Wednesday, 19 September 2012

How sweetly reasonable are the terms in which war is waged on the poor

When I first saw unemployed men at close quarters, the thing that horrified and amazed me was to find that many of them were ashamed of being unemployed. I was very ignorant, but not so ignorant as to imagine that when the loss of foreign markets pushes two million men out of work, those two million are any more to blame than the people who draw blanks in the Calcutta Sweep. But at that time nobody cared to admit that unemployment was inevitable, because this meant admitting that it would probably continue. The middle classes were still talking about 'lazy idle loafers on the dole' and saying that 'these men could all find work if they wanted to', and naturally these opinions percolated to the working class themselves. I remember the shock of astonishment it gave me, when I first mingled with tramps and beggars, to find that a fair proportion, perhaps a quarter, of these beings whom I had been taught to regard as cynical parasites, were decent young miners and cotton-workers gazing at their destiny with the same sort of dumb amazement as an animal in a trap. They simply could not understand what was happening to them. (George Orwell)

A writer in the Guardian recently commented "How sweetly reasonable are the terms in which war is waged on the poor".

I was thinking about that when I read the recent JEP editorial, which is a case in point. It backed Francis Le Gresley against any accusations that he might be coming down hard on people who are genuinely in need, and bringing in a "heavy-handed or even draconian approach". That's a sure sign that he is appearing more heavy handed that in the public perception, especially via the reporting in the JEP itself on the front page.

The words used in that article - "tough new sanctions to crack down" , "Benefits threat" - which, by the way are the JEP's and not the Senator's own words - give an impression of someone taking a very draconian stance, which may be correct or not. The only term used by the Senator seems to be him saying he is not a "soft touch".

The JEP does not have a good track record of reporting politicians. I have emails from Senator Terry Le Sueur and Senator Ian Le Marquand telling me how they were misreported; it's not just the left that have problems with the sensasionalising presentation of the news to sell the paper. You might imagine they'd learned something from the Levinson inquiry.

I note that thesaurus has been well thumbed by the editor Chris Bright as he had a go at:

undeserving cases
indolent, the cynically canny or the feckless

and it noted that anyone who thought Senator Le Gresley was being too harsh in his approach should consider this:

Anyone inclined to take this view might like to look back at his distinguished record at Citizens Advice, where he combined a truly sympathetic attitude with the ability to achieve results. (1)

That may be the case, but politicians can change remarkably swiftly, and lose the populist touch that brought them into power. I can think of a number of Jersey politicians who changed their outlook once placed in charge of a large department.

I'm not saying this has happened with Francis Le Gresley, but it has happened with others; after all, it is a well known phenomena that politicians "go native":

Sir Mark Spenser: Do you know what the Civil Service is saying about you?
Jim Hacker: No.
Sir Mark Spenser: That you're a pleasure to work with.
Jim Hacker: Oh! (pause) Oh.
Sir Mark Spenser: That's what Barbara Woodhouse says about her prize winning spaniels.
Jim Hacker: Ah.
Sir Mark Spenser: I've even heard Sir Humphrey Appleby say you're worth your weight in gold.

Possibly the most popular to gain a seat in a bi-election was Vernon Tomes, who came in on a landslide victory, and yet despite the fanfare, with his years of Presidency of Public Services, he so alienated the average voter that at his funeral, becoming increasingly autocratic, that instead of the masses that the JEP expected, it was a relatively modest affair numerically. (It should be said that modesty is not quite the right term for someone who chose the Frank Sinatra hit "I did it my way" as a song to be played at their funeral)

In fact Frances Le Gresley may well feel that having been elected as a champion of the people, from his work at Citizen's Advice, that he now has to prove himself not to be a "soft touch", because the past impression he may have given out was that he was perhaps more sympathetic than he wants to appear.

The most momentous change is coming in soon, however, and it is this:

A general rule in claiming income support is if you've been living here for more than 5 years. But the reality is there are people who have been here fewer than 5 years and getting £92 a week in benefits - just because they live within an income support household where someone else, their partner for example, does meet the 5-year-rule. Social Security are clamping down on that loophole - they say it's unfair. This isn't about benefit fraud - but it's about tightening up the system, saving over £600,000 a year

If an income support household includes an adult who does not satisfy the income support residence test (five years' residence before claiming income support, or 10 years in the past), the adult will still be included as part of the income support household, but the claim will not include an adult component for that person. In the same way, that adult will not be able to claim an impairment component or a carer's component. The childcare component will still be available. This rule will apply to new claims from 1 August and to existing claims from 1 January 2013. (2)

Quite how this will effect families on the poverty line where one member has come from the UK, and they are unemployed through the downturn in the economy is unknown. Perhaps they are hoping that the families concerned will migrate elsewhere, back to their partner's country of origin. It seems sensible to bring it in for new claims, but rather draconian to bring it in retrospectively.

Of course, if any reassessment was suggested (as it has been) regarding the taxation of 1.1k individuals who are now paying small sums of income because of tax arrangements made years ago, the government would be up in arms against the suggestion, saying that it was retrospective legislation. But how can this change with social security be any different?

