Category Archives: Universal Credit

Zero-hours Contracts and Universal Credit Are Still A Car Crash Waiting To Happen

DWP officials meet to discuss the implementation of Universal Credit

DWP officials meet to discuss the implementation of Universal Credit

Comments this week by the barely employable Employment Minister Esther McVey are so out of touch with the realities of work that they could only have been made by someone who’s never had a real job.

Forcing claimants to take on zero-hour contracts will be unworkable under upcoming changes to the benefit’s system and is likely to lead to huge numbers of people having benefits sanctioned and facing homelessness.  This will not be ‘enabling’ as McVey claimed.

For a long time now DWP Ministers have been panicking about how Universal Credit and increased benefit conditionality can possibly work alongside zero-hours contracts.  When the new benefit is fully introduced (stop laughing), claimants working part time will be forced to carry out ‘work related activity’ in the hours they are not working or have their in-work benefits stopped.  The DWP appear to have confirmed that this will include Housing Benefits, meaning that homelessness is to be added to forced work and child poverty as yet another weapon to police the poor.  Work related activity might mean attending a private sector company for shoddy job search sessions or CV workshops, signing on at the Jobcentre everyday, or in many cases workfare.

Claimants will also be expected to give up their current job for one with more hours at the drop of a hat, or take on an additional job until they are earning the equivalent of the minimum wage for 35 hours a week (or slightly less for lone parents).

What this means is that nobody will be able to sign a contract with irregular hours which expects the worker to be available at any time and not to work for anyone else.  With 1.4 million employees now on zero-hours contracts, that will mean unemployed people will not be able to take these kinds of jobs and stay within the new benefit rules.

The Government have said they are looking into banning ‘exclusive’ zero-hour contracts which tie workers into one employer.  They will have a fight on their hands with some of the greediest and most powerful companies in the country. They also say claimants will not be forced to take up these kinds of contracts.  But none of this will make any difference in practice to people in low paid insecure jobs under pressure to be at work at short notice.

As anyone who’s ever had a real job will know, most bosses are wankers.  You just try telling some jumped up supermarket manager that you can’t take a shift because you have to go and do your other zero-hours contract job instead and see how long you last.  It won’t matter if they are banned from saying in your contract that you can’t work for other people.  They’ll just sack you if you can’t go to work one day because your shift clashes with your other job.  The whole point of most zero-hours contracts is that workers are expected to be available to turn up at any time or at short notice after all.

Comedy toff Lord Fraud had already suggested that people could have two zero-hour contracts when he begged the business community not to use exclusive contracts and change their business practices to fit in with the Universal Credit regime.  He seems to think employers care more about implementing Iain Duncan Smith’s latest crazy scheme than they do about making money out of ripping off their workers.  But at least he realises there is a problem.  McVey is either in complete denial or is just plain ignorant about how the business world now works.

Universal Credit long ago became a bad joke, and one that will have desperate consequences.  Jobcentre advisors will soon have more power over workers than their bosses as people are forced into an endless juggle to keep one, two or more employers happy and maintain their ‘work related activity’.  Whether someone gets sacked or sanctioned, or both,  the outcome will be the same.  Thousands of people, some with children, left without any money to buy food and unable to pay the rent.

Above pic from here

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Universal Credit Boss Has Been On The Sick For Nearly Five Months! Where’s Atos When You Need Them?

atos_dr_nickThe man in charge of bungling the introduction of Universal Credit is currently only working a day a week after being on the sick since last Christmas.

Howard Shiplee is the builder that Iain Duncan Smith brought in to rescue his doomed project to reform benefits last year.  He is the sixth boss Universal Credit has had in the last two years and after just a few months in the job went on long-term sick leave.  According to Computer Weekly, who uncovered the story, he was suffering from bronchitis which has now developed into something more serious.  The publication claims the DWP are looking for someone to replace him behind his back.

Of course Shiplee, like everyone else, has the right to take time off if he is unwell.  But 20,000 people with respiratory conditions have been found fit for work since the Atos assessments began.  Under Universal Credit some of those claimants could be sent on workfare, or will face endless ‘work related activity’ to bully them off benefits.  This is the system that Howard Shiplee is being paid huge amounts of tax payer’s money to introduce, or at least he is when he actually turns up to work.  So fuck him.  Send him a pack of fags as a get well soon present.

