Mile-wide: Mr Miliband explained his idea to bridge the gulf between the public and the Prime Minister to Andrew Marr.
Ed Miliband engaged in a particularly compelling piece of kite-flying today (July 27) – he put out the idea that the public should have their own version of Prime Minister’s Questions.
Speaking to Andrew Marr, he said such an event would “bridge the ‘mile-wide’ gulf between what people want and what they get from Prime Minister’s Questions”, which has been vilified in recent years for uncivilised displays of tribal hostility between political parties and their leaders (David Cameron being the worst offender) and nicknamed ‘Wednesday Shouty Time’.
“I think what we need is a public question time where regularly the prime minister submits himself or herself to questioning from members of the public in the Palace of Westminster on Wednesdays,” said Mr Miliband.
“At the moment there are a few inches of glass that separates the public in the gallery from the House of Commons but there is a gulf a mile wide between the kind of politics people want and what Prime Minister’s Questions offers.”
What would you ask David Cameron?
Would you demand a straight answer to the question that has dogged the Department for Work and Pensions for almost three years, now – “How many people are your ‘welfare reform’ policies responsible for killing?”
Would you ask him why his government, which came into office claiming it would be the most “transparent” administration ever, has progressively denied more and more important information to the public?
Would you ask him whether he thinks it is right for a Prime Minister to knowingly attempt to mislead the public, as he himself has done repeatedly over the privatisation of the National Health Service, the benefit cap, the bedroom tax, food banks, fracking…? The list is as long as you want to make it.
What about his policies on austerity? Would you ask him why his government of millionaires insists on inflicting deprivation on the poor when the only economic policy that has worked involved investment in the system, rather than taking money away?
His government’s part-privatisation of the Royal Mail was a total cack-handed disaster that has cost the nation £1 billion and put our mail in the hands of hedge funds. Would you ask him why he is so doggedly determined to stick to privatisation policies that push up prices and diminish quality of service. Isn’t it time some of these private companies were re-nationalised – the energy firms being prime examples?
Would you want to know why his government has passed so many laws to restrict our freedoms – of speech, of association, of access to justice – and why it intends to pass more, ending the government’s acknowledgement that we have internationally-agreed human rights and restricting us to a ‘Bill of Rights’ dictated by his government, and tying us to restrictive lowest-common-denominator employment conditions laid down according to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a grubby little deal that the EU and USA were trying to sign in secret until the whistle was blown on it?
[Image: David Symonds for The Guardian, in February this year.]
Britain has returned to prosperity, with the economy finally nudging beyond its pre-crisis peak, according to official figures.
Well, that’s a relief, isn’t it? Next time you’re in the supermarket looking for bargains or mark-downs because you can’t afford the kind of groceries you had in 2008, you can at least console yourself that we’re all doing better than we were back then.
The hundreds of thousands of poor souls who have to scrape by on handouts from food banks will, no doubt, be bolstered by the knowledge that Britain is back on its feet.
And the relatives of those who did not survive Iain Duncan Smith’s brutal purge of benefit claimants can be comforted by the thought that they did not die in vain.
NO! Of course not! Gross domestic product might be up 3.1 per cent on last year but it’s got nothing to do with most of the population! In real terms, you’re £1,600 per year worse-off!
The Conservatives who have been running the economy since 2010 have re-balanced it, just as they said they would – but they lied about the way it would be re-balanced and as a result the money is going to the people who least deserve it; the super-rich and the bankers who caused the crash in the first place.
You can be sure that the mainstream media won’t be telling you that, though.
Even some of the figures they are prepare to use are enough to cast doubt on the whole process. The UK economy is forecast to be the fastest-growing among the G7 developed nations according to the IMF (as reported by the BBC) – but our export growth since 2010 puts us below all but one of the other G7 nations, according to Ed Balls in The Guardian.
“Since most international trade is in goods and not in services, once the proportion of the economy devoted to producing internationally tradable goods drops below about 15 per cent, it becomes more and more difficult to combine a reasonable rate of growth and full employment with a sustainable balance of payments position,” he writes.
“In the UK, the proportion of GDP coming from manufacturing is now barely above 10 per cent. Hardly surprising then that we have not had a foreign trade surplus balance since 1982 – over thirty years ago – while our share of world trade which was 10.7 per cent in 1950 had fallen by 2012 to no more than 2.6 per cent.”
All of this seems to be good business sense. It also runs contrary to successive governments’ economic policies for the past 35 years, ever since the neoliberal government of Margaret Thatcher took over in 1979.
As this blog has explained, Thatcher and her buddies Nicholas Ridley and Keith Joseph were determined to undermine the confidence then enjoyed by the people who actually worked for a living, because it was harming the ability of the idle rich – shareholders, bosses… bankers – to increase their own undeserved profits; improvements in working-class living standards were holding back their greed.
In order to hammer the workers back into the Stone Age, they deliberately destroyed the UK’s manufacturing and exporting capability and blamed it on the unions.
