Wednesday, October 30, 2013 

The snobbery of a day's pay for a day's work returns.

Today's ruling by the supreme court that it was unlawful for those sent on workfare schemes to be sanctioned when the government had failed to set out how the schemes would be regulated in law leaves us almost precisely where we were back in February when the Court of Appeal gave its judgement.  The only thing that's changed since then is the DWP under Iain Duncan Smith immediately set out to retroactively define the schemes in law, so as to stop any possibility of those illegally denied their benefits from claiming compensation.  Despite doing so, the government still sought to have the appeal court's ruling struck down, for reasons known only to itself.

Indeed, the supreme court in its ruling rather acidly passes comment on the DWP's approach.  It is rather unattractive", Lord Neuberger and Lord Toulson write, "for the executive to be taking up court time and public money to establish that a regulation is valid, when it has already taken up Parliamentary time to enact legislation which retrospectively validates the regulation".  Not content with that, they also note the dates when the DWP changed the regulations and then appealed against the ruling, which just so happens to be the same day as the judgement was handed down, which was extremely speedy by DWP standards, and then the same day as the act setting them out in law was passed in parliament.

Unattractive is just about the kindest possible way you can describe how Duncan Smith and friends have handled opposition to their myriad of pet projects.  "Intellectual snobbery" was the colourful formulation decided upon by IDS to condemn the clearly old-fashioned belief that a fair day's work should be rewarded with a fair day's pay.  From the very beginning they set out to impugn Cait Reilly's motives, suggesting that as a graduate she thought it was beneath her to stack shelves and scrub floors in Poundland, something only slightly undermined by how she's currently working for Morrisons.  Even today they've tried their darnedest to spin the ruling as being in their favour, the supreme court deciding it is simply common sense that on jobseeker's allowance can be sent on "work experience", and that it isn't in any shape or form forced labour.  It doesn't matter they lost on the other three counts, so long as they can claim some sort of hollow victory and make that case on TV.

This goes to the heart of how politicians on occasion couldn't give a fig for the rule of law or even basic fairness.  We've seen the consequences over the last couple of days, with Ed Balls' sacking of Sharon Shoesmith coming back to bite all concerned.  Somehow we're meant to be outraged about Shoesmith being "rewarded for failure", when it was Balls reacting to the Sun's hysterical campaign over the death of Peter Connelly that inexorably led to the former head of children's services at Haringey council quite rightly being awarded compensation for unfair dismissal.  In this instance the DWP acted to deny that which was rightfully due to thousands of those deprived of the most basic means to subsist, having not been informed of what their rights actually were.  That the failure to legally outline how the schemes would operate and how those who refused to take part or objected to the terms would be sanctioned may well have been deliberate just underlines how pathetic Labour were to abstain on the retroactive legislation.

Workfare then will continue as it has.  This is despite the fact that at least one scheme has been found to be actively counter-productive, and there is little to no evidence to suggest "work experience" as some reporters and the government still wish to describe the various programmes help those placed on them to find long-lasting work.  They do however help enormously with the unemployment figures, as those on them, despite still claiming JSA, are counted as in work.  Those companies who have resisted the likes of Boycott Workfare also benefit, with a constant stream of workers passing through they don't need to even bother paying the minimum wage.  And this is before the Community Action Programme is massively expanded as announced by George Osborne at the Conservative party conference, due to increase the number of those who, like Jamieson Wilson, will find themselves working for their benefit for six months at a time.  Refuse, and they get nothing.  Such is the morass into which we've descended, with commentators still happy to accuse Reilly rather than engage with the reality of hundreds of thousands being forced to work for far less than the minimum wage.

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Thursday, June 27, 2013 

The coalition still isn't working.

It's a sign of just how desperate ministers are for any sort of good news that they'll spin figures that still show their pet schemes failing as being a success.  Last week the BBC's Mark Easton was handily shown advance figures on the impact of the work programme, suggesting that there had been a major improvement over the dismal performance from last year, when the scheme was literally doing worse than nothing.

While it is indeed the case that there has been a noted improvement for those referred onto the scheme who are claiming JSA, with 18 out of the 40 contractors either hitting their minimum performance level or exceeding it, it's the other 22 that are bring the average down.  Overall then, the contractors are still not hitting their targets, as this graphic shows:



The figures also indicate that Easton was misled as to just how many who were/are on Employment and Support Allowance have been helped into work.  His report suggested 10% of those referred had found a lasting job, while it was in fact almost half that, a miserable 5.3%, over 10 percentage points off the already low target of 16.5%.

What these figures don't show is the brutal reality: that however hard the contractors work, there simply aren't enough jobs available for those on JSA, let alone those in the work activity group of ESA.  At the same time, George Osborne proposes to make life even more unpleasant for those unemployed, regardless of the facts.  The FT posits that this increased contact with the Jobcentre could be the government subtly admitting that the work programme isn't working, and that the old methods might be better.  This will only be the case if the Jobcentre gets more funding to do this extra work, which seems unlikely to be the case.  More likely is that this increased contact is designed to lead to the sanctioning of even more of those who can't find a job despite trying their hardest.  Coincidentally, we're still waiting for the figures on just how many have been sanctioned since the introduction of the "tougher" regime back in October, the publication having been delayed for over a month now.  Burying bad news?  Judging from today, the coalition will more likely present the numbers being denied even the means to subsist as a triumph.

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Tuesday, April 30, 2013 

Let's be beastly to crims (and dole bludgers).

It's the week of the local elections, which means it's the absolute opportune time to announce a new round of unpleasantness to those considered to be unpleasant.  Moving away from the usual targets, benefit claimants (on whom more in a moment), Chris Grayling has pounced upon the only people less popular with politicians, those convicted of crime rather than just deemed guilty of a moral one.

Out then go the old soft regimes where it was somewhat left up to prison governors how they operated the privileges system in their respective nicks, and in comes a new tougher scheme which seems focused on making the first two weeks in prison even more uncomfortable and depersonalising than it was already.  No longer will prisoners be allowed to wear their own clothes to begin with, have a TV in their cell (Ben Gunn says those on the basic level don't as it stands now; they also have to pay for them, contrary to popular belief), an increased number of visits or access to private cash; all must instead be earned.  Plenty of people will look at that and think that all sounds perfectly reasonable, and on one level it is.  The problem though is that it's the first few days in prison when those who are new to the experience are at their most vulnerable, both from other prisoners and themselves.  If the purpose of prison is to both punish and rehabilitate, then it helps no one if further avoidable harm is done to the individual at the very outset of their sentence.

As with so much of our policy on prisons, a little honesty and humility would go a long way.  Again, few are going to protest at prisoners being made to work a longer day, but they might if they knew there aren't enough jobs to go round in the first place, or what prisoners get in return for their labour.  There are a few schemes where they can earn in the region of £30 a week, although far more usual is pay of £4 to £10.  This is often work of the most menial kind, as a recent Howard League for Penal Reform report set out, and which hardly gives the kind of experience likely to impress employers on the outside.  For those who can't be found a job, they're likely to spend most of their time banged-up. While it's not explained exactly how prisoners can be stopped from watching TV in the daytime if they're on the higher privilege level and have one, what else are they expected to do? Read, if they haven't already finished those books they've got? Continue with any education programmes they're on, regardless of the lack of access to a tutor? Just kick their heels? Imposing boredom might be considered a punishment, but it brings with it its own set of obvious problems.

