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.

Relentless attacks on the poor are inviting a social explosion

class-warDisgusting does not describe the latest offering from Channel 5 - On Benefits And Proud - which aired for the first time this week.

In the show various benefit claimants – code for the undeserving poor – are tracked down by deserving taxpayers with the object of illustrating how these benefit junkies are ripping us all off – ‘us’ being those for whom poverty is just another word in the dictionary.

The sheer savagery of deriving entertainment from the plight of the poor – many of whom, yes, are uneducated, unrefined, and suffering one or more of the plethora of social maladies which flow from poverty – is compounded by recent figures released by The Trussell Trust,Britain’s largest operator of foodbanks, that the number of foodbanks has trebled and that over 350,000 people have had to rely on food handouts since April. It is further compounded by the most recent Sunday Times Rich List, revealing that the collective wealth of the 1000 richest people in Britain reached a record level of £450 billion, up £35.4 billion from 2012, in the midst of the worst recession since the 1930s and with poverty at an all time high.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, energy companies announcing a price hike just in time for winter is quite literally a death sentence for many poor pensioners, for whom survival will now no longer be possible.

The only conclusion to be drawn from all this is that the objective of society is now the eradication of the poor rather than poverty, beginning with the demonisation and dehumanisation of those daring to claim the pittance in benefits which the government and its supporters has deemed an act of theft against hard pressed taxpayers and those in work.

It is class war by any other name, made worse by the undeniable truth of the success of the Right in pitting members of the same class against one another – i.e. low wage workers against unemployed workers, the able bodied against the disabled, non immigrant against immigrant, and so on.

Karl Marx stated in his Communist Manifesto that the class struggle is ‘sometimes open sometimes hidden’. A trip to the local Jobcentre or Magistrates/Sheriff Court on any given day is where you will find it wide open and in full sway.

In the former, the poor are bullied, harassed, hounded, while in the latter they are punished for crimes in the main connected inextricably to their poverty. Indeed and increasingly it has become harder to differentiate between a Jobcentre and a courtroom, such has been the level of attacks on benefit claimants, wherein the relationship between your average Jobseekers Adviser and claimant resembles that between a parole officer and convicted criminal.

The fact that the vast majority of those working in Jobcentres are union members provides conclusive proof that class consciousness is at an all time low in twenty first century Britain.

The human despair that is afflicting more and more people up and down the country – men, woman, and children – as a result of the Government’s addiction to austerity hasn’t been this prevalent since Charles Dickens was documenting it in his classic works at the end of the nineteenth century. Over a hundred years on we have come full circle with the normalisation of extreme poverty and extreme wealth sitting side by side, with human worth measured by both.

The status quo cannot hold. Something has to give. Indeed, the surprise is that it hasn’t given already in the form of riots and a social explosion. These unrelenting attacks on the most economically vulnerable people in society are redolent of children trapping a bumble bee in a jar and shaking it up and down to watch the bee in distress. It really is this savage, inviting a savage response on the part of its victims.

The rich, the smug middle classes, working people who’ve bought into the lie that their problems are the fault of those below them in the income scale rather than those above them, are playing with fire. People will not go quietly to their own destruction. All it takes is a spark for the present despair and its paralysing effect to turn to rage and an eruption the like of which this country has never seen.

With no mainstream political party standing four square on the side of the poor, such as the Labour Party once did, members of the political class who exist in a bubble of moral superiority from which they like to pontificate about fairness, hardworking families, shirkers and strivers, should take note that this is not a game.

None other than he ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle understood this. When he opined that “Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime” he could have been describing British society in 2013.

We already know what crime looks like. It is published in the pages of the Sunday Times Rich List year after year. It comes in the shape of the Bedroom Tax, food banks, zero hour contracts, the sanctioning, withdrawal, and cutting of Jobseekers Allowance, Disability Benefits, and Housing Benefit.

Yes, we already know what crime looks like.

We have yet to see revolution.

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

The Bedroom Tax Shames Britain

From The Mirror

Julia Jones, who will have to live on just £53 a week, faces losing the home and garden where she scattered her husband’s ashes

Dear Mr Cameron

Julia+Jones++Writes+to+Mr+Cameron+about+room+tax++at+her+home++in+Newbury+BerksI heard you in Prime Minister’s Questions say you would look at individual cases on the bedroom tax. I am 59 years old, David (my husband) and I have both worked since we were 15, paid taxes, did our bit. We have never been well off but we both did worthwhile jobs.

Five years ago David got melanoma. He had excruciating treatment and, although still not well, returned to work as he thought it was his duty. Four years ago he got bowel cancer; he had an irreversible colostomy. Six months later he returned to work. Two years ago he got brain cancer. Seven weeks later he died.

Throughout all this I was advised I could get care allowance, but I rejected this: he was my husband, it was my duty to care for him. We lived off the little savings we had until we could return to work. When he had the colostomy we were allocated this home as David could not climb stairs any more and I struggled. His ashes are buried in the garden under the rose bushes that friends gave me instead of wreaths.

Mr Cameron, my husband and I were the hard workers you claim to support, we never asked for anything.

I would give everything if this had not happened to us. Because we were on benefit and sick, you and your government said hateful words against us. Words that made acquaintances look at us with contempt.

The most powerful men in the country imply we are scum so we must be scum. You and your government call us scroungers, next door go to work while our bedroom curtains are still drawn.

My curtains were still drawn at 11am as the light made David scream with pain.

Do you not consider that I would give everything for my husband to be alive, me to not have incapacitating pain and we could both be the hard workers we once were? I live in small 1 1/2 bed bungalow that was built for older people. It is supported elderly living so I feel safe. It could not house a family as under 55s are not allowed.

You now want to take my home from me. The home that literally made my fingers bleed cleaning as it had been neglected for 20 years when we moved here. You want me to leave my husband’s ashes, my neighbours who take me shopping and give me some form of social life? I have no family, we could not have children.

I am living without heating at present so how can I pay what I do not have to stay in my home? Have you any idea how that affects my fibromyalgia?

I eat one meal a day and am in constant pain which is exacerbated by the cold. I may get Discretionary Housing Benefit. But we both know that is only for 13 weeks at a time and when the pot is empty, it is empty. I have considered moving but the only property available is far from shops and bus stops and costs £98 per month more than where I am at present. I would be living in isolation.

You say you are building more social housing, but it is too little too late for many of us. You may blame the Labour policies, but it was your government who introduced this law so I have to hold you responsible.

Mr Cameron, I do not believe you or your MPs are evil men at heart, I believe this is an ill-thought-out plan and you did not understand the consequence of your action.

I ask you to take a step back and look at this again.

THE ABOVE IS JUST PLAIN CRUEL…I AM ASHAMED TO BE BRITISH.

Yours, Julia Jones