The Department of Work and Pensions, under Iain Duncan Smith, has spent the year lurching from one disaster to the next, as the Secretary of State’s long cherished welfare reforms began to unravel in every direction.
Things first started looking wobbly back in February when the workfare row first burst into the headlines. When word leaked out that companies like Tesco, McDonalds, Pizza Hit and Sainsburys were staffing their businesses with unemployed people forced to work a storm of protest erupted both on and offline.
Thousands of people threatened to boycott companies exploiting unpaid workers on twitter whilst protests in and outside their businesses were hastily organised.
Chris Grayling, who was then the famously bungling Employment Minister, responded with a string of lies, accusing critics of workfare of being job snobs and attempting to misrepresent the nature of the Work Experience scheme, which is just one of several workfare schemes.
Not to be outdone Iain Duncan Smith joined the fray and began lying through his teeth that there was no mandatory workfare on either the Work Experience scheme or the Work Programme – the largest back to work initiative and the one that so much of welfare reform depends on being a success. When that didn’t work IDS threw a tantrum.
When DWP documents were unearthed which proved the ministers were lying, the documents were re-written overnight, a genuinely Orwellian move which gave an early indication of how low this Government was prepared to sink. This wasn’t the only document to be ‘disappeared’ to cover up for the Government’s lies.
Despite the DWP’s shambolic attempt to hide the truth about their welfare to work provisions, businesses using the scheme quickly began distancing themselves from unpaid labour in the face of public anger. When a string of household names abandoned workfare – no doubt calculating that the bad PR was costing more than the gains from free labour – the Government were forced into a humiliating retreat.
Sanctions were dropped from all workfare schemes involving profit making businesses meaning that so called Work Experience became, in theory, entirely voluntary. Whilst this climb down represented an important victory, it only scratched the surface of plans for force down everybody’s wages by requiring unemployed people to work for free. Workfare with a ‘community benefit’ continued on many other schemes which usually meant working for free in a charity shop. Details also emerged that those who refused to work for free for High Street names on the Work Experience scheme where simply threatened with other forms of workfare. The fight to end workfare in all its forms was only just getting started.
Attention in March turned to the brutal Work Capability Assessment (WCA), the computer based test carried out by IT firm Atos which is designed to strip benefits from sick and disabled claimants. The horrific and stressful process has led to may disabled people living in fear of being called in to one of the endless assessments at which a short interview attempts to prove claimants are ‘fit for work’ .
After some dogged lobbying by activists from the Black Triangle Campaign amongst others, Scottish GPs slammed the brutal regime and called for an immediate end to the WCA.
Sick or disabled claimants who are found capable of some work at some point in the future at their WCA are sent on the Work Programme where failure to attend training sessions, meetings or interviews leads to benefits being stopped. Figures revealed last March showed that 10,000 sanctions had been inflicted on disabled people in the previous year. This led to the role of disability, homelessness and anti-poverty charity’s role in the Work Programme coming under increasing fire – another theme which would remain throughout the year.
The Work Progamme itself hit the headlines at the same time when welfare-to-work parasites A4e managed to leak over hundreds of megabytes of commercial secrets onto the internet by publishing them on their own website.
The documents revealed A4e’s atrocious performance figures on the £6 billion Work Programme along with nuggets explaining how they could be paid £13,ooo of tax payers cash for simply asking someone to fill in a form.
April began with the omni-shambles budget and pastygate knocking DWP bungling off the front pages as George Osborne back-tracked on almost every measure he’d previously announced.
It was also the month that the extent of this Government’s plans to demolish the welfare state began to become apparent. David Cameron floated the idea of ending Housing Benefit for those under 25, an astonishing suggestion coming against a backdrop of already rising homelessness.
There was more bad news for the wobbling Work Programme as homelessness charity SHP pulled out of the scheme warning that homeless people risk being forced to ‘beg and steal to survive’ due to the brutal sanctions regime. Research also emerged that the Government’s Work Experience scheme, which had led to the earlier workfare row, is of no value in helping young people find work.
May began with yet more demonstrations against workfare, with chaos brought to Oxford Street and businesses picketed and occupied around the UK on May Day. Reform to disability benefits also hit the spotlight as a report was released warning that the change from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to the new benefit Personal Independence Payment (PIP) is likely to drive thousands of disabled people out of work. PIP is due to be assessed using the same crude computer based tests as the aforementioned WCA. Atos even have the contract to run the tests which are being openly designed to strip benefits from 20% of disabled people.
Atos have identified the difficulty in hiring enough medical staff as one of the major risk factors facing the implementation of PIP. This was brought into sharp focus towards the end of May when doctors in the BMA endorsed the decision earlier made by Scottish GPs and voted overwhelmingly to end the Work Capability Assessment.
Iain Duncan Smith had another tantrum, this time aiming his fury at the disabled Remploy workers his department was sacking. Astonishingly the Secretary of State accused the workers of sitting round drinking coffee all day and claimed they didn’t produce very much at all.
By far the best bit of May however was the demise of A4e founder and boss Emma Harrison. After a string of fraud allegations Emma did what any innocent person would do and scarpered, trousering as much of tax payers cash as she possibly could in the process. Her decision to step down from A4e, one of the largest welfare-to-work providers, even led to street parties in some parts of the UK.
Her resignation came as it seemed possible that Iain Duncan Smith’s Work Programme may actually be increasing unemployment.
Finally in May a legal ruling threw the bedroom tax into chaos after a court ruled it is illegal to stop housing benefits for disabled people who need a 24 hour care. This wasn’t be the first time that DWP policies ran into trouble last year because no-one had bothered to check whether they were legal or not.
June began with the news that unemployed people had been forced to not only work for free, but also sleep rough under a bridge during the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations – and that Tomorrow’s People, the charity in charge of the fiasco, are little more than a Tory and business front.
Homelessness continued to rise which led to Lord Fraud, the Minister for Welfare Reform, lying through his teeth by claiming a study carried out before housing benefit cuts were implemented proved that the cuts could not be responsible.
Chris Grayling decided to start a fight with the Information Commissioners Office for reasons best known to himself, whilst DWP insiders suggested that Universal Credit was already running into problems. This followed a story earlier in the year warning that thousands of children are set to lose free school meals when the new benefit begins, something that had not even seemed to occur to Iain Duncan Smith. Then horrifying details began to surface of how Universal Credit may force families to split up, will create a generation of latch key kids, and represents the most savage attack yet seen on those working part time or who are self-employed.
July began with the happy news that Holland & Barrett, who had planned to recruit thousands of unpaid staff on the Work Experience scheme had pulled out of workfare altogether. This move followed relentless campaigning by Solidarity Federation which had led to pickets outside Holland & Barrett stores across the UK.
Then came a new low from Chris Grayling when he attempted to smear all disabled people as criminals, whilst Work Programme contractors G4S smeared Work Programme participants as being unemployable.
With the country soon set to be bored to tears by Olympic fervour, the rest of the month was pretty quiet. It wouldn’t stay that way.
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Part 2 to come soon.