Nor do these changes take into consideration those who continue to maintain their innocence.  As admitting guilt is the first thing you have to do in order to take part in the rehabilitation programmes designed to prove your readiness to be released, those who refuse to do so will forever be stuck on the basic level, something that seems bound to lead to a legal challenge.  Then there are just the silly inconsistencies: prisoners won't be allowed 18 rated DVDs (they've long been prohibited items in medium or low security hospital wards), but will presumably be able to watch such films if they're shown on television.

The ultimate test of such changes ought to be whether they improve behaviour while in prison or decrease recidivism upon release.  One expects that studies will be established once the changes start in November to measure if this turns out to be the case.  Otherwise you could be forgiven for thinking the entire episode was designed as a purely populist measure to win a few votes during the traditional period of purdah.

Definitely not designed to win votes is the latest imposition on those without a job, a questionnaire apparently put together by the government's behavioural science unit, which must be completed on pain of the loss of benefits.  Those looking for work are presented with 48 statements, some of which are patently ridiculous ("I have not created anything of beauty in the last year"), and then asked whether they agree or disagree.  Any possibility this might help those lacking self-esteem or self-confidence is only slightly undermined by how the results at the end are largely identical regardless of whether you fill in the boxes or not.  For those worried about the creepiness of a test that bears more than a resemblance to the Oxford Capability Analysis carried out by Scientologists, it doesn't seem as though the results are recorded, which nonetheless isn't much of a reassurance.  Nor is it apparent what the point of it is, although that seems a perfectly adequate summary of the work of the "nudge" unit thus far.

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Thursday, March 28, 2013 

Sophistry Thursday.

At times, even a hardened, dead-eyed cynic like me is utterly amazed at the sheer sophistry deployed by both ministers and senior civil servants.  Both Iain Duncan Smith and Mark Hoban have repeatedly denied that Jobcentres have been set targets, while last week head of the Jobcentre Neil Couling and the Department for Work and Pensions permanent secretary Robert Devereaux both denied strenuously that league tables were used to pressure staff into sanctioning more claimants.  They did collect data on the numbers sanctioned, but it most certainly wasn't being used in such a way as was being alleged.

A week later, and leaked to the Graun is the DWP "scorecard" for January, which looks strangely like a league table, and measures whether the number of "adverse decisions" for each scheme and benefit has either gone up or down month on month.  Quite clearly this tallying of data couldn't possibly be used in the way in which numerous staff have insisted it has been; it's merely, as Couling explained, there to ensure that any "anomalies" in the number of referrals are quickly picked up, or as Devereaux suggested, collected for use in response to parliamentary questions. 

It doesn't pick out individual Jobcentres, it's true, as the email from the manager of the Walthamstow suggested when she said they were 95th in the league table, which more than implies there is a further table that drills down further into the data.  All the more reason why Labour should keep pushing for a full inquiry into the sanctioning regime, which might just finally get to the bottom of who's lying.  Although frankly, you suspect they all are.

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Friday, March 22, 2013 

Someone's lying.

The leaking of an email from a Jobcentre adviser manager in Walthamstow which seems to suggest there are league tables and targets in place for the sanctioning of those on benefits is little short of a bombshell.  It can only be explained in one of four ways: the letter is a hoax; the manager herself is lying, and saying there are league tables in place to try to get her staff to sanction more "clients", which doesn't really make any sense unless there is some sort of pressure on her which isn't in the form of league tables; the Department for Work and Pensions' regional managers are acting on their own initiative, against the apparent express wishes of ministers, and are drawing up league tables based on how many claimants are sanctioned by specific Jobcentres; or Iain Duncan Smith and Mark Hoban are lying through their teeth, including to parliament, which ought to lead to resignations.

It seems to judge by Duncan Smith's appearance in the Commons today that the letter is indeed genuine, so we can dismiss the first explanation.  Indeed, he seemed to be suggesting that the reality was a mixture of the second and third explanations, and that "innumerable orders not to employ targets" had gone out to Jobcentres.  Who then has been drawing up these league tables, seeing as they do appear to have existed?  Was it senior Jobcentre staff or officials within the DWP?  Seeing as Duncan Smith seems to have known that targets had been put in place before, why exactly is it that staff seem to have directly disobeying his orders?  Will the staff responsible be disciplined as result?

I know the variation on Hanlon's razor which suggests we shouldn't blame conspiracy when cock-up often more adequately explains such discrepancies, yet even if this the case, it doesn't alter the fact that IDS and his junior ministers are ultimately responsible.  The conspiracy explanation also helps us to understand exactly why ministers were so determined to stop compensation being paid to those sanctioned; many it would seem have been not because of any real refusal to take a job, a placement or look for work, but because Jobcentre staff are being given targets to hand the sanctions out regardless of infractions.  Moreover, it also suggests I might well have been too harsh on Liam Byrne on the DWP budget: it looks as though sanctioning is indeed built into the system, which also explains why the pressure being put on Jobcentre staff has been so immense.  If they don't stop enough people's benefits, further cuts may well be needed.

To say these revelations are disgusting doesn't even begin to adequately express how vile it is that some of those looking for work in the current job market have been denied the meagre amount of money they receive due purely to the pressure being put on Jobcentre staff.  It also reopens the debate on the work capability assessment and ATOS, and whether targets are also in place for them as to how many they should be declaring are fit for work.  If they are at the Jobcentre, why wouldn't they be elsewhere in the benefit system?  Whatever the ultimate explanation, one thing ought to be apparent: regardless of Labour's failings on opposing the coalition, the real enemy is the coalition that regards the most vulnerable in society as easy targets.

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Tuesday, March 19, 2013 

Liam Byrne: must try harder.

In one sense, you can understand the more than cautious approach Labour has taken on welfare reform in opposition.  They know it's an utter lie that they didn't reform welfare, as the Tories continually claim; they introduced the work capability assessment for goodness sake, still making life miserable for tens of thousands of those declared to be fit for work by ATOS, but know it's futile complaining too loudly about it.  It's also the case that in principle, Iain Duncan Smith's universal benefit makes sense: whether it works in practice we're yet to see. Lastly, they also deserve credit for calling the Tories' bluff and opposing the coalition's 1% cap on benefits, despite the dangers of such a policy.  As it's turned out, it hasn't affected the party's polling whatsoever, even if they again haven't properly set out the arguments against a real terms cut in benefits.

All this said, the decision to abstain on today's vote on the "emergency" workfare bill is perplexing and naive.  Yes, you can understand that it would be incredibly easy for the Tories to paint Labour as being the party of the welfare scrounger, and the DWP certainly has worked every sinew in its attempt to paint those who have been sanctioned for any reason as malingerers who refused reasonable job offers. It's also laudable that Liam Byrne has at least attempted to improve the bill by ensuring those sanctioned have the right to appeal and know from the outset exactly what it is they're agreeing to when they go on any of the various schemes recommended to them at Jobcentre Plus.

