The role of PCS members in the bullying of benefit claimants

Members of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) are engaged in the widespread bullying and intimidation of benefit claimants in Jobcentres up and down the country. The evidence can no longer be denied and the union’s leadership must now take steps to educate its members that solidarity is more than just a word on a leaflet during a PCS pay dispute, or else face the accusation of collaborating with the government’s vicious assault on the most economically vulnerable in society under the rubric of austerity.

The upsurge in the number of claimants having their benefits sanctioned for increasingly minor infractions correlates to the upsurge in the demand for the services of the nation’s food banks. This shocking revelation was contained in a report by MPs in January, the result of an investigation by the Work and Pensions Select Committee, which called for an independent review into the rules for sanctioning claimants to ensure that the rules are being applied “fairly and appropriately”.

Among its findings the report stated:

Evidence suggests that JCP staff have referred many claimants for a sanction inappropriately or in circumstances in which common sense would dictate that discretion should have been applied.

The report continued:

Some witnesses were concerned that financial hardship caused by sanctioning was a significant factor in a recent rise in referrals to food aid. The report recommends that DWP take urgent steps to monitor the extent of financial hardship caused by sanctions.

The majority of Jobcentre staff are members of the 270,000 strong PCS, the sixth largest trade union in the country, which represents thousands of Britain’s civil servants and public sector workers. The PCS has been a strong critic of the coalition’s austerity policies, making the case for an investment led recovery from recession and calling for mass opposition to spending cuts that have ravaged the public sector and been accompanied by a concerted campaign of demonisation of the unemployed and economically vulnerable that is unparalleled in its viciousness. This only makes the role some of its members are playing in intensifying the hardship faced by the unemployed and people on out of work benefits even more deplorable.

It is unconscionable that any trade union would allow its members to engage in the wilful and systematic sanctioning of benefit claimants without offering any meaningful resistance. It flies in the face of the very principle of social solidarity that is the cornerstone of a movement founded on the understanding that the interests of working people – employed and unemployed – are intrinsically the same.

The human despair not to mention humiliation being inflicted on people in the nation’s Jobcentres is evidence that the Tory campaign of dividing working people section by section has borne fruit. It has reached the point where the oppressive atmosphere found in your average Jobcentre is on a par with the oppressive atmosphere associated with a district or sheriff court. Jobseekers are not criminals and those sanctioning them so readily are not parole officers, yet you could be easily mistaken in thinking they are after spending just a few minutes in a Jobcentre anywhere in the country.

Enough is enough.

This culture of bullying, harassment, and intimidation against the unemployed must be confronted by the leadership of the leadership of the PCS as a matter of urgency. By no means are all PCS members working in Jobcentres guilty of this shameful practice – indeed many are low paid workers reliant on various benefits to survive themselves – but enough are involved in the practice to leave no doubt that we are talking about an institutional problem rather than the actions of a few rotten apples.

Many of those being sanctioned are being trapped due to mental health issues or language issues making them more vulnerable to violating the plethora of rules regarding the obligations they must fulfil when it comes to searching for work. Many are being sanctioned for turning up five minutes late to a scheduled appointment, regardless of the reason why. In some cases suicide has been the result.

You would hope that the leadership of the PCS would at least acknowledge the despair their members are inflicting on the most economically vulnerable people in society. You’d be wrong. In an article which appeared on the PCS website back in February, addressing the volume of criticism being levelled at the DWP over sanctioning, the union denied culpability in the process. On the contrary they assert in the article:

PCS believes our members do the best job they can in very difficult circumstances. Rather than face criticism, this work should be recognised and valued by management and they should start by ensuring a proper pay increase for DWP staff in 2014.

Any trade union member who allows him or herself to be used as an instrument to attack the poor and the unemployed is deserving of contempt. And any trade union leadership that fails to act to prevent it happening is reactionary.

Disability: Lazy journalism from right-wing libertarian

This is a guest post from Sean McGovern, the Disability Delegate to the Unite Executive, Chair of the TUC Disabled Workers’ Committee, Chair of the Lambeth Pan-Disability Forum, a member of DPAC. He blogs as BombasticSpastic

“Left-wing activists’ treatment of disabled people as objects of pity is far more disgusting than anything the government has done…” – Brendan O’Neill

Disabled groups in welfare protestBrendan O’Neill’s recent article The Daily Telegraph is yet another example of the lazy journalism to which we’re exposed all too frequently these days. Here we have another ex-Leftie turned right-wing libertarian attempting to paint the Left as a politically moribund entity bereft of ideas and direction; while portraying the Right as the true champions of the working classes and disabled with their ‘work is the only solution’ message.

