Letters - FRFI 254 Dec 2016/Jan 2017

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I, Daniel Blake: benefit sanctions and the ‘deserving’ working class

I have just come from a meeting of our UNITE Community branch. One woman who attended described losing her brother to addiction problems and the effect of DWP sanctions on his health. She had not seen the film I, Daniel Blake but had been told to take a box of hankies. In April 2014, Dundee Against Welfare Sanctions began campaigning outside our local burroo – jobcentre – and we were immediately immersed in the grim horror of welfare sanctions. Daniel Blake may be a fictional character, but we heard those stories over and over again: people arriving at DWP interviews with their portable oxygen equipment, folks just out of jail with nothing, the made-up claims by workfare agencies of missed appointments – sanctioned! Food bank!

So it is good that a couple of years later the issue of benefit sanctions is getting out to a wider audience. The film does a fair job of conveying the difficult experiences of those on benefits. Daniel Blake is portrayed as a respectable working class bloke fallen on hard times. He has a trade as a joiner and until his health breaks down would have been working past his 60th birthday. Such cases exist, but the working class folk we overwhelmingly met at the burroo were young people and women being recycled through the routine of temporary, unskilled, zero-hours work, then signing on.

Many tradesmen we know about are very comfortable. The property boom has been a massive job creation project for them. This is a better-off layer of the working class with relatively secure wages and work, a minority that has been least affected by the crisis. It is a concept of the working class that Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty clumsily deploy here, and it almost conforms to the reactionary concept of the deserving poor. Much more realistic is the troubling portrayal of the young lass that Daniel helps and the diverse queue at the food bank and on the streets.

Daniel’s individual protest at the burroo is cheering for its spirit and defiance but again, as the Glasgow fella berates the cops who arrive, the politics weaken: aye, the Tories are operating the sanctions regime but it was the Labour Party which brought them in, Ken!

Dundee Against Austerity attended a protest at the Scottish parliament timed to coincide with the film release. The nice suits of the SNP, the Labour Party and the Greens came out and pretended they cared. We pointed out that the SNP’s Welfare Spokesperson, Jeanne Freeman OBE had spoken on Radio Scotland about welfare reforms for two hours without mentioning sanctions or foodbanks. Both the SNP’s and Labour’s claims to be anti-austerity are equally false. We must build anew!

MICHAEL MACGREGOR

Dundee Against Austerity


Prison labour – a perfect capitalist model

Thank you for your letter. I read with interest your comments, in particular about sharing FRFI with other prisoners, which I already do. In fact, this is how I first came in contact with socialism when another prisoner, some ten years past, kindly leant a copy to me.

You ask about this prison, and my best description is that this place is a perfect capitalist model. It was built with the intention of performing the role of an industrial complex. There are many workshops here but most of the work is carried out for the Ministry of Justice.

For example, the print shop has state-of-the-art machines and one designed to ‘run’ 24 hours a day, seven days a week. However, the print machines and cutters switch off at 5pm and so despite their expense, will never provide the required output to pay for their purchase.

The products from this shop are usually files and folders used by barristers at the High Court in the Strand. Also, they print leaflets for the DHS and other material for the Prison Service.

There is an engineering shop, and this also produces all the gates, doors and bars for prison maintenance and buildings.

Our friend Richard Branson has also employed two of the workshops here in recycling his ear-phones for his Virgin Airlines. Prisoners here untangle wires and replace the foam bits of the ear-pieces. There is also a DHL workshop that recycles white goods for a charity. In all these jobs, one starts on low pay and prisoners have to constantly ‘cajole’ their supervisors for their wages to be increased.

The majority of prisoners here are still housed in cells without a toilet or sink. If one needs to use a toilet, they have to use a night-sanitation system that is electronically controlled and allows a prisoner some six minutes to come out of his cell and use a communal toilet.

If you refuse to work then you are taken to the segregation unit and transferred to either Wandsworth or Brixton. They are only interested in utilising the prisoners for their workshops.

The prison estate is not designed for true rehabilitation. The people in power seem more concerned with accountability. Furthermore, where rehabilitation really fails is the lack of opportunity and support in the ‘real’ world.