The issue here though ought to be a simple one: the government is legislating to deny those at the very bottom rung of society what is legally and morally owed to them. As Sunny writes, many of those on the workfare schemes were deliberately denied the information which would have allowed them to make an informed choice on what to do, while the legislation on sanctions was purposefully vague. This is wholly a mess of the coalition's own making, and they shouldn't be allowed to get away with such manoeuvring.

Moreover, as Mark Ferguson on Labour List argues, abstaining also gives tacit approval to the work programme that the party has rightly been deriding as worse than useless.  Indeed, in the specific case of mandatory work activity, the scheme is worse even than that as it saw the numbers claiming employment and support allowance increase. Liam Byrne's argument is also completely disingenuous: his suggestion that if everyone was to be compensated it would mean more cuts implies that savings through sanctions are built into the DWP's budget, which can't possibly be the case.

It's true that Labour's opposition wouldn't see the bill defeated, as the Tories can in this at least rely on the support of the Lib Dems, but it's beside the point. If Labour's position truly is that there should be a job's guarantee, then those who have been let down or worse, actively mistreated by the current system, surely deserve better than the forced imposition of schemes that are being used just as much to massage the unemployment figures as they are to help those out of work. Byrne's intervention hasn't so much challenged Iain Duncan Smith's bad faith as made it more slightly more palatable.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2013 

Not quite the "blowing of a big hole".

Before everyone celebrates the "blowing of a big hole" in the government's workfare schemes, it's worth noting that today's victory for Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wilson at the Royal Courts of Justice was on a rather narrow point of law.  It wasn't that the schemes themselves were unlawful, as that original challenge was thrown out last year.  Rather, the three-judge panel found that the rules for sanctioning those who refused to take part in or failed to finish their placements had not been properly defined in law (PDF).  While this is potentially good news for those who have either had their benefit reduced or temporarily stopped as a result of not complying with the rules as they stood, as they could be in line for a rebate, the government is to appeal and so it's likely to be months before any more is known. 

What the ruling does all but confirm is that the plethora of different schemes seem to be designed to be confusing.  Despite what was thought originally, Reilly was neither on mandatory work activity or the work experience scheme when she was forced on pain of losing her JSA to work at Poundland.  She was in fact on the "sector-based work academy" programme, which is voluntary, or at least is up until the point you decide to go on it.  After that, regardless of whether it turns out not to be what you expected or completely pointless in terms of helping you get a job, if you then don't complete the placement you're liable to be sanctioned.


In Reilly's case, she was misled from the outset: told that if she accepted a place she would get a week's training and then a guaranteed interview, her placement was in fact for six weeks. Told wrongly that it was now mandatory that she took it, her work in Poundland merely involved stacking shelves and washing floors, with no actual training whatsoever. While for some such a placement would be helpful, Reilly already had retail experience and was doing voluntary work at a museum.  Her placement was purely for the benefit of Poundland, not the both of them.


If anything Wilson's proposed placement is even more troubling. Having been on JSA for two years after losing his job as a HGV driver, he was to be put on the community action programme, where he would have worked 30 hours a week for 6 months purely for his JSA. Indeed, although the placement was for 6 months to start with, it was essentially open-ended; it would only end if he found a job or dropped his claim.  That working 30 hours a week on pain of losing his JSA would drastically limit his chances of finding a job or attending interviews seems to be the point rather than a flaw: after 2 years you are essentially being written off, regardless of the reasons behind your failure to find a job.  Either you work for far below the minimum wage indefinitely, or you're deemed worthy of nothing.


The only difference it seems between mandatory work activity and the community action programme is that CAP becomes all but compulsory after two or three years, while you can be placed on MWA at any time and the placements are shorter. Both are equally objectionable, especially when the definition of "work of benefit to the community" is stretched to the limit. Wilson's placement would have involved collecting furniture, renovating it and then distributing it. Very worthy, which begs the question of why the work can't be properly paid, or whether someone placed on the scheme is taking a job which would otherwise be fully paid.


Which is the ultimate objection to the vast majority of the government's workfare schemes.  Some of the firms that were using them to blatantly fill positions which would otherwise have been at least minimum wage jobs have been forced through shame into dropping out. With even the best will in the world, at a certain point training stops being just that and becomes work, which is when it should start being paid. It's not just as we've seen that mandatory work activity doesn't work, it's actively counter-productive.  Doubtless as it is that some placements will have been highly beneficial to some individuals, best practice would see that everyone knows exactly what it is they are agreeing to go on, and that they have an opportunity to pull out if it isn't for them, for whatever reason, without being sanctioned, at least on the first or even second occasion. At best it currently looks as though the government is using JSA claimants as below minimum wage labour to keep the jobless figures down, while at worst it's writing off the long-term unemployed as fit only to work unpaid. What a thoroughly despicable paradox.


Update: See Robin's comment of Lib Con for some clarification on what exactly was found unlawful.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2012 

The coalition isn't working.

The news that the government's much vaunted work programme isn't working is about as much of a surprise as the equally exciting discovery that some people when living abroad adopt the mannerisms and even accent of their hosts, including, horror of horrors, footballers and football managers.

Much as the coalition is deserving of a kicking for setting up a programme it knew was untested, similarities to the Flexible New Deal aside, it should instead be receiving a veritable truckload of opprobrium for one of its very first acts of vandalism, one that we've discussed before.  The abolition of Labour's Future Jobs Fund, where the young unemployed were found subsidised work with local charities and paid at least the minimum wage, was one of the most vindictive and counter-productive decisions made by the new government.  A study commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions (PDF) and peer-reviewed by The National Institute of Economic and Social Research has found that those who had took part in the scheme were 11% more likely to be in unsubsidised employment than those who hadn't, while they were also 7% less likely to be in receipt of benefits.

Contrast this to the data released today on the work programme.  The government set the 18 various contractors (mostly private firms) the target of getting 5.5% of those referred to them into a job for six months.  Not a single one has managed to achieve this: most successful was Maximus, which missed the target by 0.4%, while the worst performer was JHP, which found sustainable jobs for just 220 of the 11,820 people referred to them, or a pitiful 2.2%.  Even if we accept the argument from both the government and the contractors that these are initial figures which will improve, and the average achievement rate doubles to 7% as problems are ironed out, then the scheme with still have failed to be anywhere near as effective as the FJF was.

It's true that this is hardly the first government to ignore evidence which isn't helpful to its wider political aims.  Gordon Brown ignored the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and reclassified cannabis as Class B, while Lord Goldsmith famously changed his tune on the legality of the Iraq war for reasons we can only speculate on (as a side note, it's worth remembering that the Chilcot inquiry is still to report while Leveson is due to on Thursday, despite both hearing a similar amount of evidence).  A reasonable government would though have waited for the evidence on the FJF to come in before taking any action on it either way.  Likewise, when confronted with the study on the mandatory work activity programme, which showed that its effect was so severe on some referred onto it that they were soon claiming employment and support allowance, a responsible government would have either modified it drastically or abandoned it.  Instead, then minister Chris Grayling provided funding for another 9,000 places.

