As if anybody would listen… or at least read the rest of this article
A few home truths: nobody can live a life a luxury on Jobseekers’ Allowance, or on any other Social Security benefit; secondly, more money is spent by the Department of Work and Pensions on the State Pension than out-of-work benefits; thirdly, some out-of-work benefits and the State Pension is paid by our good selves through National Insurance contributions.
Furthermore, our National Insurance contributions also cover the National Health Service (exclusive of prescriptions). The Tory-led Coalition Government is trying to replace this (which in their words is the ‘Jobs Tax’) with an Employment Tax (another ‘Jobs Tax’) – which may lead to the end of Social Security as we know it. In the long run, a greater role for private sector schemes – ultimately the end of universal provision irrespective of income and credit ratings.
In my borough, Tameside, some unemployed citizens who would sign on at Ashton-under-Lyne Job Centre Plus have not claimed Jobseekers’ Allowance since late July 2013. Instead, single people who would otherwise claim JSA now claim Universal Credit. Among the main differences between the two benefits are: 1) monthly payments; 2) greater conditionality in receipt of benefits; 3) digital by default claimant support; 4) a five week wait for first payments; and, its main component, 5) the consolidation of other Social Security benefits into one payment, such as Housing Benefit and Income Based JSA.
In the last four years, unemployed people have seen their JSA or Universal Credit payments fall behind – even our present pitiful average – wage rates and rises. Conditionality has been tightened up with jobseekers being forced to ‘work’ up to 35 hours a week for their benefit. Work by means of the amount of time spent looking for work each week; ‘work’ by means of the corvée that is workfare with private sector employers.
As a consequence, unemployed persons under the present Claimant Commitment (a Jobseekers’ Agreement with added forelock tugging) are denied any form of livelihood or diversion from the tedium. The present weekly rate of £71.70 (£72.41 from October 2014) is deemed as the absolute minimum anyone can live on. With rising fuel and food prices, the choice to heat or eat is very real. All the more exacerbated by reduced Council Tax rebates, the Spare Room Subsidy rate and increased use of sanctions.
Since 2010, there has not only been greater use of, but also increased length of sanctions. Ever since, even the pre-Beveridge era Welfare State, there has been penalties for non-compliance for unemployed citizens, including Work Camps in the late 1920s. Way before then for poor people, workhouses; the Poor Law; debtors’ prisons; Houses of Correction. For picking oakum, today’s equivalent could be workfare and The Work Programme.
Released this week, will be further changes/coercion/compulsion for unemployed citizens. It is envisaged that future claimants would have to produce their C.V. prior to making their claim. This I assume brings this into line with Universal Credit’s stricter criteria; furthermore, Jobseekers’ Allowance new claims forms have asked claimants if they have a C.V. on them since October 1996. In more recent times, a claimant can be mandated to supply a C.V. in hard copy or electronic form.
Consistent with the last four years – and most explicitly detailed in the 2012 Welfare Reform Act – has been a hardening of attitudes towards unemployed citizens, disabled and non-disabled people included. The rhetoric and demonisation of such people in the mass media has seen good ratings for dubious programming like Benefits Street and Saints and Scroungers. Opinion polls, even among Labour voters, has seen some support for Iain Duncan Smith’s and Esther McVey’s hardline approach. Therefore, the Tories’ propaganda operation seems to be working to plan.
Or is it? Who are they asking in the opinion polls? Have they asked anyone who has been in long term unemployment. Have they asked persons who have signed on, instead of claiming disability benefits, owing to the present system? Is there really a groundswell of support in favour of ‘work for your dole’ schemes, instead of ‘a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’?
By supporting the Tories’ divide and conquer policies, we are disregarding the mental health of ordinary people faced with the ‘joys’ of job hunting. Ordinary people for whom the 2012 Welfare Reform Act has ruined instead of aided self esteem. People unable to see friends for fear of being unable to check Universal Job Match and similar sites, resulting in sanctions. The major Social Security ‘Scrounger…’ type stories only detail a tiny cross-section of claimants, yet magnified disproportionately to suit the press’ acolytes and divide the nation.
