Fight all benefit cuts

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The ConDem coalition’s onslaught on the unemployed and those on welfare benefits shows no sign of letting up. Immediately following the introduction of Claimant Commitment in April, the government announced that daily signing-on will be required for workers unemployed for two years or more, and that anybody who is unemployed may face sanctions if they do not accept a zero-hours contract. The only purpose of daily signing-on is punishment: there is no extra money for those who have to get public transport to their local Jobcentre. The lie behind government policy is the notion that unemployment is the fault of the unemployed, and they need to be pilloried or whipped to get back to work. Mark Moncada reports.

The fact is that, on average, claimants spend 13 weeks on Jobseeker’s Allowance, and this has remained the same for years. What is changing is the level of in-work poverty. The number of people in work and claiming housing benefit soared by 59% from 650,561 in May 2010 to 1.03 million by the end of 2013. The number of those in employment may have risen to a record high – 30.43 million in the three months to March 2014 – but the increase has been in casual and low-paid jobs: self-employment, zero hours contracts, part-time, agency and temporary work.

The cuts in state welfare and the ever more punitive regime for unemployed people are having the intended effect of cutting real wages. Half of the 722,000 new jobs in the past year were self-employed positions. In the three months to March 2014 the number of people in part-time work rose by 0.6%, whereas the number in full-time work rose significantly less by 0.3%. New research by the Office for National Statistics shows there are an estimated 2.7 million zero-hours contracts in Britain, with more than one in 10 employers using them. The number of self-employed people rose by 183,000 over the three-month period to a record high of 4.55 million. The average self-employed person is paid 40% less than the average employee and has no employment rights or benefits. Contrast this to the top 1% of taxpayers, about 300,000 in number, whose share of national post-tax income has risen from 8.2% in 2012/13 to 9.8% in 2013/14. The bottom 90% have seen their share fall from 71.3% to 70.4%.

That there is no resistance to this is entirely the responsibility of the Labour Party and the trade unions. Far from opposing the attack on state welfare, Labour leaders agree the attack must go further. Rachel Reeves, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary says, ‘The Tory-led government talk tough on housing benefit, promising new measures, crackdowns and action to control rising costs, but the reality is far removed’.

Labour has done nothing practical to oppose the bedroom tax and Reeves has openly supported the government’s benefit cap, stating: ‘I think it is right that those people who are in work do not feel that those who aren’t in work are getting something that they couldn’t dream of getting.’ There are about 100,000 children in households affected by the benefit cap, mainly in London. No wonder the recent report London: NHS at the crossroads shows that at least 110,000 London children have a clinically-significant mental health problem. The trade unions remain completely ineffectual, offering no resistance to the fourth round of local council cuts. Days lost through strikes remain at historic lows: outside of education, a total of 122,000 days were lost. Trade union action in the private sector is non-existent.

Work Programme and Workfare

June will see the third anniversary of the appalling Work Programme (WP). It was introduced in June 2011 for those on Jobseeker’s Allowance. You can be forced on to the programme if you have been on JSA for three months and not in education, training or employment. You still have to attend the Jobcentre to sign on every two weeks and must be ‘actively seeking and available for work’. It lasts for two years and is mandatory. Of the 1.5 million people forced on to WP, only 3.2% or 48,000 found a long-term job. Contrast this to the 242,973 sanctions imposed by the DWP for ‘misconduct’ in the year to October 2013. That is five times as many sanctions as jobs found. The DWP claimed the sanctions were for ‘failure to participate in a scheme for assisting persons to obtain employment without good reason’.

After enduring the Work Programme, 352,000 claimants were unable to find work and so were sent back to the Jobcentre. However, they could now be forced onto the new ‘Help to Work’ workfare programme, launched on 28 April 2014. Again it is mandatory and sanctions may be applied for non-compliance.

The DWP states, ‘The new measures include intensive coaching, a requirement to meet with the Jobcentre Plus adviser every day, or taking part in a community work placement for up to six months so claimants build the skills needed to secure a full-time job.’ These ‘placements’ are run by private companies G4S, Pertemps, Seetec, Learndirect, Rehab, Working Links and Interserve. You have to do 30 hours a week forced labour for no wages, which amounts to 780 hours of unpaid work across the six months, and you still have to do at least four hours of searching for non-existent jobs each week.

The DWP carried out a pilot scheme for the Help to Work programme with 15,000 claimants. They were split into three groups, one of which was a control group in which they got no help. The other two groups either got ‘intensive Jobcentre Plus support’, or were put in the workfare ‘community action programme’. According to The Guardian, ‘… exactly the same number in the control group – 18% – found themselves jobs as those doing the forced community work. Just 1% more found jobs from the group with jobcentre support. In other words, workfare didn't work. Although 68% of the control group were still on unemployment benefits at the end, so were 66% of those who did the community work and 64% of those given jobcentre support.’

One element of Help to Work is Community Work Placements. At a cost of £300m this will require claimants to work for six months for ‘community organisations’ or charities. Refusal will mean stoppage of benefits. Its introduction has been deferred because the subcontractors are not yet in place. The tendering process was delayed to allow G4S to bid: it had been banned following the electronic tagging fiasco. This is not the only problem: 250 charities, have signed a declaration ‘Keep volunteering voluntary.’ Those that embrace this form of workfare are likely to face direct action.

Sanctions: an increasingly brutal regime

Latest figures show that the number of sanctions imposed on claimants has soared since the introduction of the new regime in October 2012. In the last three months of 2013, 227,000 claimants were sanctioned, up from 158,000 for the equivalent period in 2012. In total, 870,000 claimants were sanctioned in 2013, and a further 530,000 were referred for a sanction which was then rejected by the adjudicator. 120,000 of those claimants sanctioned since October 2012 were classified as disabled.

DWP work services director Neil Couling told the Scottish parliament welfare select committee in April that: ‘My experience is that many benefit recipients welcome the jolt that a sanction can give them … Some people no doubt react very badly to being sanctioned – we see some very strong reactions – but others recognise that it is the wake-up call that they needed, and it helps them get back into work.’ Starvation is the answer to unemployment.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 239 June/July 2014