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The Unemployment Timebomb At The Heart Of Universal Credit

self-employed-earnings-graphIain Duncan Smith’s response this week to soaring low paid self-employment shows he remains as clueless as ever about what is really going on in the jobs market.

According to IDS, figures showing that the number of self-employed workers has jumped by 600,000 is a sign of “entrepreneurial spirit” and proves that his bungled and reckless policies are working. What is really going on is very different and lays the foundation for an unemployment time bomb at the heart of Universal Credit.

Some of the rise in self-employment is almost certainly down to falling living standards.  People who have taken early retirement are  setting up small businesses in an effort to pay soaring bills, along with so-called mumpreneurs – parents forced out of the workplace due to huge childcare costs and shit wages. The rise of the internet has also allowed some of those who are unemployed to generate a small income from self-employment, such as an ebay shop, or by carrying out small amounts of paid work online through micro-job sites.  Many companies use flaky self-employment contracts for sporadic or casual work to help them dodge minimum wage laws, or providing other benefits such as holiday pay.  These are some of the reasons self-employment is soaring, but few are really making much money.

Alongside this Jobcentre staff and Welfare-to-work companies are known to have encouraged unemployed people to claim Working Tax Credits and set up as self-employed, even if there is little chance of them earning a livable income. This gets them off the unemployment figures and onto a lower rate of benefits, although it may be a risky move for the claimant.  A claim for Working Tax Credits demands that those without children spend  30 hours a week working as part of their self-employment.  If they are unable to prove this then at some point the Tax Office may decide to take back the money that the DWP advised them to claim.

According to a report released late last year, the average annual income for self-employed workers (who earn less than £100,000) was just under £10,400 in 2011, a fall from from £15,000 in 2000.  There are currently four and a half million people who are self-employed.

£10,400 a year works out at £200 a week –  less than somebody working 35 hours a week on the current minimum wage would earn. That means that many, if not most, of these workers will be unable to claim the upcoming (stop laughing) Universal Credit as self-employed earners.

When Universal Credit is fully introduced, only those earning the equivalent of a full time minimum wage salary will be eligible for self-employment part of the new benefit which replaces Working Tax Credits, Child Tax Credits and Housing Benefit.

Claimants will be given a year to achieve these earnings – although first they will have to pass the planned Jobcentre Dragon’s Den assessment to prove their self-employment is financially viable. If after 12 months they are not hitting the required earnings they will see benefits slashed as they will be assumed to be earning the full-time minimum wage when their claim is calculated.  Many will be forced to forsake self-employment at this point, and some will be told to do so by the Jobcentre.  Instead they will become ‘unemployed’ and expected to spend 35 hours a week carrying out ‘work related activity’ such as attending endless courses on how to write a CV or even full time workfare. They may even have to give up the work they are doing which makes them a small income because – astonishingly –  Jobcentre busy-bodies will have the power to sentence claimants to unpaid work instead of allowing them to carry out paid work on a self-employed basis.

Iain Duncan Smith may have convinced himself he has created a new spirit of entrepreneurship, but seems to have forgotten that even if this were true – and it isn’t – he plans to kill it stone dead.  And then all those self-employed workers will suddenly be back on the dole, and we will see the true extent of unemployment in the UK.

Above graph from the Tax Research report on plummeting earnings for the self-employed.

For the latest red tape ridden rules planned for self-employed Universal Credit claimants visit:

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A Truly Chlling Move: Part Time Workers To Face Housing Benefit Sanctions DWP Confirms

what-nextIn breath-takingly savage news, it has been reported that the DWP plans to stop Housing Benefit payments to low paid part time workers if they fail to carry out ‘work related activity’.

When Universal Credit is finally introduced, those earning less than the equivalent of the minimum wage for 35 hours a week will be forced to constantly look for more or better paid work to qualify for in-work benefits such as Tax Credits and Housing Benefit.  Part time workers could face being sent on workfare in the hours they are not at work and will have to prove to Jobcentre busybodies that they are constantly looking for another, better paid job.

Currently sanctions are usually only inflicted on unemployed people, lone parents or those on sickness or disability benefits.  Sanctions are often imposed for the most trivial reason such as being a few minutes late for a meeting with the Jobcentre.  At present Housing Benefits, which allow people to at least keep a roof over their heads, cannot be sanctioned.