That is why we have had a foreign trade deficit since 1982. That is why our share of world trade is less than one-third of what it was in 1950 (under a Labour government, notice). That is why unemployment has rocketed, even though the true level goes unrecognised as governments have rigged the figures to suit themselves.
(The current wheeze has the government failing to count as unemployed anyone on Universal Credit, anyone on Workfare/Mandatory Work Activity and anyone who whose benefit has been sanctioned – among many other groups – for example.)
You may wish to argue that the economy is fine – after all, that’s what everybody is saying, including the Office for National Statistics.
Not according to Mr Mills: “The current improvement in our economic performance, based on buttressing consumer confidence by boosting asset values fuelled by yet more borrowing, is all to unlikely to last.”
(He means the housing bubble created by George Osborne’s ‘Help to Buy’ scheme will burst soon, and then the economy will be right up the creek because the whole edifice is based on more borrowing at a time when Osborne has been claiming he is paying down the deficit.)
Ed Balls has got the right idea – at least, on the face of it. In his Guardian article he states: “We are not going to deliver a balanced, investment-led recovery that benefits all working people with the same old Tory economics,” and he’s right.
“Hoping tax cuts at the very top will trickle down, a race to the bottom on wages, Treasury opposition to a proper industrial strategy, and flirting with exit from the European Union cannot be the right prescription for Britain.” Right again – although our contract with Europe must be renegotiated and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreement would be a disaster for the UK if we signed it.
But none of that affects you, does it? It’s all too far away, controlled by people we’ve never met. That’s why Balls focuses on what a Labour government would do for ordinary people: “expanding free childcare, introducing a lower 10p starting rate of tax, raising the minimum wage and ending the exploitative use of zero-hours contracts. We need to create more good jobs and ensure young people have the skills they need to succeed.”
And how do the people respond to these workmanlike proposals?
“You intend to continue the Tories’ destructive ‘austerity’ policies.”
“The economy isn’t fixed but you broke it.”
There was one comment suggesting that all the main parties are the same now, which – it has been suggested – was what Lynton Crosby told David Cameron to spread if he wanted to win the next election.
Very few of the comments under the Guardian piece have anything to do with what Balls actually wrote; they harp on about New Labour’s record (erroneously), they conflate Labour’s vow not to increase borrowing with an imaginary plan to continue Tory austerity policies… in fact they do all they can to discredit him.
Not because his information is wrong but because they have heard rumours about him that have put them off.
It’s as if people don’t want their situation to improve.
Until we can address that problem – which is one of perception – we’ll keep going around in circles while the exploiters laugh.
“There is an alternative” – and it doesn’t have to cost more than we’re spending now.
It seems some people are upset that Labour has announced it does not intend to increase public spending, if elected into office after next year’s general election.
This is a perfectly reasonable reaction, depending on the amount of information available to the person holding that opinion.
In other words, if you don’t know why Labour has made this decision, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that the former Party of The Left has turned Tory-lite.
That’s why we’re hearing that Labour will simply continue Tory policies; that the main three parties are “all in it together” (to overuse a hackneyed and devalued phrase).
But evidence is available to suggest that this is a big mistake.
To finance extra spending, Labour would have to borrow more money – but this would push up interest rates and create a potential disaster for people with mortgages and loans to pay off.
According to Modern Monetary Theory – an economic method that seems to have earned credence with all the main parties – government borrowing is not undertaken to finance its spending, but to maintain a target interest rate.
In times of recession, businesses borrow more and households find it hard to save money for a rainy day (as the saying goes). We have spent most of the last decade either in recession or in the slowest recovery in British history and the private sector simply doesn’t have the spare cash to pay higher interest demanded on loans in the wake of higher government borrowing.
Labour wants to safeguard those businesses; Labour wants to safeguard your homes.
The alternative would cost any government much more in the long run.
It’s as simple as that.
So Labour has set a spending target that is the same as the Conservatives’, ensuring that interest rates can be kept under control.
This doesn’t mean it will continue with Conservative-led spending plans. That would be a betrayal of Labour’s core voters.
Instead, it seems more likely that Labour will seek to stimulate the economy by taking funding away from wasteful areas – this blog would certainly wish to see less public money given to private contractors who pocket half of it as profit – and investing it in economic growth.
With more money flowing through the system and coming back to the Treasury in taxation, it will then become easier to relax restrictions on interest rates, which will help the government with its debt issue (this has to do with the way governments borrow money, issuing bonds at fixed rates of interest, and is a story for another day).
If Labour’s plan works, it will mean humiliation for the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, as Labour will have spent exactly the same amount doing it as those other parties have been spending for the previous five years – to little effect.
Do not misunderstand; it is perfectly possible that Labour’s spending plans could be entirely wrong-headed! Labour spent most of the last 20 years experimenting disastrously with neoliberal thinking that, continued and concentrated by the Coalition government, has led us to the current pretty pass.
In this case, it seems the Devil really is in the detail.
