Sunday, December 14, 2008

Welfare reform round up, the mean and the stupid

Matthew Norman, in a quite brilliant article about the government's welfare reform proposals, wrote that:

"To watch a minister with a plumply padded pension and a free widescreen telly and, of all creatures, an investment banker threaten those on £69 per week is to observe the unspeakable in pursuit of the unemployable."

For every minister and investment banker turned government adviser, there are hordes of ambitious if not very bright young men, hoping one day to reach these dizzy heights, and joining the unspeakables in their pursuit:

Lawrence Kay is a "part-economist, part-politico" who works for Policy Exchange, the think tank which called for people in northern cities to all move to London, Oxford and Cambridge to get jobs. He welcomed the government's welfare reforms, criticising the 'desire for unconditional love in the British welfare system, an approach that has been much tested in the past 30 years'.

This was a very novel article, as I had not previously realised that what Maggie Thatcher and Norman Tebbit were doing wrong in the 1980s was showing too much 'unconditional love' to the unemployed.

Moving on, Greg Rosen, Chair of the Labour History Group, wrote an article in the Scotsman explaining how the welfare reform proposals 'is a return to Old Labour's roots'. Inexplicably, this article has received much praise from Progress, an organisation which was set up to try to ensure that the Labour Party never went back to its Old Labour roots.

(Un)Happily, the Scotsman requires you to register to read Rosen's article. His argument is conducted at the level of 'if Keir Hardie were alive he would agree with me.' For example "Hardie would have been as appalled by the apparent ability of Karen Matthews and her ilk to milk the system as so many are today. But he would have been reassured by James Purnell." This is the Keir Hardie whose denunciations of the capitalist system made John McDonnell or George Galloway look like timid social democrats, and amongst whose criticisms of capitalism was that it meant that 'modern women' 'think themselves disgraced if they have more than two or three children'.

What is really obnoxious about Rosen's article is that he must know that the 'Old Labour' analysis of the causes of mass unemployment, and policies needed to sort it out, is completely different to that of Purnell, but he's nonetheless prepared to write this stuff so that his political allies can reassure MPs that the proposals are true to Labour's traditional values.

The purest form of mean and stupid, however, is to be found elsewhere. Writing in the 'Cambridge Universities Labour Club' blog, someone called john buckingham has produced an absolute horror show of a piece. It starts off with a bit about how welfare reform reflects 'the morality of socialism' and goes downhill from there.

[EDIT: John has been in touch and left some comments, which make it clear that he's actually arguing from a rather different perspective than I had assumed - I don't agree with his arguments overall, but it is unfair to lump him in with people like Kay and Rosen or to accuse him of being a member of the James Purnell fan club.]

Buckingham writes that "those on benefits must be willing to take what's offered - there's far greater pride and potential in the grimmest of jobs than in no job at all". There speaks someone, it is fair to conclude, with an extremely limited knowledge of the world of work. Then there is a xenophobic bit about how "we have no duty to provide jobs for the Polish middle-class", apparently one of the ways to improve the welfare reform bill would be to limit intra-EU migration.

In common with many of the James Purnell Fan Club, Buckingham doesn't seem to be able to distinguish between "welfare reform" as a general principle and the specific set of proposals which have been put forward. So there is a lot about how, for example, there needs to be affordable childcare for all who need it, without mention of the fact that these proposals will not provide that, no mention of the multi billion pound give away of public money to private companies which is one of the main proposals, and denunciations of the straw man of those who think it is 'left wing' to oppose welfare reform.

The very worst and most disastrous policy decisions taken by the Labour government have in most cases been preceded by their supporters making arguments based on false historical analogies, enthusiastic support from some right-wing groups, and refusing to engage with the practical problems with what they are planning to do in favour of caricaturing the arguments of their critics. Hopefully this time will be different.


At 2:29 pm , Blogger John Buckingham said...

Actually, I spent my summer up to my elbows in human excrement (ok, not all the time, but still) on little more than the minimum wage, and I intend to go back to do it again when I leave university. What do you do for a living Don? You also fail to mention that I call for a raising of the minimum wage to ensure that work pays. And it's not xenophobic to say that Polish degree-educated immigrants are less worthy of government help than those without any jobs, qualifications or confidence in the UK. That's social justice and it's about priorities. In the past, ordinary people worked under appalling conditions with pride and dignity - my relatives and I imagine yours too. It is patronising, faux-compassionate nonsense to say that the unemployed today can't take pride from jobs which others turn their noses at. I can only assume you don't understand the loss of self-esteem that results from worklessness.

At 3:10 pm , Blogger donpaskini said...

Hi John,

It's not a question of poorly paid jobs or ones which some people would turn their noses up at (like you, I've done many such).

I was thinking more of jobs where, for example, someone gets bullied by their manager because they have a disability or where people turn up even when they are very unwell because they are terrified that otherwise they will get the sack, or where they are forced to leave their kids somewhere where they are miserably unhappy. Is your argument really that in all cases, this is better than not working?

I'm not clear how the government is meant to be helping Polish immigrants, either - it tends to be private sector employers who employ graduate migrant workers. Are you arguing that the government should be more directive to the private sector about who it employs, or greater restrictions on all employment for non-British citizens, or what?

fwiw, I manage a project for a charity which, amongst other things, helps people get the skills, confidence and opportunities to be able to work. In fact, we agree on quite a lot, from the need for a living wage to the importance of affordable childcare for all.