Resources are heavily weighted on the side of supervision and surveillance. The prisoner is closely watched for any signs of deviance and the test for being recalled to prison is subject to the whims of probation staff etc,who can decide at any time whether an ex-offender is leading a ‘good and useful’ existence.

Accommodation is not provided and opportunities for employment are few and far between.

Prisoners often are released without a place to live and no real skills or qualifications. Add to this, the lack of any arrangements to earn and save a decent amount of money, then releasing prisoners, often with just the clothes on their backs, is a real recipe for re-offending.

The cynical would point out that this is the real design of the system. That there is no real desire or appetite to rehabilitate, that prisons are now designed to house all those who fall through the ‘cracks’ of our society and eventually find some security in the confines of our prisons which for a time utilise their labour. Until they are released again, once more into a society that is moving too fast to care, where you either learn to take your own place in the rat-race or spiral into debt or worse, consigned to the knowledge that prison is never far, ever beckoning like the proverbial workhouse.

HERPAL NIJJER A1888AK

HMP Coldingley

Woking GU24 9EX


Care work: casualised and underpaid

I recently started a job as a support worker. I receive minimum wage until 10pm, at which point the ‘sleep’ begins: I sleep at the home of the service user and am on call during the night. For this period, I receive what amounts to £3.61 an hour, whether or not the service user has actually gone to bed. This means, in reality, that I can end up being paid £3.61 to do the same job as I get minimum wage for at a different time of day.

When I requested one regular day off a week, so that I can plan things in advance and live my life, I was told that to do that I would have to change to a zero-hours contract. We are expected to be available 24/7.

Beyond this, I was let loose into a job where I am responsible for the wellbeing and even the lives of vulnerable people with a week’s training and two shadow shifts. I am expected to handle medication and finances and to know the ins and outs of each service user’s specific needs and routines, and the ins and outs of how to document and record everything (an absolute essential in care).

The National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990 introduced a market into social care. This and subsequent legislation basically means that disability benefits act as a government subsidy to private care providers. These providers make huge profits by pocketing the benefits payments and overworking and underpaying the frontline staff. Of course, ‘austerity’ means that these benefits are increasingly paltry and increasingly difficult to get. For the companies, the profits have to be made up by squeezing the workforce even harder. The crisis is showing, once again, that capitalism cannot provide for the working class.

SÉAMUS PADRAÍC


SNP – no better than Labour or Tories on education

John Swinney has been the cabinet secretary for education in the Scottish government for nine years now. While he and the SNP are supposedly passionate about the ‘attainment gap’ in Scotland,

in that time inequality in education has got worse.

Children aged between three and five from poor households have a learning gap of 10 months in problem-solving development with their peers from richer households, and a gap of 13 months in vocabulary. In S2 (age 13) there is an attainment gap of 28% between the richest and poorest areas. In the last school year, 60% of pupils at Boroughmuir High in the well-off Bruntsfield area of Edinburgh attained three or more Highers (a qualification earned in the last two years of high school, equivalent to A-levels in England and Wales), compared to 0% at Castlebrae High in the deprived Craigmillar area. By age 22-23, low attainers in school are three times as likely to be unemployed (12% vs 4% and, in employment, earn considerably less (a difference of £23.45 per week for men and £44.94 for women).

The richest in Scotland are 3.53 times more likely to go to university at 18 than the poorest. The SNP is fond of flaunting Scotland’s free tuition, but in fact this policy has not benefited working class students, as it is funded by cutting student grants. Poorer students still graduate with the most debt. They are increasingly less likely to go to university altogether.

Child poverty rose from 19% in 2011/12 to 22% in 2014/15 in Scotland, and is predicted to continue rising. which indicates that inequality in Scotland, and in Scottish education, will only continue to grow.

ABBY AND SAOIRSE

Edinburgh


 

Fight the Overall Benefit Cap

I am a single parent with four young boys. At the end of July I received a letter informing me that I would be hit by the reduced benefit cap and that, come 7 November 2016, I would have to find £70.36 a week towards my rent of £96 per week because my housing benefit would be cut.