But the overarching strategy is sound and Labour should not be criticised for it.
The victim: Raquel Rolnik, the United Nations’ expert Special Rapporteur on Housing is once again the victim of a baseless Daily Mail smear piece.
Yet again, the Daily Heil has been using the tactics of its best friend Adolf Hitler – the ‘Big Lie’ – to attack a United Nations official whose job is to point out that Coalition government policies are harming the innocent poor.
The Flail‘s tone was Nurembergian – and almost entirely fact-free – as it denounced ‘Brazil Nut’ Raquel Rolnik for imaginary crimes against Iain Duncan Smith’s benefit cuts – the homicidal, if not genocidal, measures that are driving hundreds of thousands of people into destitution and despair.
You see, the Fail is fine with destitution and despair for the poor – its readers are all rich middle- or upper-class housewives who pass their days spending their husbands’ vast fortunes (this is not entirely true, but is exactly the sort of generalisation you can expect from that paper. If you are a Mail reader, it isn’t such fun when you’re the victim, is it?) and gossiping.
The news story is that a group of United Nations poverty ambassadors has written a 22-page letter pointing out that cuts to social security benefits introduced by Iain Duncan Smith and enforced by his Department for Work and Pensions on behalf of the Coalition government may constitute a breach of the UK’s international treaty obligations to the poor.
The letter states: “The package of austerity measures enacted could amount to retrogressive measures prohibited under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, ratified in 1974.”
Among the benefit changes it highlights are alterations to housing benefit, council tax benefit, working age benefits and the bedroom tax and the benefits cap – which everybody agrees would be a good idea if it had been limited to a reasonable amount, rather than one at which the Conservative-led Coalition could throw people into hardship.
The Mail‘s report pays little attention to the facts, lavishing far more space on Mrs Rolnik herself. It said she had been nicknamed the ‘Brazil Nut’, which she had – by the Daily Mail; and went on to attempt to cast doubt on her authority as special rapporteur on housing and those of fellow UN ambassadors Maria Magdalena Sepulveda Carmona, special rapporteur on extreme poverty; and Olivier De Schutter, the special rapporteur on the right to food.
These are experts in their field who have been engaged by the United Nations – a higher-ranking legal authority than the UK – to investigate government policies, but that’s not good enough for the Mail.
It prefers to get its opinions from tupenny-ha’penny Tory thinktanks.
So it casts doubt. The letter is from ‘ambassadors’ and follows an ‘investigation’, according to the Mail, because putting those words in that way casts doubt upon their validity.
Mrs Rolnik was brought up as a Marxist, the Mail states – as if that has anything to do with her findings. And the report claims she should leave the UK alone and concentrate on problems in her own country, where millions of people live in shanty towns – even though the writer, ‘Jason Groves’, should know perfectly well that her job involves just that.
He clearly doesn’t want you to see her comments on housing in Brazil, prior to the football World Cup which is being held there at the moment: “We expected that the champion of many football cups would use this opportunity to show the world it is also a champion of the right to housing, in particular for people living in poverty, but the information I have received shows otherwise.”
She had received allegations of evictions without due process or in breach of international human rights standards, cases in which residents and citizens had not been consulted and were barred from to participation in decisions that had a grave impact on their standard of living. Concerns had also been expressed about very low compensation that might lead to the creation of new “informal settlements” (shanty towns) with inadequate living conditions or greater rates of homelessness.
“Authorities should avoid at all costs any negative impacts on then human rights of the individuals and communities, especially the most vulnerable… [and] should ensure that their actions, and those of third parties involved in the organization of the events, contribute to the creation of a stable housing market and have a long term positive impact in the residents of the cities where events take place.”
So critics who think she has ignored issues in her home country are wrong.
That’s a bit of a blow to the Mail‘s credibility, isn’t it?
The measures criticised by Mrs Rolnik and her colleagues were brought in “to tackle the huge budget deficit left by Labour”, according to the Mail. Again, this is wrong. The Coalition government has made no real effort to tackle the budget deficit which was necessitated when Labour saved our banking system, the threat having been created by Tory-supporting bankers whose greed put their firms into overwhelming debt. Look at the annual deficit for the last financial year; it is still well above £100 billion. If you agree that the cuts were to bring the deficit down, you have swallowed a lie.
Iain Duncan Smith, the man this blog describes as ‘RTU’ (standing for ‘Returned To Unit’ in tribute to his failed Army career) is reportedly furious at this intervention from the United Nations, which has a duty to intervene if governments of member countries descend into criminality, as has happened with the UK (here’s just one example).
According to the Mail, he said: “They talk down our country, criticising the action we’ve taken to get control of the public finances and create a fairer more prosperous Britain. They simply do not have a clue – and we will not be taking lessons from a group of unelected commentators who can’t get their facts straight.”