This will all change for part-time workers who will now face possible eviction if they upset the Jobcentre according to Inside Housing who warn this could affect up to a million workers.  The number of people in work reliant on Housing Benefits has soared in recent years as social housing has been eroded, whilst wages stagnated and private sector rents climbed to eye-watering levels.

It is chilling to imagine how this vicious move may play out in practice, particularly given this week’s news that evictions are at an all time high.  That it is to be inflicted on those in work just shows the depths that Iain Duncan Smith will stoop to in his attempt to bully the poor out of benefits.  More children will become homeless because of this measure, their lives destroyed before they have even really begun.

Astonishingly one of the groups most affected by this policy is likely to be Jobcentre workers themselves who will now be forced to make each other homeless.  If this doesn’t drag the so-called fighting PCS Union off their knees then nothing ever will.  Don’t hold your breath though – motions passed at the PCS Conference instructing the union to take a tougher line on benefit sanctions have been brushed under the carpet by the leadership.

Visit Boycott Workfare’s website to join the fight against workfare and benefit sanctions and sign the petition to scrap all benefit sanctions without exceptions at:

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The Benefit Sanction Debt Trap: Is this Iain Duncan Smith’s Nastiest Move So Far?

sanction-sabsUnemployed and disabled people could find themselves owing the Government hundreds, or even thousands of pounds, if they fail to attend workfare or miss a meeting with the Jobcentre.

Details are emerging (thanks to @refuted) of a horrifying regime planned when Universal Credit is introduced which will see emergency Hardship Payments converted into repayable loans.

These payments will be all that is available to people who have had benefits sanctioned for not meet the draconian and ever-changing conditions for claiming benefits.  Claimants can face benefit sanctions for being late to an appointment, missing a meeting or failing to turn up for unpaid workfare placements.  In some cases sanctions can last up to three years.  Hundreds of thousands of benefit sanctions each year are now inflicted on some of the poorest people in the country by Jobcentres.

Hardship Payments, currently set at just over £40 a week for unemployed people, are not available to everyone.  Claimants must show what the DWP considers to be genuine ‘hardship’, have no savings and will be quizzed about whether they can borrow money from family or friends instead.

Changes to the benefits system mean that most claimants now will have to pay Council Tax out of these meagre payments, with many also subject to the Bedroom Tax.  This means that someone who doesn’t apply for Hardship Payments will not only go hungry, but may face eviction and even prosecution for non-payment of Council Tax.

Under Universal Credit all Hardship Payments will be converted into loans.  An unemployed person, who is sanctioned for six months, will face a bill of over a thousand pounds at the end of it.  Someone who is sanctioned for the full three years will face owing the Government over £6000.

This vicious debt trap will be virtually inescapable for many claimants.  Jobcentre staff work to unofficial targets to sanctions as many claims as possible.  Under this toxic regime it is often the most marginalised claimants, who find it hardest to obtain work, who are vulnerable to benefit sanctions.  Most claimants on sickness and disability benefits can also face sanctions, even though their own doctors – along with the despised Atos – agree that they may not be well enough to work at present.

A Citizens Advice report warned recently that benefit sanctions have led to people attempting suicide, begging and going through bins to find food.  It is hard to imagine how people in poverty this desperate can even consider looking for work – and afford the expenses which come with it such as internet access, smart clothes, stamps, newspapers and phone calls.  Instead everyday becomes a desperate struggle for survival, the next meal more important than the next job application.

Benefit sanctions are the ultimate poverty trap and are causing horrific suffering.  Not content with this, Iain Duncan Smith now wants to plunge this group into huge debts when the sanction is over.  A near life sentence in some cases of poverty and debt.  This is beyond nasty, even for the Tory Party, this is a Government out of control.  And the victims, who are being kicked and kicked again, are some of the poorest people in the UK today.

Join the fight back against the war on the poor at the Welfare Reform Gathering this Saturday February 15th.

Sign the petition to scrap all benefit sanctions without exemptions:

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DWP Reveals The Real Agenda Behind Universal Credit And Welfare Reform

greedy-bossFor over two years now Iain Duncan Smith has been pretending that his brutal and bodged welfare reforms have been about encouraging people back to work and making that work pay.

