Sunday, 14 December 2014

"Hang on"

Perhaps you watched the interview with Iain Duncan Smith today on The Sunday Politics.  It was much as we have come to expect, although Andrew Neil did try, for once.  But from the moment IDS opened his mouth he lied.  Neil tried to nail him on Universal Credit.  There's no need to go over the true history of that epic failure.  IDS has rewritten history, as he always does.  He is the hero who spotted what was going wrong and got it all sorted out, and now it's all going swimmingly.  Neil confronted him with graphics to show that a normal, low-paid family in his own constituency would be worse off.  But it's pointless confronting Smith with figures; they don't register with him.  Today he was shown a graph and maintained completely different figures.  Whenever Neil tried to move on to a different point, Smith said, "Hang on," and reiterated the falsehood he was insisting on.  There was one whopping, blatant lie which stood out.  "The Treasury hasn't signed off Universal Credit," said Neil.  "Yes it has," said IDS, and nothing could move him.  Neil hates this, so after the interview he produced confirmation in the form of a direct quote from a Treasury official at the Public Accounts Committee recently.
The Feeding Britain report was brought up.  The bulk of people needing food banks were suffering benefit delays and sanctions.  No, "benefits were now being paid more quickly - from 88-89% being on time under Labour, to 96-97% now."  I have no idea whether that's true, but since IDS said it I assume it isn't; certainly the delays are much, much longer now.  And anyway, he said, food bank use "is tiny in proportion here compared to a place like Germany which has more generous benefits and in which you have a higher level of pay.  So just saying it is to do with benefits is quite wrong. What I do say is there are lots of other reasons lots of people go to food banks."  For Andrew Neil it must have felt like banging one's head against a brick wall.
There was nothing to provoke a headline until the end of the interview.  He was shown clips of various ministers saying that the "welfare" budget would have to be cut still further.  Where would those cuts fall?  Would you limit child benefit to two children, asked Neil, echoing something the hard right has been pushing lately.  IDS said he would certainly consider it.
We can rant and rage and heap abuse on this man.  But try to take a step back and consider what's going on.  Does Smith actually believe what he says?  Or does he know that he's lying and not care?  I suspect it's a bit more complicated.  We have a toxic combination of fixed ideology and grandiose self-delusion.  And it persists because his party loves it.  Who else could they find to do their dirty work for them with such enthusiasm?  Possibly Chris Grayling.  But all the other Tories who would do the job with gusto are even more stupid than Smith (think McVey, or Philip Davies or Alec Shelbrooke).  Those with ability tend to maintain a tiny morsel of compassion.  So IDS sails on.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Feeding Britain

The report on hunger came and went.  For the media it was a one-day wonder and then they moved on.  The coverage elicited the expected denial and incomprehension, and nothing will be done.

The report, unfortunately, conflated two unrelated issues; the huge wastage of food, and the fact that large numbers of people can't afford food at all.  This allowed the media to focus on the first and to give the impression that the surplus food now thrown out could feed the poor.  There are, in fact, several organisations such as Fareshare which collect surplus food from the producers and retailers and pass it on for distribution to those charities which feed people; but they can't pass it on to food banks because it's fresh food which can't be stored by those food banks.  And anyway, that would not solve the problem of why people are going hungry.

It was important that the report brought out the reasons for food poverty.  It drew on the figures collected by the Trussell Trust to show that the majority of users are suffering from benefit delays and sanctions.  How did Iain Duncan Smith respond?  According to a Guardian report, he "promised to respond positively, telling MPs "“We want to do everything we can to make sure that people do not stumble into a process of sanctions”.  But on the same day the paper reported, "It is also unlikely that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) will shift its stance on the administration of benefit sanctions, even though the report says they are the single biggest reason for the poor resorting to food banks. DWP sources said it was very clear at the start of a benefit claim what was required of a claimant and there would be consequences for failing to meet that commitment."  The FT commented on a suggestion by Nick Clegg, among others, that there should be a sort of "yellow card" system for sanctions, a warning before an actual sanction was imposed.  Many of us would endorse that, and could come up with detailed plans for how it could work.  But, "aides to Iain Duncan Smith, work and pensions secretary, argued that the yellow card warning system was 'not necessary' because jobseeker’s allowance claimants were now required to sign a 'claimant commitment'. This left them in no doubt as to the obligations they were required to fulfil in return for their social security."  So IDS's pious words in the House of Commons were nothing more than pious words.  He did say that he would ensure that people are informed about hardship payments; but neglected to tell his colleagues that such payments are a pittance and don't kick in immediately anyway.
At least we know where Business Minister Matthew Hancock stands.  He said that that food banks had only increased “because more people know about them” and that poverty in Britain “coming down”.

I could point you to numerous articles about the report and the fall-out from it.  But you can find them for yourself.  The fact is that nothing will change.  At PMQs today Clegg, standing in for Cameron, reeled off lie after lie, apparently believing what he was saying.  

