Wednesday, 11 November 2009

End of the social wage? Radical Responses to the Welfare Reform Bill

The following article was originally posted in issue 230 of Black Flag magazine, and is reposted here from the Anarchist Federation blog.

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The Welfare Reform Bill of 2008-9 is poised to complete the destruction of welfare benefits as a social wage, a process that began 30 years ago and reached a milestone with the introduction of Job Seekers’ Allowance in 1996, just before Labour took over from the Conservatives. The Anarchist Federation has long supported the struggles of unemployed people and has analysed these in Organise! Magazine. We aim to contribute further now that claimants’ action is experiencing some renewal due to the economic crisis. This article traces the path towards workfare and wholesale privatisation of welfare in Britain that successive governments have forced us down. It also describes the forms of struggle that arose in the 1990s through the Groundswell network and examines the practices of and some of the dilemmas faced by activists working in this arena today.

From Unemployed to Jobseeker

In 1997 the Conservative Party’s Job Seekers’ Allowance (JSA) and pilot workfare (work-for-benefits) scheme, Project Work, became part of Labour's New Deal. A change in government made little difference to the attack on benefits under Thatcher and Major, and sure enough benefit entitlements have been systematically eroded under New Labour as well. The Department of Social Security became the Department of Work and Pensions, a change of name that signifies the ideological shift from the idea of a social wage. Welfare money is no longer an insurance or substitute for not having a job. Instead, it is to be given only if you can prove you are ‘actively seeking work’ whatever the state of the job market. Benefits that are anything close to what you can live on have disappeared. The amount of money received by claimants under JSA has halved from the 21% of average wage that it was in 1979 to 10.5% today. This is because the benefits level is no longer linked to average wages but instead to a prices index.

The level of unemployment in Britain is currently on the increase. Due to the state of the economy, unemployment jumped by 220,000 in the three months up to June 2009 to 2.435 million, its highest level since 1995. So called ‘youth unemployment’ (under-25s) is at a 16-year high while the number of people out of work for longer than a year is the highest for 11 years. As most of us are already aware, this figure is based on numbers of recorded claimants which distorts the true figures since so many people are denied benefits or can’t be bothered to jump through the hoops to get them. This makes it all the more ludicrous that the government has recently launched an enquiry to find out why many people who have been made redundant in the recession have not yet signed on when they could do!

Recent changes to the benefits system have included forcing lone parents with young children to work and the scrapping of Incapacity Benefit in favour of Employment and Support Allowance in October 2008 alongside more systematic medical examinations. Introduction of the Flexible New Deal, which is workfare by any other name, is due in October this year. The government wants to get 70% of lone parents into paid work by 2010 and one million of the 2.7m people on IB on to Jobseekers or into work, most likely the former considering the economic crisis and the fact that 20% of the potential workforce is currently not in work after the latest wave of job cuts.

Attacks on the unemployed in the 1980-90s followed massive job losses in many ‘traditional’ industries. Unemployment figures were massaged by the Tories, ironic given the most recent attacks on IB, by letting a lot people go on the sick rather than appear as regular claimants. At the same time that unemployment has reached record levels again, we are now facing a widespread attack on public sector workers through creeping privatisation of health and education services, introduction of performance-related-pay schemes, and a looming pensions crisis that is cynically being blamed on longer-living workers but is much more to do with the outrageous market speculations of pension fund managers. The gap between rich and poor widened during the economic boom due to huge pay increases for senior management. The middle classes in general benefited from their ability to borrow huge sums by remortgaging or securing loans on their houses, resulting from national expansion of the southern property boom. In addition, the opening up of individual shareholding under the Tories meant that a section of the middle class profited from the investment in manufacturing overseas, in other words exploitation of workers in China and elsewhere. Exploitation in Britain has also continued, because the country is awash with temping agencies offering only casual labour and flexible working, highly exploitative jobs that have fallen to migrant as well as domestic workers in recent years. Younger people continue to suffer from no longer being allowed to get unemployment money if aged 16 or 17, constant hassle at the Job Centre if you are older, and from the shift from student grants to loans and fees, forcing them into low-paid jobs.