Throughout this period it has often been suggested that a more brutal social security system is really intended to increase competition for jobs and allow employers to force down wages and working conditions for everyone.  Vastly increased benefit conditionality has led to hundreds of thousands of benefit claims being stopped or sanctioned.  With workfare or destitution the only option left for those unable to find a job, exploitative employers have free reign to treat workers like shit, knowing full well if they leave, or are sacked, they will face increasingly desperate poverty.

Few have been cynical enough to suggest that Universal Credit will also make it easier for employers to casualise their existing workforce and make it easier to cut worker’s hours in times of ‘business troughs’.  Yet just released DWP guidance for employers explaining Universal Credit suggests that this – along with increasing competition for jobs – is the real thinking behind the new benefit regime.

From the DWP’s own website (PDF):

How does it affect my business?
Universal Credit will have a positive effect on your business as you will:
  • find it easier to fill any job as more jobseekers will be willing to consider short term or irregular work
  • be able to identify opportunities for flexible working using your existing part time employees to meet business peaks and troughs, without the overheads associated with recruiting and training new staff
  • have access to a wider pool of applicants for your jobs, many of whom are registered on our Universal Jobmatch service, to help you fill your job vacancies quicker

At least the DWP are telling the truth for once.

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Billions To Be Spent On Bullshit – The Sorry Tale Of Universal Credit

IDSEven a stopped clock is right twice a day so Iain Duncan Smith accusing Liam Byrne of being pathetic in Parliament yesterday should not be seen as a sign that the bungling Work and Pensions Secretary has finally developed some judgement.

IDS was being questioned yet again about Universal Credit, the ongoing farcical attempt to revolutionise the benefits system.  But what is perhaps most astonishing is that everyone from the insipid Labour Party to The Guardian is queuing up to say what a wonderful idea Universal Credit is in theory, if only it weren’t being introduced by such a fucking idiot.

Far too many on the so-called left have accepted the basic premises of Universal Credit, and are reduced to arguing over the IT or when it will finally be introduced.  The endless stream of propaganda about the broken benefits system has done its job and now this Government is about to smash it to smithereens whilst the latte slurpers in the liberal press cheer them on.  And be under no illusions, Universal Credit is a shit idea, based on the flimsiest of assumptions and which is likely to lead to chaos in the lives of the poorest.

All of the grand claims about Universal Credit are bogus, not least the persistent lie that these reforms will make work pay.  This is a problem that Working Tax Credits were introduced to address ten years ago.  Whilst the situation is far from perfect, almost everyone, especially those with children is now better off in full time work than on benefits.

Tinkering with the rate at which benefits are withdrawn – which is all these reforms actually do – will now mean some working families may be slightly better off under the new regime, but many others will be worse off.  IDS is robbing Peter to pay Paul, seemingly at random, with many low income  families set to  find themselves better off by reducing their working hours under the new system.

The other big lie is that Universal Credit will simplify the benefit system and cut down on fraud, but neither of these claims stand up to close inspection.  Just because you’ve changed something’s name doesn’t mean you’ve simplified it.  For most claimants very little is set to change in how benefits are administered, except that instead of being able to talk to a human being about their claim, the new system will be digital by default. And the removal of this human element from the system means Universal Credit is likely to end up riddled with fraud.

For those on out of work sickness or disability benefits the Atos assessment regime will still exist and all that is likely to change is the form people are required to fill in.  Housing Benefit is being renamed the Housing Element of Universal Credit, but will still function much the same in practice – except it is now to be controlled by the DWP instead of local authorities, meanings years of local housing market knowledge and expertise is being thrown away.

For those on mainstream unemployment benefits, barely anything at all will change.  Claimants will not receive any more, or less money than they do now.  Fortnightly signing will still be required.  The new Claimant Commitments are just more of the same workfare and sanctions shit that all those out of work have become used to – although a demand that claimants prove how they are looking for work for 35 hours a week or face benefit sanctions is likely to result in a chaotic and confused mess on the frontline in Jobcentres.  More people will have benefits stopped, sanctioned or disallowed, but this isn’t a simplification – particularly as it will mire unprecedented numbers of people in the murky world of appeals, benefit tribunals and hardship or discretionary payment applications.

Meanwhile those on Tax Credits will now be expected to provide information monthly instead of annually, and if they are working as PAYE employees will be dependent on their boss providing the correct earnings information to the DWP at the end of every month.  Those who are self-employed will face staggeringly complex rules, with Dragon’s Den style assessments being planned to make sure their self-employment is viable.  The benefits system will be as complicated as ever, and is merely being rebranded, renamed and probably there’ll be some different colour forms to fill in or something.