Saturday, 6 December 2014

And the poor get poorer

The most telling comment on Osborne's Autumn Statement this week came from Matthew Taylor in a discussion on a BBC programme.  The worst thing about it, he said, was that no one, not even Osborne, believed a word of it.  Those crunching the numbers afterwards came up with a terrifying vision of what the Tories are aiming at; a country which would be back in the desolate and dangerous world of the 1930s, with "the state", that part of the national income spent for the benefit of everyone, reduced to almost nothing.  Certainly there were plenty of hints about slashing "welfare" even further.  I was puzzled by one announcement, which was slipped through barely noticed by the commentators (because it doesn't affect them): the rates of Universal Credit are frozen for those in work (see the Independent's article on this).  Now, I can't make out whether he was just talking about UC, which won't affect most people for some time, or whether he was trying to pretend that everyone is on UC and it will actually mean working tax credits are frozen as well.  There's a good article in the Mirror on why Osborne's vision is so appalling.
In case you want to play the game of blaming someone other than the government and start muttering about pensioners, there was a nasty hidden surprise for many of them.  The so-called triple lock should have given them an extra £2.85 a week, but most of that will be lost as pension credits are lowered; so only those pensioners who don't qualify for extra benefits, i.e. those with private pensions and / or large amounts of savings, will get the full increase.
In the midst of all the gloom and doom there was some good news for A4e.  They have new 2-year contracts to deliver the New Enterprise Allowance mentoring scheme in a further three areas of Scotland.
The Scottish government is furious with the UK government over the Work Programme.  As part of the devolution agreement Scotland is to have control over welfare programmes there, but not UC.  The Smith Commission spelled out that this would include the WP when the contracts came to an end in March 2016.  Like many English councils, the Scottish government wants to devise suitable, flexible support for the unemployed.  But it was told on Tuesday that the current contracts are to be extended for a year.  The UK government says that this was agreed in August, long before the Smith Commission was set up.  So tough.
There are only 6 days left to get evidence to the Work & Pensions Select Committee for their enquiry into benefit sanctions.  The DWP will maintain its lie about sanctions only being used as a last resort, as they've done in an article today in a Scottish newspaper.  I would love the enquiry to conclude that the DWP is deliberately lying and make that known.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Marking time

Right, I'm back.  Sorry about the hiatus.  What has been going on in my absence?

On the A4e front, very little.  There is no news about the fraud trial, which surely should have finished by now.  But FE Week reports that the £17m London prison education (OLASS) contract, which A4e gave 3 months notice of handing back in August, will continue in A4e's hands until the new year, because the Skills Funding Agency can't find any college willing to take it on.  This seems to back up A4e's claim that the contract was no longer viable.  The prison system is in such a mess that prisoners are being shifted around too often to make education possible.  

On the wider subject of "welfare", I don't need to detail the antics of Iain Duncan Smith.  He was on Radio 4's Today programme on Tuesday, setting out the new timetable for Universal Credit.  Mishal Hussein, who interviewed him, raised the obvious points about missed targets and wasted money.  Now for IDS, that is not how the BBC should behave.  The interviewer should just listen respectfully to whatever fantasies he chooses to spout.  I feared for Hussein at the time.  And sure enough, the next day IDS was reported to have lodged a complaint about her being "negative".  At the same time the National Audit Office warned that any further delays in UC would be hugely costly.  It said that there were no contingency plans to deal with delays.

There's a report in the Independent today about single parents being wrongly threatened with sanctions, or having those sanctions imposed.  I was struck by the blatant lie in the DWP's response: "Sanctions are a necessary part of the benefits system but they are only used as a last resort for a tiny minority who don’t follow the rules and hardship payments are available if people need them.”  This is utterly dishonest propaganda.  But then, if the man at the top of the department is a fantasist it's going to permeate the whole organisation.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Sanctions and lies

The Work & Pensions Select Committee has launched its inquiry into benefit sanctions, something which owes a lot to the tireless pressure of Debbie Abrahams MP.  But if you read its terms of reference (here) you notice some important things missing.  First there's the actual process of sanctioning; the automatic stoppage of money which can't be reversed if it's found to be a mistake.  This is crucial to expose the lie that sanctions are only ever used as a last resort.  And then there's the question of arbitrary sanctions applied by JC or WP staff just because they feel like it or have targets to meet.  The inquiry must hear from victims and whistle-blowers or it's pointless.  The page makes it clear that they can't investigate individual cases, but don't let that stop you if you want to submit evidence.

It gets wearisome to report on Iain Duncan Smith's character and lies.  He knows that he is untouchable and his arrogance has grown to monstrous proportions - as has his rudeness.  There was an incident this week in the House of Commons which demonstrated what one MP called his boorishness.  He had remarked that Rachel Reeves MP, his Labour shadow, "couldn't be bothered" to turn up to vote in a particular debate.  She raised a point of order demanding an apology; he had no knowledge, she said, of why she wasn't there.  IDS showed his contempt by saying something about her being in Rochester (for the by-election).  Reeves denied this and repeated her demand for an apology.  She didn't get one, of course.  This wretched man just smirked.

