More dirty tricks from government over welfare reform?

The welfare reform bill is back in the House of Commons after 14:30 today as part of “ping-pong” between the Commons and the Lords, but you wouldn’t know it if you relied on the usual methods of finding out.

The last event for this bill was debate in the House of Lords on the 14th and I have been checking the Parliament website and waiting for an email to inform me of the next event for the bill, to no avail. Until this morning the order of business for the House of Commons simply said “Consideration of Lords amendments if necessary” and until a few minutes ago the official Welfare Reform Bill web page still said that the next event was “To be announced”.

WRB webpage shows next event TBA
The WRB webpage at 11:15 today


The order of business for today and the official website have finally been updated with very short notice for the debate. This matters because MPs don’t always attend debates – they have many other things to do in their offices and their constituencies or elsewhere.!/markmiwordsblog/status/171915754663444482

The agenda for today now includes:


Welfare Reform Bill – Consideration of Lords amendments”

And the website for the bill now says:

Next event

  • Ping Pong | 21.02.2012

An email has finally arrived in my inbox to inform me of this update. It carries a timestamp of 7:56 but it only turned up in the last half hour.

We have to ask why the announcement of this has been delayed until the day itself. Is this normal behaviour for Parliament? Or perhaps this is an effort to bury the bill in an effort to prevent MPs who plan to rebel from turning up?!/johnleechmcr/status/171897318671523840

With the government also having taken measures to limit the debate today to one single hour in total and with Lord Freud having previously re-amended the Lord’s amendments late at night after peers had gone home, my money is on the latter.

Here are the proposed amendments for today: Consideration of Lords Message – Welfare Reform Bill

Update: I received an email at 11:56 which carries another development. In addition to limiting the debate to a maximum of one hour the government have now grouped together all of the amendments and objections today into one vote. [PDF]

21 FEBRUARY 2012
Consideration of Lords Message
Government motion to disagree with Lords Amendments 3B and 26B + Government motion not to insist on Amendment 19A and to agree with Lords Amendments 17B to 17D and 19B + Government motion to agree with Lords Amendment 73BA

[1 hour after commencement.

21 February 2012

By Order of the Speaker

Government taps sick and disabled people as source of free labour

Chris Grayling holds chemo pills - "Repave my driveway and I might give them back"
Image by @dochackenbush

In an astonishing revelation today we find that the Welfare Reform Bill will apply the “Claimant Commitment” that must be agreed to by job seekers to people in the Work Related Activity Group of Employment Support Allowance. Sanctions will apply for failure to keep to the agreement.

Let me explain: people who are too sick or disabled to work can claim ESA. After a Work Capability Assessment (WCA) they will be placed in either the Support Group or the Work Related Activity Group. (WRAG.) People in the support group are considered completely unable to work, at least until the next assessment, while those placed in the WRAG are considered to be unable to work now but potentially able to work within the next few years, with the right help to do so. (One designer of ESA has said that the intention was within two to five years.) People in this group are required to  attend regular work focussed interviews with an advisor at the Job Centre to discuss ways in which they might expect to return to work despite their illness or disability.

It is frightening to discover, therefore, that under the new Universal Credit people who are placed in the WRAG will be subject to the same agreement and conditions as those who are unemployed. This will include the same work experience and work placement schemes, run by the same private commercial providers, and with the same sanctions for refusing to take part. Given the likelihood of dropping out due to sickness and the inability of job centre advisers to be flexible about such things it is highly likely that sanctions will be applied to people merely because they are too sick to do what is asked of them.

What this means is that sick and disabled people who may be completely unable to work at this time can be sent to work for one of the various charities or companies taking part, without pay. The placements are intended to last for eight weeks but unlike for job seekers, there is no time limit for disabled people. People could be sent to work without pay for an unlimited time on the whim of the job centre advisor or the commercial contractor who the person has been sent to.

This is made even worse because the WCA, run by Atos,  is notoriously inaccurate, with many people being incorrectly placed in the WRAG or declared fit to work, but later overturning the decision on appeal. There are lots of examples of people who have been judged fit for work by Atos being sent to the Job Centre to claim Job Seekers Allowance only to be refused help and turned away because the job centre staff can clearly see that they are unable to work. These are people who are supposedly more capable than those in the WRAG.

This clause of the welfare reform bill has remained undiscovered until now but now that it is out in the open we must make a fuss, we must protest. This is too far and the government must be stopped by any means necessary.

Please sign the petition to stop and review the Welfare Reform Bill and the petition to abolish work for benefit schemes.