The other big lie about UC is that 300,000 ‘workless’ families will enter the workforce saving the tax payer around £7 billion a year.  This is just pie in the sky.  There is no evidence this will happen and no explanation of where all these new jobs will come from.  Just because single parents will now be expected to endlessly look for a job that fits in with school hours doesn’t mean thousands of jobs like that will become available.  There is no shortage of single parents who want work right now, changing the name of the benefit they get isn’t going to magic them into employment.

Forcing hundreds of thousands of sick and disabled people to endlessly look for work will not cure them of the condition that is stopping them working – and neither will it stop employers from discriminating against disabled people.  And for every young person who manages to secure a job with the £2,275 bribes available for employers under the Youth Contract, an older worker will be laid off or stay unemployed.

There may be less people on benefits as a result of Universal Credit as benefit sanctions, already running at around a million a year, look set to soar.  But condemning people to destitution doesn’t mean they will find work, it means they will spend time queuing in foodbanks rather than looking for jobs.  The social costs of this mass impoverishment of hundreds of thousands of families will remain with us for generations.

Almost all the intended gains of Universal Credit could have been achieved within the existing system of Tax Credits.  But instead of working with a functioning, if flawed system, Iain Duncan Smith has decided he knows best and thrown away 50 years of steady development in social security administration – even if few of these developments have been in the interests of claimants.

Instead we’ve got a hugely complex IT system devised by a man who seems to know nothing about computers and which is now being managed by a builder.  The new conditionality rules and assumptions about how to get people into work have been based on drivel from Christian think tanks like the Centre for Social Justice – an organisation run by the type of people who think you can cure people of being gay by talking to a non-existent man in the sky.  And comedy toff Lord Fraud’s endless crazy schemes to help people in poverty cope with budgeting or direct payments under the new regime all seem to have been quietly abandoned.

Universal Credit is likely to prove devastating for low income people even if the DWP manage to fix the problems outlined in this weeks humiliating rebuke by the National Audit Office.  Any attempt at reforming social security based on the nonsensical myth that unemployed people are responsible for unemployment is bound to end in disaster. The millions wasted on the project so far are nothing compared to the billions about to squandered in the name of Iain Duncan Smith’s arrogant and messianic belief that he alone has invented a magical cure for poverty and unemployment.  In fact all he has done is make a big mess, and one that will take decades to clean up.

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Universal Credit And Zero Hours Contracts – A Car Crash Waiting To Happen

zero-hour-contracts-bwImportant new information has emerged via an FOI response which states that unemployed benefit claimants should not be sanctioned for not applying for or not taking up a job on a zero hours contract.

This suggests that someone at the DWP has spotted a looming problem for Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms which could see up to a million jobs on zero-hours contracts unavailable for benefit claimants because of stringent new rules on benefit conditionality.

Zero-hours contracts are a fast growing phenomena which are used by grasping employers to strip away workplace rights and demolish job security.  Instead of regular hours for regular pay, companies force employees to sign a contract which simply states they will be available for work, but offers no guarantee of any work actually being available.

On many contracts workers are obliged to take any shifts offered, often on short notice, meaning it is not possible to commit to a second job, study or any other form of activity in case you are called in to work.  It is not just the private sector who have embraced these exploitative arrangements, many public and voluntary sector jobs now come with these kinds of contracts.

This presents a huge problem for Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms and the newly introduced Claimant Commitments.  These commitments involve a massively extended system of conditionality for claiming benefits.  Claimants on the unemployment benefit Jobseekers Allowance will now be expected to show that they are spending 35 hours a week on ‘work related activity’ which means anything from applying for jobs to attending training sessions or even workfare.  Single parents with children over 5 are now also being dragged into this regime and forced to endlessly look for work whilst their kids are at school.  Once their children are 13 they will be expected to work full time, and travel up to 90 minutes each way to work and back leaving teenage children abandoned from dawn til dusk.

When Universal Credit is finally introduced, part time workers will also have to show that they are looking for ‘more or better paid’ work to be able to maintain in-work benefits such as the Housing Element of the new benefit (which will replace Housing Benefits).

