Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Welfare reform

Straight after PMQs we had a statement from James Purnell on the Welfare Reform White Paper. I was sitting next to Rob Marris, and as we were the last two people to be called the House was treated to the spectacle of the two of us bobbing up and down for an hour, trying to catch the Speaker's eye and looking absolutely ridiculous; he's a good 18 inches taller than me.

Yesterday (Tuesday) lunchtime I got a call from a journalist, saying the Tories were going around telling the press that there was going to be a sizeable Labour rebellion on this and only the Tory votes would save them. Strange then that the Tory spokesman, Chris Grayling, asked a senior Labour backbencher Tuesday night if he thought there was going to be a rebellion and looked very disappointed when he was told no. Not that we have rebellions - or votes - on White Papers anyway.

The White Paper is in part based on the Gregg review. That would be Professor Paul Gregg of Bristol University's Institute of Public Affairs. It would also be the same Paul Gregg I last saw at UK Decay's reunion gig in Luton last summer. Funny to think that the lad who lent me his Scritti Politti picture disc of 'Jacques Derrida' twenty-five years ago is now a Professor. He'd probably say the same about me becoming an MP.

Anyway, the statement is good stuff, although I share the concerns expressed by Roger Berry that some vulnerable people - e.g. people with mental health problems, or people with serious disabilities or illnesses - might be alarmed by the press coverage which gives the impression they'll all be frogmarched into work, no matter what their problems. Also concerned about people with fluctuating illnesses, like ME. And what happens if people simply won't be 'better off' in work, because of a host of complicating factors. Lots of detail to be thrashed out, and much of it depends on the sensitivity and competence of Job Centre staff (and there being enough of them to have time to display their sensitivity and competence). I'm meeting Job Centre staff and other people working in this sector in Bristol on Friday to discuss, and am going to get really stuck into this. I want us to get it right.


timbone said...

"much of it depends on the sensitivity and competence of Job Centre staff"

Isn't that a bit like the spirit and the letter of the law Kerry? I am sure that there are some sensitive job centre staff, but surely if they are competent that will overule their sensitivity?

Kerry said...

No... sensitivity to people's personal circumstances, for example, realising that although someone with mental health problems might actually be better off in work in the long term (and by that I don't mean financially), they might be terrified at the thought of returning to the workplace, which in the short term might make their condition worse. So it has to be handled carefully and they need support as well as advice and information (which is where the competence comes in, for example, when it comes to doing 'better off in work' calculations). There is not a trade off between being nice and being good at your job you know - you can be both!

Chris Gale said...

The welfare 'reforms' are pure Thatcherism and a disgrace to the Labour party. At a time when billionaires are being bailed out, to then attack the most vulnerable in society who are on £69 a week is beyond the pale.
The government, as John McDonnell MP A (a real Labour MP as opposed to the quasi Tory/SDP lot who hijacked our party) has pointed out the government is busy slashing 1000s of jobs from the DWP.
The sight of Purnell and his well heeled friends attacking the poor is appalling but what we have come to expect. They lavish the bankers and their city friends with endless money (whilst leaving their criminal activity unchecked) but hey the mentally ill and the 'work shy' can pick up litter in the park if they want their but jobseeker's allowance, which is currently a mere £60.50.

I agree with a Labour blogger who says:
It's time for all of us in the Labour Party and beyond who are violently opposed to this legislation to stand together and mount a national campaign -lobbying our MPs, getting out onto the streets and making it clear that we did not join Labour to punish people for being out of work. The Welfare Reform Bill is absolute anathema to anyone who regards themselves as a socialist. Let's mount the biggest rebellion yet -and stop it becoming law.

Mr Purnell and his ilk care not for the poor and most vulnerable in Bristol East or anywhere else.

As Matthew Norman says in The Independent today.'what you don't do is further stigmatise the poor, the sick, the illiterate, the weak, the befuddled and the inadequate for the delight of tabloid editors.'

Lets hope those backbenchers, who actually remember why they came into politics in the first place, can defeat this nasty Toryism. There will be a national campaign against it. Its a pity Kerry prefers to pander to whatever the leadership put out, scrambling to defend policies that Thatcher would be proud of.

Anonymous said...

That's quite a journey from Skank Bloc Bologna to Thatcherite welfare reform.

Gramsci will be turning in his grave.

If you want to save loads of money for us why don't you go and pick on tax avoiders?

Kerry said...

It's not at all about saving money. It's about ensuring people who can, make a contribution to society and aren't consigned to a life on benefits. How can giving someone the support, advice and training they need to get into work and build a decent career, rather than spending the rest of their life on benefits, be an attack on the poor? (And that's without mentioning all the additional redistributive measures we've brought in - tax credits, in work housing benefit, child care, etc, etc, etc).

I'd say writing people off, ensuring that successive generations are born and die in poverty is Thatcherism. This is about rebuilding a sense of the collective, of everyone contributing what they can to society.