Disabled people face unlimited unpaid work or cuts in benefit [Guardian]

Government work placement schemes little more than slave labour [A Latent Existence]

Who benefits from The Work Programme?  [A Latent Existence]

Government work placement schemes little more than slave labour

Job ad: permanent unpaid night shift at Tesco
Job ad: permanent unpaid night shift at Tesco

The above image shows a job advertised by Job Centre Plus. (Website link) It involves unspecified night shift work (probably shelf stacking) and the wage is Job Seeker’s Allowance plus expenses. Tesco will pay no wage for this work. It also says that the job is permanent but I think this must be a mistake.

The job appears to be part of Sector-Based Work Academies. (SBWA) The employer guide to the scheme [PDF] says

“The length of a work experience placement is determined at the initial discussion between you and Jobcentre Plus”

SBWA is supposed to guarantee a job interview at the end of the unpaid placement, but so far only about a fifth of people taking part in these schemes have been given a permanent job at the end of it.

The Conservatives are very proud of their efforts to get people back into work, especially their Work Programme. Most of their efforts seem focussed on getting job seekers into unpaid work placements in shops and supermarkets and there are multiple schemes to this end. Many of these people are given no choice in the matter; placements are often chosen for them, and they can lose Job Seeker’s Allowance for 13 weeks to 6 months if they will not go. Some of these placements can last as long as six months. No wages are involved – Job Seeker’s Allowance is paid, and sometimes bus fares.

Unpaid placements are not only bad for the unfortunate people who are forced to do them but they also deprive people of proper paid work. Tesco has been one of the largest users of work placement schemes taking on several thousand unpaid workers over the last year. The work that they do is the same as the paid staff.  Now Tesco are taking unpaid workers for the night shift too, which is a new development. These people are not only working for no pay apart from minimal benefits, now they are being put through the ordeal of working nights without compensation.

It was bad enough that the Job Centre were telling people to do unpaid work placements, it is much worse that placements are being advertised alongside real jobs. The government use the number of jobs advertised by the job centre to gauge the number of jobs available altogether. Do they exclude these unpaid placements from their statistics?

Government statistics have revealed that in all, 24,010 people have been forced to take part in “Mandatory Work Activity” – four weeks at 30 hours per week – between May and November 2011. This whole thing is the modern-day equivalent of indebted servitude. Peonage.

BBC Newsnight covered this story.

Please sign the petition to abolish work for benefit schemes.

I have written more about work programmes in a previous blog post.

Militant secularism

“Sorry, I don’t mean to be impolite, but can these people keep their imaginary friends and sky fairies out of law and public policy? Thanks.”

– David Allen Green tweeting as @jackofkent 11/02/2012 (Tweet now deleted.)

What struck me about this quote is that it clearly was meant to be impolite despite what he claimed. Mr Green used the phrase “imaginary friends and sky fairies” which is fine for him to think and to say, but he is clever enough to know that it would offend the people that he was nominally aiming the message at. Adding a false apology to this message simply reinforced the offensiveness of the message. I suspect that the message was not really meant for the people it was addressed to, but rather as something to stir up popularity among followers and controversy and reaction among religious people. Trolling, in fact. Something that newspaper headlines were also doing on Saturday:

Daily Mail front page - "Christianity under attack"Times front page - "Christianity on the rack as judge bans public prayer"

Images read “Christianity under Attack” (Daily Mail) and “Christianity on the rack as judge bans public prayer” (The Times)

These misleading headlines were a reaction to a high-court judgement on Friday which found that Bideford Council could not hold prayers as part of their council sessions.  The objection by the National Secular Society to requiring people to attend these prayers was that they made it very uncomfortable for  Councillor Clive Jones – or indeed any other non-Christian – and left him with a choice of sitting through the prayers or walking out and looking bad. This is not a problem unknown to Christians, and the NSS cite the example of a Christian councillor who walked out of a Portsmouth council meeting because they invited a muslim imam to pray. I accept that this councillor does not represent all Christians but the example does show that the problem affects all sides. The ruling on Friday disagreed with the argument put by the NSS and found that prayer in council meetings does not violate human rights and is not discrimination.

Part of the judgement said:

“A local authority has no powers under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972 to hold prayers as part of a formal local authority meeting or to summon councillors to such a meeting at which prayers are on the agenda.

“The saying of prayers in a local authority chamber before a formal meeting of such a body is lawful provided councillors are not formally summoned to attend.” – Mr Justice Ouseley

This judgement did not forbid prayer by the council members, nor prayer in public. What it did was to assert that the council had no power under the current law to hold prayer as part of the formal council meeting (in this case, included in the minutes) or to make it compulsory for councillors to attend those prayers. In fact the law that was referred to does not refer to prayer at all, merely as to what other things the council can include in meetings to support their work.

Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles hasn’t even grasped what the judgement is. He said:

“Public authorities – be it Parliament or a parish council – should have the right to say prayers before meetings if they wish.”

This of course is exactly what the the ruling said, as I quoted earlier. Pickles has stated that the Localism Act which will come into force in a few weeks does include powers that will make it possible to include prayer as part of council meetings, reversing the judgement anyway. What is very worrying is that Pickles has publicly stated that councils should “continue to have prayers if they want to” in violation of the law as it is now.

Secular State

The United Kingdom is officially a Christian country. I firmly believe that all government should be secular and there should be no state-endorsed religion, instead leaving everyone free to believe or not as they wish. The concept that the state should not impose a religion on anyone is not new. In the USA the first amendment to the constitution says:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

In a letter  to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 Thomas Jefferson expanded on this when he wrote:

“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” [Quote via Wikipedia]

US courts have found that organisations such as schools should not hold formal prayer as a result of the first amendment, as in the recent ruling against a school having a prayer displayed on a banner in Ahlquist v Cranston. [Daily Mail] Despite the law being on their side people who object to prayer in schools in the USA are often the subject of abuse and death threats.

I believe that the backlash against the people involved in these cases is a very good argument as to why the state should be secular. It is obvious that people in a minority will be discriminated against and marginalised, even more so when they point out this fact. I think that the very existence of human rights is down to a need to protect minorities and vulnerable groups from tyranny by the majority, and actions by those above show a need to protect the freedom to not be part of a religion as much as they protect the freedom of those who are part of a religion.


One of the problems that we face in our society is that there appears to be an unresolvable conflict between advertising standards and freedom of speech. I suspect that there are quite a few such clashes. One example is this recent ruling by the Advertising Standards Agency that a flyer given out by a group called Healing On The Streets (HOTS) violated advertising standards by promising healing. Not only did the flyer make claims which could not be proven or backed up with medical trials, they also offered prayer for healing from cancer. It is actually illegal to talk about treating or curing cancer in advertising in any way at all under the Cancer Act 1939:

(1)No person shall take any part in the publication of any advertisement—

(a)containing an offer to treat any person for cancer, or to prescribe any remedy therefor, or to give any advice in connection with the treatment thereof;

It is important to note that the ASA ruling affects advertising only. It does not prevent HOTS from believing that god can heal these afflictions or praying. The originator of the complaint was concerned that people might stop taking medication and then suffer as a result. She took pains to point out on her blog that she has also made complaints against claims made for homeopathy and is not opposed to Christianity.

Human Rights

There can also be conflict between human rights law and religion. For an example of this we can look at the case of Christian owners of a guest house in Cornwall who refused to allow a gay couple to stay in a double bed in their guest house because they thought it would be promoting sin. The couple lost a legal case brought against them and their actions were found to be discrimination under equality laws. This wasn’t an attacked by secularists, the couple violated human rights law which was put in place by government to protect people. That same law allows freedom of conscience and religion which also allows freedom from religion.

Militant Secularism

Chair of the Conservative party, Baroness Warsi has reacted to recent court cases by claiming that “a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies.” She goes on:

“We see it in any number of things: when signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings; when states won’t fund faith schools; and where religion is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere. It seems astonishing to me that those who wrote the European Constitution made no mention of God or Christianity”

Leaving aside the accusation of militant secularisation for a moment, Warsi’s comment about the constitution frightens me. I believe that just like the first amendment of the US constitution, all constitutions and governments should be distinct from religion. This isn’t to wipe out or reduce any religion, but to ensure that people of all religions and none will be protected from discrimination. Putting Christianity in to the European Constitution would discriminate against Muslims, Sikhs, Jews and Hindus as much as it would against agnostics and atheists.

Writing in the Telegraph, Warsi continued:

For me, one of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant. It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes – denying people the right to a religious identity because they were frightened of the concept of multiple identities.

None of the people pursuing complaints against false advertising, prayer in council meetings, discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or prayer in schools were doing anything they shouldn’t. They were all trying to uphold the law as it stands by having it enforced. The laws already exist and others are merely pointing out this fact. And this seems to be what “militant atheists” do. We aren’t exactly overrun with atheist suicide bombers. Instead they object to the law being broken. They make complaints when they are discriminated against. They attend an occasional protest rally such as the One Law For All event last Saturday. They fail to respect religion in what they say. But why should anyone have to avoid saying things that aren’t respectful? It is everyone’s right to believe that Christianity is nonsense just as much as it is for them to believe in Jesus. If you turn that around, Christians fail to respect atheists when they shout that Jesus saved them. The phrases “militant secularism” or “militant atheism” seem to mean that someone has been offended by atheists. Atheists can’t help it if religious people are offended by their mere existence or by what they talk about with each other. Both parties are being daft about this – Christians and atheists must learn not to take offence at each other’s statements when they disagree.

