Cait Reilly’s High Court Victory over Workfare is a Victory for Human Decency

Today’s High Court decision to uphold Cait Reilly’s appeal over her being forced to participate in the government’s workfare scheme on pain of having her JSA stopped, is a rare victory for human decency.

Currently thousands of people up and down the country, who through no fault of their own are struggling to find employment, are suffering the indignity and coercion of workfare. It is reflective of the callous disregard for the human rights of the poor and most vulnerable in society by this government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.

In conjunction with the social injustice of the controversial and ongoing Atos re-assessments of people on disability, the upcoming bedroom tax designed to punish people on housing benefit, workfare will be remembered as a low point in the nation’s social history in years to come. The criminalisation of poverty and the demonisation of the unemployed and people on benefits is in itself a crime.

Cait Reilly’s victory today gives millions who are currently suffering as a direct result of the government’s attacks on benefit claimants hope, reminding them that they are not scum and that they do not have to accept being bullied, harassed, intimidated, and coerced – that they can fight back and they can win.

Bertolt Brecht once wrote that ‘Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.’

Britain in 2013 is just such an unhappy land and Cait Reilly is indeed a hero.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Scottish Government Should Investigate Atos

The controversy surrounding the role of French company ATOS in carrying out the government’s assessments of people on sickness and disability benefit, illustrates the barbaric and callous nature of the Tory attacks on the poor and most vulnerable section of society in response to the economic crisis.

The Scottish Daily Record is playing a lead role in highlighting the injustices being perpetrated by ATOS, but now it is time for the Scottish Government to step in and nail its colours to the mast when it comes to standing on the side of the victims of this despicable process. Joyce Drummond, a former nurse and an active socialist, worked for ATOS carrying out assessments, but resigned in protest. Her story was covered by the Daily Record back in September, and now she’s calling for the Scottish Government to carry out its own investigation.

Solidarity issued the following press release:

BEGINS

A former nurse has called on Alex Salmond and the SNP Government to establish a parliamentary inquiry into the performance of ATOS, the private company used by the Coalition Government to carry out controversial Work Capability Assessments on the sick and disabled. The results of these tests determine whether or not people continue to receive benefits or are forced to find work. The French company has received a barrage of criticism from disability campaigners, trade unions and health professionals.

ATOS has declared that over 70% of disabled people assessed in Scotland should no longer receive benefits and instead need to seek employment. The remainder of those assessed and deemed to be unfit for work are told to expect to be put through the process again as they attempt to shave millions of pounds from the welfare bill. The company’s methods however have been called into question with up to 40% of claimants having the original ATOS decision overturned on appeal. In addition, disability campaigners claim that some of the verdicts delivered by ATOS have resulted in the death of claimants forced back to work.

The Black Triangle Campaign and other disability rights activists have protested against the company, The British Pain Society have recently published a report saying that ATOS are failing chronic pain patients whilst the STUC will debate a motion at their annual congress in April calling for ATOS to be removed from the list of sponsors from the Commonwealth Games.

Joyce Drummond, a Solidarity member from Glasgow, resigned from her job after ATOS employed the former nurse to carry out assessments.

“The assessments are a farce designed to trick sick and disabled people out of benefits they are entitled to. Simply by turning up for an interview, being well dressed, pushing a pram, admitting to owning a pet or being able to complete forms would count against a claimant.”
I could not stomach the job any longer after bosses told me I was being “too nice”. All I wanted to do was help those who needed it most. I had worked for over 20 years in the Southern General Hospital and I knew sick people when I saw them. The company had no interest in my professional or clinical opinion, their only interest was in getting as many claimants as possible deemed to be fit for work.”

Joyce quit her job with ATOS but the stress she suffered as a result of her experiences has meant she has not been able to work since. The former staff nurse wants to see the Scottish Government do more to protect the vulnerable people undergoing Work Capability Assessments.

