Friday, 20 June 2014

ON DOLE AND DIGNITY

Should jobseekers’ allowance be withdrawn from young people who don’t finish school or are not on training schemes, asks the vox pop section of one of my local newspapers. One guy answers saying he’s got two teenagers looking for work and there’s not enough for them, and he’d love them to get on a training scheme.


As a dad, that desire for kids (yours and others) to get on in life strikes a chord. And that’s maybe why one of the biggest attractions for me of a Yes vote in the independence referendum is the chance for Holyrood to take control of benefits and social security, and make the case for a more caring, equalising system than has been pursued by successive Westminster governments.

Here’s another inspiring quote, this time from a guy in his forties with two school-leaver sons who’re in poverty pay jobs. He lives in Manchester and says signing up for benefits when work dries up is complex and time-consuming. Safer, he says, to stay on benefits rather than dipping in and out of work.

Of course we hear a lot about welfare “reforms” but these don’t seem to be designed to address the issues highlighted by the two dads I’ve just referenced – the need for jobs and training for kids, and the need for a social security safety net that is easy to access and doesn’t leave you stigmatised.

Those reforms we hear about are themselves shambolic. The Commons public accounts committee says implementation of the new personal independence payment (Pip) has been "rushed", with long delays for claimants who are disabled or have a long-term health condition. Some folk have ended up in hospital due to the stress of the process.

A Citizens Advice report Voices from the Frontline is even more heart-breaking and anger-inducing. The human cost of the benefits cuts and the administrative chaos at the Department for Work and Pensions is simply appalling. Take for example the client who was sanctioned (losing four weeks’ worth of payments) after he was 20 minutes late for an appointment. The client was caring for his 15 year old sister after their mother started a custodial sentence. The client had literally no money.

Or the Citizens Advice client who is type 1 diabetic and was sanctioned for four weeks. She has a six year old child and has been relying on her mum, who was also on benefits, for food. She had completed a Hardship Form, but the Jobcentre would not give her any help as to where to send it or hand it in. The bureau was able to source some food for the client from a local community centre. 

Meanwhile the UK Government could breach its self-imposed cap on welfare spending. Labour supports the cap, and my local Labour MP was absent from the vote that saw it approved. The cap is £119.5bn, which excludes the state pension and some unemployment benefits. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has pointed out that there is more spending on the richest households NOT in the welfare cap than within it. It’s madness.

Labour are of course desperate to win the 2015 election. They’ve openly admitted the moveable votes are mainly in the south-east (of England) where there seems to be a real battle around issues such as benefits, housing and immigration with sections of society being pitted against each other. And the Westminster system means Labour need to win votes from right-of-centre Tories or downright-daft Ukippers.

But back to the vox pop I mentioned at the start. Labour are proposing to end out-of-work benefits for 18 to 22-year-olds if they don’t have the right skills. The chief executive of the Crisis charity for the single homeless says this risks leaving many more young people homeless. The assistant general secretary of the Unite union says the rhetoric of sanction and punishment is not a message that Labour should be taking to the country; our young people did not cause the economic crash and shouldn’t be made to pay for it. And the chair of the left-wing Compass pressure group says in a world of increasing job insecurity, conditionality makes less sense.

Contrast that with the words of the Jimmy Reid Foundation. In a report called “In Place of Anxiety” - part of its Common Weal project – the authors, including the late Ailsa Mackay, say that the most significant indicator of causes of stress and anxiety is economic inequality and in particular the problem of low pay. They say that the political narrative in the UK seeks to divide different social groups from each other, creating animosity and disharmony between them as a means of generating consent for continuous downward pressure on benefits.

If we had responsibility for welfare in Scotland we could reverse all of that. We could bring different social groups together, generate support for a social security safety net that we could all be proud of, and see a less-stressed, more productive society.

Labour like to characterise a Yes vote as Scotland turning its back on those being squeezed south of the border. In reality, a Yes vote would enable Scotland to show a better way is possible.


And as a dad, why wouldn’t I want to lead by example?

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