Tories dismantle welfare benefits - Labour promises the same

FRFI 234 Aug/Sep 2013

Four months since the Welfare Reform Act came into effect in April, we are now seeing its brutal impact on the poorest sections of the working class. Councils are summonsing hundreds of thousands of people for non-payment of the council tax. Tens of thousands of social housing tenants are facing the threat of repossession because they cannot afford the bedroom tax on top of the council tax. From 15 July until September, the overall benefit cap of £500 per week (£350 for single people) will be rolled out across the country. If the total of a family’s benefits exceeds the cap, they will have the money taken off their housing benefit. The consequence will be that up to 80,000 families, most with three or more children, will face eviction within a few months, and for those in London, the prospect of having to move away.

It is not just the threat of homelessness, however, that faces hundreds of thousands of working class people. Many are experiencing hunger as they cannot afford to buy food. The Tressell Trust, which manages 325 food banks across the country, reports soaring demand. In the year to April 2013 it helped 346,000 people, three times as many as in the previous year; in all about 500,000 people had recourse to food banks during the year. The Tressell Trust also reported that demand in April 2013 was already double that for April 2012; new food banks are opening every week. Yet access to them is controlled through a referral system which restricts anyone from using a food bank more than three times a year, and for no more than three days on each occasion. People on benefits who are in social housing now have 60-70% less money to spend on food and household items after paying their bedroom tax, council tax and utility bills. They face rising food prices and a 1% cap on benefits. Life is being made intolerable for them; demand for food bank services will continue to soar.

The Children’s Commissioner for England reports that families with children make up 32% of the working population but are bearing 50% of the cost of austerity. But the burden amongst these families is not borne proportionately: the poorest 10% of families with children will have an average reduction in their standard of living of 22%; for the richest 10% it will be 7%. The number of children living in official poverty will rise by 500,000 to four million (after housing costs) while the number living below an adequate standard of living (the Rowntree Foundation Minimum Income Standard) is expected to rise by around 400,000 to 6.8 million children (around 52% of all children).

Councils are pursuing thousands of households for non-payment of council tax to add to the misery of the poor. In Wirral 5,700 summonses for non-payment have been issued: nearly a quarter of those households suffering the cut in council tax benefit. In nearby Sefton one in five of 17,500 households affected has been summonsed. This means that perhaps 500,000 across the country will face such summonses. The extent of non-payment of the bedroom tax is escalating: Magenta Living, formerly Wirral Partnership Homes, reported that 30% of the 2,600 affected households had made no payment by early June. This is similar to figures reported by other housing associations. Magenta also reported that the proportion of such households with rent arrears had risen from 30% to 72%. This figure will rise over the coming months. Housing associations across the country are experiencing serious financial difficulties not just because of bedroom tax arrears but because they cannot re-let three-bedroomed properties that have been vacated by those downsizing into smaller properties. This is making them more aggressive in pursuing debt. Magenta Living is issuing dozens of Ground 10 summonses which threaten repossession if tenants do not agree a payment plan for arrears as little as £136. Tenants are also now facing imminent eviction because the burden of paying the bedroom tax has prevented them from complying with court orders for paying off historic rent arrears.

Yet the ruling class has no intention of letting up on its offensive against the working class. Direct payment of housing benefit to tenants will start in October this year, creating panic amongst social landlords who forecast an explosion of rent arrears. However, Lord Freud, junior minister at the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) reassured them, telling their recent conference that he will give social landlords powers to ‘recoup the rent arrears from tenants hitting the two-month trigger point [for mandatory eviction under the Ground 8 rule for assured tenancies] within six to nine months.’ This may force tenants on benefit to pay £15-25 a week off any rent arrears they have built up – five times the normal current rate of about £3.60 a week.

On 26 June we learned of the next instalment in the ConDem Coalition’s offensive when Chancellor Osborne announced a further £11.5bn state spending cuts for 2015/16, the first year of the next parliament. It was a politically-motivated spending review designed to heap pressure on the Labour Party in the run up to the general election which will take place by May 2015. It is clear that the election will be fought on the issue of who can whip the poor the hardest.