“The sick and disabled are being discriminated against and people are dying in a bid to save money. The poorest and most vulnerable are again being scapegoated by this government of millionaires. The methods and procedures used by ATOS need to come under proper scrutiny. The UK Government won’t do it so the Scottish Government needs to act here and bring more pressure to bear on the ConDems. Even if welfare and benefits are reserved to Westminster there must be more Holyrood can do to expose the scandal of these assessments. This needs more than a committee. If an inquiry can be set up to look at the cost of the Parliament Building then something could be done to help the tens of thousands suffering at the hands of ATOS. Evidence could be heard from health professionals, claimants and campaign groups.”

“It’s time to kill off ATOS before ATOS kills off anymore sick, vulnerable and disabled people.”

These Ceaseless Tory Attacks on the Poor

The chancellor’s autumn statement saw him take yet another opportunity to articulate his disdain for the poor, as he outlined the government’s intention to deepen its attacks on the unemployed and benefit claimants. It also confirmed the abiding economic illiteracy that underpins austerity.

When Gideon Osborne drew his comparison between those who get out of bed to go to work and those who remain in bed and don’t, he confirmed not only the deep ignorance of someone who is the product of inherited wealth and privilege, but also the cynical ploy of the government in fomenting division between the working poor and the unemployed as it sets about continuing its objective of transferring wealth from the poorest to the richest in society, having succeeded in turning an economic crisis that was caused by private greed into a crisis of public spending.

The below-inflation rise in and out of work benefits of 1 percent over the next three years was compounded by Osborne’s announcement of a cut in corporation tax to 21 percent, the chancellor boasting that this will reduce corporation tax in the UK to the lowest of any major western economy. Taken together these measures reveal a level of inequality that can only be described as brutal, one which moreover places the UK on a par with the United States when it comes to the lack of social and economic justice built into the foundations of the economy. The chancellor’s confidence in outlining these blatant attacks on the poor in the midst of the worst economic recession since the 1930s points to the extent to which the right has won the battle of ideas, given the favourable ideological environment necessary for the logic underpinning them to gain traction.

The idea that the unemployed have chosen to be and enjoy being unemployed is the product of a skewed moral compass. It amounts to a criminalisation of poverty and those whose lives have been impacted most by the recession.

The creation of the welfare state by the postwar Labour government was predicated on the need to erect a firewall between the vicissitudes of a capitalist economic system subject to periodic shocks and downturns and those impacted most – the poor and the working class. The unemployed were held to be victims of and not responsible for the economic factors that informed their plight, and as such it was deemed morally just for the state to provide a safety net in order to prevent their destitution.

But with the nostrums of Thatcherism sweeping away the philosophy that underpinned the postwar consensus three decades ago, nostrums that continue to fuel the dominant narrative politically, economically and culturally, the moral foundations of the welfare state and the social justice it represents have been subjected to an ideological assault – one that has reached its nadir under the present government.

Poverty is the worst form of violence. Those in poverty have one thing in common with the rich in that all they think about is money – about how much heating, food, and other bare essentials they can do without as they struggle to make ends meet. The idea that cutting benefits and attacking the poor could ever eradicate unemployment is beyond perverse. On the contrary, instead of eradicating unemployment it will eradicate the unemployed – and quite literally too as the suicide rate goes up.

Indeed, this is what is so easy to forget when we listen to the benign and easy establishment-speak of the political class in its depiction of the unemployed as work-shy scroungers. More austerity for those at the sharp end equates to more despair, more domestic violence, more crime, more homelessness, more mental illness, more alcoholism and drug abuse, and more hopelessness; the fate of the increasing millions who’ve been selected by this government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich to be purified with pain.

It is a government that while claiming it wishes to help those who are willing to work hard, continues with an economic policy that has and will continue to create more unemployment. The inevitable consequence is that those of the unemployed who refuse to be crushed under the weight of the economic and social injustice they are being subjected to will enter the black economy, while others will drift into crime. The law of cause and effect cannot be denied.