You see, not only has this been going on ever since the Coalition government established welfare-to-work in its current form –
Not only have government ministers and backbenchers been lying to you about the payouts given to the profit-driven privately-owned provider companies –
Not only have these companies been sucking down on your hard-earned taxpayer cash as though they had done something to earn it –
But the people they were supposed to be helping – people who have been forced into ever-greater poverty by the benefit uprating cap, arbitrary and unfair benefit sanctions, the bedroom tax, the £26,000 cap on benefits for families, the imposition of council tax on even the poorest households (in England at least), the stress of continual reassessment (if they are ESA claimants in the work-related activity group), the humiliation of having to visit food banks and who knows what else…
The people who are desperate to get any kind of paying job, despite the fact that zero-hours contracts could make them worse-off than unemployment, due to the effect on in-work benefits, despite the fact that those in-work benefits are also being squeezed hard, and despite the fact that there are at least five jobseekers for every job that becomes available…
These are the people that government ministers, backbenchers and the right-wing press keep victimising with their endless attacks on “skivers”, “scroungers”, the “feckless”, the “idle” and the “lazy”!
If I was unemployed and my MP had been caught slagging me off while praising these good-for-nothing so-called work programme ‘providers’, I would make it my business to bring them before the public, lock them into some medieval stocks and pelt them with rotten vegetables. Public humiliation is the least they should get for this continual insult to common decency.
But wait! There’s more.
It turns out that, not only are these work programme providers a bunch of lazy good-for-nothing parasites, but many of them are also a bunch of foreigners who’ve come to the UK to take our jobs!
Ingeus is Australian. G4S is part-Danish. Maximus is American.
It seems that all the politically-fuelled and media-driven anger against immigration into the UK from the rest of the European Union and beyond may be designed to distract us all from the fact that foreign firms are immigrating here to take government jobs that should be yours, and to steal your tax money.
Nobody can say they’ve earned it, after all.
But let us not be unfair. It would be wrong to concentrate on welfare-to-work providers when all of government is riddled with foreign interlopers.
Look at the Treasury, where the ‘Big Four’ accountancy firms have been re-writing tax law to suit their tax-avoiding corporate clients for the last few years. They are Deloitte (American), PriceWaterhouseCoopers (part-American), Ernst & Young (part-American) and KPMG (Dutch).
And then there is the huge, criminal, foreign firm that has been advising the Department for Work and Pensions on ways to privatise the welfare state since the mid-1990s – a firm so controversial that there is currently a moratorium on the mention of its name in the national mainstream media. It is an American insurance giant called Unum.
The best that can be said of these five corporations is that – at least to the best of our knowledge – they do work for a living.
“This particular Secretary of State, along with his Department, is pushing people through [the] cracks and hoping that the rest of the country will not notice that they have disappeared.” – Glenda Jackson MP, June 30, 2014.
If the man this blog likes to call RTU (Returned To Unit) thought he would be able to show that his behaviour had improved, he was sorely mistaken – as the comment above illustrates.
It is vital that this information reaches the general public despite the apparent news blackout, in the mainstream media, of any disparaging information about Duncan Smith or his DWP.
But we were discussing the debate as a trial. Let us first look at the evidence in favour of the government.
There. That was illuminating, wasn’t it?
Seriously, the government benches were unable to put up a single supportable point against the mountain of evidence put forward by Labour.
Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary-in-a-State, resorted yet again to his favourite tactic – and one for which he should have been sacked as an MP long ago – lying to Parliament. He accused Labour of leaving behind a “shambles” – in fact the economy had begun to improve under intelligent guidance from Alistair Darling. “The economy was at breaking point,” he said – in fact the British economy cannot break; it simply doesn’t work that way. His claim that “We were burdened with the largest deficit in peacetime history” is only supportable in money terms, and then only because inflation means the pound is worth so much less than it was in, say, the 1940s – or for the entire century between 1750 and 1850. He called yesterday’s debate “a cynical nugget of short-term policy to put to the unions,” but the evidence below renders that completely irrelevant.
He said complaints about long delivery times for benefits were “out of date” – a common excuse. He’ll do the same in a few months, when the same complaint is raised again.
“Universal Credit is rolling out to the timescale I set last year,” he insisted – but we all know that it has been ‘reset’ (whatever that means) by the government’s Major Projects Authority.
He said there had been four independent reviews of the work capability assessment for Employment and Support Allowance, with more than 50 recommendations by Sir Malcolm Harrington accepted by the government. This was a lie. We know that almost two-thirds of the 25 recommendations he made in his first review were not fully or successfully implemented.
He said appeals against ESA decisions “are down by just under 90 per cent” – but we know that this is because of the government’s unfair and prejudicial mandatory reconsideration scheme – and that the DWP was bringing in a new provider to carry out work capability assessments. Then he had to admit that this provider has not yet been chosen! And the backlog of claims mounts up.
He tried to justify his hugely expensive botched IT schemes by pointing at a Labour scheme for the Child Support Agency that wasted hundreds of millions less than his Universal Credit, without acknowledging the obvious flaw in his argument: If he knew about this mistake, why is he repeating it?