Then there were the "angry scenes" described in the Mirror at the Work & Pensions Select Committee's hearing yesterday.  Now, I missed this part of IDS's "evidence".  I'd stuck it out for an hour, but couldn't bear any more.  So I didn't hear Debbie Abrahams' ask him about the numbers not included in the unemployment figures because they were sanctioned.  According to an Oxford University study this figure could be as high as 500,000.  IDS's response was that this was "ludicrous".  Ms Abrahams said, "People have died after being sanctioned, Minister."  The response?  "No, I don't agree with that."  The last line of the Mirror's story is, "A DWP spokesman dismissed the study, saying 'It looks to be partially based on unreliable data.'"

This disgusting man and his disgusting department put out a press release today which claims: "More than 12,000 households have made the choice to move into work or stop claiming Housing Benefit because of the benefit cap".  He's been warned about this before; it's a complete falsification of the data.  But the London Evening Standard allows him space to amplify this claim, with the arrogance of the seriously deluded.

Ironically, the Public Accounts Committee reported today on the "scandalous" failure of the Work Programme to help ESA claimants.  The Independent covers this.  It also ends with a meaningless quote from "a DWP spokesman".  I do wish papers would stop giving space to this person.

Nothing is going to change.  And if there is a Conservative majority next May it will get much, much worse.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Everything must go

The government is in a desperate hurry to sell off whatever it can of the remaining shreds of the public sector.  Yesterday it announced the winning bidders for the Transforming Rehabilitation contracts, that hugely dangerous outsourcing of probation services.  As we can see from the Guardian's report on this, two companies get more than half the business.  Sodexo gets six areas, Interserve five; of the rest of the 21 areas, Working Links gets three and Ingeus two.  All have signed up charities to do the work.  Between them they will handle more than half of the probation service work, with supposedly medium and low risk offenders.  Their profits will be on a payment by results basis, albeit under a more complicated system than that of the Work Programme.  G4S and Serco had to withdraw their bids because they are still under investigation for fraud.  A4e, we understand, also withdrew from the process.
It's bad enough that such we have to watch this vital work flogged off for private profit.  Worse is the fact that the companies' profits have been insured against a new government pulling the plug on these contracts.  They are guaranteed their expected profits for 10 years!  So it would be ruinously expensive to cancel them.

We also heard yesterday of the company replacing Atos in the WCA contracts.  It's Maximus, an American company with as dreadful a record in the US as G4S and Serco have here.  For details, look at this piece on the Disability News Service site.  We can't know the financial arrangements that brought Maximus into this, but we should.

We learn from the Guardian that the government is pressing ahead with another disturbing outsourcing scheme; that of child protection services, currently the responsibility of local councils.  A lot of people are not aware that private companies already run children's homes, looking after the most vulnerable children for profit.  Now the government wants to take child protection out of the councils' hands altogether.  It might be thought that, given the stream of news recently of councils' failings in this area, it couldn't be any worse.  But councils are accountable for what they do.  Private companies just want to make a profit.

You will have read today that the government has considered cutting ESA to only pennies above JSA level.  It denies that it's actually going to do it, and the cries of protest will probably stop it this side of an election.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Two verdicts on Universal Credit

Two programmes looked at UC last night (I had to catch up on both online this morning).

The first was a Channel 4 Dispatches programme.  Now, Channel 4 brought you Benefits Street, and the producers of that pernicious propaganda recently insisted that they wouldn't be "censored" and will go ahead with the next rotten slice; so could we trust the channel to do something truthful on UC?  Amazingly, yes.  Liz MacKean, a real journalist, went to Warrington earlier this year to look at how it was working.  They found four claimants, who could never be describes as scroungers, who had suffered problems and hardship because of mistakes, delays, confusion and poor staff training.  There were tales of the system not being able to cope with a change in circumstances; of the huge hike in rent arrears and debt.  A whistle-blower from a DWP service centre spoke of staff being overwhelmed by the workload.  Significantly, perhaps, it was Mark Harper, the newish minister for the disabled, who was put up to answer for all this.  He seems to be the new face of the DWP; Iain Duncan Smith and McVey are both, perhaps, seen as liabilities.  Harper talked blandly, of course; but there seemed no recognition that real people are suffering real harm as they "learn from their mistakes" at the DWP.

The second programme was a Radio 4 Analysis episode.  Most of it is summarised in the presenter's own piece in yesterday's Guardian.  Jonathan Portes used to work at the DWP so has an insider's view of what has gone on.  The radio programme was striving for "balance".  We got Kwasi Kwarteng, a Tory MP, making excuses for Duncan Smith.  Worse, we got a sizeable contribution from Fraser Nelson.  He's the editor of the Spectator, a small circulation right-wing magazine, and he also writes for the Telegraph, for which he has produced the most deluded tosh about "welfare reform".  He repeated it on the radio.  (For balance, Margaret Hodge told the truth.)  We got a damning description of the failures of IDS, in UC and in the Atos fiasco.  There was no mention of the dreadful damage that's been done to real people because of IDS's delusions, just a description of the financial costs.

Everyone except IDS seems now to agree that UC is a write-off, and will be ditched whoever is in power after May.

Harking back to yesterday's post, A4e have tweeted an apology.