From beginning to end this piece is a gross insult to the very group O’Neill purports to defend – disabled people. He begins the article by speaking as though the “…Left-wing observers…” (the villains of this piece) are the spokespersons for disabled people; when the reality is that it is disabled people who are speaking up for themselves on a variety of social media sites- in blogs, on Facebook, on Twitter, in newspapers and out on the streets via direct action.

So, O’Neill’s take on the fear for many disabled people expressed by themselves is a casual “Concerned commentators tell us disabled people will be propelled into “destitution” by the government’s overhaul of disability benefits.” O’Neill, we are the concerned commentators; and many of us are enduring the real destitution caused by the dismantling of the welfare state!

“They claim disabled people will commit suicide in droves if their benefits are changed or removed.” O’Neill, look to sites such as Black Triangle, DPAC and ATOS Stories for proof of the suicides caused as a result of a flawed system that disregards the frailty and sense of hopelessness associated with some disabilities and conditions, especially those of a mental health nature. Click to continue reading

West Scotland Anti-bedroom Tax Federation – Update

Four members of the interim organising committee, including Tommy Sheridan, have resigned. They have issued the following press statement.

Press Statement

The principled socialist Tony Benn famously declared he was resigning from Parliament to get more involved in politics. In a similar vein we are collectively stepping down from the West Scotland Anti-Bedroom Tax committee not through differences or disagreements with the aims and objectives of the West Scotland committee that we all helped to establish but to try and cut across divisions which have regrettably developed since the founding meeting on Wednesday 13th March.

We are all united in our common goal of forging a mass campaign of ordinary people which will prevent bedroom tax evictions and force the ditching of this cruel and callous attack on the poor and disabled across Britain. We believe the West Scotland Federation can play a crucial role in coordinating and building the movement of opposition and we will continue to support the Federation but not as office bearers.
Click to continue reading

Bin the Bedroom Tax Campaign Launched in Glasgow

by Tommy Sheridan

Anti bedroom tax campaign launchThis meeting recognises the acute unfairness of the ConDem government Bedroom Tax proposal to withdraw Housing Benefit from thousands of poor and disabled households as part of their Welfare Reform Act and the general assault on wages, living standards and public services unleashed by this entirely unrepresentative government which includes 23 millionaires in its Cabinet of 29 members.

We pledge to fight the ConDem Bedroom Tax through all means possible and necessary and seek to unite community and other anti-Bedroom Tax campaigns into a West of Scotland federation of opposition leading eventually to an all Scotland campaign of opposition.

This meeting further recognises that withdrawal of housing benefit from families in the social housing sector will exert intolerable financial pressure on already hard pushed households and could lead to threatened evictions for Bedroom Tax arrears. We commit ourselves to oppose Bedroom Tax evictions as a central plank of our campaign and will seek to politically and physically oppose any such evictions.

This meeting declares the formation of an interim West of Scotland Anti-Bedroom Tax committee with specific short term aims and goals;

• To organise, highlight and promote a major march and demonstration of opposition to the Bedroom Tax on Saturday 30th March in Glasgow and assembling in George Square

• To encourage, support and organise anti-Bedroom Tax public meetings and events across West Scotland and an all Scotland Conference against the Bedroom Tax in April or May

• To specifically lobby ConDem Government Minister Ian Duncan Smith when he addresses the Welfare Reform Scotland conference in Edinburgh’s George hotel on Wednesday 27th March

• To produce material highlighting the inequity of the Bedroom Tax and the associated austerity measures introduced by the ConDem government and demanding abolition of the Bedroom Tax, resistance to Bedroom Tax evictions and support for a radical social house building programme to improve the quality and supply of homes in the social rented sector and create thousands of much needed jobs

• To promote support for the Govan Law Centre petition calling on the SNP government to amend the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001 to treat Bedroom Tax arrears as ordinary debt thus avoiding evictions and to lobby the Scottish Parliament’s Petitions Committee on Tuesday 16th April in support of that petition

This meeting agrees to form an interim committee of no less than 15 members to oversee the implementation of the above aims and goals and the election of an interim secretary, chairperson and treasurer to coordinate and promote the committees activities up to the conference in April or May.