The measures that Osborne set out in his statement for attacking state welfare continue the punishment of the poor. The newly-unemployed will have to wait seven days to make a claim. With the average wait for processing benefit claims at 16 days – up to 25 days in some areas – it means that they may wait four weeks to get any money. Given that most newly-unemployed will have been in low-paid jobs, they can either turn to pay-day loan companies or the food banks to help them through a period without money. Even before they can make a claim, claimants will have to have prepared a CV. They will then be subject to even more harassment by having to sign on weekly rather than fortnightly. This is on top of an already-punitive regime where DWP figures show 80-100,000 people a month suffer some kind of sanction on their Jobseeker’s Allowance – mainly for ‘non-attendance’ at either an advisory interview or a work experience programme. Such sanctions mean a loss of one or two weeks’ benefit; the average number of sanctions five years ago was about 10,000 a month. Another Osborne measure is to force single parents to prepare for non-existent jobs once their youngest child reaches the age of three.

The government also intends to impose a cap on all welfare spending from 2015. This will exclude the state pension, which makes up 47% half the £220bn social security budget. The government will then be able to introduce further cuts in state welfare if the cap looks set to be breached. Local government spending will be cut by a further 10% or £2.1bn, which will mean that councils like Newcastle will have lost 60% of their central government support over a six-year period. It will result in the loss of a further 144,000 public sector jobs. Better-off workers will be hit by the abolition of the incremental pay system which cushioned the effect of the wage freezes of the last few years.

Yet far from opposing the government, the Labour Party has now committed itself to keeping within the spending limits set by the Coalition. In speeches made in early June before the spending review, both Ed Miliband and shadow Chancellor Ed Balls made clear they would continue to cut state welfare if Labour wins the next election. According to Balls, ‘Labour must start planning now for what will be a very tough inheritance in 2015. It will require us to govern in a very different way with much less money around. We will need an iron discipline and a relentless focus on our priorities. Labour, he added, would ‘look ruthlessly at every pound we spend’. In preparation for attacks on workers throughout the public sector, including the speeding up of the privatisation of the National Health Service and state education provision, Labour will set out ‘how we deliver better public services with less money, involving employees, charities, and the voluntary sector in our deliberations, as well as business and public providers.’

Labour’s strategy to win the general election will emphasise its commitment to defending the interests of the ruling class. Miliband therefore made clear that it would retain the cap on child benefit for those earning over £50,000. He also proposed ending the winter fuel allowance for wealthy pensioners. Labour also needs to rebuild electoral support amongst the middle class and better-off workers, many of whom believe that benefit claimants are ‘shirkers’ or ‘skivers’ – 47% of Labour supporters think benefits are too generous, while 71% support the overall benefit cap. So Miliband said ‘young unemployed people will have an obligation to take a job after a year or lose their benefits…we will do the same for everyone over 25 unemployed for more than two years.’ Under Miliband’s workfare scheme, businesses will have to pay virtually nothing, with workers receiving just a pittance: ‘For every young man and woman who has been out of work for more than a year, we would say to every business in the country, we will pay the wages for 25 hours a week, on at least the minimum wage.’

Labour will review the possibility of reducing eligibility to non-means tested contributory Jobseeker’s Allowance – a meagre £72 unemployment benefit available for just six months for those out of work. Labour would look at extending the two-year qualification period to five years. Given its vindictive attitude to unemployed people, it is not surprising that Labour refused to criticise Osborne’s proposal to impose a seven-day delay in claiming unemployment benefit, or that Labour Shadow Works and Pensions Secretary Liam Byrne condemned the overall benefit cap for not going far enough. Balls also proposed a three-year cap on state welfare spending which would include state pensions – a view he had to change when days later Osborne excluded the state pension from the Coalition’s spending cap. However, in suggesting that Labour would follow suit, Balls said Labour would consider raising the pension age yet further to compensate for the extra expenditure. Whatever the outcome, Balls and Miliband both signed up to staying within Osborne’s 2015/16 spending limits.

