Monday, 21 July 2008

Punishing the poor


It's depressing to read the message boards and comment columns. So many people blame all the country's ills on "scroungers" and the unemployed. The current financial crisis has nothing to do with unemployment. As economists point out, current problems, such as the rising price of oil, are causing unemployment.

There are other causes too. Ending student grants forces poorer students into debt or work - often debt and work. Nearly half of students work during term-time, averaging just under 20 hours a week - and they work in vacations too. That's a huge pool of cheap labour ripe for exploitation - often working for mimimum wages (or less) at unsocial hours and too desperate for cash to complain about working conditions. Many schoolchildren are working too and, while they're under 18, they don't get the minimum wage.

When I was unemployed, I told myself I'd remember how it felt. It's hard to recapture the hopeless depression that takes over after just a few weeks or the tiredness caused by a trek from shop to shop, hunting for reductions on bread, rice and lentils. I recall the desperation of wanting to afford a tiny luxury - a postcard or a small Christmas decoration - and the pride I felt in not letting friends and family know that I could afford so little.

I can still remember the mixture of suspicion and contempt from one member of benefits staff, who thought me both too clever and too lazy. I was six months pregnant at the time and she managed to imply that pregnancy was another example of my fecklessness, telling me that my intention to breast-feed when the baby was born showed my lack of commitment to the world of work. I was summoned back for a detailed interview about my circumstances, which culminated in a long argument about my travel expenses. I got the expenses and benefits in the end, at the cost of a great deal of self-confidence. Only the knowledge that I needed money for the baby kept me going in the gap between temp. work and maternity pay.

The Labour Party used to stand up for the unemployed. I chanced on a web-library of Scottish Labour election leaflets - appropriate for this week with the Glasgow East by-election set for Thursday. I found the election address of Agnes Dollan, who was standing for Glasgow Springburn ward in a Glasgow City by-election of 1921. One of the key paragraphs is headed "Our Workless Brethren" and reads:

The condition of the unemployed in the city must be our first concern. Over 70,000 men and women are unable to obtain work, and their homes are shadowed by sorrow and poverty. Thousands could be employed in the building of houses, and on other schemes of civic welfare, if the State would give grants to finance these schemes. If the Government could afford £30,000,000 for warships, it can afford to finance work for the unemployed. The State must accept full responsibility for unemployment so that occupation or maintenance can be provided for the workless.

The election address goes on to guarantee that the unemployed of Glasgow will not be evicted and that the unemployed will be given the same moratorium on debt as was provided to bankers at the beginning of World War I.

Today, the New Labour government is talking about getting the unemployed into work, but the language is all about force, threats and punishment. The jobless will be ordered to work - first clearing litter and cleaning graffiti in community projects and then at unspecified full-time jobs. This will affect almost all the 4.6 million people who are unemployed and claiming benefits - only those with the most serious disabilities will be exempt. I suppose we'll get used to seeing gangs of the sick and dying peeling chewing-gum off city streets.

I don't know whose jobs will be given to the unemployed but I hope the government remembers its own minimum wage laws. Apparently the new rules will include an opportunity for private companies to profit.

It looks as though the new regime will be piloted in Glasgow - but there won't be an announcement until the by-election is over. I wonder what Agnes Dollan would have made of adviser, David Freud, "investment banker and government welfare adviser," who seems to be behind the new scheme.

6 comments:

KateJ said...

When will they ever learn? Re the idea that "New" Labour will be piloting their welfare to work scheme in Glasgow... I recall that one Margaret Thatcher piloted her flagship policy of the Poll Tax in Scotland, and encountered a mass movement of opposition, mainly centred on Glasgow. A whole generation of new activists emerged from the housing estates and formed a campaign of civil disobedience that spread across Scotland, into the rest of the UK and eventually brought Thatcher down and the Poll Tax with her.
When will they ever learn?

Anonymous said...

Investment bankers with welfare know how.........

Anonymous said...