As this process has gone on, the justifications have become more obviously ideological. When the DWP launched its Pathways to Work initiative in 2003, it began a systematic move to move large numbers of IB claimants off benefits. Flexible New Deal will foist workfare on many more claimants following their dabbling with various pilot schemes. The government also plans to raise the education participation age to 17 by 2013 and 18 by 2015 with threats of fines and community service for failure to comply. Government documents called ‘No one written off: reforming welfare to reward responsibility’ and ‘In work, better off : next steps to full employment’ combine Fabian Society paternalism with compulsion, where you’ll be offered help out of poverty (partly of your own making of course) only on the strictest of conditions.

With the Welfare Reform Bill currently in the Committee stage in the house of Lords at the time of writing, it won’t be long before the latest round of attacks are consolidated and fresh ones are introduced. In addition, a much smaller set of private welfare contractors (known in civil service speak as ‘providers’) have taken over from the mishmash of third-sector organisations that took part in the early workfare pilots of the 1990s. These companies include names like Serco, Seetec, TNG, A4E, Work Directions and Remploy and a host of smaller subcontractors. The Tories have complained about Labour’s implementation of Flexible New Deal as they want to have a small number of very big providers, but essentially there is consensus on privatisation and introduction of workfare as quickly as possible. In fact David Freud, a banker whose report Labour are basing much of their Welfare Reform policy on, recently joined the Conservative Party.

Benefit Fraud

However, it’s turned out that the privatisation of Job Centre Plus and associated schemes to force people off the dole or disability benefits has become a bit painful for some of the companies concerned, dampening the pleasure of the vast sums of money being made. Recently it was discovered that the department of Work and Pensions began to investigate the largest private New Deal provider Action for Employment (A4E) for fraud in May 2008. Recruiters in Hull had filled in, and some cases put false signatures on, "confirmation of employment" forms which are supposed to be filled by companies who agree to take on workers.  Other recruitment companies were also under investigation. A4E also conspired with a recruitment agency to bend the definition whereby New Deal providers can only claim a ‘job outcome’ if the job is intended to last for 13 weeks or more and is 16 or more hours per week. Many so-called job placements don’t fall into this category. This has become public knowledge to the extent that in June work and pensions secretary Yvette Cooper said she could cancel multimillion-pound contracts if widespread fraud was uncovered. A4E, set up by media friendly entrepreneur Emma Harrison in 1991, recently quoted a turnover of £145m claiming to have helped 19,725 people into work. Amongst the smaller providers YMCA Training also got themselves into trouble over its operation in East of England and has now opted not to bid for Flexible New Deal, hoping to become a sub-contractor instead. In February 2008, training provider Instant Muscle went into administration leaving staff unpaid and unemployed trainees turned away from the doorsteps of their ‘motivational training centres’.

Medical assessment

Another large company involved with implementing welfare reform is ATOS Origin group who took over computer company SchlumbergerSEMA in 2003, and in so doing acquired the the web-based ‘Evidence Based Medicine’ software Logic Integrated Medical Assessment (LIMA). ATOS Origin will already be known to some activists as the company who carried out the biometric trials for ID cards on behalf of the Home Office. Having carried out medical assessments for the government since 1998, under the divisional name ATOS Healthcare, they were awarded the DWP medical assessment contract for a further seven years when it went out for re-tender in 2005. They now perform the new Work Capability Assessment and other medical examinations across the UK (including, we have been reliably informed, checking out Department of Work and Pensions employees who get sick at work!). In response to a recent question in Parliament it was revealed that ATOS took over £80m from the DWP in one year from March 2008 to February 2009 for its services.

However questions are now being asked about the implementation of LIMA which allows ATOS employed medics to score claimants on interview questions (which are compared to information a claimant puts on their benefits form) and visual assessment. Because scoring is biased towards what a claimant can apparently do during the interview, it cannot account for illnesses where there are good days and bad days. The incentive for the assessors to get people off ESA and on to Jobseekers is of course very strong, seeing as the government is intent on saving on its benefits bill. Incapacity benefits claimants are therefore being put through a terrible ordeal, with many suffering extreme stress and some breaking down crying in waiting rooms prior to their examination. There are now a vast number of appeals against denial of ESA, causing even more stress and upset for those concerned, something that we have already seen in the asylum system, where many asylum claims are subsequently upheld on appeal.