So, yes, the new sport is kicking the unemployed, and it is noticeable and shameful that Labour refuses to stand up for this demographic as they’re being attacked so mercilessly, instead focusing its ire on the impact of the chancellor’s midterm budget on the in-work poor and those on middle incomes.

The shadow chancellor Ed Balls’s bumbling performance in parliament in response to the Osborne’s autumn statement was panned with good reason. At a time when the nation is crying out for a clear, positive, and bold alternative, Labour remains a prisoner of its own timidity and ideological weakness. It is why this government has been successful in deflecting its culpability over the state of the economy and why it will continue to do so.

The unemployed have been offered up as a sacrificial lamb to a neoliberal consensus that pits all against all and holds poverty as a symptom of moral decay on the part of those afflicted by it rather than a result of structural inequality and the policies of a government for whom society is divided between the undeserving poor at one end of the social spectrum and the deserving rich at the other.

Nye Bevan was right. The Tories really are lower than vermin.

Nationalise British Gas

The announcement by British Gas that it is putting up its prices by 6% this winter is tantamount to a death sentence for many of the most vulnerable in society, people who already living in poverty will not be able to afford to heat their homes and will perish as a result. The average dual fuel bill for gas and electricity is currently £1,240 a year. A six per cent price rise would add around £80, taking the annual bill for gas and electricity up to £1,320. This is enough to tip the household budgets of the 13 million people currently living in poverty in Britain over the edge, including those pensioners who qualify for the Winter Fuel Payment of between £100-300. The price increase by British Gas, the nation’s biggest energy supplier, will directly effect 8.5 million households across the country.

This is nothing less than blatant profiteering, a crime which cuts to the heart of the barbaric state of British society in the 21st century, one that Charles Dickens, chronicler of Victorian era poverty, would immediately recognise. Moreover, it is the consequence of allowing sociopaths to control the levers of power and the nation’s economy.

Today we have a government actively engaged in carrying out a vast exercise in human despair as an economic policy, alongside boardrooms which care not one iota for the human or social impact of the decisions they make to benefit themselves and their shareholders.

In the specific case of British Gas, which along with the other energy providers enjoy the benefits of an in-built monopoly over energy prices and profits in what is a de facto cartel; this is a company that made £345 million in the first half of 2012, a 23% increase. With the other energy providers certain to follow suit, customers have no choice or recourse to an alternative, especially those on pre-payment meters.

The Managing Director of British Gas, Phil Bentley (pictured), was paid £1.249 million in 2010, with a £596,000 bonus, up 15% from the previous year. In the same year British Gas made an operating profit of £598 million, an increase of 100%. It’s a fair bet that Mr Bentley’s parents or elderly relatives will not suffer the impact of the price increase he’s just announced.

In 2009 a commission set up by the then Labour government found that 7.8 million people in the UK could not afford to heat their homes and predicted it would rise to 8.5 million by 2016. This means that fuel poverty in Britain has reached the level of a national crisis.

With the industry regulator, Ofgem, proving completely unsuited to the task of protecting consumers from the rapacious greed of British Gas and its parent company Centrica for exorbitant profits, it is high time the company was taken back into public ownership. Its privatisation under Thatcher’s government in 1986 has proved a disaster for millions of people who’ve been held hostage by this greed in the three decades since, reflective of the untrammelled capitalism that has plunged the global economy into freefall in recent years.

More widely, at a time when a vicious Tory government is intent on continuing Thatcher’s war on the unions, and with a Labour Party that is yet to completely throw off the yoke of Blairism, the poor and vulnerable in society are in desperate need of a firewall to protect them from the blind economic forces responsible for decisions such as the one just made by British Gas.

We have already seen a glimpse of the consequence of this lack of protection with the London riots that exploded last summer. Cutting benefits, wages, jobs, while raising prices and making survival an impossible task for millions of people is an equation that will inevitably lead to another social explosion. Indeed, it is almost as if they are inviting one.