We have been here before. Prior to the 1997 election, Labour announced that it would continue with the remaining two years of the Tories’ three-year spending plan. It did, and practically brought the NHS to its knees in 1999. At the time we said that an incoming Labour government ‘will be more oppressive, more racist, more anti-working class than the Tory government it is almost certain to replace’. We were proved right in every respect. Over the past three years, Labour councils have shown that they will cut and cut again on the orders of the government, and squeeze the poor mercilessly. With Labour positioning itself to be back in office within two years, we will have to fight the lie that whatever its deficiencies, the Labour Party remains the lesser of two evils, that we need to support it even if we have no illusions about what it will deliver.

The truth is simple: a Labour government in 2015 will be just as oppressive, racist and anti-working class as the ConDem Coalition it replaces.

Robert Clough

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 234 August/September 2013

Lessons of the Poll Tax/ FRFI 233 Jun/Jul 2013

Can’t pay! Won’t pay!

‘Thatcherism represents the ruling class solution to the most severe crisis of capitalism since the 1930s. Thatcher has ensured that the poor will bear the brunt of the crisis. The Poll Tax will mean that the poor pay for the poor. With two fingers raised to the working class, as much money as possible is to be transferred to the rich and privileged whilst introducing the maximum amount of repressive machinery in order to contain the inevitable protest and resistance.’

Poll Tax: paying to be poor, Lorna Reid, Larkin Publications 1990

The Poll Tax – the ‘jewel in Thatcher’s crown’

The Poll Tax was the brainchild of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in the 1980s. A punitive local tax, it was designed as a political attack on the working class – appeasing the middle class view that the old rating system let the working class off from paying its due share of local taxes – and on left Labour local councils, which charged high rates in order to provide better local services. Unlike the old rates system or the current council tax, the Poll Tax was not linked to the value or size of property. Instead, each local area set a single rate to be levied from all adults, regardless of their ability to pay.

As the current campaign against the Bedroom Tax develops, comparisons are being made with the struggle against the Poll Tax. Clearly there are significant differences, especially as the Poll Tax affected the whole population, whereas the Bedroom Tax only has an impact on social housing tenants in receipt of housing benefit. Furthermore, the entire political landscape has changed considerably in the intervening years, as the neo-liberal programme begun by the Thatcher government has been developed and extended by successive governments of all parties. However, there certainly are lessons to be learned from the anti-Poll Tax campaign: in particular lessons about campaigning tactics, about building solidarity and about exposing false friends.

Fighting the Poll Tax

Registration for the Poll Tax began in Scotland in 1988 and in England and Wales in 1989, with implementation and collection starting a year later in each case. (With the lengthy history of resistance in the north of Ireland, Thatcher’s government didn’t even try to introduce the Poll Tax there!)

Almost immediately, the Labour Party made it clear that, although in theory it opposed the Poll Tax (as today it ‘opposes’ the Bedroom Tax), it would not back a campaign of non-payment or support any form of direct action or effective resistance. Indeed, Labour councils would collaborate with and collect the Poll Tax, and would join in the attack on anyone who challenged it. At the Local Government Conference in Edinburgh in February 1988, Labour leader Neil Kinnock publicly refused to lead a campaign of non-payment, describing such a campaign as a ‘counsel of despair, fruitless’.

The people living in Scotland, who were first to be targeted, roundly ignored this betrayal and, by the time of the big anti-Poll Tax demonstrations in London and Glasgow on 31 March 1990, the non-payment movement had already been firmly established:

‘Tenants arranged to be out of their houses when registration officers called, and held mass meetings in the street while officers knocked fruitlessly on one door after another. Appointed street stewards alerted the community to approaching officers, using megaphones. Registration officers were chased out of many estates, eventually only able to work accompanied by the police. Tenants returned registration forms collectively. MPs and councillors opposed to the Poll Tax joined local people in the burning of registration forms. Local meetings attracted up to 200 people. Glasgow’s Pollokshields Anti-Poll Tax Union held a 200-strong local residents’ demonstration, the first ever political demonstration in the area.