Militant Atheist
Comic from Note, portrays extremists, not everyone!

Having said that, it is clear that Christians and secularists are caught in a loop where their offence is feeding from each other and growing as a result. I want a secular society where all faiths and none can live together.  Baroness Warsi’s accusation of militant secularism made me react by getting angry and wanting to become militant which is probably not what she intended. But conversely, the quote which I opened with made Christians that I know who also want a secular society react angrily against the sentiment expressed. They agreed with the sentiment, but were furious at the insult contained in the statement. Insults turn everyone against your message, not just the ones that are affecting you.

No one has a right not to be offended. Human rights guarantee freedom of conscience, religion and expression but they don’t force anyone to listen. However, setting out to deliberately offend people does not win them over to your side. Either side.

Further reading

Council loses court battle over prayer sessions before meetings [Guardian]

Council Prayers unlawful rules High Court [NSS]

Government tells councils to carry on praying despite High Court ban [Telegraph]

Christian guesthouse owners lose appeal over ban on gay guests [Telegraph]

We stand side by side with the Pope in fighting for faith [Telegraph]

Militant secularisation threat to religion, says Warsi [BBC]

George Carey: time to say that Christians have rights too [Telegraph]

Religious and Social Attitudes of UK Christians in 2011 [Ipsos MORI]

Healing claims being made across the UK [Hayley is a ghost]

Healing on the Streets & why I am not ‘a group generally opposed to Christianity’ [Hayley is a ghost]


You can’t keep religion out of politics

Signpost: Religion / politicsReligion and politics are inexorably linked and we should respond to that through debate and democracy, not through attacking religion.

There are as many different reasons for entering politics as there are people who enter politics. Some see an injustice that they must correct. Some are personally affected by a policy and wish to change it. Some don’t care about policy as long as they have power or wealth. And some wish to shape the world as their religious beliefs tell them it should be, and that is not always a bad thing.

Politics and religion have always been intertwined and there are many political movements that emerged from religious roots. Of course there are as many religious viewpoints as there are non-religious, and so we see both Christian Socialism which has shaped the Labour party since the 1960s and at the same time we see the Conservative party full of Christians with right-wing policies. Religion is no guarantee of good or bad policies any more than atheism is but there is overlap between religious and non-religious policies and ideals so that religious roots may have no impact on whether a policy is considered good or bad by someone who is not religious.

I believe that religion and state should be separate. I think that when the state has an official religion, that religion is likely to be imposed on others by mandating prayers, services or ceremonies as part of government business and perhaps in other areas. We see lots of examples of this in the UK with prayers at the start of parliament sessions, and a religious oath before giving testimony in a court of law. (Although it is possible to opt out of this now.) I believe that in a multicultural multi-faith society this is wrong. Instead all government and all public services ought to be secular, without preventing anyone from following their religion. If politicians wish to pray about their duties I don’t have a problem with that, but like  the councillor who recently won a court case to prevent prayer from being incorporated in the official agenda of council meetings, I believe that it should happen outside of the official government process. I believe that laws which impose a religious belief on us are a bad thing. I do not believe that government should impose any religious beliefs about who may marry who, or allow discrimination based on sexuality or any other attribute. I wish that religious politicians would not try to impose their morality on other people but instead stick to ensuring equality and justice for all.

For people who are raised in a religious environment there is unlikely to be any difference between their opinions formed through their upbringing and those that spring from their religion and so even if they wanted to, they could not separate the two. In any case, we cannot ask that people’s opinions are not shaped by their religion as to do so is to deny freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and freedom of expression which are all basic human rights. We must be allowed to think and believe freely. In a democracy people from any viewpoint should have the right to stand for election and to represent their voters if elected. Since we cannot prevent religion from shaping people’s opinions, the only way to oppose bad policies is to elect people of a different viewpoint and out-vote the policy. Of course in some cases this is impossible, such as in the case of Anglican bishops with a place in the House of Lords. I do not believe that bishops should have an automatic right to be in the House of Lords, but then it is not democratic anyway and the whole thing needs reform.

It is common to see people oppose a policy because the politician behind it is religious. I think this is disingenuous. Bad policy should be opposed because it is bad policy, not because of where it came from. If the only reason behind a policy is religion with no other factors then yes by all means oppose it on that basis, but if a Christian politician proposes a policy that you disagree with but has reasons other than their faith, attack the reasons and not their faith. To attack a policy merely because the politician behind it is religious is a bad argument and based on bigotry not reason.


