the PCS it is integral to show our solidarity with them. One of the suggestions for something to do was to put resolutions to TUC conference and other union conferences on poverty and welfare reform.

There are other things we can do which are not just “Molotav cocktail Kalashnikov wielding proposals” (though occupying your local Job Centre Plus once it is privatised wouldn’t be a bad idea!) My own thoughts are that the above proposals are good but what about lobbying MPs, trying to push for an EDM and so on. It is a divide and rule tactic deployed by New Labour as it will be ordinary civil servants who will be expected to carry out the legislation against claimants and they too will be shafted by the privatisation of the services as well. Therefore working together and co-ordination is crucial.

The Welfare Reform Bill/Freud Review is not just an attack on claimants but on all of us as it will be the start of the slippery ideological slope where terms and conditions and labour costs will be driven down. It is a throwback to the past. The market will rule and profits will be made on the backs of misery. I wouldn't be surprised if Brown is paving the way for Workfare.

The 3rd reading of the Welfare Reform Bill is supposed to be happening tomorrow.

NB: The PCS have produced a paper called “Third Sector Provision of Employment-Related Services”

The TUC have produced a report on the Freud Review

References:

1. and 2. The Labour Market Outlook (May 2006) Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

3. Beyond Stereotypes: Blind and partially sighted people and work, RNIB 2004

4. Quoted from Disability Benefits Consortium, Sue Christoforou (MIND Policy Officer)


2 comments:

Richard Marchese said...

Louise,

Thanks for writing a highly informative article. However, do you have a source for the statistics you quoted regarding employers' attitudes?

Louisefeminista said...

Hi Richard...

Opps... should have included the stats and have them at home (I'm a work at the moment). I will include them later on this evening. They come from Disability Benefits Consortium but will put the precise references on later.

Sorry again for leaving them out.