‘Sheriff’s officers who attempted to enter houses in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow to assess household effects … with a view to selling them to pay off the fines for failure to register have been blocked by anti-Poll Tax protesters. Rallies were held outside ... homes … and the Sheriff’s officers had to leave empty-handed. The first warrant sale in Scotland was to recover a fine from Carole Hosey, a single parent, for failing to register for the Poll Tax. It was scheduled for 27 November 1989 but was called off after the Lothian Anti-Poll Tax Federation threatened to physically prevent the warrant sale by mobilising hundreds of people to be present at the time of the attempted sale.

‘A “virus” appeared on the computer system used by Lothian Regional Council to store the Poll Tax register. Every 10 minutes a name disappeared from the register.

‘The Poll Tax registration officer in Strathclyde reports that there are 1,997 ‘Donald Ducks’ resident in his region.’ (Poll Tax: paying to be poor)

Holding back the movement

On 25 November 1989 the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation (ABAPTF) was launched at a meeting with 2,000 delegates from local groups. In the January 1990 issue of FRFI we reported that: ‘On paper this should have been the basis of a dynamic movement against the Poll Tax. In reality it achieved nothing.’

The article described the two political trends holding back the movement: firstly, Militant Tendency (now the Socialist Party), which had ‘correctly recognised that the strength of such a campaign can only arise from within the communities, amongst the people who can’t pay’ but was hamstrung by trying to win an unwinnable battle within the Labour Party to which everything else was subservient; secondly, the Socialist Workers Party, Workers Power and other Trotskyist groups, which considered community campaigns of no significance and only ‘workers’ action’ through the trade unions capable of confronting the Poll Tax. As we wrote at the time: ‘Precisely because the trade unions have refused to mount a challenge to the Poll Tax and have joined Kinnock in denouncing non-payment the position of these organisations comes over as abstract and irrelevant.’

Such groups have tended to caricature the RCG’s stance, implying that we go to the opposite extreme and write off all possible contribution to the struggle by trade unions. In reality, this has never been our position. As we wrote in Poll Tax: paying to be poor:

‘To argue that only industrial action can defeat the Poll Tax at a time when there is no pressure on the trade union movement to take any action on anything is tantamount to doing nothing and, further, demobilises the action within the communities which already exists. Community resistance involves trade unionists and, if developed, can create a movement which allows rank and file trade unionists to take the fight into the trade union movement with the real pressure of the community behind them. The action taken by CPSA members in October 1989 to oppose DSS collaboration with the Poll Tax is an example of the kind of action that it is possible for trade unionists to take. The successful development of this is only possible when trade unionists draw confidence from resistance being built in the communities. Effective trade union action will only arise as the result of active and organised resistance within the communities.’

The ‘Poll Tax riot’

On 31 March 1990, 200,000 people marched through central London on a demonstration called by the ABAPTF, the TUC having refused to hold such a protest. As the second half of the march passed Downing Street on its way to Trafalgar Square, police on horseback charged at the demonstrators. About 1,000 people staged a sit-down. Meanwhile police on foot blocked off the end of Whitehall so demonstrators could not get into the square. Determined to get to the rally, protesters pushed through police lines and regrouped outside the South African Embassy, which itself was the target of angry anti-racist protest. The police attacked again. Protesters fought back and the protest spilled over into Covent Garden and the West End where shops were trashed. There were 300 arrests and dozens of injuries.

Politicians of all parties immediately condemned the violence – not of the police, but of the demonstrators. Labour’s deputy leader Roy Hattersley said: ‘I hope that there have been substantial numbers of arrests and the sentencing is severe [and] exemplary’. And leading Militant Tendency members Tommy Sheridan and Steve Nally betrayed the very people they had mobilised and who had taken a principled stance against the Poll Tax and against police violence, claiming that ‘the violence…was the work of 200-250 mindless people’.