Conservative Mark Harper said Labour opposed the Tories’ most popular scheme – the benefit cap. That was a lie. Labour supported the cap, but would have set it at a higher level. We know that the Coalition government could not do this because it would not, then, have made the huge savings they predicted.
Now, the evidence against.
First up is Rachel Reeves, shadow secretary of state for work and pensions: “After £612 million being spent, including £131 million written off or ‘written down’, the introduction of Universal Credit is now years behind schedule with no clear plan for how, when, or whether full implementation will be achievable or represent value for money.
“Over 700,000 people are still waiting for a Work Capability Assessment, and… projected spending on Employment and Support Allowance has risen by £800 million since December… The Government [is] still not able to tell us which provider will replace Atos.
“Personal Independence Payment delays have created uncertainty, stress and financial costs for disabled people and additional budgetary pressures for Government… Desperate people, many of whom have been working and paying into the system for years or decades and are now struck by disability or illness, waiting six months or more for help from the Department for Work and Pensions.
“The Work Programme has failed to meet its targets, the unfair bedroom tax risks costing more than it saves, and other DWP programmes are performing poorly or in disarray.
“Spending on housing benefit for people who are in work has gone up by more than 60 per cent, reflecting the fact that more people are in low-paid or insecure work and are unable to make ends meet, even though they may be working all the hours God sends.
“More than five million people — 20 per cent of the workforce — are paid less than the living wage. Furthermore, 1.5 million people are on zero-hours contracts and 1.4 million people are working part time who want to work full time.
“This… is about the young woman diagnosed with a life-limiting illness who has waited six months for any help with her living costs. It is about the disabled man whose payments have been stopped because he did not attend an interview to which he was never invited.
“The Government are wasting more and more taxpayers’ money on poorly planned and disastrously managed projects, and are allowing in-work benefits to spiral because of their failure to tackle the low pay and insecurity that are adding billions of pounds to the benefits bill.
“The Government are careless with the contributions that people make to the system, callous about the consequences of their incompetence for the most vulnerable, and too arrogant to admit mistakes and engage seriously with the task of sorting out their own mess.
“What this Government have now totally failed to do is to remember the human impact, often on people in vulnerable circumstances, of this catalogue of chaos. Behind the bureaucratic language and spreadsheets showing backlogs and overspends are people in need who are being let down and mistreated, and taxpayers who can ill afford the mismanagement and waste of their money.
“To fail to deliver on one policy might be considered unfortunate; to miss one’s targets on two has to be judged careless; but to make such a complete mess of every single initiative the Secretary of State has attempted requires a special gift. It is something like a Midas touch: everything he touches turns into a total shambles.
“Meanwhile, the Secretary of State will spew out dodgy statistics, rant and rave about Labour’s record, say “on time and on budget” until he is blue in the face and, in typical Tory style, blame the staff for everything that goes wrong.”
Julie Hilling (Labour) provides this: “The Government do not know what they are talking about… They talk about the number of jobs being created, but they do not know how many of them are on zero-hours contracts or how many are on Government schemes or how many have been transferred from the public sector.”
Stephen Doughty (Labour/Co-op): “another stark indictment of their policies is the massive increase in food banks across this country.”
Helen Jones (Labour): “When I asked how many people in my constituency had been waiting more than six months or three months for medical assessments for personal independence payment, the Government told me that the figures were not available. In other words, they are not only incompetent; they do not know how incompetent they are!”
Sheila Gilmore (Labour): “Although the problems with Atos were known about—and it is now being suggested that they had been known about for some time—a contract was given to that organisation for PIP. Was due diligence carried out before the new contract was issued?”
Gordon Marsden (Labour): “Many of my constituents have been caught by the double whammy of delays involving, first, the disability living allowance and now PIP. They have waited long periods for a resolution, but because a decision is being reconsidered, their Motability — the lifeline that has enabled them to get out of their homes — has been taken away before that decision has been made. Is that not a horrendous indictment of the Government?”
Emily Thornberry (Labour): “I have been making freedom of information requests.. in relation to mandatory reconsiderations. When people get their work capability assessment, and it has failed, before they can appeal there has to be a mandatory reconsideration. The Department does not know how many cases have been overturned, how many claimants have been left without any money and how long the longest period is for reconsideration. It cannot answer a single one of those questions under a freedom of information request.”
Natascha Engel (Labour): “The welfare state is designed as a safety net to catch people who absolutely cannot help themselves… That safety net is being withdrawn under this government, which is certainly pushing some of my constituents into destitution.”
There was much more, including the devastating speech by Glenda Jackson, partly in response to Natascha Engels’ comments, that is reproduced in the video clip above.
The vote – for the House of Commons to recognise that the DWP was in chaos and disarray – was lost (of course). A government with a majority will never lose such a vote.
But once again, the debate was won by the opposition. They had all the facts; all the government had were lies and fantasies.