At this rate they won’t be disappointed.

Now for the Backlash

Within days of the unrest that has dominated the news the inevitable right wing backlash has been unleashed. Rushed court proceedings carried out through the night doling out draconian sentences in relation to the offences committed, local authorities issuing eviction notices to the families of some of those involved, have been complemented by the high profile recruitment by the government of the America’s own supercop in the shape of Bill Bratton to regale his British counterparts with his experience and expertise when it comes to dealing with gangs.

But as current President of the Association of Police Officers Sir Hugh Orde points out, with some 400 gangs currently still in existence in and around New York, claims of expertise when it comes to dealing with gangs and gang culture on the part of the former NYPD Commissioner are deserving of, to be kind, rather more circumspection than received truth.

For the fact is that amid all the fanfare and plaudits that Bratton has received throughout his career, it has not been without controversy. Accusations that while he was at the helm of both the NYPD and the LAPD incidents of racism and brutality by police officers were all too common were made repeatedly by various community leaders and various community groups in the neighbourhoods affected. They are accusations that point to a culture of aggression under Bratton’s watch which had a deleterious effect on relations between the police and the low income, predominately ethnic communities impacted.

The most significant aspect of Bratton’s recruitment by Cameron is how it bespeaks an emphasis on dealing with the symptoms rather than the causes of social breakdown by the present government. At a stroke this sharp turn to the right has ripped off the mask of modernism and woolly conservatism that Cameron and his advisors had painstakingly sought to cultivate prior to and just after the election in the after glow of the post coital political relationship they had forged with their new Lib-Dem coalition partners.

Not anymore. Now the true face of conservatism is being revealed to the country, with the Lib-Dems reduced like an abandoned lover to sniping from the sidelines with ever more irrelevance. Nick Clegg in particular has seen his political star plummet like the proverbial stone since the election, with the last vestige of credibility he may have enjoyed at one time disappearing into the ether on the vapour trails of his principles and influence. Indeed, increasingly it has fallen to Simon Hughes to provide what little Lib-Dem influence remains in the nation’s political discourse, with his recent warning of the dangers of the government’s commitment to knee-jerk reactions to the current crisis a welcome if rather hollow attempt at meaningful intervention.

When it comes to the issue of gangs and gang culture, evidence of the chasm in understanding that exists between those at the bottom of society and policymakers and the mainstream commentariat could not be clearer. Gangs reflect a need for human solidarity that has been denied young people who are unlucky enough to be born into that layer of society excluded from the mainstream. Disenfranchised, made to feel worthless and lacking life chances that now more than ever are governed not by ability and work ethic but family connections, the school you go to more than what you achieve at school, and low expectations inculcated by parents and an environment already abandoned as beyond the pale by economies in the West that are models of socialism for the rich and the free market for the poor, gangs fill the vacuum left as a consequence.

In this regard the words of Gavin Poole, Executive Director of the UK’s Centre for Social Justice, spoken in the aftermath of the riots, are words that the government and others in position of power ignore at the peril of us all:

“We will find a high majority of these young people have failed in schools where truancy is normal, behaviour is often disruptive and boundaries are not established. Many of them face a life on benefits in ghettos scarred by poor housing and street gangs, completely devoid of aspiration. In such communities, they have been written off by society repeatedly.”

These are the actions of people who live in chaos, hopelessness and poverty. What they are doing is criminal, completely wrong and must be punished. But it is not entirely random; they believe they have nothing to lose and no one to answer to. Some even consider it normal.

Yes, we need political leadership and a debate about policing techniques. But when the violence ends, we need deep rooted social reform which understands that a section of Britain is badly broken and needs to be rebuilt.”

Despite those salutary words of advice, the reaction of the Tories and their supporters in the pages of the right wing press to the wave of social unrest just passed is contained in the redoubtable words of John Major, “condemn more and understand less”.