Millions of people are set to be affected.  And not one of them will be able to sign a zero hours contracts without potentially losing their in-work benefits.  Under the new rules, someone working 16 hours a week, can now be sent on Mandatory Work Activity (workfare) by the Jobcentre for the remaining 19 hours a week.  If they refuse they can have benefits sanctioned, possibly for up to three years.  If they attend this workfare, then they are likely to be in breach of their zero-hours contract.

This is likely to be one reason why according to the latest information from the DWP, claimants cannot be forced to take a job on a zero-hours contract.  The DWP would rather have you on workfare, or sat at an A4e or G4S training centre then sitting at home waiting on your employer to offer you a shift.

But the DWP haven’t made the problem go away.  Many major companies, including McDonals, JD Wetherspoon and Sport Direct now have most of their workforce on zero-hours contracts.  And many of these low paid and often part time workers are exactly the kind of people who will need to claim Universal Credit if only to pay the some portion of their rent.  And they won’t be able to.  Unless they give up work.

So whilst with one hand the DWP is doing everything they can to bully claimants into low paid, part time and insecure work, with the other it is actively preventing them from taking up that kind of work with some of the UK’s largest employers.  And all because of welfare reforms scribbled down on the back of an envelope by Ministers who are completely out of touch with the realities of the workplace for those at the bottom of the income scale.

Not everyone is taking zero-hours contracts lying down.  The Bakers Food & Allied Workers Union – who have strong anti-workfare policies – are currently taking industrial action at Hovis after agency workers on zero-hour contracts were brought in to replace workers previously made redundant.  Show solidarity by helping spread the word and following them on twitter @IanBFAWU

Above pic via Boycott Workfare’s facebook page.

Follow me on twitter @johnnyvoid

Digital By Default Abandoned In Universal Credit Pathfinder Fiasco

UC-phonelineFar from being ‘digital by default’ the latest information on the new Universal Credit benefit system suggests that “most interactions will be face to face, by telephone or by post.”

The DWP have released a new document outlining the Claimant Journey (PDF) for those claiming Universal Credit in the pathfinder areas – the handful of Jobcentres scheduled to trial the new benefit.  The Claimant Journey suggests that except for the initial application form, which will be filled in online, Universal Credit will be a telephone based benefit.

After filling in the online form, which will have to be done in one session and won’t work with certain browsers, claimants will then be required to wait for a phone call and a text from the DWP.  It doesn’t seem to have even occurred to Iain Duncan Smith that many claimants don’t have mobile phones.

Those who the DWP manages to make contact with will then be invited in for an interview at which they will be required to provide details of identification, and other documents as evidence of their circumstances.  At this interview they will be forced to sign a Claimant Commitment, which will explain the ‘conditionality’ which will be imposed on them whilst they are in receipt of the benefit.  This ‘conditionality’ will mean enforced 35 hour a week job search, no matter where a claimant lives or how many jobs are available locally.

Claimants will then have to wait for the DWP to write to them before knowing for sure whether a claim has been successful.

It is the process on reporting changes in circumstances which reveal just how far Universal Credit has moved from the ‘digital by default’ model promised by ministers.  It appears that changes in circumstances will be expected to be reported by telephone in most cases.  The documents also warns that those in work, whose employers are not using the new Real Time Information system to report wage and tax details , will have to report income details to the DWP on a monthly basis.  The same will apply to anyone who derives some income from self-employment.  There is no information provided so far on how exactly claimants are supposed to do this, but it looks likely this will also be a telephone system.

Anyone who has ever tried to telephone the DWP only to spend an hour on hold if you are lucky enough to get through will know what a disaster this is going to be.  And just to make it worse, the DWP are using an 0845 number which could cost up to 40p a minute to call from mobile phones.

So claimants will need a computer with internet access to make the initial claim, a mobile phone to accept texts from the DWP and a landline to ensure that they aren’t paying astronomical costs to report earnings, or lack of them, every month.

How the DWP will know that they are actually speaking to the claimant is not explained.  It seems that sinister early plans for voice prints and other shadowy identification procedures have been abandoned.  Which means you’ll be able to ring up and get someone’s benefits stopped just for the shits and giggles.

In reality this is no joke.  It is exactly the kind of shit that vindictive or abusive ex-partners are likely to pull.  And this is just one of a thousand things that the DWP haven’t thought of as they charge ahead with bungled and unfit for purpose welfare reforms.