Lessons from a troll

My experiences in the last couple of days have highlighted a few things.

It is hard to tell the different between someone who is saying things just to provoke you (a troll) and someone who genuinely believes what they are saying and is trying to convince you. Sometimes they believe what they are saying but are still trying to provoke a reaction for their own amusement. Indigo Jo Blogs sets out a case that this kind of trolling is simply bullying in RIP trolling isn’t the worst kind. Some people are of the opinion that telling people with M.E. that their illness isn’t real and that they don’t deserve help is actually gaslighting – a form of abuse through making people doubt their own minds. This kind of approach seems common in politics as Lisa Ansell wrote in Trolling as political debate.

Many on the right of politics believe that welfare should not exist. Instead they believe that individuals should have savings and pay for their own insurance privately to cover them against unemployment and being unable to work through illness and disability, and for healthcare. The problems with this approach are many but it seems impossible to convince proponents of the idea that it will lead to suffering and homelessness, or perhaps they just don’t care about that.

There is still a big problem with people believing that ME and Fibromyalgia are somehow not real or are minor or trivial. This has been fuelled by articles and blog posts from tabloid papers. Both are defined as neurological physical diseases by the World Health Organisation but this is irrelevant in deciding if they are real anyway – even if they were caused by mental health problems at the core they would still be just as disabling. It is an absurd suggestion that anyone would want M.E. or would voluntarily stay in bed for most or all of the day, every day, in isolation, or voluntarily use a wheelchair or a walking stick all the time when going out. These would be stupid things to inflict on yourself for the benefits available, if you even manage to get them.

Some people seem to believe that if they can work through their illness or disability then anyone who does not work must simply not be trying hard enough. They seem to have no understanding that the amount a person is affected by a particular health problem can vary massively between different people and different problems. It seems inconceivable to them that an invisible illness could be more disabling in its effects than a cancer or surgery of some sort. They think that particular health problems, like cancer and chemotherapy treatment, are the ultimate in human suffering and that nothing else can be worse. I know a few people on chemotherapy and I know that it is a horrific experience, but it isn’t the only thing that can make someone so sick – especially if someone is on a low dose.

I captured some of what was said to me recently using Storify, embedded here. (Click here if it doesn’t show below after a few seconds.) Warning, it does contain strong swearing on my part where I got too frustrated to hold back.

Continue reading “Lessons from a troll”

Who benefits from The Work Programme?

David Cameron is very proud of his Work Programme. Whenever the question of jobs and the number of unemployed is raised he answers that The Work Programme will help 2.5 million people. He claims:

“This is about ensuring that we have better education, a welfare system that helps people into work and a Work programme that provides not phoney jobs, as the future jobs fund did, but real work for real young people.” [Hansard 12 Oct 2011 Column 332]

The problem is that The Work Programme (a name which sounds really ominous to me) hasn’t actually helped all that many people. It turns out that only 1 in 5 people on the programme have managed to get a permanent job out of it, and BBC research indicates that it could be even lower. Even the DWP only estimated that 2 in 5 would do so. Given that the Future Jobs Fund was achieving a 54% success rate at getting people into work and The Work Programme was only ever expected to achieve 40% it seems like it was replaced purely out of ideology or “not invented here” syndrome. The low success rate of The Work Programme has not been helped by hiring A4e as one of the contractors to implement the scheme. Their previous efforts in the Pathways to Work Programme achieved 9% of people into work out of an expected 30%. The DWP ignored this record when considering contractors because some other contractors had no previous record to judge.

The Work Programme doesn’t seem to be all bad. This video made by The Guardian about a provider called Cheshire Training shows some positive aspects of the programme such as providing job application sessions, CV workshops, advice and some structure to keep people from giving up or being worn down by the lack of activity that is often involved in unemployment. I think such services could easily have been provided by the Job Centre rather than being outsourced, and in fact, some were or are.

(Bear in mind that the people interviewed were chosen by the Department of Work and Pensions and are not unbiased.)

While there are some positive aspects highlighted in the above video there are some rather larger down sides to the programme – forced labour being the biggest problem. There are two schemes that take place before the work programme itself: The Work Experience Scheme and Mandatory Work Activity Scheme. They involve being sent to work – usually full time – in a business that is paid to provide work experience. The placement usually lasts between two and eight weeks. Taking part in the scheme is not optional. If an adviser at the Job Centre Plus or in a provider of the work programme has decided that you must do some work experience, then you will have your benefits cut for at least 13 weeks and potentially 26 weeks if you do not. (And up to three years under the Welfare Reform Bill.) This is made worse by the fact that the job seeker does not get to choose their placement, they will be sent wherever the private contractor wants to send them. Not only that, but the work placements for the most part involve no training, only basic unskilled labour such as stacking shelves and washing floors. The Work Programme itself involves placements that can last up to six months and job seekers can be assigned to the programme for two years.

