Thursday, 23 February 2012

London Mayor and GLA Elections 2012

On Thursday 3rd of May, millions of London voters will go to the polls to directly elect a Mayor and 25 Greater London Assembly (GLA) members. The current Mayor is the Tory Boris Johnson and the 25 seat London Assembly is made up of 11 Tory Members, 8 Labour Members, 3 Lib Dem Members, 2 Green Party Members and 1 British National Party (BNP) Member.

The Mayoral contest will once again be dominated by the Boris Johnson versus Ken Livingstone (Labour) contest, in which opinion polls put them running neck and neck for the prize. The Green Party candidate is Jenny Jones, who is one of the Green Party Assembly members and has served on the Assembly since 1999, the year that GLA was formed.

The ballot paper for the Mayoral election which is coloured pink, allows for a first and second preference vote. Second preference votes come into play if no single candidate gets more than 50% of the first preference vote. The top two candidates then go forward into a final round, where all the other candidates are eliminated, and their voters’ second preferences are counted. After this exercise the winning candidate is the one with the most first and second preference votes. This type of voting system is known as the ‘supplementary vote’.

The Assembly is made up of the 14 winning constituency candidates (the ballot paper is coloured yellow), where up to four London boroughs can constitute a constituency. Locally, the constituency is Enfield and Haringey, narrowly won by Labour in 2008, and the Green Party candidate is Peter Krakowiak. The other 11 Assembly members are elected from the London wide Member List (orange coloured ballot paper) on a proportional basis, using what is known as the Modified d’Hondt Formula, similar to that used for European Parliament Elections, and known as the ‘additional member’ system. This takes into account the total votes cast in the London-wide ballot together with the number of Constituency London Assembly Member seats that each political party has already won.

A party candidate needs to get 5% of the London wide Member vote to qualify to win one of these seats at least. Parties that win constituency seats (entirely Labour and Tory at the three elections since 1999), have their London Member vote divided by the number of seats already won (plus 1), and each time a party wins a London Member seat, this is added to the number dividing their vote. Phew, there you go, easy as that.

To simplify things, for parties who have not won constituency seats, 5% gets you one seat, around 8% gets you two, and around 10% gets you three, but all this depends how the votes actually fall. In 2008 the Green party secured 8.3% of the London Member vote, which yielded two seats. We expect to retain these seats this year and are hopeful of gaining a third seat. The BNP will probably lose their one seat this time, as the party seems to be in disarray but the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) may do fairly well, given the situation with events in Europe at present, although what they can offer Londoners as Assembly Members is hard to see.

If you want to see Greens elected to the London Assembly, then make sure you vote Green on the orange coloured ballot paper, as this is where we will win seats, and we can then continue to represent Londoners on green issues. For a list of Green party achievements on the Assembly, see here.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Greece Can’t Repay Its Debts With Austerity Medicine

As the so called ‘troika’ (European Union [EU], International Monetary Fund [IMF], and European Central Bank [ECB]) deliberates over whether to release funds to Greece in their latest ‘bail out’ attempt to keep it in the Euro, the simple fact is that Greece cannot repay its debts by making further cuts to jobs, wages and public services.

The ‘bail out’ let us remember is not intended to be a helping hand for the Greek people, but to save the international and national banks that lent money to the Greek government so recklessly and are now threatened with going bust, should Greece default on these loans. At best, any ‘bail out’ will only delay the inevitable for a while, because all the flesh has already been cut from the bone, and Greece is, after nearly five years of recession, falling further into debt, with a 7% drop in growth in the last year alone. The latest plan can only prolong Greece’s recession and will probably make it even worse.

Ironically, in the land where democracy was born, democracy has been suspended during this crisis, with an unelected Prime Minister and commissioners from the EU now running the country’s financial policies. There has even been a suggestion from the German government that the Greek general election, due in in April this year, be postponed so that the latest EU financial offer is not rejected by the people. At best, a gun will be held to the heads of Greek voters, effectively demanding that they endorse the austerity measures in a ballot.

Understandably, the Greek people have taken to the streets with widespread rioting across the country, in opposition to the policies being inflicted on them by remote political and economic elites. Political parties of the left are close to gaining a parliamentary majority in the latest opinion polls, and these parties have said that they will reject the austerity measures as they stand. Whether this would lead to expulsion from the Euro, and even the EU, is not clear, but if more favourable terms are not offered to Greece, it looks as though they will default on their debts, which is likely to lead to an exit from the Euro at least.