We are fast returning to the attitude which we see in The Royal Commission on the Poor Laws, 1905-09.

The persistence of the 19th-century attitude towards the unemployed was illustrated during the inter-war years, when the 'dole' was the contemptuous name for extended insurance benefits during periods of heavy unemployment. The unemployed were often accused by a thoughtless public of being workshy, until the chronic situation in the 'special areas' forced the issue. (3)

Lyn Brown, in the UK, notes how attacks escalating on the poor. Speaking on a speech by Lord Carey - who also used the JEP's adjective "feckless", she comments:

The money doesn't go to feckless, workless families living in mansions, but into the pockets of private sector landlords.  And, let's face it; too many private lets are sub-standard and overcrowded. It's true, one in eight people who receive housing benefit is unemployed. Remember, though, the overwhelming majority of claimants are pensioners,  hard-working people on low incomes, disabled people, or those caring for sick or disabled relatives.

Please, do not be fooled.  This welfare reform isn't about hitting the 297,000 people in households that have never worked.  Oh, no.  It will hit hard-working low paid families, disabled adults and children, cancer patients, and single parents.  Make no mistake.  It will bring real hardship to hundreds of thousands of struggling families, living their lives in difficult circumstances. So, my noble Lord, please let's have less smug rhetoric attacking the  'feckless poor' and more understanding of the real havoc and hardship this Government's welfare measures will wreak in our communities.

The recent revaluation of evidence at Hillsborough has shown how some of the lower tabloid press connived with the police narrative into creating a stereotype of Liverpool people; the same appears to be happening with the language used to demonise the poor in Jersey.

But we have been here before. Guy Standing notes how the poor were divided up in Victorian society, and special labour was designated to take care of the undeserving poor:

The historical precedents for workfare are the English Poor Law of 1536, which required labour from 'sturdy vagabonds', and the French Ordonnance de Moulins of 1556. It reached its most tragic form with the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, a venal 'localism' whereby parishes ran workhouses that, according to the Poor Law Commissioners, were to be 'the hardest taskmaster and the worst paymaster'. In 1905, the Unemployed Workmen Act provided labour for the 'deserving' unemployed of 'good character', while denying assistance to those deemed not 'honestly desirous of obtaining work'. As with previous schemes, the outcome was pauperisation

Watch for the return of the workhouse, or its modern analogue.
(3) Voluntary Societies and Social Policy. Madeline Rooff, 1957
(5) Workfare and the Precariat: Workfare Is the Wrong Policy : Response to the Insecurities and Inequalities of a Flexible Market Economy. Guy Standing, Soundings. Issue: 47, 2011


Anonymous said...

Arriving at the Social Security offices we are greeted by a large "Benefit Thieves let's Stop them" poster and this slogan with a confidential tell tale 'phone number appears on many envelopes issued by the Department to claimants. Besides which almost every written communication from this office is littered with threats about giving false information under pain of prosecution etc and now we are experiencing this concerted media campaign which links cheats and scroungers with the unemployed. sick, disabled or otherwise disdvantaged.
Quite why SS staff go along with this infammatory stuff which can only make their job more difficult is beyond me. Since they are already hiding behind notices that remind the public to respect them (and not resort to violence) they might get the message that perhaps the discreditation campaign is counter productive.

At least SSTAG is trying to redress the balance by researching and publishing information about SS, Health and Housing matters and the problems that confront so many.

James said...

You raise some very interesting points.

With regard to a modern-day workhouse:

- the 1900 workhouse was able to give unskilled work (breaking stones, picking oakum etc) to the paupers because there was some sort of market for the output. How would you see that working these days?
- Do you think that it would be possible to move people out of their own homes into common dormitories without a derogation from the ECHR?
- Do you think the genie of rights-based claims to welfare (I have paid my stamp, therefore I am entitled to claim) could be forced back into the bottle?
- What do you do about the poor who have no cash but own property that they cannot sell?

I think that the era of workhouses would be very difficult to recreate, though workfare is another matter (particularly in Jersey, given that Parish relief only ended seven years ago)

TonyTheProf said...

I said "workfare" - the idea of repairing the coastal paths is a case in point. Are the applicants going to be paid the minimum wage for doing this? If so, I have no objections. But I can see it used as a means of "cheap labour" very much like a workhouse operation.

James said...

No, not at all like a workhouse operation.

The distinction you miss is that the workhouse was not just about hard work for miserable pay. It was also about enforcing institutionalised living - get up at 6am, meals at 8, 12 and 6, lights out at 10pm - much like a prison. Life was lived within walls: inmates had very little freedom to come and go (walking out without permission and without formal discharge was a criminal offence, as the inmate was deemed to be stealing the workhouse uniform). There were other aspects designed to deter - poor food, separation of families, enforced supervised baths, etc.

Workfare hits people in the pocket, but it could not begin to replicate the degradations of the workhouse (I don't believe you could now legally even force your putative cliff path maintainers to wear something that identified them as being on workfare).

If I thought that workhouses were on the horizon, I'd be very worried indeed.