While the refusal to change MWA looked as though it was influenced by the determination of this government to be seen as punishing "scroungers", something it has most certainly achieved, the fixation on the work programme doesn't seem to be helping anyone.  It certainly isn't helping the vast majority of the long-term unemployed; it's making the firms running the scheme look fairly useless; it isn't saving any money as more than ever is being spent on jobseeker's allowance; and as  the politicians themselves are privately admitting, to Nick Robinson at least, the scheme is a "failure", so it's hardly doing much for them.

This doesn't mean the FJF should be reintroduced as it was: as the man who ran the scheme argues, it should have been improved and better run, as almost any government programme could.  It more than suggests however that in this instance at least the state needs to have a role, even if it's only to subsidise those who need not just opportunity but also a decent wage in order to then move on.  As this goes against everything the modern Conservative party believes, the likelihood of ministers changing their minds is even lower than the percentage of sustainable jobs provided by JHP.

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Thursday, August 02, 2012 

ATOS and Chris Grayling continue to not give a toss.

Right on cue, up pops Chris Grayling in the Graun to argue that white is actually black and that even though you can see he's pissing on you it's in fact raining. Despite the BBC and Channel 4 doing their level best to bury their separate investigations into Atos Healthcare's helming of the work capability assessment, the Dispatches revelation that those administering the system are told if they put any more than around 12-13% of the cases they review into the support group of Employment and Support Allowance they're liable to have their decisions as a whole reviewed by management seems to have rattled the Department for Workfare and Penury (surely Work and Pensions? Ed.).

Since it's not worth engaging with much of Grayling's piece, as it's mostly the same old story reheated with a new anecdote, in this instance a woman who having been found fit for work was "hysterical" on her first day on the ill-named Work programme only to soon be volunteering for work in the community and applying for part-time jobs, the key word being applying, we'll instead focus on the untruths. Grayling claims that those called in for the assessment now "get telephone calls to explain the process". Not true. You still have to call them. He also says that there's now a new stage where Jobcentre Plus can reconsider a decision before claimants have to make a formal appeal to the tribunal service have been deemed fit for work. While this is the case, this is the way it's always been since the introduction of the WCA, and all it involves is the person on the other end of the phone line looking at the decision and OKing it. If you've already presented every piece of evidence that supports your claim at the assessment and still been deemed fit for work, then it's a complete waste of time even bothering.

There is it should be noted absolutely nothing wrong with wanting, as Grayling claims is the government's intention, to help those currently on ESA back into the work if indeed they're capable of doing so. The first problem with this noble aim is reality: there are already 2.58 million people unemployed, and the number of vacancies remains stubbornly just below 500,000. There are simply not enough jobs to go round. Second is that the Work programme Grayling continues to laud, bound together as it is with the other various Jobcentre schemes, is failing. Third is that Grayling and the government as a whole continue with the blanket statement that if it wasn't for the WCA millions would be left to languish for the rest of their lives on sickness benefits, when reassessment has been a part of the system since the introduction of incapacity benefit, not to mention how people do get better on their own and take up work of their own accord. Finally, if as Grayling and ATOS insist there are no targets set for how many claimants have to be found fit for work, or "statistical norms" meaning essentially the same thing, then they should have no objection to the contract between the government and the company being published, suitably redacted.

Instead, in a none too subtle fuck you, ATOS have been awarded most of the contracts to administer the replacement for Disability Living Allowance, the Personal Independence Payment. The only bright spot is that there look to be changes to the WCA on the horizon, in the form of alterations to the descriptors on the self-assessment form. Whether this will make much difference when it seems more than likely that only slightly more than 10% of those reassessed can be put into the support group remains to be seen.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2012 

Because they're worth it.

Here's a teaser: when does a journey of 542 miles cost £19,583? Stumped? Staggered that even the most exclusive charter company would ever dream of demanding nearly 20 grand to take a couple from Aberdeen to London? You shouldn't be. For this couple were, of course, members of the royal family. In the aftermath of last year's riots, it was decided that Charles and Camilla were needed to travel to the capital to show some sympathy for those who had lost everything. Rather than thinking it would make better sense to go first class by train and perhaps delay the feel your pain tour for a day, with the money saved going to a fund for the victims, they of course jumped straight on a plane. Today the Graun reports that thousands of claims for compensation following the riots have been rejected, while one couple whose flat was destroyed by fire received less than £2,000 in damages.

£19,583 is, it must be said, relatively cheap when set against the £67,215 expense of chartering a jet to fly Big Ears to Saudi Arabia to commiserate with the lovely ruling clique there on a death in the family. The Duke of Gloucester meanwhile went on a similar jaunt to Tonga, costing an incredible £91,381, while Edward and Sophie went to the human rights paradise Bahrain, a snip at a mere £18,068. Overall, £6.1m went on ferrying the royals about the place in the style to which they've become accustomed.

We have to keep in mind, you see, that as individuals we only pay 52p each a year for the entire shower, a sum which will now barely get you a Mars bar from the local corner shop. Frankly I'd rather have the chocolate but we have to accept that for some strange reason that the first people to be famous simply because they're famous are incredibly popular. Who cares if all they do is wander around, shake hands with the occasional unpleasant person and then go back to being waited on for the rest of the day? £19,583 is clearly a small price to pay for the effect that Chaz 'n' Cams must have had on those they visited, even if Haringey isn't exactly what you'd call a hotbed of royalism.

Why then should be we worry about little things like how that £19,583 could have paid for a whole year's worth of Jobseeker's Allowance for 5 people unable to find work? Quite clearly we shouldn't because, to judge by the number of sanction referrals coming from those companies contracted to provide the Work programme, most of those on the benefit are workshy ingrates who need some very tough love to get them back into the jobs market. Collectively, they asked the Jobcentre to sanction claimants on 111,000 occasions, with the advisers agreeing with their decisions less than a third of the time. Sanctions vary from benefit being cut to being stopped all together, for periods ranging from a week up to six months. As Richard Whittell from Corporate Watch put it, at the current rate more will have lost their benefit through the Work programme than been employed through it.

This it seems is the new reality of the welfare state under the coalition. Where Labour brought in the Work Capability Assessment, administered by Atos, currently inflicting misery on thousands of the disabled and sick who are being told they are in fact fit for work, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have turned their attention to punishing the unemployed despite there not being enough jobs to go round, or the economic growth needed for the Work programme to operate with even the slightest chance of success. It doesn't matter that this is self-defeating, as shown by how a small percentage of those placed on Mandatory Work Activity ended up on Employment and Support Allowance as an apparent result of being forced to work for their meagre £71.00 a week, it goes down well with the hard pressed that do have jobs. An ICM poll for the Sunday Telegraph found that an overwhelming 56% thought the benefit system was too generous as it stands, with only 12% saying it should be more generous, and 24% thinking it was about right. 48% said that JSA should be time-limited, with 36% disagreeing. There were more even splits on some of the other specific policies David Cameron set out in his speech last Monday, but nothing that will make the Tories think again about trying to ram through such changes.