By now, one suspects we all know somebody who has died as a result of Coalition government polices on welfare (or, preferably, social security). Two such deaths have been reported in the Comment columns of Vox Political since the weekend, and it is only Tuesday.
That is why it is vital that this information reaches the general public despite the apparent news blackout, in the mainstream media, of any disparaging information about Duncan Smith or his DWP.
Share it with your friends, use parts of it in letters to your local papers or radio stations, even mentioning it in conversation will help if the other person isn’t aware of the facts.
Don’t let it be suppressed.
You don’t want to do Iain Duncan Smith’s work for him, do you?
Fraud: This man wants you to believe DWP austerity measures are succeeding, in order to win votes at next year’s general election. They aren’t. He is a liar.
The Department for Work and Pensions is merrily claiming that more than £13 million allocated to help people who have been hit be the government’s unfair ‘welfare reforms’ via Discretionary Housing Payments has gone unclaimed. Lord Freud wants you to think “recent scare stories about councils running out of money were grossly exaggerated”.
He was – of course – lying through his teeth.
A quick look at the facts reveals that Discretionary Housing Payment was overspent by £3,505,582 during the 2013-14 financial year. That’s two per cent more than the government allocated.
The £13,285,430 underspend quoted in the press release refers to just 240 out of the 380 councils that distribute DHPs. It completely ignores the £16,791,012 overspent by 127 other councils, in order to provide a false figure. The remaining 13 councils spent all of their allocated amounts.
Focus on the regions and the picture gets worse: In Scotland, DHP was overspent by 76 per cent of the amount allocated – £28,700,215 against an allocation of £16,269,675 from the DWP. Scottish councils had to foot the bill for the extra amounts.
Wales spent an extra six per cent – £7,724,176 against an allocation of £7,274,829. Here in Powys, 1,200 of the county’s 8,300 social dwellings were affected by the bedroom tax, with a total annual loss of housing benefit of £800,000. The total DHP funding available was £154,975.
Looking at those figures, it’s amazing the overspend was so small.
It is only in England that a net underspend is recorded – of around £9 million.
So let’s have a look at Lord Fraud’s – sorry, Freud’s – statement that “today’s figures also show that recent scare stories about councils running out of money were grossly exaggerated.”
Grossly exaggerated? The fact is that 127 councils did run out of money – that’s more than one-third of the total.
It would be fairer to say that the scare stories came true.
The press release also states that “around three-quarters of councils also did not apply for a £20 million government top-up fund to help claimants adjust to welfare changes, leaving a further £7.1 million unspent”.
No figures are provided to support this statement.
People will be angry about this – and rightly so.
The BBC has just brought massed complaints down on itself after it chose to ignore a 50,000-strong demonstration against the government’s austerity measures that started outside the Corporation’s front door. Many incensed callers and emailers said they feared the BBC was participating in a conspiracy of silence about the harm being caused to ordinary people.
Now we see the DWP is lying to us about the harm its bedroom tax is doing to ordinary people – including hardworking employees, who make up more than 90 per cent of new housing benefit claimants.
Tory leader David Cameron has been banging the drum for Britishness recently – good for him. It gives us an opportunity to point out that, if there’s one British value that stands out above all the rest, it’s this:
We hate people in authority who try to mislead us.
National disgrace: The green benches were almost empty during yesterday’s debate on the DWP’s new ‘mandatory reconsideration’ regime – and the potential number of deaths it is causing.
It is hard to know where to start. Perhaps with DWP minister Mike Penning’s failure to answer the questions raised in yesterday’s adjournment debate on the ESA ‘mandatory reconsideration’ process, despite having prior notice of Sheila Gilmore’s entire presentation? Perhaps with the DWP’s failure to release accurate statistics, which is especially appalling as press officer Richard Caseby attacked a newspaper for inaccuracies very recently? Perhaps with the DWP’s continuing denial of the deaths caused by its increasingly-bizarre and unreasonable attempts to save money?
The debate was brought to Parliament by Labour’s Sheila Gilmore who, in her own words, has been trying to get a succession of useless Conservative ministers to acknowledge the homicidal nature of their incapacity benefit “reforms” ever since she was elected. This was her sixth debate on the subject.
Yesterday’s debate was about the stress and poverty caused by the government’s decision to impose ‘mandatory reconsideration’ on ESA claimants who have been found fit for work and want to appeal against the decision. The benefit – originally paid at the ‘assessment’ rate – is cut off during the reconsideration period, meaning that claimants have no income whatsoever; housing benefit and council tax reduction claimants have their claims interrupted during this time.
People might be able to accommodate this if the reconsideration period lasted the maximum of two weeks that was implied when the new system was introduced, but it doesn’t take a maximum of two weeks.
The average length of time an ESA claimant – a person who is so seriously ill that he or she cannot work for a living, remember – has to wait for a decision after ‘mandatory reconsideration’ is seven to 10 weeks.
That puts a different complexion on matters.
