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Monday, July 21, 2008 

Everyone written off.

A few months back Johann Hari wrote a fairly decent article urging Labour, almost certain to be defeated at the next election, to spend its last couple of years in office engaging in the sort of radicalism that it has either completely eschewed over the last decade or rejected because of the fear of being knifed by the Tories or the right-wing press. The argument, so it goes, is that when you've got nothing left to lose, you might as well go out with a bang.

James Purnell seems to have acknowledged that spirit but got it completely the wrong way around. Yet another of the young uber-Blairites whose balls don't seem to have dropped yet, he's instead decided that he's going to do the Conservatives' job for them, to their almost unbelieving delight; probably because it'll save them the effort of doing the whole job, having to just add even harsher methods on to the end of it once they're elected. Instead, the real enemy is immediately Labour backbenchers who might not accept this new welfare paradigm which must be instituted for all our sakes.

Like with all the other Blairite excesses, the presentation and Unspeak which festers the green paper (PDF) is glossy and brazen respectively. It's even called one of those wonderful managerial names which, as Simon Hoggart has often pointed out, if turned backwards wouldn't be worth saying. We've had Every Child Matters, now we've got No One Written Off, to give the impression that these plans have been drawn up with the individual at the sharp end, inside the welfare system, at the heart of the scheme. This couldn't be further from the truth: the only intention the government has is of cutting down the ever growing number of those on Incapacity Benefit, putting the recommendations of investment banker David Freud, who had ran a review, into practice. If you're thinking that it's counter-intuitive to get an investment banker to ring the changes in a system where you're dealing with some of the most vulnerable people in society, then it might be helpful to know that he too has been subsidised by the state: he went cap in hand to John Prescott over the channel tunnel, asking for an extra £1.2bn on at least one occasion. Freud decided that he knew better than those that actually assess the claims for incapacity benefit, and claimed that only a third were genuinely incapacitated enough to not work at all. Like with Purnell himself, it doesn't seem likely that Freud has ever experienced genuine hardship, let alone personally: both went to public schools before following on to Oxford.

What rankles most about the Green Paper is not its actual proposals, it's what it's alluding to. It's the casual wink and a nod, again so often part of Blairite thinking, that is so exasperating. The government pretended to be shocked when the proposals were "leaked" to Sky News on Friday, as opposed to be passed them so as to build up a head of steam over the weekend. Having given them to Sky News, they obviously went straight across to the pages of the Sun, which was delighted with the government at least getting tough on the scroungers, the work shy, the feckless and the fraudsters and sung its praises. As Justin says, this is little more than demonisation, pandering to myths and fantasies while attacking those that need help the most for very short term political gain.

The new proposals are based on the classic carrot and stick approach, although this is a New Labour style huge great stick combined with the smallest carrot they could buy from Tesco's. Incapacity Benefit is to be abolished altogether, as is income support eventually, all to be replaced with just two main benefit schemes: either ESA or JSA. No longer will those on incapacity benefit simply be abandoned, "written off"; instead they'll either be in one of two sections of ESA, either the "Work Related Activity Group", where they'll be on a programme of back to work support, or in the "Support" group, where they'll be able to go on the WRAG programme on a voluntary basis, and receive an higher basic rate of benefits if they do. In other words, Labour is planning to abolish pretty much all of the welfare state's current back to work programmes except for Jobseeker's Allowance and Jobseeker's Allowance Diet. Or Lite. Whichever you prefer. If you're unfortunate enough to be on JSA and don't manage to find a job within three and six months, you'll be expected to "intensify" your job search activity and "comply" with a "challenging" back-to-work action plan. After 12 months, despite Purnell praising Job Centre Plus to high heaven for their fantastic work just a couple of paragraphs back, you'll be put onto a scheme provided by a private, public or voluntary sector provider, although you may as well skip the middle one as an option. Then you'll have to perform four-weeks "full-time activity" i.e. work as a minimum. If you haven't then killed yourself or picked the most menial job available just to escape from the horrors of this programme, after two years you'll have to take part in "full-time activity" the entire time. Whether you'll be given time off to actually find a real job isn't mentioned.

If I'm making this sound all rather unpleasant, if not a little nightmarish, then that seems to be the general idea. Make the bastards so miserable that they'll do anything to get into work, even if it is of the sort that makes them wish they had been written off. The thing that makes it seem so sinister is that throughout, those who are either on ESA or JSA are described as "customers", as though they're choosing to either be sick so they can live on what is little more than a pittance or out of work so they can experience the same. It doesn't seem to matter that there are gaping holes in this plan, such as exactly what this "full-time activity" will amount to: the press seems to think that it's going to be picking up litter and cleaning off graffiti, which for a scheme that is meant to providing skills seems to be following Purnell's idea of turning advice on its head. Seeing as those on community service are already going to be doing this, and, oh, that there already people employed who also do this, just what's going to be left for any of them to do? It also completely ignores that being on benefits other than JSA is already not "passive", as some love to make out, as if there aren't any opportunities already provided to get back into work. It makes for good spin, but it certainly isn't true.

The thing that troubles most however is just what the point of this venture is, and just what savings are to be made from making being sick or out of work even more unpleasant than it already is. The jobs most who are out of work are going to go into are ones which are low-paid, and unless they're too young to claim tax credits, they're going to be straight onto to them to top-up their earnings, negating any major savings. At the same time, the private and voluntary sector who help with getting the long-time unemployed back into work will be paid the savings that the state makes from that person entering employment, with up to £5,000 being mentioned in some places. The state then doesn't save or benefit; they do. Purnell claims that he wants to make the benefits system simpler; the easiest way to do that would be to abolish tax credits altogether and take the poorest up to the lowest middle earners out of paying any tax whatsoever by making the rich and ultra-rich pay their fair share. This would however make too much sense and mean offending the Confederation of British Industry and the non-domiciles. Is the point of these changes then to increase the well of overall human happiness, New Labour becoming utilitarian by deciding that work is generally good for well-being? Why on earth would it change a habit of a lifetime by doing that now?

All our proposals are driven by a core belief – using the power of a responsive State to increase people’s life chances, opportunities and capabilities.

In line with that, Purnell has been selling his proposals in the Guardian, along with some pedestrian attacks on David Cameron by claiming that all of this is in the name of tackling poverty. This, as we've seen before, has become Labour's last all out gasp for compliments and to be recognised as being fundamentally decent; we're helping the kids escape from poverty! Except, of course, that they've succeeded in altering overall inequality not one jot. At best what these proposals will do is take individuals that are in dire poverty and put them on the path to borderline poverty; a great achievement, as I'm sure you'll agree. That leaves us then with the very last defence. If Labour doesn't do it now, then the Tories will introduce something even harsher. This is the line taken by none other than... Johann Hari. And so we have come full circle
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Seeing as those on community service are already going to be doing this

This to me is the sickest & nastiest part of these proposals - the use of work to close the gap between criminalisation & poverty. We'll put the underclass to work - and the best part is we won't pay them. Spiffing wheeze, Purnell.

I too was pretty shocked to see how far Labour were willing to ape the Tories. They obviously think they can win if they mimic the Tories, this is bad news all round.

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