For as John Harris sets out, to be on benefits at the moment is an incredibly lonely place. About the only support you're likely to receive is from the unions, as politicians of all hues are terrified of being seen as soft on scroungers. The Labour party, rather than directly opposing the abolition of housing benefit for the under 25s, instead concentrates on criticising the administration, rather than the changes in criteria, seeing this as a "safe" area where it won't face the opprobrium of the Daily Mail. Those on the Labour benches who have previously spoken out, such as Emily Thornberry, brought up on a council estate by a single mother reliant on benefits, have gone silent. Individual MPs, whose constituency caseloads must be overflowing with the fallout from those told they no longer qualify for ESA, are also being slow to admit how many people the system is currently failing.

As the largesse thrown towards not just the royals but also the Olympics shows, the idea that there's no money left or that we can no longer afford an "unreformed" welfare state is a nonsense. It comes down to a choice of how we want our society to look like, as David Cameron acknowledged last week. When we can subsidise the chartering of jets by our social betters to foreign climes simply because another royal in a far away land has died, or pay the likes of A4E the equivalent of £11,000 for every person they manage to get in work, then we must be able to provide people with living standards that ensure they don't have to rely on food banks. My fear is the same as John Harris's and that of the police: that rather than improving, things have only got worse since last year's riots. The exclusion some are going to feel when Olympics fever is shoved down their throats is hardly going to help, and with the police liable to being even more trigger happy than usual while the greatest show on earth is on, it's hard not to see the potential for a situation similar to the one in the aftermath of the shooting of Mark Duggan arising again. And if it does happen, they can't say this time that they haven't been warned.

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Friday, June 29, 2012 

When there's nothing left to burn.

On the same day as a judge considers whether to order a review of the Work Capability Assessment's deficiencies, a man sets himself on fire outside a Jobcentre after an apparent change in the benefit he was receiving. Still, got to be cruel to be kind, haven't you?

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Monday, June 25, 2012 

Hating the young.

The key moment in modern British politics is not, as some might imagine, the bail-out of the banks and the subsequent recession as the collapse of Lehman Brothers reverberated around the globe. It in fact came a year earlier. Gordon Brown was still enjoying his political honeymoon, having finally taken over from Tony Blair as prime minister. Realising that it would help enormously if he had his own mandate, while at the same time bouncing a not yet ready if finally beginning to recover Conservative party into an early election, everyone in Westminster and the press was gearing up for a "surprise" November vote. Knowing that they needed something bold if they to were halt this seemingly unstoppable juggernaut, George Osborne stood up at the Conservative party conference and announced that if elected, his party would raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million.

It was a policy that ought to have been derided. Very few paid inheritance tax (about 6% of estates), the threshold being set at £300,000, shortly to rise to £325,000. It was though repeatedly complained about in both the Daily Express and Daily Mail, and many feared that even if they weren't currently over the threshold, they believed they soon would be if house prices kept going up and up as was expected. In response to Osborne's announcement, the polls shifted: either suggesting that the Tories were neck and neck with Labour or that Brown would win with a very slender majority. Unwilling to risk the possibility that he would only spend around six months in a job he had sought for 13 years, Brown called the election off. His premiership never recovered.

Apart from showing that Brown was the ditherer his opponents had made him out to be, the Tories noted it meant the home ownership revolution they had helped launched meant more to people than ever. They now not only wanted to own their own home, they wanted to pass it on to their children, regardless of whether or not they too had got on the property ladder. Where previously there had been majority support for a tax that kicked in at death on the upper classes, meaning they couldn't just pass the wealth either they or their own parents had accumulated down onto their children who potentially hadn't earned anything, this was dissipating. It could well be that they would have supported a threshold of £500,000 as much as they seemingly did of £1m, but even so it showed that attitudes were changing.

Ever since then, the Tories have become ever more daring in their defence of the upper middle at the expense of the poor and most vulnerable. They took Alistair Darling's plans for fixing the deficit which were the model of progression and all but turned them upside down; they took Labour's welfare reforms and put rocket boosters under them, abolished the future jobs fund and introduced the "work" programme, overwhelmingly dependent on making the unemployed toil away unpaid on various placements, to the point where it has driven some onto sickness benefits; they tripled tuition fees with the connivance of the Liberal Democrats, the only sweetener being that nothing is now paid upfront; and finally, they went the whole way and ignoring how the introduction of the 50p top rate rate of tax had been dodged, abolished it before there was any clear evidence of whether or not it was bringing in extra revenue.

Now David Cameron has all but declared the beginning of the end of the welfare state, with the young the first to be targeted. Partially, this must be filed alongside Michael Gove's leak to the Mail last week that "dumbed down" GCSEs would be abolished with "less intelligent" students taking old-style CSEs as part of a battle to win back right-wing Tory support, especially as Cameron also set out his stall in yesterday's Mail on Sunday. The Tories have already reached the stage where they're so worried about their polling that they've given in to backbench demands to move to the right.

Cameron's speech today shouldn't be seen as an example of his weakness however. It might have taken the budget and surrounding omnishambles for the Tories to decide that they needed to bring measures like this forward, but this is always what they planned to do. Look at what he said today and compare it to his message in the aftermath of last year's riots: they're almost identical. The themes are exactly the same: that a culture of workless, dependency and low aspirations has left us with an underclass who do nothing but drain the hard-working majority of their taxes. They believe that they are automatically entitled to houses and other benefits despite never having worked a day in their lives, while those who do the right thing find themselves having to either postpone having children, or move away from where they would like to live because they can't afford it.

The real culture of entitlement you see isn't among those at the top, who through breeding and public school drilling believe they are born to rule and walk into the best jobs, who think that taxes are things that the little people pay, and who donate massive sums of money to political parties in an effort to ensure these values are the ones everyone should aspire to, it's in fact at the bottom among those who have nothing. Call it playing divide and rule, a dog whistle, class war or whatever you like, it's all the same thing: setting the working and middle classes not against those who decide what to pay themselves, but against those who are dependent on the state almost always through no fault of their own. And it works: look at how popular the benefit cap is, which ignores individual, often unique circumstances, and we really should have seen this coming.

As politics must now be conducted, you have to understand that Cameron's kite-flying isn't a run-down of the changes to the welfare system to come, oh no, it's just the prime minister trying to start a debate. Just as we've so often been encouraged to have an honest debate about immigration, even though we've been having one now for 50 years, we must take this opportunity to discuss what the welfare state should do, despite the tabloids having being telling all their readers that it shouldn't be supporting the feckless, single mothers and all other assorted malingerers for years now.

Never before though has a prime minister set out so bluntly just how much the young (or at least the young not maintained on trust funds) should be discriminated against. No one under 25 should be eligible for housing benefit as it encourages worklessness and provides a roof that those in a job often cannot provide for themselves; that this is a disgraceful lie when the majority of those claiming HB are either in work or when most households claiming it have at least one person working goes unmentioned, including by most of the press. Cameron made no mention whatsoever that the real reason why the HB bill increases inexorably is that private landlords keep on pushing rent up and up, and didn't dare to suggest that there should perhaps be a cap as to how much can be charged, or indeed that there's a chronic lack of social housing as the council houses sold off haven't been replaced. Clearly, the fault lies with the young who believe they're entitled to move out of their parents' homes as soon as they can and that the state will provide, or with the clichéd single mother, getting pregnant repeatedly for the child benefit and free council house, no father in sight.