There is a precedent of sorts for this situation. In 2001 Argentina defaulted on its debts, and rejected the IMF imposed austerity programme. There was a run on the Argentine Peso, factories closed, and inflation ran riot, amid much pain for the people. But at least they had hit rock bottom economically, from where the only way was up. A new government in 2003 introduced heterodox (left wing) economic policies, setting aside large amounts of money for social welfare spending. With a cheap Peso, exports began to increase and Argentina got back on its feet again.

Argentina has more in the way of natural resources than Greece, and the world economic outlook was much better than that of today, where we are in the worst recession since the 1930’s, if not worse. For Greece though, the alternative is a decade of recession and austerity, with probably a higher national debt than it has now. Some choice.

If Greece does default on its debts; it will have a serious and negative effect on the world and particularly the European economy, including Britain. But we can’t stand by and watch the Greek people being punished like they are, just to prop up the banks, and should show support and solidarity with them. There is lesson for the UK here too, where austerity policies have led to misery for the people and an increase of £158bn in our national debt.

For the first time in Greece a documentary produced by the audience. See the excellent film "Debtocracy" here.

The photo above from The Guardian

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Work for free and 'be of benefit' to a multinational like Tesco

So now we know. Back in August last year, I wrote a comment piece for the Guardian, focusing on the increasing noise about people being forced to work in return for their jobseeker's allowance – an idea whose roots extend well into Labour's time in government. It focused on two things: so-called mandatory work activity (MWA), whereby people are forced – via the threat of their jobseeker's allowance being suspended – to put in 30 hours a week doing work "of benefit to the community"; and other "work experience" schemes, in which people do up to eight weeks of unpaid labour, with one proviso: they can refuse to take part or pull out during the first seven days, but thereafter the work becomes compulsory, under pain of their benefit being withdrawn.

Yesterday, my colleague Shiv Malik pointed to the numbers of people involved in the scheme between May and November last year; 24,010 had done MWA, while 34,200 had participated in the second kind of work experience. The key revelation, though, was that in the last month for which there were figures, MWA numbers were outstripping those for non-compulsory(ish) work experience by 8,100 to 6,600. In other words, MWA seems to be mushrooming, along with its hardline sanctions regime: the first time you refuse to take part, you lose your benefit for 13 weeks; the second, for six months. Subject to the passing of the current welfare reform bill, rejecting MWA for a third time will mean no benefit for three years – and, one assumes, destitution.

At which point, it's worth pausing to reflect on what all this actually entails. Thanks to referrals by both jobcentres and private-sector Work Programme providers, it's about people effectively working for nothing, not only in charities and the public sector, but in huge retail chains. Thanks to the legal action launched by Cait Reilly, we all know about Poundland. Asda, Boots, Argos and TK Maxx, and the Arcadia group (including Topshop and Burton) are also involved. Hats off, perhaps, to Sainsbury's and Waterstones for announcing that they have ended their involvement with this kind of work experience, but if you want an indication that workfare may be turning into an immovable part of the private-sector economy, consider last night and today's blizzard of outrage about a Tesco ad placed on the Jobcentre Plus website. It's for nightshift workers in East Anglia, who will be paid "JSA plus expenses". In response, Tesco's Facebook page has been transformed into a glorious example of an online demo, brimming with anger. "I'll be boycotting your stores with immediate effect until you stop this exploitation – I will also be urging all my friends and family and contacts to do the same," goes one post. "No more Tesco for me until you withdraw from this government workfare scheme … It is compulsory forced labour," says another. The company are trying to keep a lid on it all, with little success: "You can delete as much as you like but this will now go viral," offers one poster.

On Twitter, Shiv Malik revealed other adverts for similar roles at Tesco, and Tesco's explanation shifted. As Left Foot Forward reported this morning, their initial line was that they "are taking part in a government-led work experience scheme to help young people" which "has already led to 300 permanent jobs". They then put the advert down to "an error made by Jobcentre Plus" and claimed that it should have been "for work experience with a guaranteed interview at the end". As far as I can tell, they still want to employ nightshift workers for nothing.