And Chris - I wish you would stop accusing me of pandering to the leadership. I am perfectly capable of making up my mind on such issues, and I have been talking about this agenda for many, many years - not to mention working with child poverty/ lone parents groups on it - who are broadly supportive. You should look at what is actually in the White Paper, rather than the tabloid misrepresentation. Or tell us what your solution is - doubling everyone's welfare cheques?

donpaskini said...

Hi Kerry,

Not sure child poverty groups are 'broadly supportive' - Child Poverty Action Group's comments are headlined 'welfare reforms seriously flawed'.

Think it is probably fairer to say that they like the extra support, and the child maintenance reforms and don't like the idea of benefit sanctions and privatisation (what Kate Green called the 'Railtrack model' of welfare reform when Freud first proposed it).

It's really good that you're meeting with Job Centre plus staff and other local groups about this. Just in case it is of any use, here are some amendments that people I've talked to would like to see (which would address many of the concerns that you raised) :

1. Level playing field so that smaller voluntary groups which work in local communities can get funding to help support people to get skills and jobs, not just large private companies. At the moment, the way the funding allocations are structured, billions of taxpayers' money will go to companies like Serco or America Works, and none will go to groups like Bristol's very own Single Parent Action Network - this is neither fair nor efficient.

2. A right of appeal (including access to independent advice) against having your benefit cut - there is nothing in the white paper about what people can do to appeal if their adviser sanctions their benefit, and it is all about speeding up the enforcement of sanctions. Guaranteed right to appeal is important for reassurance, but also to prevent injustices where an unsympathetic or bullying adviser leaves someone who is vulnerable with no money at all to live on.

As a related point, there needs to be a strategy to ensure that people claim the benefits which they are entitled to - more and more people who are genuinely needy will be put off claiming by these reforms and by nonsense like lie detector tests for benefit claimants. Unless there is a strategy to do something about this, there is going to be a rise in absolute poverty - people living without any means of support - in Britain.

3. More done to remove the barriers to work that people face. This is a great opportunity for our government to do some really radical welfare reform - if parents are to be ready for work when their kids are 1 year old, shouldn't they have a guaranteed right to affordable childcare? If a disabled person is required to get a job, shouldn't they have a right to work for an employer who won't discriminate against disabled people? And so on. The extra support announced so far is welcome, but is incredibly modest and unambitious given what could be done.

Finally (apologies that my comment has already broken by far your 3 paragraph rule!) you mock the idea of 'doubling everyone's welfare cheques', but pretty much any government adviser, including people like Paul Gregg and David Coats, think out of work benefits are too low and that one of the reasons why the European system which these reforms are based on are more effective is that benefits are higher. Probably politically impossible in this climate, but we'll never meet our targets around employment or reducing poverty without raising out of work benefits in real terms as part of the "something for something" deal.

Kerry said...

On the last point - Tony McNulty has just given a statement in the Chamber on benefits uprating.

DaveA said...

Kerry, I have something nice to say, although with my personal agenda attached, elephant traps etc.

I read in the London papers tonight that with the increase in stop and search there has been a reduction in knife attacks of 20% in London. Also we have the chavvy long term unemployed, quite rightly being lent on to find gainful employment.

Is this, I hope the result of 11 years in power and you have seen that your genuine compassion for the poor has been a licence to abuse our/your empathy. Or are they, in the light of a potential general election in 6 months to 2 years a few bones to be thrown at the honest working class/Daily Mail type reader? Mondeo man etc.

Eye cathing initiatives, (to be swept under the carpet if re-elected) or a Psaul like conversion on the road to Damascus?

Anonymous said...

Kerry there's a lot I could say here. But let's just take:

"This is about rebuilding a sense of the collective, of everyone contributing what they can to society."

You can't build "a sense of the collective" through compulsion.

State compulsion will create more alienation not less.

Kerry said...

So you don't think people should be required to look for work, or - in the case of lone parents - prepare for work when their child is 7, or make a contribution in some other small way, for example, through community work (which is only going to be piloted in 5 areas anyway, for the time being). Listening to Question Time at mo - it's clear that there's a lot of confusion about the proposals. Especially from Will Self!

The reason I mentioned 'a sense of the collective' is based on the idea that community is based on shared values, shared responsibilities... which doesn't happen if people feel that there's one rule for some people and another rule for others - or that they're subsidising other people's lifestyles. There's a real resentment out there, and it's understandable.

pagar said...

The reason I mentioned 'a sense of the collective' is based on the idea that community is based on shared values, shared responsibilities...

No. A community is based on the sum of the values of the individuals that make it up. These values may be shared or not but the responsibilty of the individual is to himself and his family. Once this is understood, the health of the collective takes care of itself.

Chris Gale said...

"shared values, shared responsibilities... which doesn't happen if people feel that there's one rule for some people and another rule for others - or that they're subsidising other people's lifestyles."