While this approach may well issue a measure of comfort to those outraged at the scenes of mayhem that dominated our television screens last week, their lasting impact will be the dangerous precedent they set when it comes to policing and law and order matters going forward. With accusations from some quarters being levelled at the Met Police of timidity and a less than vigorous treatment of the rioters at the beginning of these events, the likelihood of a return to the aggressive approach people had become accustomed while engaged in their right to peaceful demonstration over recent years looms large. Of course it is hard to say at this point if the public recruitment of Bill Bratton by Cameron to advise on these matters was designed in part with the objective of embarrassing the Met hierarchy, but that has and will be the inevitable consequence of his appointment.

Perhaps the most telling conclusion to be drawn from both the riots and the government’s reaction to them is that the playing fields of Eton are the last place where an understanding of society and the impact of inequality, poverty and the social exclusion that inevitably results can hope to be reached.

Mama Said There’ll Be Days Like This

by Kevin Ovenden

What did people expect? Just over a year ago, during the general election campaign in Britain, I remember George Galloway on the stump warning that the last time the Tories came in to replace an already dead Labour government and pursue full-blooded, class war policies, Britain’s cities went up in flames. That was 1981. Three decades later the Sunday supplement features on Brixton, Toxteth and St Paul’s all situated those events in the aggressive policing, racist exclusion and darkening hopes of the young of the time.

The same papers in 1981 had amplified the Tories’ denunciations of the “mindless criminality” of those who rose up, and foreshadowed the hapless John Major’s injunction to “condemn more, and understand less”. That the Tories and the right are doing the same today comes as no surprise. They cannot accept that it is their policies, building on many more years of social polarisation and stigmatisation of the poorest that are the condition which has produced today’s riots. In a similar way, the Blair government could not bring itself to accept that its policies – at home and abroad – created the circumstances in which the 7/7 attacks took place in London in 2005. There was a hue and cry against anyone who said we should try to understand. Yet within a year, that understanding had become commonplace – from the analysts of MI5 to the mainstream of the labour movement.

A comparable political battle is now underway. For underneath all the attempts to create a moral panic and all the wearily predictable responses that knee-jerk from various ideological positions, this is above all now a political question. Its outcomes will provide the backdrop for the coming months in which the full force of the Condem structural adjustment programme is felt and, as seems quite likely, further devastating measures are taken as the centres of the world economy hover above another frightening spiral down to depression.

For the left as well, what could we reasonably expect? There is an uncomfortable truth which some on the left are seeking to sidestep – with hyperventilated condemnation of the looting in direct proportion to the stubborn facts they try to ignore. The left and labour movement have failed to provide thus far an answer to the despair that is ripping through society. So that section of liberal left opinion which is indulging in the most illiberal calls for retribution against the rioters is engaged in a double flight from responsibility: first in abandoning basic social democratic values which hold the rich and powerful responsible for the social conditions in which the poorest live and the bitterness that flows from that, rather than the “fecklessness” and “amorality” of the poor themselves. We have a contemporary gloss on this old reactionary contempt for the poor – people tweet from smart phones or blog from fast wifi connections about the selfish materialism of those who loot those things from High Street chains or who, denied a decent credit rating, rob from one of the “Money Shops” or other rip-off outfits that have sprung up in empty stores like modern-day tributary outposts of some ancient parasitic empire.

The second indulgent irresponsibility is deny that the failure or worse of the progressive coalition that has historically been headed by Labour to address the injustices that have been growing for decades is itself a large part of the problem. Worse still, it’s wrapped up in a faux concern for working class communities whereby those who are now being given appalling sentences are regarded as not part of the working class, not part of the decent community of “hard-working families”.

Some of those who are pumping out this reheated Victorian ideology of the deserving and undeserving poor have also been telling us, seemingly paradoxically, that Labour did fail to relate to its working class core and that, as the Blue Labour bandwagon puts it, it needs to reconnect with it.

The paradox is only apparent, however, and is resolved with the ubiquitous solvent of racialised or ethnicised pseudo-explanation and prejudice.