People sent on these placements are often doing the same jobs as people paid a full time minimum wage, except that is becoming rarer because many businesses that take part in the scheme have laid of temporary and part time staff in favour of free labour from the scheme. Instead of paying their staff, these big businesses are getting paid to put people to work. This might perhaps be just about acceptable if the people on the schemes were given a job at the end of the placement, but the norm is for them to be sent back to the job centre and a new unemployed person put to work in an endless cycle of free labour. It is baffling why our government thinks that paying businesses money to exploit people and making people work a full time job to the benefit of private industry for just their £53 per week job seekers allowance is a good idea. Even if the DWP do require people to work in return for their benefits (And I don’t think that fits the ideal of ensuring that no one is destitute) I do not think they should be required to work for more hours than they receive the equivalent money for at minimum wage. Indeed, it may well be illegal for these people not to be paid minimum wage and I hope that there are some successful legal cases against the scheme soon.

Times cartoon on compulsory work placements
A cartoon from The Times illustrates the problem

Cait Reilly is a good example of how the work experience scheme is at best unhelpful. She willingly attended an open day for people looking for retail work, work that she was quite prepared to take. However, after attending that open day she was then forced into a work experience placement at Poundland.

“I explained to my adviser my reservations about taking part: I was already in the middle of a work experience placement that I had organised for myself (and which was more relevant to the museum career I hope to pursue), and I already had retail experience.”

“I thought the “training” was optional, and it came as a shock to be told I was required to attend or risk cancellation or reduction of my £53 per week jobseekers’ allowance – despite the fact I have always actively sought paid work. So I began the “placement” with Poundland – it was not training, but two weeks’ unpaid work stacking shelves and cleaning floors. I came out with nothing; Poundland gained considerably.” [Cait Reilly writing for The Guardian]

The following is a quote from a comment left under the video shown earlier in this article.

“I personally know a fifty-six year old man who worked at Tesco for 40 hrs a week for 6 weeks for no pay. He said he was given the worst job, constantly filling freezers in the hope he would be taken on. After the 6 weeks were up the manager asked him if he would like to stay on for some extra weeks, my friend asked “with pay”? The manager said why would he pay him when he can pick the phone up and get more unemployed people who have to work for nothing of face sanctions meaning loss of ALL benefits for up to three years!

My friend wasn’t alone, he was part of twelve extra staff taken on to cover the xmas rush, no one was given a job at the end of the xmas period.” [Comment at The Guardian]

The above scenario of businesses taking on free labour for busy periods is not uncommon. We also have this example of a woman who worked for six months at Newham Council alongside colleagues who though that she was a permanent paid employee.

I went to [her] leaving do … We were all so sorry to see her go. She was an older lady and was one of the most hard-working and genuinely helpful admin staff we’d ever had. Worked her hours plus more and nothing was ever too much trouble for her. We honestly didn’t know why she was leaving after only six months. She’d worked a minimum of 37 hours per week (often more) and been the backbone of service delivery. The basic starting wage for that level is around £17,000 but for the work she was doing I would have expected her to be started at a few thousand more. Yet all she was getting was JSA and the fares for her lengthy bus journeys, while people doing identical work were getting a salary, paid leave and pension contributions. We were horrified.

Wrongly, we assumed this woman would be hired back as proper staff within days. The role was needed, she’d proven herself to be a fantastic worker, was well regarded and knew the systems. But no, the post was suddenly deemed no longer required and this lady never came back to us. She did exactly the same job as paid staff, yet didn’t get the same salary. This is illegal if the reason is age or race, but perfectly acceptable if someone has claimed a state benefit. It’s exploitation and it’s repellent. [Quote taken from Coporate Watch]

Perhaps government ministers don’t understand why unpaid labour is a problem because they are in the habit of finding unpaid internships and eventually real jobs for their own children through their family and business connections. Many even pay the employers to take on interns – £200 per day isn’t unknown. This is all very well for the rich, but most people who receive Job Seekers Allowance can barely afford food and rent. For those who are rich enough, paying for an internship at a bank at least provides useful experience for future employment in that industry, while being sent to stack shelves at Tesco or wash floors at Poundland for months at a time does not provide much for a CV in my opinion. It seems unlikely that a useful reference would come from such a placement, if the manager could even remember one person among such a high turnover.  Volunteering for a charity is a positive thing that will tell an employer something about the job applicant. Being forced to wash floors for three months doesn’t say much about them at all.