And everybody loses. Not only £71.70 or more, but also that of truth, objectivity, balance and compassion.
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The Alternative Unemployment Strategy
Owing to political sensitivities, we never look at unemployment from an holistic angle. We are too busy associating unemployed persons as ‘scroungers’, ‘scum’, ‘workshy’, or tar them with the same brush as criminals, who may have claimed Housing Benefit for instance. There are people who would rather charge them double instead of half adult admission at the local theatre or on the buses.
1. End the 35 Hour Rule
Compelling unemployed people to spend up to 35 hours a week of work related activity reduces them to the state of automatons. Therefore, £71.70 per week is equal to £2.05 per hour. Even in a prosperous economy, it is unrealistic to expect anyone to spend that long on jobseeking activities without a degree of filibustering (like hand delivering your application forms or using a manual typewriter for your C.V). From past experience, a week’s job hunting could vary according to the number of interviews, time spent on application forms or scanning the Manchester Evening News.
Furthermore, forcing unemployed persons to ‘work’ 35 hours on job hunting is counterproductive to gaining employment. Increasingly, there should be time for hobbies which are attractive to the C.V. or application form for prospective employers.
2. Scrap sanctions
Of late, the use of sanctions is far removed from Esther McVey’s scholastic allegories. Some people have received them for not checking the Universal Job Match site on Christmas Day! After being sanctioned, an unemployed person would be off the unemployment figures for any length from a month to three years. Therefore, its use could be seen as political rather than disciplinary.
3. Introduce Rent Controls
A cap on rents instead of a benefits cap would keep Housing Benefit rates down. Furthermore, it may be more attractive for unemployed persons to move to, for example, London, Oxford, Cambridge or Manchester, where there is growth.
4. Limit all unpaid work placements to two weeks
The Work Programme and associated workfare based programmes have seen participants working for their JSA or Universal Credit for greater than two weeks. As a result, employers have opted for cheap labour via the workfare system, which not only undermines the National Minimum Wage. It is also a nice little tax dodge. Work experience placements (or Work Trials in pre-2008 language) should be no more than two weeks and optional.
5. Enable Local Authorities to take over National Careers Service operations
In other words, bring back the local careers centres. Before they were disbanded in favour of Connexions and latterly centralised, knowledge of the labour market was local. In Greater Manchester for instance, the National Careers Service functions could become part of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, or its constituent councils.
6. Bring back the Social Fund
Instead of bringing back Crisis Loans, bring back the grants which precluded the loans introduced by John Major’s government. Such grants should be used to smooth the transition from one’s loss of income, and be provided by the DWP.
7. Repeal the 2012 Welfare Reform Act
In doing so, we could kiss goodbye to the expensive omnishambles which is Universal Credit. Not only that, all the draconian laws imposed on unemployed people since the 11 May 2010. Repealing the 2012 Act could see the end of sanctions on Universal Credit claimants in part time work, compelled to mither their employers for more hours or find higher paid full time positions.
8. Introduce a Citizens’ Income
Nobody, irrespective of status, should be forced into destitution under government edict (hence point 2). A Citizens’ income should cover basic needs and become a de facto replacement for Universal Credit. Like UC, it should cover the Housing Benefit component (which as part of a Citizens’ Income is more effective with Rent Controls), include a child premium and extra support for disabled persons – more consistent with Disability Living Allowance instead of Personal Independent Payments.
A Citizens’ Income policy could be funded by National Insurance contributions, more progressive higher rates of Income Tax and the closure of tax loopholes. It should be free from sanctions and their associated financial penalties. Most importantly, a Citizens’ income shouldn’t be about coercion and getting by, but having enough to participate in public life, and become well rounded individuals. Supposing C.I. is set to £12,000 per annum, the first £10,500 could be tax free as per the Coalition Government’s recent changes to the lower rate threshold.