Whatever the answer, the crucial point is that unpaid work – bad enough when it applied to supposed "interns", but grim beyond belief when used on the unemployed – is now being built into what some people call The New Normal. Given the thousands involved, it clearly represents a boon to the kind of multinational giants whose profit margins must be creeping upwards thanks to the plentiful supply of people – and please, all you free-marketeers, read this bit slowly – effectively paid a pittance to work for them by the taxpayer. Note also the way that even more sinister aspects of all this are pointed up by the breakdown of people who've done work experience, as opposed to MWA: 13% of work experience "participants" are from ethnic minorities, but when hardened compulsion is used via MWA, that number rises to 24%.

Last year, a Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson told me the "community benefit" meant that MWA would be kept out of the private sector – but on the ground, that doesn't seem to be working, at all. Now the DWP claim only that they "expect that every placement will offer people the opportunity to gain fundamental work disciplines, as well as being of benefit to local communities". Also, if you still think that all this denotes only short-term arrangements that aren't an offence to public morals and shouldn't be too onerous for anyone, consider one of the more overlooked aspects of current welfare-to-work practice: something called the community action programme, under which people are mandated to work for their benefit for up to 26 weeks. That's six months, to you and me. Such outrages continue to be rolled out at speed; the horror is only compounded by how little attention mainstream politics continues to give them.

Written by John Harris
This article was first published in The Guardian here

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Racism in English Football

Two recent high profile cases of footballers in England racially abusing opponents have shone a spotlight onto racism in the English national game. I have to say, compared with when I watched football in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the game has made good progress. In those days, black players were fairly rare, but whenever they touched the ball, opposing fans would break into a bout of booing. Some of the barracking was even worse, and who can forget the infamous incident when Everton fans threw bananas at the black Liverpool and England player, John Barnes? Other countries in Europe appear to have far worse racism problems in their football than England do, where black players are still routinely booed and abused.

Now, the English premier league attracts many footballers from many races and nationalities, and is the most popular national league in the world. But these recent incidents have demonstrated that racism still has a presence in English football.

Louis Suarez, the Uruguay and Liverpool player, was found guilty by a Football Association (FA) tribunal of racially abusing Patrice Evra the black French international, who plays for Manchester United. He received an eight match ban, but continued to proclaim his innocence and the unfairness of it all, and was backed to the hilt by his manager Kenny Dalglish and Liverpool Football Club.

The situation reached a nadir at the weekend when starting for the first time since his ban, Suarez refused to shake the hand of Evra before the return meeting of the two clubs in Manchester. Ex- Liverpool players, current players, assorted commentators, corporate sponsors and Liverpool’s American owners all demanded an apology from Suarez and his manager. This duly arrived a day later, which seemed to be grudgingly given, and only further shamed Liverpool FC.

The other recent case involves the Chelsea and (then) England captain, John Terry over racial abuse allegations to a Queens Park Rangers black player, Anton Ferdinand, which have landed Terry in court on a racially-aggravated public order offence. Terry, like Suarez, insists he is innocent, and his club have backed him, in a similar way to Liverpool did with Suarez.

When the court case was put back until the close of the football season in July, at the behest of Chelsea, with presumably Terry’s agreement, the FA in a rare moment of decisiveness stripped him of the England captaincy. They were worried, quite correctly in my view, that it would not be appropriate for the team captain to be under the shadow of racist allegations. The only mistake the FA made was not to remove Terry from the team altogether. The decision did though lead to the resignation of the team manager, Fabio Capello, in what he said was too much interference in his running of the team.

Much was made by Capello and Terry, that Terry is ‘innocent until proven guilty’, and in law this is indeed the case. But it was Terry and his club that wanted to delay the trial, which otherwise would have taken place in March, and been well out of the way, one way or the other, before the summer’s European Football Championship. So, to my mind the FA had to act to protect the image of the English game.

Who would have thought that football would be the stage upon which the issue of racism would be played out before the nation? And this coming only months after Sky Sports commentators Andy Gray and Richard Keys were sacked for making sexist remarks about a female assistant referee. English football has come a long way in challenging bigotry, if only they could deal with homophobia in the same enlightened fashion.

Friday, 10 February 2012

A4e got welfare-to-work contract despite 'abysmal' record, MPs say

The record of welfare-to-work company A4e has come under scrutiny from MPs, as they questioned why a company with an "abysmal" record of delivering government programmes had been awarded new contracts to provide the coalition's Work Programme when it launched last summer.