Sorry, its kllrchrd, oh the excitement / agitation......

dodo said...

There are three strands in my response.
First, the unimaginative compulsion to work as a condition of benefit, including the inclusion of the sick, has disturbing parallels with the abuse of labour in Hitler's Germany, where those who shirked the Gestapo-supervised labour were directed to concentration camps. It has further parallels with the Soviet system, where no-one was unemployed. Working parties were signed in and left largely unsupervised for the day. Those who did not co-operate were imprisoned. The government which has discarded all of the principles and empathy of the Labour movement and Party which remains an inconvenient history for those responsible for the New Labour agenda. And in this policy proposal, based on David Freud's Welfare review (URL dubbya dubbya dubbya.dwp.gov.uk/publications/dwp/2007/welfarereview.pdf) a wholesale fiction of effctive work will be used to tick the output boxes on which the measure of success or failure of this initiative will be measured. As will a claimant's right to benefit - to food, clothing, housing and warmth.
Second, it will clearly be expected that the burgeoning Third Sector, expanding to include Private Companies as well as Charities and voluntary groups in the delivery of Government Services will be the vehicle for the delivery of, and therefore policing of, compulsory work - the new responsibility you must meet in order for the government to admit you to rights. Many such organisations, particularly those who profit through company or career, through the expansion of the free resources and paid function adopted to deliver this policy. The more enlightened (relatively few) Trustees and others in positions of responsibility in the Sector may find it difficult to go along with such a policy, whether as paid or (in the case of Trustees and Volunteers) unpaid agents of that policy. This will lead to the further sidelining of the Charities and causes which they espouse. And in a steady attrition of those who feel they can no longer serve the best interests of their Charitable work within such an environment. Be under no mistake. This Government has already in some part kidnapped the Charitable and Voluntary sector to see its objectives shift more to those of delivery of policy rather than as independent organisations within Charity law. Only those who co-operate willbe supported.
Finally, and by no means least, there is the matter of CRB checks. Of the 3.3 million checks carried out in 2006/7 the Home Office states that that: “190,000 [checks] revealed information about the applicant". Of whom 20,000 were then prevented from access to vulnerable people. 4% of that 20,000 had an offence involving with a sexual dimension Around 11,000 had offences relating to dishonesty or violence (which includes criminal damage). And almost 6,000 had never been convicted of an offence. I am spelling this out because there is a tendency in Third Sector organisations, particularly the smaller organisations, to "play it safe" in heir interpretation of a need for CRB checks. We therefore face the prospect of those of our society who are criminalised will either be unable to find work to meet their obligations or will be allocated to an organisation which is designed to work with the criminals of our society.
It is a heinous move and far, far different from the comparatively benign "New Deal" initiatives of the late 1990's and at the turn of the Millennium.

Yvonne said...

This is an outrage; thanks for drawing it to my attention. Labour are really starting to scare me now.

I ended up temping for a long time. I found it very difficult to get permanent work because potential employers claimed that I didn't have enough permanent experience. As if the transferable skills acquired in temping were not enough.

Kathz said...

I temped for nine or ten months in the late 1980s. It was a remarkable experience in a number of ways. I gained a huge range of skills that still benefit me. I saw a number of companies and institutions from below (including the health service, a debt collection agency, an estate agent benefiting from the property boom, a company making and selling machine parts and a property developer. Rather to my surprise, the last of these was the best employer. I was the only employee and the developers made sure I got overtime for weekend work when the temp agency didn't pay it. Moreover, shortly after I started work I discovered I was pregnant and suffered a severe aversion to coffee. The partners not only took to making drinks for themselves and their clients but always made a point of making me camomile tea so that I could have hot drinks without going into the kitchenette. And when my employment ended, they gave me a book token, knowing that it was just what I would like, rather than the obvious Mothercare vouchers. However, that temping experience as a whole was a fascinating tour of Thatcher's Britain - I learnt much as a temp that I would never have understood in other ways. Perhaps I'll blog about it one day.