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The Spirit Of The Workhouse Is Alive And Well In Tory Britain

London-WorkhouseAs the Government pushes through increasingly savage cuts to social security, it has been ideology along with cost cutting that been at the heart of welfare reform.  And that ideology is based on the very same Victorian principles which underpinned the brutal and hated system of workhouses for the destitute.

In the early 1800s unemployment soared as 400,000 demobbed soldiers returned home from the Napoleonic Wars.  This led to increased spending on the patchy system of welfare made up of workhouses and ‘outdoor relief’ – goods or money distributed to the poor – which had existed funded by local taxation since the late 1500s.  Spending on welfare was out of control, and tough new measures were required.

In 1834 Parliament introduced the Poor Law Amendment Act which along with abolishing outdoor relief  created a new, vicious regime in the workhouse.  A belief had emerged that a feckless underclass were responsible for the rise in spending on poor relief.  Unemployment was seen as being the fault of unemployed people, the undeserving poor, and new laws were required to force them to work.

It is easy to see why this became a popular idea amongst the ruling classes.  Any attempt at creating a low wage economy must first start with ensuring that life without wages is as horrific as possible.

Therefore the changes to the Poor Laws were based on the principal of ‘less eligibility’ which meant that somebody who was poor and out of work:  “on the whole shall not be made really or apparently as eligible as the independent labourer of the lowest class.”

This meant that life in the workhouse had to be worse, or more uncomfortable, than the life of the lowest paid labourer.  Workhouses were intended as a deterrent to being poor, or pauperised as it was known, through unemployment.  The new regime was as much a form of social control as an attempt at relieving poverty.

When Iain Duncan Smith insists that no-one on benefits should receive more than someone in work – despite the fact that no-one does – he is echoing the principle of ‘less eligibility’.  Instilling social control and and keeping wages low is every bit as important to his welfare reforms as the stated aim of bringing down the benefit bill.

The problem for the workhouses was that wages were so low that the lowest paid labourers faced desperate poverty.  This problem persists today, with many of the poorest working families dependent on in-work benefits to survive.  The challenge for the Victorian workhouse, and Iain Duncan Smith today, is how to create a regime so oppresive that it is worse than a life of minimum wage work and poverty.

One way to fix this side of the  ‘less eligibility’ problem is to drive benefits down to near starvation levels.  Some people are now left with a just a few pounds a week after the bedroom tax, council tax reform and other cuts to benefits.  Others have had benefits sanctioned, leaving them with nothing at all.  A horrifying social experiment in just how poor can you get away with making some of the population, is well underway.

People in the workhouse could hardly be called well fed, but they were usually provided with three meals a day – more than many struggling families on benefits can afford today.  Workhouses often had healthcare and educational facilities which were not available to the poor outside. Whilst conditions varied, and in some areas workhouse inmates were subject to the most appalling conditions, there was an attempt to control nutritional standards at a national level.  Other means were created to ensure that life in the workhouse was ‘less eligible’ than a life of poverty wages outside.

Reluctant to use starvation as a weapon of social control, the Victorians turned to discipline, forced labour and shame to make the workhouse regime as unbearable as possible.  Inmates had to carry out ‘irksome’ work, such as stone breaking, or bone crushing.  Alcoholic spirits and tobacco were banned and food was kept as plain and unappetising  as possible.  Inmates were forced to wear a uniform and keep to a strict time-table of work.  Usually they were not permitted to leave without permission and workhouses were built to resemble prisons; austere, uncomfortable and imposing.

By far the most severe element was the break up of families.  Men who found themselves destitute and condemned to the workhouse were judged to have relinquished their responsibility for looking after their family and were separated from them.  As their wives and children were essentially seen as property which the men had to forsake, they were punished with this separation almost by default.  This casual collective punishment of families is not unlike the current impoverishment of children when benefits are stopped or sanctioned due to the Jobcentre invented crimes of their parents.  Just like today, in Victorian times when it came to punishing parents for being ‘workless’ or promiscuous, almost no-one thought of the children.

Children in the workhouse were separated from their mothers from the age of 7 and sometimes even deported to the colonies, often without the consent of their parents.  It was the horror of being separated from loved ones, and the shame that this brought, that fully enshrined the principle of ‘less eligibility’ and the popular terror of the workhouse.