Details of large dividends received by Emma Harrison, A4e's chair, also emerged during questioning of the company's chief executive officer, Andrew Dutton. He confirmed that all of its UK turnover last year, estimated at between £160m and £180m, derived from government contracts, and of the £11m paid in dividends to the company's five shareholders, 87% went to Harrison.

During a session on Wednesday on the introduction of the Work Programme, MPs on the public accounts committee put a series of critical questions to the civil servants responsible for devising the scheme about the way that contracts for the £5bn Work Programme were awarded.

The committee's chair, Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP for Barking, asked civil servants why welfare-to-work companies with a poor track record of fulfilling previous contracts had been given new work.

"It seemed rather surprising to me that you did not have to regard to the past performance of contractors. Why not?" she asked. "A4e … their performance on [Pathways to Work] was abysmal … Why didn't you look at past performance of contractors?"

Her fellow committee member Richard Bacon, Conservative MP for south Norfolk, added: "Are you seriously saying that you could not take into account that A4e had dreadful performance in one of the immediate predecessor programmes?"

He said that the company got 9% of clients into work in the Pathways to Work programme – it had been expected to deliver 30%.

"Despite that seriously poor track record, are you seriously saying that is not something you could take into account?"

The permanent secretary for the Department for Work and Pensions, Robert Devereux, replied: "I am saying that." He explained that because other companies, which had not been involved in providing previous welfare-to-work contracts, were also tendering for contracts, it would not have been possible to look at the past performance of companies that had previously worked in this area.

He also pointed out that most of the welfare-to-work providers had underperformed during the previous scheme.

A4e won five main contracts to deliver the Work Programme when the results of a tendering process were announced last April, along with a wide range of other companies including Serco, G4S and Working Links.

The committee spent some time trying to establish where money paid to A4e to deliver government contracts ended up.

"We have a small group of shareholders. The dividends that we pay to the shareholders reflect the personal risk that they have. Having owned a company for over 21 years, at times they have had to effectively put their own homes and mortgages on the line," Dutton told MPs. He said some of the company's profits were ploughed back into the business.

Hodge said it was important to follow taxpayers' money along the chain, stating: "Your top management last year took £4.7m … you pay £11m dividends."

She added: "You're one of the first examples we have had of a company which is entirely dependent on public contracts for your existence. We, in terms of looking for value for money, have an interest in following the pound. All your business is public contracts. You and Emma Harrison have to accept that there will be a different interest in the remuneration and profits made because the profits you make come from the taxes that ordinary, hard-working people pay."

Civil servants told the committee that the Work Programme's new payment-by-results model would ensure that companies such as A4e would only get large payments for implementing the scheme if they got large numbers of benefit claimants into long-term, secure work.

"I genuinely believe that we as providers have to perform," Dutton said.

There was discussion of whether companies would be able to make money by "creaming and parking" – creaming off and helping those who are easier to help, and parking those who are unlikely to find work, having taken the initial government payment of £400 for signing them up to the scheme.

Civil servants said that companies would not make money if that was the approach they took.

There was some analysis of a recent National Audit Office report which suggested that the forecasts for the numbers of people that the programme could get into work were over-optimistic. Devereux said he was confident that the Work Programme would get the forecast number of people into work, despite the fact that the economic environment had significantly deteriorated since the programme was devised.

Fiona Mactaggart, Labour MP for Slough, was concerned about the possibility of "job substitution" – companies delivering the Work Programme getting paid for pushing their clients into jobs that would otherwise have been filled by other jobseekers, without the need for a third-party payment.

"In my constituency, a lot of people are being given work experience, unpaid, in retail, and then the retailers, I think, are being directly encouraged to employ people who have been given this one-month or two-, three-month interview process … and when they're offering jobs, a company like A4e, which operates in Slough, can say to Primark, if you want more of our free workers, I hope you are going to give our people 20-hour-week jobs. I'm sure it's not quite as overt as that, but I believe there is a risk of that happening.

"How in this system do we protect against the risk of job substitution?"

Devereux said that if the long-term unemployed were helped into work that was a positive development. "It is in society's interest to get people who have been out of work a long time into jobs," he said.