Ms Gilmore called on Mr Penning to confirm the length of time claimants are being made to wait for a decision after ‘mandatory reconsideration’ – and asked when the DWP will publish statistics on average times and the total number of claimants who are waiting for a decision (rumoured to be 700,000 at this time).
She said the minister had defended a decision not to set a time limit on reconsiderations, despite concern from the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council that the absence of such a limit could have the effect of “delaying indefinitely the exercise of the right of appeal to an independent tribunal”.
Oh yes – claimants can apply for Jobseekers’ Allowance in the meantime – but this has a high level of conditionality. They have to be available for work, actively seeking work, attending work-focused interviews, searching for jobs and making a minimum number of applications every week.
What these Conservative DWP ministers are saying is that sick people waiting for an ESA decision must undergo a process that is itself extremely stressful, can worsen existing physical or mental conditions, and can lead to them being sanctioned or refused benefit altogether for failing to meet the requirements of Job Centre Plus advisors (who are not, let’s be honest, the most sympathetic people in the country).
Most who have applied for JSA have been refused outright or failed to attend necessary appointments due to their various conditions; or they did not apply, either because they could not face the trial of another benefit application or because they did not know they could.
They were forced to turn to the food banks that the DWP has accused of “misleading and emotionally manipulative publicity-seeking” and “aggressively marketing their services”, rather than being vitally important now that the government has reneged on its responsibility to citizens.
Or they turned to high-interest loans – run, undoubtedly, by some of the Conservative Party’s most faithful donors – and amassed debts at such high interest rates that they would struggle to repay them, even after being provided backdated payments. “One constituent sold off his few remaining possessions to survive,” said Ms Gilmore.
The Tories have engineered a situation where people who are seriously ill can be found too fit for ESA and too sick or disabled for JSA.
Ms Gilmore said she had been told by previous minister Mark Hoban – last September – that claimants could request “flexible conditionality”, to ease these pressures – but the DWP’s benefits director acknowledged in April – seven months later – that “not all advisors had been aware of this”.
So claimants had been deprived of a right to extra help because DWP ministers had not provided accurate information to them or to employees.
Ms Gilmore said, “It is hard to have confidence in the Department, given that previous assurances were clearly unfounded,” and it is interesting that this should be revealed in the same week that the useless ex-Murdoch yellow-press spin-machine detritus DWP press officer Caseby (Dick to his… well, to everybody) claimed The Guardian should be blackballed from new press regulation authority IPSO for failing to print, you guessed it, accurate information from the DWP.
Ms Gilmore also pointed out the cost to the taxpayer of all this hustling of claimants between benefits: “There is also an administration cost involved in a claimant receiving the assessment rate of ESA, ceasing to receive it, claiming JSA and then potentially claiming the assessment rate of ESA again. These are significant costs when multiplied by the number of people involved. In addition, if everybody claimed JSA successfully, they would receive benefit at exactly the same rate as they would have been getting on ESA, so if there are any savings to be anticipated, is it because ministers thought that people would, in fact, struggle to claim JSA during the reconsideration process, given that administration costs are likely to outweigh anything else?
“I am sure that cannot be the case,” she added. Of course that’s exactly what ministers wanted.
Her point was as follows: Why not amend the law so that ESA claimants can continue to receive the benefit at the assessment rate during the reconsideration process? “The only way that could be more expensive for the Government would be if ministers expected sick and disabled people to go without any benefit — and I am sure that that cannot be the case,” she said, ramming home her previous point about benefit savings.
Reinstating assessment-rate ESA during ‘mandatory reconsideration’ would be simpler than setting a time limit and may be an incentive for the government to speed up the process, she added.
Finally, she called on Mr Penning to publish the number of successful reconsiderations, rather than lumping them in with original decisions so it is impossible to tell exactly what has happened. She said this was particularly important because the DWP has been celebrating a drop in the number of appeals.
Her claim was that it is premature to celebrate a drop in appeals – or to claim the DWP was making more correct decisions – when the number of successful applications for ‘mandatory reconsideration’ was not known and many cases may still be caught up in the process as part of the enormous backlog built up by the Department.
Mr Penning made no offer to reinstate assessment-rate ESA during the reconsideration period.
He made no offer to impose a time limit on reconsiderations.
He made no attempt to confirm the size of the ‘mandatory reconsideration’ backlog or the length of time taken to reach decisions.
His response was about as inhuman as he could make it, within the Chamber of the House of Commons:
“I would rather have slightly more delays than have decisions incorrectly taken and then turned over at tribunal.”
This is an admission that he would rather push sick people into unendurable poverty, debt, stress and possibly towards suicide than make his department do its job properly.
He knows he’s in trouble: Mike Penning, shortly after removing his foot from his mouth while talking about ‘mandatory reconsideration’.
The minister for disabled people, Mike Penning, seemed to think he had something to celebrate this week, after official figures showed the number of benefit decision appeals dropped by 79 per cent between January and March this year (compared with the same time in 2013).