For many years the Muslim and more recent immigrant communities have been held to be the central obstacle to what was termed “social-cohesion”. With government policy held immune from predicted consequences like 7/7, those communities were held to blame. A section of the liberal left sank into the scapegoating quicksand. But older prejudices, born out of the need for false explanations of society’s ills, never went away. Now, with the return of “urban” unrest comes the recrudescence of the barely coded language of “gang”, “inner-city lawlessness”, “criminality”, “absent father figures”, “scum”… black. It has been bubbling away for years with so many on the liberal and centre left taking it as just a natural state of affairs that black children, of primary school age, are three to four times more likely to be excluded from school, 26 times more likely to be stopped and searched and far less likely to be in the best universities than their white counterparts. There were the cliched articles about “urban” hip-hop corrupting even white middle class kids. And knife and gun-crime, rolled out as a political football by Boris Johnson and the Tory papers before the last London Mayor election, only to be kicked back into touch once he was in.

Riots by their very nature involve inchoate violence as well as more consciously directed acts. Now we are witnessing further attempts by the government and authorities to avoid responsibility and sow division with new racialised narratives. Yesterday, it was Muslim communities that were self segregating (refusing to mix, unlike African-Caribbeans) and breeding criminality. Today they are the hard-working shopkeepers defending themselves against the mob. Just as some black people may have felt relieved that they were out of the crosshairs for much of the last two decades, so some Muslims may feel the same today. But to do so would be foolish.

What we are seeing with the desperate attempts by the state and a weak government to shore up their position in the face of the first whiff of the kind of social explosion that is spreading across Europe is that there are no depths to which they will not sink to balkanise our society so that a fantastically wealthy elite can cavort in comfort. The immense scale of the austerity offensive adds up to a class war unprecedented for 70 years. As before, the shock battalions in that war are vicious scapegoating of the marginalised, and manifold racist divide and rule.

There is nothing more cowardly in those circumstances for the left to concede that ground, or self-satisfiedly to proclaim that they would sympathise with those who are lashing out if only they did so in a more organised fashion, more constructively, with more regard to building a majority social force against the government, more… more like what we would do. But we haven’t done so effectively. And this is one consequence.

Truly recognising this means that things cannot go on as before. An effective response to this government and the historic structural adjustment it wants to impose cannot be whistled up out of thin air. But the left can single-mindedly and with unity of purpose seek to build on the beginnings of that resistance. That requires relegating to their proper place differences of opinion on secondary matters and instead holding to an uncompromising opposition the racism and class prejudice that are the great weapons in the other side’s arsenal.

For the Tories, talk of responsibility is cynical buck-passing; for the left, however, we must recognise our responsibility and act accordingly.

Leaders Playing with Fire

by George Galloway

I have already written here that our old Etonian government of white-tied Bullingdon Club multi-millionaires would set the country on fire while they fiddled and now they have.

Tottenham, like many parts of the country, is a toxic pyre of seething resentment against racist policing, bigotry, institutionalised discrimination, savage cuts in public services, mass unemployment and hopelessness. No meaningful political leadership exists in such places; no constructive channel exists for such rage to be heard. But everybody has heard them now.

Without leaders, the youth of Tottenham have cried out from beyond the political graveyard and said, “We exist. And you will listen to us.”

The last time Tottenham rose up, in 1985, a friend of mine, Bernie Grant, was the political dynamo on the streets there. New Labour’s face is that of David Lammy MP.

His identification with most of those rioting on Saturday night and those who suffered the damage begins and ends with the colour of his skin.

Bernie and his widow Sharon lived among their people. They felt their pain. Lammy is more likely to be found in The Hamptons than up the High Road in Tottenham.

It’s going to be a long, hot summer in Boris Johnson’s London and in David Cameron’s Britain.

It’s a long way from the high life to the High Road. But however uncertainly, the people have begun to move.