As for those unlucky enough to be without work and who know full well that the requirements on them are already onerous enough, Cameron believes they should be even tougher. The young shouldn't be able to exit education at 18 and start claiming straight away, regardless of whether their parents have been paying into the system all their lives, that's just madness. So is the idea that they should be able to claim when they haven't even drawn up a CV, even though many will need the help provided by the JobCentre to write one in the first place. Just as ridiculous is benefit rising in line with inflation when wages haven't; who cares if 2% or less of £500 a week is a massive difference compared to 5.2% of £64.50? And why aren't those on JSA doing community work much sooner than they are currently, when the Aussies are expected to do so after six months of claiming? Why should the prime minister have to concern himself with facts like how 49,000 claimants were sent on Mandatory Work Activity in the first 10 months of the scheme operating when it was expected that only 10,000 would be a year, a figure which doesn't include those on the other work placement schemes now intertwined with JSA? The age old points that putting someone on full-time "community work" for their benefit rather interferes with their attempts to find paying work and deprives others of an actual paying job have also gone for a Burton.

I could if I wanted spend more time pointing out the mistakes and false comparisons in Cameron's speech, such as how he twice mentions Income Support, which is the process of being abolished with everyone on it being reassessed as to whether they're entitled to Employment and Support Allowance, the vast majority unsurprisingly finding that they're not.

The point is that even though Cameron doesn't slip into simple scrounger rhetoric, instead blaming the system for these perverse outcomes, even though he knows full well that the tabloids and the "debate" he calls for will swirl with contempt and even hate for those who are reliant on benefits for whatever reason, the entire purpose of the reforms is as Cameron says not about getting the books in order, it's about the kind of society and country we want to live in. Cameron and the Tories want to make it crueller, harsher and nastier, punishing the young for being born at the wrong time. Pensioners meanwhile can be glad that for now at least they will keep all of their benefits, for the reason that Cameron promised that they would and that secondly they vote. The young mostly don't, and they tend not to support the Tories anyway. What began with the baby boomers asserting their right to pass on their houses has led directly to the young poor with abusive, stifling families holding them back being potentially denied the chance to escape until they're 25. And sadly, I expect Cameron's speech will be wholeheartedly welcomed. Perhaps it really is time to think of emigrating.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2012 

Mandatory humiliation activity.

So now we know. The government's workfare programme, known as mandatory work activity, has nothing whatsoever to do with getting the long-term unemployed back into work. Counter-intuitive as this sounds, this is exactly what the research commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions has found (PDF). The study, which compared the outcomes between 3,000 of those put onto MWA and 125,000 on Jobseeker's Allowance who were not referred during the first three months the scheme was running, and was peer reviewed by The National Institute of Economic and Social Research, reached predictable conclusions: that only 55% of those referred onto the scheme actually started it, with 29% dropping their claim, while 17% temporarily lost their benefits for refusing to take part.

Far from this being evidence that "up to a third" of the jobless are in fact working, as has been briefed to the Sun, if anything it suggests the opposite: that the sick and disabled are being forced into working for their benefit, having wrongly been declared fit for work. As Jonathan Portes, director of the NIESR writes, after 13 weeks the impact on claiming had disappeared; instead, those referred were 3 percentage points more likely to be claiming Employment and Support Allowance rather than JSA. Either that, or the experience of being forced to work for up to 30 hours for a meagre £71 on JSA is so dispiriting and humiliating for some that their previously unsympathetic advisers at the jobcentre, as all are referred onto the scheme from there, have decided en masse that their "clients" aren't ready for work after all.

Any minister prepared to change their policy based upon evidence would have taken a look at these results, and either cancelled the scheme or announced a major overhaul of it. After all, it isn't just failing; it's actually costing the department more money because of the increase in those claiming ESA, which pays out more than JSA. Far from doing this, Chris Grayling has actually announced an increase in the number of places available by 9,000, meaning that a further 9,000 unfortunate people will on the pain of losing their benefit be forced to work for companies such as Close Protection UK, as those stewarding the jubilee were. Even if we give Grayling the benefit of the doubt and accept that the lack of impact is down to "teething problems" with the scheme, such as some gaming the system by signing off and then back on to avoid MWA, this doesn't excuse him from refusing to commission further research which would ascertain whether this is really the case.

Mandatory work activity clearly isn't then about preparing the long term unemployed for work by giving them the chance to experience it again, or at the very least it isn't for the vast majority. It's rather punishment for some of the most vulnerable in society, who haven't been able to find a job because there simply aren't any, or indeed, because as we've seen, certain companies are taking such advantage of the various work experience schemes set up by the DWP that they've cut back on the hours of their permanent staff. It helps that cracking down on "scroungers" is so overwhelmingly popular, the benefits cap of £26,000 apparently the coalition's most supported policy, but it doesn't begin to excuse Chris Grayling and Iain Duncan Smith's extreme heartlessness and refusal to accept what's staring them in the face, even when it's potentially costing their department money. Humiliating the desperate to the point of sickness is now officially the business of the government.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2012 

The snobbery of a day's pay for a day's work.

There are few things that concentrate the mind of business quite like the threat of a boycott. When last week hundreds of people complained directly to Tesco at how it seemed they were offering a permanent job where the pay was just jobseeker's allowance and expenses, their initial response was to shrug it off and insist that regardless of the inaccuracy of this one specific advert, their involvement in the government's work experience schemes had resulted in 300 people getting jobs with the firm. Besides, their pay is "industry leading".

One temporary closure of a Tesco Express store later, and the company has changed its mind. Clearly not satisfied with the "assurance" from the Department for Work and Pensions that everyone who had taken part in the various work experience schemes had done so voluntarily, they've now put in place a parallel scheme where those who decide to come off JSA to take part will receive normal starting pay and a guaranteed offer of a job rather than just a guaranteed interview at the end of the four weeks. It remains to be seen how many will want to come off JSA only to face the possible prospect of having to reapply if it turns out there isn't a job after those four weeks, but it's clearly a massive improvement that came about purely because of public protest. Coupled with Tesco asking that those who decide to opt for the JSA work experience scheme should not lose their benefit if they fail to complete the four weeks, it's a significant victory.

No surprises then that the government ministers responsible for these plethora of potentially exploitative schemes, no doubt having been subjected to an ear bashing from those they thought they were helping out, have launched a counter-attack. First Iain Duncan Smith's underling Chris Grayling wrote a piece for the Sunday Telegraph, launching an assault on the messengers, with the BBC and Guardian lambasted for daring to provide work experience schemes themselves, and now the boss himself has penned a piece for the Daily Mail. Normally one would suspect that an aide would have wielded the pen, yet it seems so close in tone to Duncan Smith's occasionally bizarre pronouncements that it makes you suspect he wrote it himself.