Alan Cave, senior responsible owner for the Work Programme, told the committee: "It is an observed big change in the labour market over the past 10 years that more and more companies are using work experience as a tester of whether someone might be a full-time employee. That's the reality. The providers have become quite skilful at taking someone coming on to the programme with a very weak CV … finding them some quick blocks of work experience, which will not be paid, [but] which will greatly improve their chances of getting a job that will be paid."

This article first published at The Guardian

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Unemployed Exploited by Workfare Programme

Just to add to Mike’s blog, which I much agree with, the unemployed are not just being turned into scapegoats, they are being turned into a source of profit ! Firstly Atos Healthcare, for their persecution of sick and disabled people to chase as many of them as possible off the (higher) benefits available to those ‘unfit’ to work on to the lower JSA rates, are getting £100mn a year from the government. That’s compared to a total of £994 million that the government expects to save by shifting disabled people from ESA to JSA between 2010 and 2015. Rather poor returns you might say, especially considering that £30mn a year is being spent by government on fighting claimants’ appeals against Atos’ decisions. Secondly, G4S, the company charged with running the new ‘Work Programme’ stands to make up to £14000 per person it manages to place into a job that lasts a minimum of 2 years. Altogether their expected income from ‘placing’ unemployed people will be around £5 billion. Thirdly, the Work Programme offers unemployed people not as ‘wage slaves’ but as UNWAGED bodies for up to three months to private employers. No conditions about whether these employers would otherwise have hired ‘real’ employees. No time limit either – the three months can be repeated so that any claimant can be made to do up to 12 months unwaged work (receiving benefits only). Nor any limit on the amount of labour a single employer can have free of charge – the local Poundland in Wood Green, for example, may be entirely staffed by job centre conscripts for all we know. Certainly anti-workfare campaigners and press reports (e.g. The Guardian here) have highlighted Poundland, Argos , Tesco and Sainsbury’s as companies that are taking part in this scheme. So how many millions of pounds are being made out of these unemployed ‘non-wage slaves’ ?

I have come across at least one GP member who thinks it’s ok for jobseekers to work for their benefit, to ‘put something back’ into society. Some already did – the requirement to join the Work Programme, for some people only three months into unemployment, is REGARDLESS of whether they paid for these benefits through their national insurance. Others might well be doing useful voluntary work which is really voluntary, if they were left to get on with it – but they are not allowed to choose that, they must go where the job centre or G4S puts them. They also might be doing a college course, but they can be asked to give that up too. All under threat of; ‘if you don’t accept a Work Programme placement, we will stop your benefits.’

What effect do these benefit sanctions have ? Hunger, homelessness, mental and possibly physical illness, driving people into crime. The more so if the government does what it wants and extended the maximum ‘benefits denied’ period to THREE YEARS! Already during the period of Labour’s ‘New Deal’ for the unemployed in the early noughties, government research showed that sanctions against refusenik youth who dropped out of jobcentre programmes were counter-productive; they went underground, were lost to the world of work and training, and often became homeless.

Greens should be demanding the government drop the Work Programme and bring back the Future Jobs Fund, as well as letting the unemployed do voluntary work or training of their own choice. But what of Citizen’s Income, the policy Greens have been after for years ? On the face of it we will be half way there with Universal Credit – the plan now going through Parliament that from 2013, tax credits and most unwaged benefits will be wrapped up into a single benefit. Then, it will become legal to do casual or part-time work alongside claiming benefits – you will just have to ’ fess up to the tax office how much you made, and benefits will start to fall away once it’s more than a specified level. But a huge gulf still remains between Universal Credit and Citizen’s Income in terms of the rules for claiming. With Universal Credit, claimants will still have to attend job centre interviews, prove they are seeking work, and join job centre programmes whenever ordered to. Any breach of these rules will lead to loss of Universal Credit. The spirit of Citizen’s Income is that it’s UNCONDITIONAL – it should not depend on jumping through all these bureaucratic hoops.