Direct Action

Action taken by the Groundswell anti-JSA network of claimants groups, supported by many anarchists in the late 1990s, was varied and imaginative and often very angry. The dozen or more groups in the network included Nottingham Campaign Against the Job Seekers’ Allowance, Oxford Claimants’ Action, Merton Unemployed Centre and a good number of London-based Claimants’ Unions and local groups against the JSA. Job Centres were invaded, voluntary sector organisations were occupied and charity shops were picketed. Leaflets were handed out to claimants and job centre workers alike explaining entitlements and appealing for solidarity against implementation of JSA. Bristol Claimants reported action taken against the Conservative Party’s Project Work workfare pilots that included musicians playing inside the Job Centre. Job Centre and Job Club windows got smashed. Deer fence and dry stone walls built by claimants forced on to the Environmental Task Force option of the New Deal were destroyed. Project Work provider Instant Muscle suffered an invasion by a Welsh choir, a boss was covered with red dye and a dead toad was found in the mail. Stencilled slogans on windows of charity shops using Project Work stated ‘THIS CHARITY USES SLAVE LABOUR.’, in the knowledge that specific charities had signed up to use Project Work labour in shops whilst maintaining the illusion that they were run entirely by volunteers. In Brighton active opposition led to 6 organisations withdrawing from Project Work. On another occasion protesters pushed past police into the local MPs surgery in the Brighthelm Centre, who were also a Project Work exploiter. This so worried Brighthelm that they pulled out.

A controversial area for activists in Groundswell was the role of Job Centre workers who were suffering from a pay-squeeze themselves but were on the front-line of imposing the benefits regime changes on claimants. The use of `Job Club' (forcing you to apply for shit jobs every week under threat of getting benefits cut) and the various types of compulsory work-for-dole schemes in the New Deal meant that the harassment experienced by claimants was on the increase. Benefits workers were being challenged to fight for claimants as well as themselves, and understand claimants’ unease over the CPSA union backing a call for better security screens in Job Centres. Some groups in Groundswell supported and copied the `Three Strikes and You’re Out' idea initiated by Edinburgh Claimants, which was a parody of the American approach to petty criminal offenders where you’d go straight to jail after three offences. Although interpreted as anti-worker by much of the left, Three Strikes was designed only to confront managers responsible for implementing JSA and `over-zealous' staff who were individually known to be harassing claimants. Three Strikes was carried out by sending a letter demanding they desist or face further letters with the final threat of having their photo appear in the street. Other groups were uncomfortable with the idea and the tactic remained controversial. The TUC-backed Jobs Not JSA campaign in particular absolutely hated it, but the tactic did manage to oust some of the worse ‘little Hitlers’ from some Job Centres and raise the profile of claimants’ opposition directly inside Job Centres amongst those who were cutting peoples benefits off with impunity.

Few of the original claimants’ action groups have survived from the Groundswell days, although Edinburgh Claimants have remained admirably consistent. Some activists have found new inspiration from the Canadian Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) approach to ‘direct action casework’, with LCAP launched in London and ECAP in Edinburgh. The CAPs combine increasing awareness of benefits entitlement and claimants’ confidence with direct action at Job Centres to highlight the effect of benefits regime changes and the role of providers like A4E. LCAP are making links with some of the old Groundswell affiliates like Newham Claimants Union. New and renewed initiatives are emerging from anarchist inspired community groups and trade union sources. Haringey Solidarity Group is in the process of reforming a claimants group. Hackney Unemployed Workers have a new website and have also helped to initiate a blog ‘Overheard at the Job Centre’ where claimants can share stories and gripes. In August, activists at Wirral Health and Safety Welfare Centre, Birkenhead launched Unemployed Workers Movement in Merseyside. Earlier, an unemployed action group was formed in Ipswich which successfully lobbied the local Trades Council to oppose Welfare Reform and is blogging vigorously on the web against providers to the extent that a related blog ‘New Deal Scandal’ was taken down following a complaint by A4E. This attempt at censorship was successfully opposed and the blog is now back online again at the original address. Another blog ‘Watching A4E’ is also back online at an alternative address.

Dilemmas

These developments are evidence of a renewal of claimants’ group activity that will surely inspire others. However, there may be a mismatch between what local campaigns are saying might be achieved by direct action and what the experienced activists in them think can be gained in reality. ECAP and LCAP still find themselves helping people individually through conventional casework, just as No Borders activists spend time and effort getting asylum seekers out of detention. More self-organisation is the aim, but is difficult to achieve in practice. And politically, these campaigns can't really 'win' in the sense of stopping New Deal developments by direct action. There's no more chance of success now than Groundswell had against the JSA when it came in, for there is nothing the unemployed can withdraw or strike against so they can't exert pressure on the state in that way. Ill and/or disabled people targeted most recently may find it even harder to fight, the actions of the Disabled People's Direct Action Network being a notable exception. On the other hand, there is perhaps more chance of solidarity from workers who have recently been laid off who might otherwise have labelled long-term incapacity claimants as scroungers unwilling to work, but are now in the same boat. The state still holds most of the cards and appears to have the ideological will to destroy the concept of the social wage. Even if a few providers get 'outed' as the corrupt scum they are, more will just step up to take their place. It’s a growth industry and one that the Tories support even more than Labour. Unemployment activists will surely know this.

