There are many thing which could be done to tackle in-work poverty. The most obvious being to raise in-work benefit levels. Other measures such as rent caps or free public transport would make an immediate difference whilst longer term solutions could include a mass social house-building programme and the recreation of a militant trade union movement that was prepared to strike for better wages. The restoration of student grants or free training in bankable qualifications that are currently only available at huge cost would also make a huge change in how people choose to develop their working lives.
More radical ideas might include the collectivisation of private (profit-making) property and a seizing of the wealth of the rich. There’s plenty of stuff, and space, for everybody to live well. The problem is some people are greedy and have too much. There’s more of us than them. We could just take it. That’s what they did.
None of these ideas were mentioned in the recent inquiry by the Work and Pensions Commitee into ‘in-work progression’, the latest DWP initiative designed to force part time workers to constantly strive for more pay or more hours or face benefit sanctions. From the radical to the mundane, these concepts are outside of current acceptable, neo-liberal conversation. Even calling for a reverse to recent reforms such as the Bedroom Tax, or the restoration of full council tax benefit, have now slipped outside of the acceptable agenda. Instead all solutions must be market based, individualised, and place the blame for poverty squarely at the feet of the poor. And austerity and cutting government spending have now become aims in themselves, as if they were a moral force.
With a couple of exceptions, this ideology informs every single response to the Work and Pensions Committee’s recent inquiry. This has allowed the committee’s final report to call the reforms potentially ‘revolutionary’. Which they don’t mean in a good way.
The depressing truth is that consent had been manufactured invisibly before the committee even began, simply by the type of people they involved, and the narrow spectrum of beliefs they represent. If you don’t share these views you will not become one of those people, the listened to people. As such the submissions by Boycott Workfare, and even the PCS Union whose members will be expected to implement any changes, are completely ignored in the committee’s final report. Instead it was the likes of Matthew Oakley who were called to give evidence in person, the chinless knobend who began his barely working life at the hard right Policy Exchange think tank. Oakley has made a lucrative career out of pretending to be an independent expert whilst telling the government exactly what they want to hear.
Of course it helps that there was a financial incentive for most of those who responded to the consultation to support the DWP’s plans in the form of juicy government contracts to run the scheme. And it does no harm that of the eleven people who sit on the Work and Pensions Commitee, six of them are Tories and one of the others is Frank fucking Field. This is no doubt how they came to the appalling conclusion that the current government should be congratulated for these sweeping changes to the benefit’s system that will see low paid workers consigned to desperate poverty if they fail to meet the endless humiliating demands imposed on them by Jobcentres. The committee even suggests that in-work progression could be extended to those further up the earnings scale, although it is unclear whether they support this on a voluntary or mandatory basis. How to sanction people’s benefit when they aren’t on benefits is likely to prove a challenge.
There were two issues really that were being examined by the commission – that of in work ‘progression’ and also in work ‘conditionality’. The first simply means mild harassment masquerading as help from Jobcentres or welfare to work companies to encourage claimants to look around for better paid work or be confident enough to ask for a pay rise. Almost all of the organsations who responded said yes, we’d like some money to do that. In-work conditionality however means benefit sanctions for not complying with demands placed on claimants to improve their earnings, which under current legislation could even include workfare or mandatory job search sessions in the hours people aren’t working.
This conditionality was rejected by some organisations who called for a purely voluntary scheme whilst many others warned that so-called vulnerable people should be excluded. None of the responses were enthusiastic about sanctions, although one, from welfare-to-work company Prospects, did say they believed people should “not be allowed to settle for working only a few hours each week indefinitely”. This was probably the most extreme statement out of all the responses to the committee and was duly included in the final report to help demonstrate ‘strong support’ for an ‘in-work service’.
A fair analysis of the evidence would be that there was support for a voluntary service, although it was not unanimous and largely came from organisations with a vested financial interest. And there was opposition to and wide ranging concerns about sanctioning claimant’s benefit for non-compliance. The committee’s report acknowledges some of these concerns and even agrees that inflicting a financial penalty on someone could, in some cases, work against the aim to increase their earnings. But even this doesn’t mean they oppose sanctions. In conclusion the report merely calls for people to be sanctioned less often than those currently on unemployment benefits.
The DWP’s attitude to sanctions for part time workers is already clear. Evidence submitted to the enquiry included a training document for Work Coaches currently carrying out pilot schemes into in-work conditionality. They inform Jobcentre workers that “Conditionality is an important element in driving greater independence and ensuring that claimants take greater accountability to earn and work more” and that “sanctions play a vital role in supporting the conditionality regime”. The committee do not comment on this overt encouragement of enforcing strict conditionality on working claimants, despite it being current practice already for those unlucky enough to be selected for the pilot.
In-work sanctions may have been dreamed up in the feverish mind of Iain Duncan Smith, but everyone has played their part. From the charities too greedy or spineless to condemn these plans and say they will take no part in the scheme to the grasping welfare-to-work sector who are facing huge funding cuts and are desperate to rinse yet more money from the tax payer. From the think tank’s fake experts who’ve never had a proper job to Frank Field’s committee and their skewing of the evidence in favour of the government’s demands. The DWP have now been given a green light to carry on as they always intended and launch an onslaught on the low paid which will cause the same devastation in the lives of the poorest workers that has already been inflicted on the unemployed. Everyone, who they consider important, has said it’s a good idea after all.
There has been no demand from the electorate for these measures, in fact most are horrified when they hear of it. There have been no calls from part time workers, or the unions that represent them, for a Jobcentre run in-work service, whether mandatory or otherwise. As the committee’s final report points out, there is no evidence that this scheme will be effective and nothing similar to it has ever been tried anywhere in the world. That is probably because it’s such a shit idea. But this shit idea is now going ahead as support has been gently fabricated at every stage to ensure that there is no serious, or even visible opposition to the DWP’s plans.
In a few years, even criticising the concept that in-work benefits should be conditional will be outside of acceptable thought for the listened to people. This is how neoliberalism marches on. The long, great theft of our labour and the demolition of our living standards is decided in committees, by reasonable people, who do not even notice the political agenda they are pursuing. They barely even know they are doing politics. Their cut-throat capitalist ideology is so entrenched that it is all that they can see or imagine.
You can read the committee’s report at: http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/work-and-pensions-committee/news-parliament-2015/in-work-progression-report-published-15-16/
h/t Noam Chomsky who first used the phrase manufacturing consent in an analysis of the US media, there’s a film about it here.
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