I started to go into a state of panic – where the hell was I meant to find this money? But one day when I was in the centre of Birkenhead I spoke with a group called Wirral Against Benefit Cuts, who were holding a stall on the benefit cap. One of them, Robert, who was also an FRFI supporter, helped me make contact with The Guardian which ran an interview with me on 31 October, and then BBC Radio Merseyside which broadcast an interview the same day. That evening we had a public meeting where both BBC and ITV news teams turned up. I then got requests to participate in a documentary for Channel 5 which I have now turned down because the programme (Life on benefits) misrepresents what I am fighting for.

What surprised me was to learn that after The Guardian interview there were people wanting to send me money to help with my rent shortfall and food. I was so grateful to these kind-hearted people, but I had to decline their offers as this was never about just me but hundreds of thousands of other families in the same boat and it would have been very wrong for me to have taken the money.

I put in for a Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP) in mid-October. I had to fill in a really complicated form and I wondered how a more vulnerable or less literate person would cope. So I decided to test it out. I asked at the local Wirral Council One-Stop Shop if I could see someone about DHP. When they said I had to fill the form out before I could be seen. I told them I could not read or write. They sent me through supposedly to get the help I would need in such circumstances. But in fact, when I was called up to the booth I was told that staff were not allowed to help me. I argued that this was discrimination against someone who could not read or write. When I went back for a second time, I was again refused help. I contacted a local councillor – who eventually said management were asking me to be less aggressive towards the staff! However, they finally said they would help me with the DHP application. This is what vulnerable people are going to face all the time.

Then I was called into the DWP to see a benefit adviser. She tried to talk me into getting a job to avoid the benefit cap. I told her this was nonsense: I would need to be on at least £1,000 a week just to cover my childcare costs, let alone afford rent, food, gas, electricity, water, council tax and travel costs for work. She told me to stop being so negative: I said I was not being negative, I was dealing with facts:

Who would take me on with four children aged three to eight?

What employer is going to give me 13 weeks of school holidays a year, six of them in the summer?

What employer is going to keep me on when I am having to always take time off if my children are sick?

I don’t stand a chance as a lone parent with four children to survive and keep a roof over my young ones’ heads unless I fight, and I hope one day this fight against the benefits cap will help everyone, as so many are only one paycheque away from being in my situation.  

LEIGH,

Wirral


An Italian prisoner writes

Thank you for sending me the last issue of FRFI. I read all your articles with great interest with an overall appreciation of their precise analysis and representation of the facts. They always reflect, in my opinion, the proletarian, anti-imperialist point of view of the newspaper.

Some days ago, I read in the Italian newspaper Manifesto something about the formation of a new Republican Irish movement in Newry, Ireland called Saoradh. Knowing the years of support you have given to the Republican struggle and seeing some references to the group as having a socialist perspective, I was hoping to learn more about it from you. Is that possible. Anyway, wishing you all the best after Brexit!

STEFANO SCARABELLO

Strada Statale 31, 50/A

15122 S.Michele/

Alessandria, Italy


Support Aravindan Balakrishnan

It is now one year since Aravindan Balakrishnan, who is 76, was incarcerated in Wandsworth prison. In 1971, he established the Workers’ Institute and began building the first revolutionary stable Base Area in the imperialist heartlands, working tirelessly to raise the political consciousness of people in Brixton through a Political Evening School, news bulletins etc. ... The state launched a campaign of terror, ending in 1978 with the closure of the Workers’ Centre and his arrest and imprisonment. In November 2013 he was again arrested, this time with his wife. The police orchestrated a media character assassination, screaming: ‘Cruel Maoist cult leader held three women as slaves for 30 years’. When two of the three women refused to back up these claims, it concocted yet more poisonous allegations to frame him. He was eventually sentenced to 23 years.

My 40 years living in his communist collective bears testimony to his groundbreaking revolutionary work – he has helped me to overcome depression and inspires me to live and develop.

His wife, other collective members and loyal friends are now fighting to clear his name and free him from political detention – for that we need a sympathetic lawyer and funds for an appeal. We are calling on all who support us in the just struggle to contribute in whatever way possible.

JOSEPHINE HERIVEL

BM 2785,

London WC1N 3XX


Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 254 December 2016/January 2017

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