From the very beginning Duncan Smith deliberately misses the point. No one who has written comment pieces or lengthy blog posts on the subject has suggested that the work experience being provided by the likes of Tesco or Poundland is not worthwhile, as long as it is genuinely providing experience that the person on JSA does not already have. There seems little reason to send someone who has already got significant retail experience onto such placements as Cait Reilly was when there is no prospect whatsoever of a job at the end of it. Rather, the issue is that highly profitable retailers are being provided with free labour by the government, courtesy of the taxpayer. Neither Duncan Smith or Grayling seems to think that this is objectionable. Judging by the increasing number of companies pulling out, or changing their involvement as Tesco has now done, they seem to have come to a different conclusion.

Secondly, both ministers are also convinced that these schemes are entirely voluntary when there is evidence to suggest that the base work experience programme is not. Overlooking the fact that if someone pulls out after a week without good reason (to digress slightly, I have to wonder if someone showing you their bollocks, as they did when I went on work experience while at school would be a legitimate reason for refusing to go back) they face having their benefit stopped for two weeks, the Citizens Advice Bureau for one lists the work experience programme as being compulsory. Similarly, Izzy Koksal writes of how those who refuse to go on work experience may find themselves quickly pushed onto the mandatory work activity programme, where anyone who fails to take part loses their benefit for 13 weeks. Much the same sanctions are in place for those on the work programme who refuse to work just for their benefit.

Having failed to convince that the work experience schemes aren't voluntary, he then engages in semantics over what can and can't be described as workfare. He claims mandatory work activity can't be compared to workfare schemes such as those in America as they are only short term, ignoring how a claimant can be put back onto an unpaid placement as many times as the Jobcentre decides is necessary. While he is right to say that MWA is entirely separate from the work experience programme, it seems likely that some of the same providers are involved. Tesco claim that they would never take part in a mandatory scheme, and it's true that one of the guidelines for those on MWA is that they should be doing something of "benefit to the community". It's completely opaque however just what work of "benefit to the community" the first 24,000 to be referred to the scheme have done (PDF): the contracts went to various companies, and whether we receive a drill down into where they were placed remains to be seen.

It's not then really worth responding to Duncan Smith's claim that "much of this criticism is intellectual snobbery". If a secretary of state wants to make himself look a fool by resorting to ad hominems, smearing his opponents rather than engaging with their criticism, that's up to him. Definitely worth challenging though is the oft repeated start in life for former Tesco CEO Terry Leahy, washing the floors of the supermarket. Less well known is that he subsequently got a degree in management sciences, something that helped him get a job in marketing with the company rather more than his brief stint with a mop.

The clue that the piece is Duncan Smith's own work comes with his sudden going off on a bizarre tangent about the X Factor. Well known as Duncan Smith's belief is that any sort of work is rewarding, even the most mundane, with it "setting you free" as he suggested, this isn't so much an attack on the concept of wage slavery as his setting up of another false dichotomy, between those who believe young people should "work only if they are able to secure their dream job" and those like him who believe in work as an end in itself. If we really wanted to get into this, we could more than point a finger at the Conservative supporting tabloid press that so promotes the unreality of the talent shows, although more as a distraction from the drudgery of everyday life than as a career path for the many. Far more eye-opening is the attitude of Duncan Smith, as opposed to that of the young unemployed; of the million among them without work, only a tiny minority could ever be painted as the kind imagining opportunity will come to them rather than other way around. The final insult is how he links this supposed belief with the influx of foreign nationals; rather than dealing with what went before, it would be good to know what he's going to do now beyond the limitations of the work programme and work experience schemes he so defends.

He alludes to how difficult this is when admits that "finding the right job for someone is not easy" and how "there isn’t always one simple route". No one is denying that in the right circumstances, work experience can be incredibly valuable. It must though be voluntary and tailored to the individual, without sanctions if it goes wrong or turns out to be unsuitable, at least on the first occasion. The potential for abuse, as there is currently, has to be addressed. Duncan Smith would be spending his own work time better if he renegotiated the programme rather castigating those who brought the problems to wider attention.

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Thursday, February 16, 2012 

The only way is Tesco.

(The only way is workfare doesn't work quite as well as a headline.)

In a way, it's a little odd that the issue of unpaid work has suddenly exploded in the way it has over the last 24 hours. The root of the furore, an advert on the Jobcentre website that advertised a work experience placement with Tesco where the wage was jobseeker's allowance plus expenses, mistakenly describing the "job" as permanent, is part of the government's sector-based work academies programme, a scheme that has been operating since at least last October. This is separate from the work experience programme that Cait Reilly and others have complained about in that it is entirely voluntary and it doesn't seem as though you can be forced onto it; it otherwise though looks exactly the same, in that if you pull out after the first week you may lose your benefit.

Indeed, the only real difference between these schemes seem to be the period of time the placement lasts. On work experience it can be between two and eight weeks; on the sector-based work academies programme it seems to be six; and on the far more objectionable mandatory work activity programme (PDF) it seems to be four weeks, although considering it seems as though you can be instantly placed back on MWA if you haven't found a job the scheme is potentially never ending. Crucially, it seems that regardless of the different names, the companies involved are all the same. Tesco, as John Harris wrote last year, is involved in MAW, as is Poundland, and both are also offering places on the other two schemes. This more than suggests that the work involved is also the same, which casts substantial doubt on the claim by the government for the "sector-based work academies" that the placement "will be tailored to help you prepare for an actual job vacancy". The specific carrot offered for those taking part in SBWA is a guaranteed job interview at the end, but this doesn't seem as promising once it becomes clear that when your placement is over someone on one of the other programmes is likely to take over.

Tesco in response have claimed that "in recent months 300 young people have got a job with us after work experience", which while seemingly reassuring is potentially nothing of the sort when they haven't provided figures for how many people have gone through the scheme with them. It also isn't clear whether those 300 have all been specifically on SBWA, or whether it also includes those on the other programmes we know Tesco is involved in.

The way this issue has emerged is slightly unfortunate in that there's the potential for a wholly voluntary scheme similar to SBWA to be beneficial for all concerned. Yes, it is objectionable for highly profitable high street retailers to be provided with what is in effect free labour courtesy of the taxpayer, yet if that's the sector the individual wants to look for work in and there is a real chance of a job at the end of it then the ethical dimensions can be overlooked. Far more problematic is the pure work experience scheme, where it seems as though personal circumstances are often ignored, and where the specific details of the programme are not always fully explained to those who express an interest. It simply doesn't make any sense to put someone who has plenty of retail experience into a placement with Tesco for instance, especially if there's not even an interview on offer at the end.

Or it doesn't unless all these slightly different dressed schemes are a subtle expansion of the workfare principles behind the mandatory work activity programme. Seeing as it looks as though those involved are the same partners, it's more than reasonable to reach this conclusion, and it looks even more damning with the announcement that those in the work-related activity group of employment and support allowance may well soon find themselves obliged to go on open-ended "work experience".