Rather than endlessly wonder about the cost or details of Citizen’s Income, Greens should be campaigning for a lifting of compulsory programmes and easing of benefit sanctions. Not only because they demean and harass unemployed people and have negative effects in practice – there is a huge amount of research criticizing ‘workfare’ and tough benefit rules, which I wrote about a few years ago (Anne Gray, ‘Unsocial Europe’, Pluto Books 2004). We should also be pushing home the argument (which I also made in that book) that the effect of forcing people to work for nothing, or to take rock-bottom pay for fear of losing benefit, is to drive down wages for everyone. We may be campaigning for a ‘living wage’, but it’s no good if the job-centre system is continually pressuring the unemployed to work for the legal minimum and encouraging employers to take free workfare labour.

Written by Anne Gray
Haringey Green Party

Friday, 3 February 2012

Counter Power: Making Change Happen by Tim Gee

If you've ever stood on a windy street corner handing out leaflets to disinterested shoppers, or traipsed from Embankment to Hyde Park Corner and found yourself wondering “What am I doing here? How does this help further the cause to which I am committed?”, then this is definitely not the book for you. In fact, it's hard to know exactly who this book is for. It's not really political theory, because there isn't much theory in it. It isn't really practical tips for organisers either, because most of the examples which occupy so much of the book don't apply to capitalist democracies like Britain. There is little attempt to evaluate either tactics or overall strategies.

Gee asserts the legitimacy of 'counterpower', by which he means popular dissent and protest, then categorises it into Ideas Counterpower (conventional campaigning such as leaflets, petition and media strategy), Economic Counterpower (strikes and boycotts), and Physical Counterpower (everything from non-violent demonstrations to insurrections). He then spends the bulk of the book describing various popular struggles at considerable length, including the movement for independence in India, the campaign against the Vietnam War in the US (with walk-on parts for the UK supporters), and the struggle to overthrow Apartheid in South Africa in terms of the categories he has created.

The end result is a sort of relentlessly cheerful history of protests movements, with most of the politics taken out. There is no indication that either the anti-war struggle in American or the overthrow of Apartheid owed anything to the global balance of forces; the USSR may have been a really rotten model for how to construct an alternative society, but there can be little doubt that its military and geopolitical strategy in the Cold War acted as a brake on American power. But this does not even appear to have crossed Tim Gee's mind.

If you don't know anything about the history of protests around the world, you could do worse than read this book. But if you really want some strategic direction about how to make change happen, you'll have to look elsewhere.

Written by Jeremy Green
Haringey Green Party

Thursday, 2 February 2012

'Insider Trading', Anyone?

Global health insurance company Unum -- formerly Unum Provident -- has been advising UK governments on welfare reform since 1994. As Haringey Green Party's Anne Gray in the Green Party's 2008 response to Labour's welfare reform Green Paper 'No-one left behind' touched upon by reference to Prof Jonathan Rutherford's research into the matter when she wrote:

"The Green Party is also very concerned about the strong role of one or two private companies in advising the government about the development of welfare to work proposals, particularly in relation to the restructuring of incapacity-related benefits,(see Jonathan Rutherford here) It seems extraordinary that so much attention has been given to the views of a company which is on record as saying that it sees the UK benefits system as one of its major markets for the future; one would expect advice to have been taken from a wider and more balanced range of sources. As Rutherford’s paper shows, the credibility of Unum — formerly Unum Provident - has been badly damaged by having been prosecuted for fraudulent business in the USA."

Televised ads for Back-Up Plan state openly, "If you have to give up work because of an accident or injury, it's as if the rug has been pulled out from under you...." It then goes on to promoting Income Protection Insurance, that is exactly in line with Government plans for replacing Disability Living Allowance. What is the company behind Back-Up Plan? You've guessed it, Unum. For further info that goes deeply into nepotistic interactions between the Department for Work & Pensions' former Chief Medical Adviser, Unum and Atos Healthcare — as well as Unum's attempts to censor its online critics — see here

Mike Shaughnessy refers in a previous post on this blog to the housing benefit implications of the ConDems' welfare reform plans, and the high cost of rents in London and South-East England as a major factor in this. The Welfare Reform Bill is not alone in making the prospect of homelessness worse for the least comfortably off. The ConDems' agenda in the Localism Bill includes restricting local councils' housing stock. More here.

Whether this might be a case of real 'unintended consequences' or a covert agenda, who might gain from this move to greater dependency on the 'buy to rent' market? Ironically, while asylum seeking families have been scapegoats for a clamp down on both security of tenure for social housing and local councils' housing stock, the winners in the compendium of ConDem 'joined up thinking' include offshore landlords who regard the UK as part of their 'global village', as Mike McNabb has clearly outlined.