UPDATE:

Great meeting tonight. Over 100 people attended the Anti-Bedroom Tax meeting in the Glasgow UNISON office and voted unanimously to establish the West of Scotland interim organising committee to coordinate the 30th March demo in Glasgow and an all Scotland conference in April or May. The motion voted on tonight committed the interim West of Scotland body to abolition of the Bedroom Tax and opposition to Bedroom Tax evictions by all means necessary. We will also lobby the prince of darkness and senior political nugget, Iain Duncan Smith, at the George hotel in Edinburgh on March 27th when he addresses a Welfare Reform conference. There were some excellent contributions and I was humbled to be elected the interim secretary of the West of Scotland organising committee. The message of the evening was conveyed by a woman called Fiona from Govanhill who movingly stated in relation to the threat of bedroom tax evictions “I’ll stand with you if you stand with me”. Inspiring. Get involved in the campaign of opposition to this cruel and callous attack on the poor and disabled.

Left Unity: the People’s Assembly and Beyond

This is a guest post by Andrew Burgin of the new Left Unity website

Assembly Against AusterityBritain stands on the verge of a triple dip recession. The government is relentlessly pursuing its austerity policies. This year the unemployed, the disabled, the low paid and many other vulnerable groups will all find their benefits and wages cut and many millions will be pushed further into poverty. The ‘bedroom tax’ will drive many working class families out of their homes. Our cities will be socially cleansed.

Hundreds of food banks have been opened over the last two years and the Trussell Trust, which operates many of these, estimates that 1,000 will be needed in order to stop serious malnutrition and hunger – this in one of the richest countries in the world.

Under cover of austerity the right is attempting the destruction of the entire welfare and social system established in the post-war period.

Billions of pounds of health contracts are being transferred to the private sector and these private health companies are financing the election campaigns and work of those pursuing this privatisation. There is a corruption at the heart of public life which has only been partially exposed by the expenses and lobbying scandals of recent years.

Cameron and Clegg are rolling back the welfare state to an extent that Margaret Thatcher could only dream about. When Thatcher contemplated introducing similar measures she met opposition even within her own cabinet. How times have changed.

Tory ministers now talk openly of there being a clear end to the NHS should they be re-elected in 2015.

The decades of Tory and New Labour rule have seen the evisceration of the labour movement and many trade union leaders have failed to defend their members and the movement adequately in the face of this onslaught. Unionisation of the private sector stands at 15% and the unions have drawn back from the defence of public sector pension provision.

Up until now opposition to these attacks has been fragmented and weak, punctuated by some significant trade union-led marches against austerity, occasional direct action campaigns by UK Uncut and others, and rallies and conferences called by a number of different national anti-cuts groups. The emergence of dynamic local campaigns in defence of specific services, such as libraries and hospitals, has been the most effective and inspiring factor in the anti-austerity movement. But the absence of a coherent and united national movement to challenge the government’s cuts agenda – and pose alternatives – has been hard felt by those on the front line in these struggles.

Now, however, there is a possibility of united action against austerity. The call for a People’s Assembly against Austerity – and particularly the breadth of support it is receiving – is of tremendous importance. The call, initiated by the Coalition of Resistance and Unite the Union, brings together trades unions and anti-cuts activists from a wide range of organisations and has the potential to take the movement beyond the limits of the single day event on which the call is based.

Moreover the call has been strengthened by the participation of a group of important left-wing activists such as Owen Jones and Mark Steel and others who are prepared to build the Assembly by touring the towns and cities of Britain, agitating for the Assembly and aiming to unite all those who oppose austerity.

There are groups that stand outside this process. The Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party both have their own national anti-cuts organisations. However, the hope now must be, given the weight of trade union and campaigning involvement in the People’s Assembly process, that all anti-austerity work can be united under its banner.

What is significant about the decision of the Coalition of Resistance to initiate the People’s Assembly – which can make it more than merely a successful one day conference – is that it is conceived as an open process with its own dynamic. CoR will devote itself to the success of the Assembly but on the basis of equal participation by others both in the process and the outcome.

This is a genuine opportunity to create the single national united anti-cuts organisation that we have long recognised the need for.

That this is a possible great step forward for the working class cannot be denied. We can harness the social weight and capacity for mass action of the trades unions together with the seething anger and sense of injustice felt by those facing austerity.

The anti-austerity movement and the Labour Party

Participation in the Assembly process will help shape a united front against a common enemy. But clearly it won’t imply complete political agreement between all participants. Many hope that the People’s Assembly will strengthen the left in the Labour Party and will force an incoming Labour government in 2015 to reverse the privatisation of services and welfare cuts of the current government.

