Sunday, March 18, 2007
Welfare not Workfare
Who are the the biggest group of parasites bearing down on the British economy like a plague of locusts? Private equity investors? No. Overpaid business consultants ripping off government departments? No. For hardcore Bliar-ite John Hutton of the Department of Work and Pensions it is ordinary people facing illness and disability that stops them from either being able to work or who face discrimination because of their health that are bleeding us all dry. So there’s a change then, New Labour blaming the powerless for the economies woes.
Since the decline of mass unemployment since the mid-nineties (that is decline of: not end of) the benefits system and the miseries imposed on those who have to rely on it have slipped of the radar of the Left. With the Welfare Reform Bill though some of the most powerless in society will face even greater problems getting the money they need to live on while they are unable to work.
This bill is currently in the Lords and is on course for the royal assent sometime just after Easter. With so many other super reactionary bits of law being created at the moment not many people have picked up on what this bill will mean for ordinary people who cannot get a job because of the disabilities that they face.
In brief the parts of the bill concerned with benefits for those who cannot work due to ill health introduce a system where there are sanctions for people who do not satisfy the Department of Work and Pensions that they are taking steps to make themselves marketable to employers. The sanctions will be reductions in the amount of benefit that people get each week. New Labour wants to punish people for (1) being ill or having disabilities (2) for being out of work because of this! Mr Bumble the beadle’s spirit is truly alive and well and will remain so in the Dickensian system that people will face ( that might be you dear reader if that driver who comes at you a bit fast gets a call on his mobile at the wrong moment!).
For instance a person facing serious depression will be expected to attend Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) to get them back to work in a crappy job forced on them by the local jobcentre. If the person is judged not to be co-operating with the Jobcentre they face having their benefits taken away; leaving them in destitution. CBT is a good example of the problems that the new benefits regime will face. Firstly it is a controversial form of therapy that slips into telling people to simply pull their socks up. To the extent that it is effective there is already a shortage of CBT qualified therapists so that it is difficult for a GP to find one for a patient who actually wants one. Where will the Jobcentre find the qualified therapists to foist on people who neither want or need CBT?
Part of the New Labour answer to this will be the private sector of course. The plan is to get the new benefits regime to be run by private companies who will have the power to apply the sanctions and will have an incentive to do so as they will be able to receive a slice of the savings that the Government will make by having people’s benefits cut.
All this will be on top of it being more difficult to convince the Department of Work and Pensions that you are not working because of ill health. The “Personal Capability Assessment”: the scoring system that is currently used to decide if someone is entitled to get benefit for being unfit for work is being made harder. This system of assessment already makes life a misery for a lot of people, many of whom win appeals against decisions that they are fit for work as the decision making process (like the decision making process throughout most of the benefit system) is riddled with prejudice and slapdash work by the Jobcentre.
The bill also brings in changes to the way Housing Benefit is administered and assessed. It is being “simplified” by basing entitlement to Housing Benefit on what local authorities, heavily directed by central government, think people should have available to spend on rent. This is instead of the current system which is based on the actual rent people must pay their landlord. The effect is likely to be to force council tenants and housing association tenants to leave their homes in much the same way that the current “reasonable rent” rules force tenants of private landlords to do so at the moment. The bill is therefore also part of the general attack on social housing and in particular on council housing.
What should socialists be doing?
The bill will become law now very soon. There are a number of things that can be done.
Firstly campaigning with the various local and national disability groups needs to be done. This may involve work around solidarity with individuals who are victimised by the new benefits regime.
Secondly support for civil servants facing job cuts. The Department of Work and Pensions has borne the brunt of the cuts in civil service jobs. Civil service workers who are themselves under threat are likely to toe the line in putting others under the cosh. This will set up a nightmare scene for us, a wet dream for New Labour of civil servants (the lowly type in Jobcentres, not well paid mandarins looking for to good pensions and cosy billets in private companies) being set against benefit claimants in a divide and rule tactic.
It is still important to get struggles up around the welfare benefit system for these reasons and also because New labour and any future Tory/coalition government is likely to take the path of putting most benefit claimants onto workfare schemes where you will be assigned a private company for whom you will work for in order to be paid benefits. This extremely exploitative system is already up and running in the USA. There needs to be a strong campaign around to stop it arriving here.
A longer version of this will appear in next month's Labour Briefing