But Purnell's specific proposals don't and won't provide this, which is just one example of how "welfare reform" in general might be a good idea, but these proposals aren't.

At 5:20 pm , Blogger John Buckingham said...

Of course in the cases you cite considerable harm could be done. But under these proposals, the most disabled will receive a considerable boost to their incomes, and would not be forced to work - £20 a week is not to be sniffed at. Less disabled people will only lose benefits if they refuse to take part in schemes to help them back to work. The whole point is giving people the chance to do jobs which are suited to their disabilities/illnesses instead of writing them off: I agree that this will require a degree of personalised treatment/advice which may not currently be available and hopefully charities like yours will be able to help provide this. Personally, I chair a charity that provides holidays for children from Liverpool referred to us by social services because of the deprivation they suffer. These are the people who suffer most from unemployment and it is not right. Call me old fashioned, but in my view the key role of the state should be to provide jobs for all those able to work. And when there are jobs, and people are able to take them, they should do so for the sake of their children and their community. Thus the state must step in to boost their ability to do so - tackling substance abuse and debt issues, confidence, counselling etc - which these proposals do include.

On immigration, my argument is that we should severely restrict intra-EU immigration; we should focus on asylum claims instead, and our own unemployed.

There is nothing 'kind' about abandoning people to a life on benefits. These reforms are not perfect, but if they go some way to making sure more kids grow up in working households, I support them - the devastation of a childhood of deprivation is simply not a price worth paying, and if a little coercion is required to make that happen, then so be it. And you should note that no single parent with a child under 7 would be obliged to work - only to prepare for work - which is surely a good thing? They will also not be monetarily penalised for missing appointments etc. Ultimately, whether these reforms are good or bad for individuals will depend on the quality of service they receive from people like yourself and e.g. from doctors doing medical assessments.

Incidentally, I think James Purnell is a repellent individual who has nothing in common with Labour values; if you read my other posts it's quite clear I'm not a cheerleader for the government.

At 7:27 pm , Blogger donpaskini said...

Hi John,

Thanks for your posts - I'd thougth that your original post was arguing something quite different from what you obviously believe, and while I don't agree with everything that you've written here, I think we actually agree on a lot more than either of us do with James Purnell. I'll update the original post to make that clear.

Just one final point, my objection to the welfare reforms is precisely that they have been designed in a way so that they won't achieve the aims you set out - and that amendments are needed to change the proposals to be more effective.

At 10:07 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

once services related to substance misuse and mental health are much improved in general terms, i might have some confidence that such programmes, when related to conditionality of welfare benefits, are of sufficient quality.

At 9:18 am , Anonymous Paul said...

Interesting discussion and excellent post, Don P.

John B, I have to admit that when I read your post (mid-my lengthy post on same) I got the impression that you were right behind the proposals, but like Don P I now accept you were arguing a more general point that worklessness is in general a bad thing and that some appropriate reform to the current system would be of benefit. Like Don P, my argument is that, while the motives behind the White Paper may be not too bad, the actual details of what are proposed are dangerous-for-their-unintended-consequences because of the difficulty in implementing them in line with policy. See my post for a completely tedious level of detail on this.

At 9:26 am , Anonymous Richard T said...

My welfare reform will happen when the government acts to remove the welfare state for the super rich by the removal of tax havens, in not conniving with the plutocracy to allow them to pay no tax but get the advantages of living here and making businesses pay their way (News International anyone?. You can't also forget the fiasco of the Treasury selling its assets to an offshore agency.

It will need co-operation across the EU and with the USA but the thought of a labour governemnt blocking action against the filthy rich is beyond nauseating.

At 9:58 am , Blogger Letters From A Tory said...

The use of the private sector has been welcomed by all parties - why? because it's a bloody good idea. When you have companies with decades worth of recruitment and employment experience, it would be idiotic not to use it. So long as they get the payment structure right, this will add huge value to the welfare system at a much lower cost than the current methods.

At 7:13 pm , Blogger Robert said...

987+I'm disabled with a serious problem with my spinal cord, I'm now 57 have been looking for work since 1996, I've done the training courses , I applied for every type of job. With the job center we did a trial I applied for ten jobs with my CV and covering letter explaining my disability, well you cannot hide a wheelchair can you, and we sent the same ten letters with a CV and no covering letters using my second name. I had no replies with the CV and covering letters and had nine replies without letting them know I was disabled, one even saying I would be almost definite to get the job with my qualifications, once I went for the interview I spent five hours waiting before the manager said look mate you have no F*cking chance.

MY job center has this year suggested I become a window cleaner , painter and decorator, taxi driver lorry driver, I cannot drive because of my injuries my licensee was removed. yet I still have to go for these jobs. Training because your over 40 training is restricted now with this government, education if your over 50 they say it's not worth it.

The last job I went for before being told by a official that my disability is just to great and I will be exempted from looking for work under the new regime, was a perfume sales person at Boots, the lady manager did not know whether to laugh or cry as she said your just not suitable.

Do not forget the jobs we would have done like NHS DWP benefits offices and tax offices do not employ people anymore.

This fact I had from my MP and the question was asked and is in hnasards, how many disabled people are employed within the houses of Parliemnt and the house of commons, they stated 2.6% 2.5 people in every hundred not many is it.

At 12:04 am , Anonymous stephen said...

On immigration, my argument is that we should severely restrict intra-EU immigration

Which is an unrealistic pipe dream that would require withdrawal from the EU. And we can see how popular that policy would be from the number of votes that UKIP poll.

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