He said it means the government’s new ‘mandatory reconsideration’ process is helping people to challenge wrong decisions earlier and helping target government support on those who need it most: “Getting more decisions right the first time avoids the need for protracted tribunal appeals… This new safeguard gives claimants the chance to raise their grievance promptly, provide further evidence and have their claim reassessed without the unnecessary stress of an appeal.”
The fact is that ‘mandatory reconsideration’ was brought in to make it harder for benefit claimants like these to challenge a decision that they are capable of work.
If a claimant is unhappy with an adverse decision, they can demand a ‘mandatory reconsideration’ and it will be revisited, usually by a different decision-maker – but the Department for Work and Pensions will not pay even the ‘assessment rate’ of the benefit that has been claimed until a new decision has been reached, and there is no time limit within which the DWP must carry it out. Once a decision has been made, and if it is favourable, there is no guarantee that the benefit will be backdated to cover the whole period since the original claim.
If the claimant is still unhappy about the decision, they may then take it to appeal. This is unlikely as, by then, they will have been forced to live without any means of support for an extended period of time and other benefits such as Housing Benefit may have been denied to them because of the DWP’s adverse decision.
This is the whole point of the nasty game – cutting the number of appeals. When a benefit case goes to court it is both expensive and potentially embarrassing for the Department for Work and Pensions. Of course it is – when a judge tells a government representative that their decision has been irrational or needlessly cruel, it’s a slap in the face for both the decision maker and, ultimately, the government whose benefit ‘reforms’ made that decision possible.
‘Mandatory reconsideration’ was brought in at the end of October last year, and the figures for January to March are the first quarterly statistics to indicate its effect.
Mr Penning said: “This new safeguard gives claimants the chance to raise their grievance promptly, provide further evidence and have their claim reassessed without the unnecessary stress of an appeal.” Would this be “unnecessary stress” to DWP employees? Claimants now have even more “unnecessary stress” to handle.
It should also be noted that we can’t trust the government’s statistics on the number of appeals it has been handling.
The day job: Rebecca Evans AM in the more familiar environment of the Assembly debating chamber [Image: ITV].
I wanted to share this with you because, as a constituent and a member of the Labour Party, I’m quite proud of Mid and West Wales Labour AM Rebecca Evans, who spent a week living on an amount equivalent to Jobseekers’ Allowance and discussing ‘welfare reform’ with people who deal with its effects on a day-to-day basis, to find out what it is like.
She wrote an article about her experience for Wales Onlinewhich I am taking the liberty of excerpting here. Over to you, Rebecca:
With the average household in Wales expected to lose 4.1 per cent of their income due to policy changes, support is vital for those living on the poverty line.
Although people are understandably cynical when politicians attempt to live life on the breadline, I wanted to raise awareness of the challenges facing welfare claimants and gain a better understanding of how well understood the changes are.
Living off £72.40 for one week, I did not expect to truly experience the day-to-day life of people who rely on welfare support. I was aware that when Monday came around I would step back into my normal routine. But I wanted to experience at least some of the challenges and difficult decisions facing many thousands of people every day.
The Your Benefits are Changing money advice team calculated that the average weekly expenditure for someone living off Jobseeker’s Allowance in my home area of Carmarthenshire leaves just £13.58 for food and essentials once transport costs, utilities, the TV licence, phone bills and the bedroom tax have been paid – which equates to less than £2 a day.
On this income, any trip to the supermarket becomes a stressful task as every single penny matters.
When speaking with job seekers, food bank volunteers, YBAC money advisors and housing association staff and tenants during the week, the message was the same: people are struggling and many have had their lives irrevocably damaged by welfare policies.
The Bedroom Tax has had a serious impact on thousands of people across Wales, and the shortage of suitable housing has only enhanced poverty levels. Brought in as part of the Welfare Reform Act… the policy is estimated to have affected 36,000 tenants in the social housing sector, including 3,500 disabled households. As a direct result… housing association tenants accrued £1.1 million in arrears during the first six months.
Housing associations are rightly concerned that a move to monthly payments will prove incredibly challenging for those on low incomes, leading to an increase in the number of people that turn to emergency food supplies.
A YBAC money advisor told me food poverty levels can be worse for people who live on housing estates because they may only have one shop within walking distance, and that shop may have limited discounts. Food prices have risen by 12 per cent since 2007, so it is no surprise 900,000 people across the UK have turned to food banks in the past year… but the fact that we need food banks in 21st never ceases to be shocking.
The families I met during my week on benefits rely on second hand clothes and goods, and rarely buy anything new – let alone any kind of treats. They try to put aside £20 a week, but unexpected emergencies leave them unable to save.
A YBAC money advisor told me that around a quarter of people seeking advice are actually in work, and that the majority of children in poverty live in a household where one adult works. One mum with a young baby told me that her husband is on a zero-hour contract, meaning that the family can’t plan financially with any certainty.
This smashes the myth that welfare reform is all about supporting the unemployed back to work.