Others, and we in Left Unity are in this camp, think that this, regrettably, is not possible. It is not that the great majority of the working class will not vote Labour in 2015. Where they do still vote, they will largely vote Labour, but this is not because they expect any significant change. The only expectation that rests in the Labour Party is that it will be marginally better that the Tories. Very few expect a wholesale reversal by Labour of the neo-liberal policies imposed by this government and by the previous Labour governments of Blair and Brown. Miliband’s shadow cabinet message is clear – there will be no wholesale reversal of the Tory cuts. Indeed there has been no progress yet beyond the ‘slower cuts’ mantra.

The Labour Party has never been a socialist party but was founded by the trade unions to provide political representation for the organised working class, and was able in the period of capitalist boom to make some limited reforms in the interests of that class. With the change in political orientation of the Labour Party and its embracing of neo-liberalism it no longer fulfils its historic role in relation to the working class, leaving that class politically defenceless in the current economic crisis. In the absence of the Labour Party, there remains an objective need for a political force which will represent – and fight for – the interests of the working class.

New parties of the Left

There cannot be many on the left in Britain who do not have some experience or knowledge of the various attempts to build a new political organisation to the left of the Labour Party. From the Socialist Labour Party and the Scottish Socialist Party, through to the Socialist Alliance and Respect, we have witnessed a catalogue of sectarian political strife which has resulted, despite some false dawns, in failure and political despair.

However difficult it may appear to be, the task of constructing a serious broad-based working class party is an essential component of the fight against austerity. A political response to the crisis is essential. It is not sufficient that the opposition to austerity remain at the level of trade union and community struggles. Trades unions, even under left wing leadership, cannot substitute for the building of new parties of the left which must engage with broad social forces not necessarily organised within a trade union framework.

The objective need for this development and the political space that it will occupy has existed at least since the mid-1990s. We recognise that the success of such a party will only take place to the extent that it engages in mass movements and articulates and advances the needs of the working class. New parties flower in a period of big struggles but the need for such an organisation exists independently of these struggles and it is the responsibility of socialists to make clear the goal and to lay the groundwork for this development.

Elsewhere in Europe new political formations of this type have already emerged and are playing a central role in the anti-austerity movement. SYRIZA, (Coalition of the Radical Left) in Greece is the most successful so far, being formed around Synaspismos – established in the context of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Until recently, SYRIZA was a very small force on the left, but its politics have enabled it to meet the challenge facing the Greek working class.

Greece is the beating heart of the Eurozone crisis. There the entire social fabric of the society is being dismantled. Athens this winter is covered in smog through the burning of wood because people cannot afford oil and gas heating to stay warm. Hospitals have run out of basic medicines. The suicide rate has increased by 400%. People scavenge for the basic means of existence.

The people of Greece have fought courageously against the avalanche of cuts. Since 2009 they have had more than twenty days of general strike action. There have been strikes in many industries and occupations of hospitals and steel plants. The young people who now suffer from 60% unemployment have protested in the squares and city centres.

Up until last year the social democratic party PASOK was in government. In the elections of 2009 PASOK received just under 44% of the vote and SYRIZA polled 4.6%. Further elections were held in May and June last year and then the vote for PASOK collapsed to just over 12% and that of SYRIZA rose to close to 27%.

SYRIZA, with a clear anti-austerity programme, came within a hair’s breadth of being able to form a government. Throughout Europe, new parties which have been forged through the struggles of the last two decades, uniting left forces on an anti-capitalist programme, are now occupying the political space vacated by the rightward move of social democracy.

No doubt it can be argued that the conditions in Britain preclude such a development, whether that be the historic relationship of the working class to the Labour Party, the blighting of the movement by the Thatcherite onslaught, or the first past the post electoral system. These factors undoubtedly make the task more difficult but nevertheless it is a necessary task. We cannot continue to be the only country in Europe that has a political desert to the left of neo-liberal social democracy.

Even to pose this question amongst comrades – and begin the discussion of what is necessary and what is achievable – is of enormous value.

In reality, the construction of such a party is the only route out of this crisis. This is an international economic crisis which exposes the limits of capitalist development and poses the need for a complete reordering of the economic priorities of society. That is why a new party is necessary and why the discussions that we have begun with other comrades in the movement are worth continuing.

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