In the weeks that followed, there were more arrests, as the police mounted Operation Carnaby (at the time the most highly resourced police operation ever), obtaining court orders to seize photos and footage from journalists, publishing rogues’ galleries of ‘wanted’ protesters in tabloid newspapers and staging dawn raids on suspects’ homes. With no support from the ABAPTF, the Trafalgar Square Defendants Campaign (TSDC) was set up, mainly by anarchist activists, to take on the vital task of defending all those who had been arrested and of supporting the growing number of people being sent to prison, both for demonstrating and for non-payment. The RCG supported this initiative and worked with TSDC throughout its existence, attending court hearings and demonstrations, and providing solidarity to prisoners.

Can’t pay – won’t pay

Unlike the two million march against the war on Iraq in 2003, or the various relatively large-scale anti-cuts demonstrations which have taken place in recent years (some of which have also culminated in mass arrests), the March 1990 demonstration was not just an isolated set-piece event. Instead, it expressed and united a movement that had been growing over the previous years, with non-payment already firmly on the agenda in Scotland, and demonstrations taking place outside town halls across Britain as councillors set the local rates for the Poll Tax. Despite the repression against both protesters and non-payers which followed the demo, the movement grew in strength. Mass court hearings, at which councils hoped that summary judgments would be passed and they could move to deduct payment from wages or benefits, or send in bailiffs to take the possessions of non-payers, were rendered unworkable by streams of defendants, many helped by ‘McKenzie Friend’ lay advisers, insisting on putting their individual cases to magistrates and refusing to accept liability for payment, as angry demos took place outside and inside the court buildings.

A battle won – a war still to win

By September 1990 one in three people had not paid any Poll Tax. The centrepiece of Thatcher’s attack on the working class was in ruins. That, together with in-fighting within the Tory cabinet, mainly over Britain’s relationship with Europe, led to her resignation in November 1990, leaving John Major to preside over the dismantling of the scheme.

By 1991, despite legal action and imprisonment, and with no support at all from the Labour Party, whose councils collected the tax, enforced payment, and joined in the criminalisation of those who resisted, 18 million people were still not paying the Poll Tax. By the time of the 1992 general election legislation had been passed to replace it with the current Council Tax from the start of the 1993/4 financial year.

The overthrow of the Poll Tax was a victory for the working class, and shows what united resistance can achieve. However, since 1990 the overall war being waged by Thatcher and the ruling class has continued under the successive governments of John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, and a lot of ground has been lost. In 2013, RCG branches in England and Scotland are involved in building campaigns against the Bedroom Tax, and will incorporate the vital lessons of the Poll Tax struggle in this work. These lessons are that campaigns must be open, democratic and led by the people affected in their own interests, not subservient to the interests of the trade union leadership or any other elite.

Nicki Jameson

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 233 June/July 2013

Fighting the Bedroom Tax in Newcastle: building resistance/ FRFI 233 Jun/Jul 2013

Following the implementation of the bedroom tax on 1 April, many Newcastle residents have received threatening letters from their social housing providers. FRFI supporters have helped to set up local action groups in several working class neighbourhoods. These groups have provided space for people to organise and to raise other issues that are affecting them, as the government squeezes these communities without mercy.

The action groups include people like Maria, single and living in a housing association property in Byker, who will be £40 per month worse off because she has a box room; John in Walker, who has been fighting for 12 years for access to his children who live in Swansea, but will not be allowed to have them visit if he is forced to move to a smaller property; and Katrina, who needs to sleep separately from her husband because of his disabilities but has been accused by the council of lying about this.