But even if we are honest and accept that winning outright is impossible there is one very important point to the existence of CAPs and other claimants groups who are prepared to take direct action. Just as with blogging and talking to people we encounter on training courses aimed at ‘dolescum’ they can help create the right sort of atmosphere to:


1/ Create solidarities and produce collective knowledge, working class people getting together to learn what rights we have and what strategies work, so that individuals can improve their personal situation.

2/ Demonstrate the practical advantages of mutual aid. People who engage with other people to help each other do better as individuals out of it, even just in terms of their own case.

3/ Widen participation in struggle because some of the people helped will in turn get involved in helping other people (this is also the case with 'radical case-work' done 'for' asylum seekers).

4/ Foster a generalisation of struggle since CAPs don't only focus on benefits and do engage with wider struggles. For example LCAP have campaigned against council land sell-offs, better wages for Underground cleaners, and for improved conditions in hostels.

Once people are in touch with each other, they are in a position to identify struggles that can be won more easily, such as community resistance, workplace occupations etc. - action that has to be collective or it doesn't work at all. So even if people don't initially agree with an ideology of collective action being at the heart of social change, they might come to realise it through their experience of direct action casework or other forms of individual-focused resistance. CAP activists need to be clear to themselves that direct action case work is not all that different to what has gone before and so won't change anything really significant in itself.

There is another potential barrier to the growth of a fightback. In the 1990s unemployed activists were being forced into work or training for pretty much the first time by the implementation of JSA and the New Deal, placing them in more or less the same position as anyone else. Quite a few comrades got themselves into further or higher education, often as mature students, before student fees kicked in and made this a less affordable option. Others learnt IT skills that were useful for temping. A bit of collective knowledge helped you avoid the worst of the New Deal excesses such as being compelled to work for a charity or getting shipped out to dig holes for some voluntary organisation in the early morning. In contrast many of today’s activists have grown up with the constant hassle meted out by the New Deal. Some have found ways to survive in spite of this, signing off and squatting, living on their wits and taking bits of work when they arise to stave off being put on a 13 week motivational course by the likes of A4E. But even if they thought it desirable, these alternatives to buckling under are not easily accessed by everyone, whether they are young people straight out of school who are already denied any benefits until they are 18, those with family commitments and mortgages, those who have lost their job in the recession or those with long term disabilities or health problems. And even if some employed activists are supporting workplace occupations and other workers struggles, this activism is not about their own circumstances and often not local either – they are not digging where they stand.  The same is undoubtedly true for those who have jobs but who don’t spend most of their time on workplace activism, but it does seem that few if any unemployed activists are engaging in the arena of their economic situations, especially considering the growth of anarchism in recent years. It will be hard to create a sustainable culture of resistance if we cannot build, through long-term solidarity and collective action and an insistence on self-organisation, confidence in our local working class communities.

In conclusion, whilst there are encouraging signs of new claimants’ groups forming and a host of new websites and blogs, it’s clear we are still very much on the defensive when it comes to benefits struggles, using methods that are probably no more effective that those used when we didn’t stop the introduction of JSA. Lack of engagement since the 1990s means that Flexible New Deal and the rush to workfare may come as a shock to many activists who are not already involved. Class antagonisms between the unemployed and stressed public sector workers who are being asked do to the government's bidding still look unresolvable, and the handing over of welfare provision and medical examination to the private sector means that there is even less chance of solidarity arising. But the fight goes on, for when there are livelihoods at stake it's not an option to just give up and go home.

Links to the groups and their newsletters and the various blogs mentioned in the article can be found by visiting the following website: http://www.afed.org.uk/nottingham/claimants/

Look out also for local meetings and chances to meet and share experiences at anarchist bookfairs. A Britain-wide ‘No to Welfare Abolition’ meeting has now been confirmed for 14th November 2009.