It seems that opinion is turning against this exploitation. Waterstones recently pulled out of the work experience scheme and some other companies that were accused of taking part, like Sainsbury’s, denied it quite strenuously and were keen to distance themselves. (Despite their denials Sainsbury’s are still involved in the scheme.) Cait Reilly who was mentioned above is persuing a legal case against the government. There is also a growing call for interns to be paid minimum wage.

I don’t object to work experience. It is quite reasonable for an unemployed person to spend one or two weeks in a relevant job learning useful skills for future employment. The Work Programme does not provide this. Instead it sends free labour to profitable businesses, and pays them for the privilege. These people do not receive useful training but simply replace paid staff in doing hard repetitive work. Most of the businesses taking part are profitable, in fact Tesco made a profit of £14,000 per employee last year. If they have work to be done then they should pay people to do that work. It’s that simple. People being sent for work experience should not be replacing staff, they should be shadowing them, assisting them and learning.

What is even more scary is that the government are systematically destroying workers’ rights making people more likely to become unemployed. Examples such as this call to Give firms freedom to sack unproductive workers soon add up to a worrying lack of job security. Is it really the Tory plan to have so many people sacked and working for free?

Please sign the petition to abolish work for benefit schemes.

Benefit guilt

I recently wrote about my income in detail. I did so partly because the benefits that I receive were listed in a newspaper (My own fault) without actually explaining them, and the amounts caused a few negative comments.

Since making my income public one thing that has been bothering me is that while my wife and I now receive enough money to live on and DLA to provide for the extra costs of my care and mobility, a vast  number of my friends do not. And I feel sort of guilty about that. I know that I shouldn’t, I am getting the proper benefits for my circumstances, but I feel horrible that other people – many with greater need than me – don’t get the help that they are supposed to get.

I went through a Work Capability Assessment with Atos and I was placed in the support group. I know that I am sick enough to merit ESA and DLA but it was always in doubt whether Atos would recognise that. I can’t help wondering what would have happened if my journey to the assessment centre hadn’t been so awful. (You can read about that travesty on a previous blog post.) If I hadn’t arrived shaken, stressed and exhausted perhaps my assessment would have gone quite differently – Atos have been criticised for ignoring variable health problems and could easily have judged me differently if I had appeared well that day.

Perhaps it is chance that I ended up in the Support Group for ESA rather than the Work Related Activity Group or even found fit for work. But then my DLA was awarded on the basis of the Work Capability Assessment too, even though that isn’t supposed to happen until PIP is introduced. So is that two benefits received by pure chance? Being awarded ESA helped me to get DLA and getting DLA has increased the amount that I get from ESA, and both of those ensure that I get housing benefit too. At some point I may get carers allowance although that might lower the amount that I get from ESA.

The point is, I now have enough to live on without being in poverty and always struggling to pay the bills. Many other people are not so lucky. What I really want is for access to these benefits to be available to all the other people that need it. I have so many friends who haven’t got the benefits that they so desperately need. Friends who can’t walk, or can’t get out of bed, or can’t cook for themselves. Friends who have been through the assessments by Atos and refused on absurd grounds. Friends who are in hospital near death and don’t get benefits. I was really terrified that I wasn’t going to get my ESA, and the form filling for benefits and the assessment process itself made me more stressed which led to me being more physically ill too.

Even when people have managed to get all the benefits to which they are entitled it isn’t always enough. I need relatively few adjustments to live. A wheelchair, a shower seat. Some people need hoists and lifting equipment and wet rooms and stairlifts and bigger rooms to fit it all in… and the list goes on. Of course some of that can be paid for in other ways such as from council funds or (until now) the Independent Living Fund but many people end up sorting out their own adaptions. I talked to my GP about getting an NHS wheelchair yesterday and she suggested that it would be quicker and easier to buy one for myself. (Not that I can’t try to get an NHS one.) That happens a lot with costlier items too.

Clearly the benefits system isn’t great at the moment. It’s obvious that it needs reform to solve these problems. But – and this is an important but – the Welfare Reform Bill doesn’t solve these problems. It makes them far worse. It abolishes multiple sources of funding, it cuts the DLA / PIP budget by 20% and it restricts who can get help and who will receive PIP. Government ministers have told us that those most in need will get more help. What they are less keen to tell everyone is that the extra help for those most in need is being snatched away from those who are only quite in need. If you need help but not loads of help, that’s tough. Because the government says you’re not going to get any help at all.