In targeting a Somali family as undeserving beneficiaries of UK government funds, the Daily Mail conveniently overlooked who really gains by the hiking of rent in a Tory borough as case study material for informed policy-making. As McNabb has written: "What we should be more concerned about - because the Mail evidently is not - is the doubling of the rent from £1,050 last year to the maximum available now under housing benefit rules.

"The landlord, a company based in the British Virgin Islands, is not named in the report. Neither is anyone questioned about the hiking of the rent, which seems to have coincided with the arrival of Abdi Nur and his family.

So who is playing the system now?

Written by Alan Wheatley
Camden Green Party
Co-author with Anne Gray of the Green Party's response to Labour's Welfare Reform Green Paper of 2008.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Welfare Claimants are Scapegoats for Financial Crisis

The ConDem government is attempting to cut £18 billion from welfare benefits in the latest wave of austerity measures, that they insist is necessary to cut the UK budget deficit and borrowing requirements. This policy seems to have attracted a fair amount of populist support in the country, with the government’s friends in the right wing press producing screaming headlines about ‘benefit scroungers’ and the like.

The proposal to cap benefits at a maximum of £26,000 per year, per family, has been held up by the House of Lords, but will be returned to the House of Commons, and no doubt eventually pushed through into law. This does seem like an extraordinary amount of money to be claiming in welfare benefits, when the average UK gross wage is exactly the same figure, but this tells only part of the story. The vast majority of people receiving this sum live in the south east of England, mainly in London, and most of the money claimed is in the form of Housing Benefit, from tenants of private sector landlords. So the claimants never really see this money, but if they lose it, then they will more than likely lose their homes along with it.

Disability Living Allowance (DLA) is also to be cut for those lucky enough to still be in receipt of it, whilst the rest are forced onto Jobseekers Allowance (JSA), whether they are really fit for work or not, by ATOS, the government’s private health company assessors. (The Guardian reports here that a man who has been registered blind since 2000 due to a hereditary degenerative sight condition was surprised to read his report's conclusion that "the client's level of disability would be expected to improve with time and appropriate treatment"). And of course everyone on JSA gets harassed and threatened with the loss of their benefit, regardless of the lack of job opportunities; with unemployment soaring as the economy stagnates and public sector jobs are cut to the bone. The only growth area I have heard of in the public sector is in benefit fraud investigators.

Contrast this with cuts in the government’s tax inspectorate, where far more money is lost to the public purse than in fraudulent benefit claims, and you can see a pattern emerging in ConDem strategy. The whole aim of this government is to pin the blame on people on welfare benefits for the poor state of the country’s finances, (and by implication the last Labour government), when it seems to have been conveniently forgotten that the current financial crisis was caused by the reckless behaviour of the banks, where the directors of these banks are richer now than they were before they plunged the nation, and indeed most western nations, into recession.

There’s not much sympathy for the bankers though amongst the general public, so the benefit cuts have to be sold as being not fair to the ‘working poor’. Classic divide and rule, as Diane Abbott might say. There are far too many workers on low wages, but the government’s rhetoric doesn’t match its actions. Most claimants of Housing Benefit are actually in work, but this isn’t stopping the government reducing payments and ‘localising’ the system to that end. The government is also cutting Working Tax Credits, which go to the lowest paid workers, and the likely increase to £10,000 of the income tax personal allowance (tax free earnings), will not fully compensate those on the lowest wages. Oh, and it will be made easier for employers to sack workers too.

The only problem for the government with this strategy is that it is not reducing the budget deficit, quite the reverse. The government admits that the deficit will be £158bn higher by 2015, but they have managed to drown this fact out, by shouting noisily about ‘fairness’ and ‘scroungers’. What a pity people fall for this irrelevant diversion, but I hope eventually the proverbial penny will drop, and people will see all of this for what it truly is.

And there is another way. We need to catch the tax cheats and we need to tax the very wealthy properly, and there are a variety of ways that this can done, see here and here on this blog for some examples. To address the Housing Benefit situation, we need to build more social housing and reintroduce rent controls in the privately rented sector.

We need to stop blaming the victims for this mess that we are in, and lay the responsibility at the door of the perpetrators. Now, that really is fairness.