Amazing language Kerry, straight out of the Tory phrase book but then thats New Labour for you. Blairism is alive and well.

Yeah bash the scroungers, show us how hard you are Purnell... play to the gallery of the right wing Murdoch press who you need for any future leadership bid...

How about taking on the capitalist class who are left to carry on swindling the Treasury of billions? But hey, much easier, and all part of being part of the neo liberal one party state we now have, to bash the poor and make the sick more sick with worry and stress.

These proposals as people across the left and civil society are making clear are a total and utter disgrace.

Your government (im a Labour member but I do not recognise the cabal of New Labour that you defend at every turn) will not only further damage society you will isolate more core Labour voters who already see party leadership as a Tory party mk2.

Essentially many of the weakest and poorest people in Britain are being punished and sacrificed to further Purnell's career, show how tough he is, how resolute, how loyal to the right-wing economic and social agenda, the yoke we've lived under for thirty years.

Billions are spent replacing Trident (which you voted for, very progressive..?) and bailing out the debt of the city but New Labours love affair with capital goes on.

"one rule for some people and another rule for others" Yep if you are a city friend of Purnell and co you can do what you like, dont worry guys we will make sure of that..

Oh and do tell us Kerry, do you support the privatisation of public services that your government is responsible for and the 30,000 jobs axed from the DWP?

Kerry said...

Chris - tell me what exactly about the proposals (rather than the tabloid spin on them) upsets you so much? Which bit would you rather we didn't do? What should we do instead?

timbone said...

I wonder what happened to the wonderful socialist innovations of safety nets for the unemployed, free education and a National Health Service.
I remember back in 1970. I had left school early and become an army musician in 1966, then purchased my discharge to persue a musical career in civilian life. I was unemployed. Things were not so strict and complicated then, so I could have signed on the dole and happily drawn my £11 a week (there was a thing called earnings related supplement). I didn't though, I worked in a shop for £10 a week. This is not a 'give me a pat on the back' statement, neither is it political, it is just the way I felt when I was 19. I am nothing special, spent most of my childhood and teenage years living on the Coronation and Bournville estates in Weston super Mare.
I cannot leave without also mentioning the full grant I received to study music and graduate in Manchester. I seem to remember it was £460 a year. Remember this was 1971, when I shared a flat with two others and the total resnt was £7 a week including rates and bills.
It just seems that as respective governments have tightened up on benefits because of abuse, the NHS because NI was not enough, and educational grants because they were too expensive, there seems to be more abuse of benefits, a postcode lottery for serious illness, and student debt.

Anonymous said...

"... if people feel that there's one rule for some people and another rule for others - or that they're subsidising other people's lifestyles. There's a real resentment out there, and it's understandable."

It's good that you recognise that there are some grave "social cohesion" issues here, Kerry.

The idealistic people who founded
the NHS actually believed that demand would lessen over time as people became healthier thanks to free care. In fact, the opposite has proved to be the case.

It looks very much as though the welfare system operates in the same fashion, now that we have families where three+ generations have no work.

I appreciate that the government can do little (in the short term) about mismatch between individual capabilities and appropriateness of work available, but Labour ought to take some responsibility for demeaning manual labour, and over-inflating "aspirations" to the point where scarcely anyone can take a pride in day-to-day work any more.

I blame Sidney Webb!

Chris Gale said...

I am not using 'tabloid spin' whatever that is, do you think the principled Labour MPs, and people right across the Labour movement who oppose this disgrace, are using 'tabloid spin'?? There speaks New Labour for you! Did the whips tell you to use that line?
I do not read tabloids and find it offensive that you denigrate people with such a silly line.
The mobilisation against this will be huge.

Chris Gale said...

You also did not answer, do you agree with the govt slashing 1000s of jobs from the DWP and privatizing front line services in the Civil Service?

Chris Gale said...

You should also take back the comment that poverty groups etc are 'broadly supportive' thats a complete travesty of the truth. Then again with New Labour.....

Kerry said...

Chris - you still haven't said what it is about the proposals that bothers you so much - and there's a lot of misinformation about there, e.g. about forcing mothers of one year olds to work. So tell me which bits you don't like, and which bits are going to provoke this massive uprising.

I speak to poverty groups all the time, and they are broadly supportive, although the lone parent groups don't want the sanctions - and I've spoken personally to the PM about this. This is a White Paper, and you can judge my position on what I do and say as the legislation goes through the house, when I am sure it will be amended and clarified. That's the whole point of having reviews and a Green Paper and a White Paper first - to allow consultation and discussion!

As for allowing the private/ voluntary sector in - in Bristol Working Links provide some of the services for Job Centre Plus; it seems to work well. The DWP is a huge employer, and on the Job Centre Plus side more resources are going in. I was concerned that the reforms would only work if properly resourced, but at the moment my local JC+ are confident they can give people the personalised attention and support they need.