9. Encourage unemployed citizens to take part in leisure activities and hobbies
As I have known myself, job hunting is not only the most tedious thing known to personhood. It is also soul destroying under duress (see point 1), and does no wonders to self esteem. Unemployed people should be encouraged to take up active pursuits like joining sports clubs or better themselves at college. Or creative activities such as poetry, illustration, photography and textiles. Even a trip to a new town could be a welcome break from being chained to the computer screen. The same can also apply with volunteering for community groups.
10. Improve travel concessions
Job seeking can also be a costly operation – even a trip to my nearest Job Centre can be £4.40 for two single bus fares. Travel concessions should be given to jobseekers anywhere within their county, and on cross-boundary bus and rail services up to 90 minutes duration per journey in normal operating conditions. This could come in the form of a smart card like the English National Travel Concession Scheme passes, or with the discount added onto an incumbent Oyster Card, or the future Walrus/Get Me There smart cards.
11. People, not Digital By Default at Job Centres
Encouraged unemployed people to claim online by all means, but ensure the retention of analogue facilities first and foremost. People unable to use PCs should be able to speak to a Job Centre advisor or start their claim on paper. Furthermore, free telephones in Job Centre Plus offices should also be reinstated.
12. Encourage Further Education
Though experience is a main factor among potential employers’ candidates, there should be room for people wishing to better themselves at the local college. A course of English or Maths to GCSE level should be classed as ‘Work Related Activity’ in equal terms to updating your C.V. or browsing job related websites. To boost this further, the amount of part time hours study should be up to 21 per week (pre-1996 levels).
13. Use the 90 minute travel-to-work rule as a guide, not as a form of compulsion
The 90 Minute Rule disregards people who are less able to travel great distances to their potential job. Instead, it should be used as a guide not as an instrument for sanctioning unemployed persons. With our planet under continuous stress through global warming, we should be working on cutting instead of increasing commuter times. Furthermore, this goes hand in hand on improved planning and decentralisation policies. This should also be augmented with greater investment in high speed broadband and incentives for people working from home.
14. Scrap The Bedroom Tax
Owing to the state of our economy (stagnating almost everywhere outside London and South East England), scrapping this tax would not only increase personal incomes but also increase morale among affected persons. This is profound among unemployed persons whose incomes have already taken a hit after redundancy, and disabled persons who need the spare room (for instance as a Sensory Room for people with Autism Spectrum Conditions).
15. Extend the entitlement of Jobseekers’ Allowance, Universal Credit and any successors up to the arrival of each employee’s first payslip
To allow this, employers or employees should be allowed to notify their local Job Centre Plus office (by telephone, online, or in person) as to when their first payslip appears and its starting date. At present, JSA entitlement ends on his/her first day at work, though Universal Credit entitlement ceases if he or she works for 35 hours a week or more (with a reduced rate for part time workers subject to his/her Claimant Commitment).
16. A complete ban on the advertisement of Zero Hour Contracts on Universal Job Match and its successors
Need I say more on zero hour contracts: they are anathema to helping people gain work experience and the concept of ‘a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’. It is not unusual for one person to be taken on for one day, and be deprived of work for weeks or months. During then, he or she loses their entitlement to out-of-work benefits. With the amount of lost income tax revenue from a zero hours contract, it is fair that they shouldn’t be advertised on any of the DWP’s websites for jobseekers.
17. A clampdown on bogus self employment schemes
If you’re familiar with the DWP’s Universal Job Match website, you will have noticed a number of ‘Catalogue Distributor’ positions and similar positions. From my observations, I have noticed how a sizeable number tend to link to one website. The only Catalogue Distributor positions which should be advertised ought to be direct from Avon, Kleeneze or Betterware themselves instead of from external bodies.
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Any More Suggestions?
I understand that’s there probably more chance of me winning the Lotto than most of the above policies ever being implemented. Feel free to opine on the above ideas or add a few others.
S.V., 09 April 2014.