Put aside for a second the inequities of the state subsidising the likes of Tesco in this way, and it's worth looking at whether workfare actually, err, works. The DWP commissioned a study back in 2008 looking at how "work for benefits" schemes functioned in America, Australia and Canada, and the findings were stark (PDF). While there were "few systematic evaluations that isolated the impact of workfare from other elements of welfare-to-work programmes", the evidence there was suggested that the programmes could if anything reduce employment opportunities as it meant those on them had less time available to look for an actual job. Crucially, it found workfare was least effective in "weak labour markets where unemployment was high", or if you prefer, Britain in February 2012.

The mandatory work activity programme originated in Labour's last package of welfare reforms, and it's been eagerly adopted by the coalition. Those placed on it were meant to do work of "benefit to the community", but that definition is obviously being stretched to the absolute limit. If anything it's proving to be the exact opposite, as it seems what would be full-time or at least part-time positions are being filled by a succession of those working in one way or another just for their JSA. For those wondering how the government is benefiting if it's still having to stump up for JSA, we can look at the 2008 study again: it found there was a "deterrent effect", with many dropping out before the "workfare" element of their benefit began. While some of those may well have been the scroungers and malingerers we hear so much about, others are those who couldn't face the demeaning prospect of working for a pittance and would rather take their chances with charity or rely on friends and family. Combined with how making people work for their benefits polls well, this seems to be the reasoning behind expanding the programmes, as well as how it seems to be those offering the placements that cop the flak, rather than the government.

Always worth remembering is that one of the coalition's first acts in government was to abolish the Future Jobs Fund. Despite being characterised as another example of Labour's profligacy and reliance on the public sector, it provided a job for a full six months rather than weeks, something which looks far better on a CV, and it paid at least the minimum wage, giving those on it a semblance of independence, and so in turn they put money back into the economy. The best that can said for the non-voluntary work experience placements is they will help *some* of those on them to acquire skills they may previously have lacked. The reality is that the long-term unemployed need tailored help, which is both expensive and undermines the narrative from the government that all they need to do is brush up their CV, look harder or alternatively even lower their aspirations. When they won't even accept that there are not enough jobs to go round it ought to be seen that something is badly wrong, and these latest revelations bring that even further into focus.

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Tuesday, January 03, 2012 

Oh, for a pessimistic new year.

One of the first, perhaps greatest lessons of modern politics is that unless you're an optimist, you're unlikely to get anywhere. It doesn't seem to matter too much which political party you belong to, or who the individual is, just that the message is positive and forward-looking. It can still be sober in detail when it comes to be analysed, and realistic in the problems which the leader is also going to face, just that it has to be delivered in an upbeat style and be believable. It's been proven to work, whether the leader in question is a former B-movie star backed by a cabal of right-wingers, the most capable and also most mendacious politician of recent times, or as we saw last year, a man without much else than an avuncular personality to recommend him by.

Alex Salmond is also proof that even if the politician is realistic in the problems which he has to face, the solutions to them don't have to be up the same standard. Arcs of prosperity aside, his and the SNP's vision of an independent Scotland, powered by offshore wind and funded by what remains of North sea oil isn't exactly fully grounded, yet his mix of immense chutzpah and old-fashioned grievance, combined with unelectable opponents saw him stroll to victory. Alternatively, you can promise much which is achievable, as Barack Obama did, alongside his own brand of ultra-optimism and can-do attitude, and then comprehensively fail to deliver. True, he's been hampered both by the crash and the resolve of the Republicans in Congress to block some of his legislation, yet that's no excuse for failing to close Guantanamo, or his incredible decision to sign into law a bill that allows the president to authorise the detention of anyone suspected of association with terrorists indefinitely.

Compared to all of the above, David Cameron is an amateur in the optimist stakes. He may have started off hugging huskies, urging love for hoodies and calling for "sunshine to win the day", but it's never really felt believable. Much of it was also an attempt at "detoxifying the Tory brand", something else that hasn't been wholly successful. With the big society continuing to fall flat, especially as no one is able to define what it truly means beyond the further involvement of the private and voluntary sectors in education, health and welfare, and with almost everyone predicting that this year will be worse even than the last, Cameron has been left to draw on the most woeful of material in his new year message.

Yep, it seems as though all we have to look forward to this year is circuses, as for some bread will be hard to come by. And truly, what circuses they will be: not only is there that most extravagant, not to mention expensive of fortnights, the wonderful Olympics that will truly put out septic isle on the map, we've also got the Queen's diamond jubilee to look forward to! As Cameron put it, the sheer glory of it, this finest example of British traditions, putting someone by virtue of birth into a life of luxury, interrupted only by occasionally having to visit johnny foreigner and by pretending to be interested in that abstract concept known as the Commonwealth; who couldn't possibly want to celebrate this remarkable landmark?

Well, probably some of those "stuck on benefits, without hope or responsibility" as Cameron so beautiful puts it. After all, if there have ever been benefit claimants that have shown responsibility, it's the royal family. Why wouldn't some be envious of their vastly superior haul through the civil list? If only they could show the dedication, duty and steadiness our monarch has lived her life by. Having barely emerged from the supposed season of goodwill to all men, it's nice to see our politicians shift so swiftly then back to what is becoming one of their chief obsessions, trying to outdo each other in whom can be the beastliest to those down on their luck, or as it increasingly seems to be, those who are derided nearly as a whole as "Shameless".

For if you're optimistic about what we can still achieve, then some poor suckers have to be found to take a kicking. The BBC is showing its series titled "Saints and Scroungers" again, the kind of beyond parody title that once would have only been used in a satire, and doing so in the morning when those without jobs are most likely to be the ones watching. Also entering the fray is Labour's Liam Byrne, in one of those wonderful articles opposition politicians so often write that say, when you bother to delve a little deeper, almost nothing. Attempting to reclaim the mantle of Beveridge, he appears to be suggesting he wants to introduce a degree of conditionality, but this is already the case for those who are on jobseeker's allowance for over a year anyway, who have to take part in the Work programme. Does he want this to come in earlier, or for those on JSA to have to volunteer to do work in the community at the same time as trying to find a job? He doesn't say. What rewards and extra incentives should those who are "desperately trying to do the right thing, saving for the future and trying to build a stable, secure home" receive? How should the system be reformed to ensure the system isn't skewing "social behaviour"? Again, answers came there none.

Sunny is right of course that this is the same old fight over welfare that the left keeps on having. The point is though that the Labour party, or at least its leaders seem to have fallen into the view that being associated with benefits claimants is a terrible thing. They should indeed be worried about being seen as being too soft on cheats, but not on those who desperately need the state to pick up the pieces when they fall on hard times, or who are too ill or disabled to be able to work. Caring for the most vulnerable is also hardly incompatible with also sympathising with the plight of the "squeezed middle". Moreover, every single time someone calls for some form of conditionality for those out of work, it has to be drummed into them that there are simply not enough vacancies available at the minute for those who are on JSA, let alone on the other sickness benefits. Byrne does mention long-term unemployment, and calls for "determined action from government to get communities working once again", but you'd never know that turning the situation completely around is an absolute impossibility. If this is setting the tone for the rest of the year to come, it'd be nice if just for once a politician could be pessimistic but realistic rather than just continuing to layer on the sugar-coated bullshit.

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