The action groups have been studying lessons of past struggles, like the Anti-Poll Tax Campaign and Glasgow rent strikes, to prepare for the struggle ahead. Members of the action groups have gone round their neighbourhoods, knocking on doors and talking to neighbours to build a campaign of non-payment. The action groups have developed other tactics including regular protests and stalls outside housing offices, events where tenants submit their appeal letters collectively, community days that raise money for the action groups’ work and provide an opportunity for other residents to find out more and get involved, and a ‘pledge of resistance’ where neighbours of people affected by the bedroom tax commit to come out and support those under threat from the harassment of court proceedings and, if necessary, to fight evictions.

On 27 May Walker Action Group and Byker-Heaton Against the Bedroom Tax cooperated to hold a rolling picket of a number of housing offices across the East End, and on 28 May tenants and supporters from across the city joined together to protest at the board meeting of Your Homes Newcastle, the ALMO that manages council housing in the city. Robert, a resident of Shieldfield who has been in the same property for 25 years and is now living with dysarthria and physical disability following a stroke, summed up the mood in the action groups: ‘I won’t move. The government are determined but so am I!’ Resistance to the bedroom tax and austerity is just beginning – join your local action group, smash the bedroom tax!

Danny Merrick

Defend the right to challenge the cuts: Newcastle victory

Charges have been dropped against youth worker and anti-cuts campaigner Don MacDonald, who was arrested following Newcastle’s largest anti-cuts demonstration on 16 February, which he had helped to organise. At the end of the protest Labour council leader Nick Forbes made a surprise appearance. Don approached him holding two placards, and told Forbes that he had sold out the city’s residents. Six hours later, at 10 o’clock at night, police descended on Don’s home and arrested him, holding him for four hours before issuing him a fixed penalty fine for threatening behaviour. The placards he had been carrying were seized as evidence. Supporters gathered at the police station to demand Don’s release, and within hours a defence campaign was established. The defence campaign victory shows that such charges, which are entirely political, can and must be fought.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 233 June/July 2013

Build resistance - Fight the cuts/ FRFI 233 Jun/Jul 2013

The British working class is facing a savage onslaught. The ruling class through its ConDem coalition is directing a brutal class war to destroy the state welfare system set up in the post-war period, break up working class communities and organisations, and drive down wages to poverty levels. The government attempts to justify its economic policies by reference to the public sector debt and a stagnant economy. But, as we wrote in the last issue of FRFI, such arguments ‘camouflage the real class interests behind savage austerity policies.

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Defend the Counihans! Fight evictions in Brent!/ FRFI 233 Jun/Jul 2013

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 233 June/July 2013

The Counihan-Sanchez family from Kilburn is continuing to resist attempts by Brent Labour council to make them homeless for a second time. The Counihan-Sanchez Housing Campaign (CSHC) is supporting the family and continuing to fight all evictions and cuts in Brent. The family of seven was made homeless by Brent after they declared £18 a week income from a plot of land in Ireland. Since April 2012, the family has been in shoddy accommodation in Ealing which costs Brent council £500 per week.

Brent declared the family to be ‘intentionally homeless’ and sent the family a bill for housing benefit (HB) overpayment of £76,000 which has since been reduced to £25,000. A recent HB tribunal found Isabel to be a credible witness but still found in Brent’s favour, supporting the council’s claim that the family had not declared the income from the land. Brent claims that they did not receive the letter sent by the family and the Irish Centre in January 2010 but they have no convincing explanation as to why they decided to put up the rent at the same time. The family has launched a further appeal against the HB decision.

Meanwhile a notice to quit letter arrived from Laurence Coaker, Brent’s Head of Housing Needs saying that Brent wanted the family out of their temporary accommodation by 27 May. The CSHC is holding a street party at the family’s address in Ealing on 27 May to show our support and to warn Brent that there will be opposition if they attempt to remove the family.

Jimmy Mac

For more background on the campaign please see the campaign video at:

• Sarah Counihan, aged 16, speaking at the Benefit Justice Summit held in London on 11 May:

• Facebook pages: Counihan Battlebus and Counihan Sanchez Housing Campaign

• You can support the Counihan Family Campaign by making a Paypal donation at:

• Counihan-Sanchez Housing Campaign 07958 157 392


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