Whilst this kind of draconian regime might appeal to the likes of Iain Duncan Smith, there  is no money to pay for it today.  Workhouses were expensive, more so than the system of poor relief they replaced.  Therefore different means of establishing ‘less eligibility’ for those on benefits must be found in the present day.

The endless shaming of single mothers on benefits in the national media, egged on by the DWP,  has been one way to meet this goal.  The benefit cap,  which means forced relocation for some families away from loved ones and into cities where they may not know a soul, is another method of punishing poor parents and their children.  Tellingly the benefit cap does not apply to those in full time work.  This is not about saving money, but making life ‘less eligible’ for single parents, usually mothers, who are forced to rely on social security.

Workfare is one of the more obvious examples of ‘less eligibility’ – a sort of workhouse on the cheap.  This in itself meets the test of the workhouse principles – working full time for benefits is ‘less eligible’ than working full time for a wage, even if only just in some cases.

Workfare doesn’t quite provide the solution Iain Duncan Smith desires however. Just like in Victorian times, the main reason for unemployment today is simply that there isn’t enough paid work for everybody to do.  This was the reason workhouses could rarely turn a profit and inmates were often left doing completely pointless, if back-breaking work.  Today it means workfare shrinks the amount of paid jobs available as companies use unpaid workers to cut down on wage bills.  This can be permitted on a small scale and it was probably assumed it would go unnoticed.  The fact that it didn’t shows workfare is not a politically or economically possible solution if applied to over 2 million unemployed people.

The realisation of this is almost certainly one reason why the proposed Community Action Programme – six month rolling periods of workfare for everyone leaving the Work Programme – has been quietly abandoned.

With neither workhouses or mass workfare being a viable solution to Iain Duncan Smith’s attempt to morally educate and eradicate the poor, his attempts at achieving ‘less eligibility’ for those on benefits are becoming ludicrous.  The latest weapon in his crusade is ‘conditionality’, meaning ever more draconian conditions for receiving benefits.  Claimants are soon to be expected to spend 35 hours a week endlessly looking for jobs which don’t exist.  People living in smaller towns could be forced to visit the same shops, every single week, to hand in CVs – a nasty trick which not just wastes someone’s time, but ensures they are continuously shamed for being unable to find a job.

In this context, Universal Jobmatch, the new government job seeking website, could be seen as the first virtual workhouse.  This website gives Jobcentre staff the ability to remotely monitor claimant’s online job-seeking activity.  The idea is that claimants can now be forced to sit at a computer for hours on end, clicking through job vacancies and sending off huge numbers of applications for jobs that they may not even be qualified to do.

It does not matter that the majority of jobs on Universal Jobmatch are part time, or flaky self-employed opportunities which often require cash up front.  It doesn’t even matter that many of the jobs on the website don’t even exist and are simply employment agencies fishing for unemployed people’s CVs to keep on their files.  The purpose of Universal Jobmatch is not to help people find a job, but to spy on claimants to ensure they are carrying out sufficient ‘work related activity’.   Instead of breaking rocks in a workhouse yard, the poor are now to be kept in poverty at home, forced to pointlessly click away at scam and spam job advertisements on the internet with the intention of making their lives as uncomfortable and boring as possible.

In Victorian times the workhouses quickly filled up with the elderly, orphans, disabled people, and the physically or mentally unwell.  The non-disabled and healthy feckless poor who the workhouses were aimed at, by and large did not materialise.  It’s almost as if they didn’t exist, or at least not in any great numbers.  Instead it was those who were genuinely unable to work who were punished by the austere and inhuman workhouse regime.

150 years later and it is disabled people who face losing their homes due to the bedroom tax and other benefit cuts.  Single parents are soon to be forced to abandon their teenage children from dawn to dusk to attend workfare or other ‘work related activity’.  Those who are unemployed because there are no jobs face workfare and sanctions.  Welfare reforms are not just forcing people into poverty, unpaid work, or job seeking activity that won’t help them find a job, but increasingly people are losing their homes.  Less eligibility in the modern world means homelessness, not a bed in the workhouse.

And once again an onslaught on the living conditions of the poor is being justified by lurid tales of an army of feckless scroungers who no more exist today than they did when they were first used to excuse the horrors of the workhouse.

Blogging, as you may have noticed, will be lighter until September.

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