Welfare Reform Bill – the problems

The Welfare Reform Bill will, according to the Parliament website, replace means-tested benefits with a new Universal Credit. This is a huge change which in theory I am in favour of, except that I believe that the government have got the implementation and the details very very wrong.  The website lists these other key areas where the bill will change things:

Key areas

  • introduces Personal Independence Payments to replace the current Disability Living Allowance
  • restricts Housing Benefit entitlement for social housing tenants whose accommodation is larger than they need
  • up-rates Local Housing Allowance rates by the Consumer Price Index
  • amends the forthcoming statutory child maintenance scheme
  • limits the payment of contributory Employment and Support Allowance to a 12-month period
  • caps the total amount of benefit that can be claimed.

During the Committee Stage, the Government amended the Bill to provide for the establishment of a Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.

That all seems quite well-intentioned and innocuous, however the detail is a lot less reassuring. I probably can’t do any better at explaining why than this blog post which I recommend reading – So The Welfare Reform Bill Doesn’t Affect YOU!?!

The aspects of the bill that most worry me are those that impact on sick and disabled people. Those aspects are:

  • Limiting contribution based ESA to one year for people in the WRAG, after which people may only claim income-based ESA if their partner earns less than £7,500 per year. People who have paid their National Insurance and have become ill but are expected to regain some ability to work within two to five years with the right support will receive contribution based ESA for one year. After that they will be made dependant on any partner or family earning over £7,500 per year and have no independent income unless they live alone.
  • Introducing frequent assessments for everyone receiving PIP, even those who will only get worse, or cannot get better, and including those made worse by assessments.
  • Making PIP much harder to get by redefining disability. (Expecting to save 20%) People will be considered able to wash themselves if they can wash only above the waist. I am sure that everyone wishes to clean their genitals and anus. As a diabetic I am supposed to pay very careful attention to looking after my feet, but if I can’t wash them, I won’t get help with it. Changes to the definition of mobility are worrying too.
  • Stopping the practice of treating people disabled from childhood as having paid NI – meaning they will never get contribution based ESA and so never have an independent income
  • No longer pay for spare rooms in social housing, even for disabled people with a proven need such as a separate bed for a partner or carer or a space for mobility equipment or for treatment of some kind.
  • Prevent access to other support by removing PIP from many people. DLA / PIP is a gateway benefit which allows access to things like the blue badge parking scheme, a free bus pass, or proof of disability to access support from energy companies and others. When many people do not qualify for PIP they could lose these things.

There are a whole host of problems for people who are on a low income or unemployed. The bill will:

  • Introduce sanctions – stopping benefits for four weeks, three months, or three years. Punishing people by removing their income will make people homeless and may drive some towards crime. Unfortunately the range of things that you could be sanctioned for is more than just fraud.
  • Punish people for making mistakes on benefit claim forms.
  • Send people on unpaid work experience (“The Work Programme”) and sanction them if they don’t go or if they don’t get a good report. This is the same work programme that has people doing unpaid shelf stacking or washing floors alongside people getting a proper wage for the same job. And a mere 20% of people on the work programme get any kind of employment out of it.
  • Sanction people who don’t improve their appearance when told to. To what degree changes can be ordered is not specified.
  • Charge parents for the use of the Child Support Agency after breaking up. £20 – £50 fee, plus 7 – 12% of ALL income. An extra income tax for not having a partner, or for having escaped from an abusive relationship. Charges are likely to cause people to ignore the CSA – which is the government’s intention – but probably in favour of no support at all.
  • Limit total household benefits to £26,000 per year. (Except when on high rate PIP?) The main problem with this is that people in expensive places like London or Brighton will be forced to move away, potentially leaving family behind and losing local support such as care or child care.
  • Abolished the social fund, which pays for emergencies and provides crisis loans.
  • Introducing vouchers to pay for particular costs – potentially where you can buy your food, clothing, energy and so on will be dictated to you.
  • Force both people in a couple to look for work in order to qualify for Universal Credit. Since Universal Credit replaces housing benefit, low-paid (minimum wage) families will no longer have a choice to send one parent to work while the other cares for the children. Both parents must work.
Thanks to DarkestAngel32 for finding some of these points.
There are some changes that are happening outside of the Welfare Reform Bill. Tax credits are changing from 6 April 2012 including changes to the number of hours of work necessary to qualify. The Local Housing Allowance is already being seriously reduced, meaning that people are being forced to move out of accommodation that is too expensive, without always having somewhere to go. This has already caused some people to move from their own home into care at great cost to local authorities. The Independent Living Fund – which pays for severely disabled people to live in their own homes – has also been cut because it is “not financially sustainable.” The result will be that 20,000 people might have to move back in to care homes at even greater expense.

Some useful links