Friday, 24 August 2012

Beggaring the nation | Taxing the unemployed

The campaign against welfare is the centrepiece of the coalition government's policy agenda. It started with the Chancellor George Osborne, in his emergency Budget, announcing cuts to Britain's welfare budget of £20 billion. That has now expanded to over £30bn, some as yet unspecified.

To cut welfare so drastically has necessitated the government engaging in an unprecedented campaign of vilification against anyone on welfare. This has included the Prime Minister casually talking about people "sitting on their sofas waiting for their benefits" and his welfare minister condemning "people who sit at home on benefits doing nothing."

Some may be aware that David Cameron has promptly popped off on holiday after spending a demanding two weeks sitting in the best seats at the majority of Olympic venues. This divide-and-rule strategy is coming to Croydon as the next tranche of welfare cuts targets council tax benefit.

The government is devolving responsibility for council tax benefit to local councils, which sounds logical enough, but is cutting the amount provided so that councils will be unable to fund all those who need it. All interested groups are invited by Croydon Council to contend for who should and who shouldn't get council tax benefit any more.

So the poor, the sick, the elderly, the disabled and those with children can all fight among themselves.

What this government and its tabloid cheerleaders fail to inform us is that over the same period as they propose to cut £30bn from the unemployed, the elderly, the poorly housed, the disabled, and those with children they are giving away far more than £30bn in tax breaks to some of the wealthiest people in Britain - through reduced taxes on the biggest corporations and the cut in the 50p income tax rate for the super-rich.

Meanwhile, under Croydon Council's proposals, someone on Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA) is to be subject to an effective 5 per cent weekly tax, paying £3.50 out of their £71 JSA. For the steeply rising number of youth unemployed, this represents an even greater proportion of their allowance, which is just £56 per week.

This is a first - people on benefits made to pay tax. Britain has the lowest unemployment benefits in Europe. As the government's failing economic policies increase unemployment, that same government proposes taxing people on benefits that barely support sustenance in London. Only the Eton-educated millionaires on the front bench of the Con-Dem government could think that this is the obvious place to look for extra tax revenues. 

One of the abiding memories of my formative years was the bile spewed from government ministers and sections of the tabloid press towards single mothers. I remember it because of the impact it had on me and my single mother, who did an amazing job raising me and my sister. That hate campaign, combined with a false sense of pride, meant that my mum did not claim the means-tested benefit to which she was entitled.

The same thing happens today - parents not claiming tax credits and pensioners refusing to take up Pensions Credit or their free TV licence. While we often hear much about the £1.5bn of benefit and tax credit fraud, there is a corresponding silence about the £16bn annually that is left unclaimed - let alone the billions lost through tax avoidance by the likes of the former Conservative Party treasurer Lord Ashcroft.

But this government is going well beyond the rhetoric of its Thatcherite predecessors. It is not only demonising people, but taking away their rights - rights established by our welfare state to housing and a decent income if we are unable to work. French IT company Atos has a £100 million contract to reassess every disabled person on benefits. The government wants a million fewer people claiming, but denies Atos has been set targets to remove benefits.

Whatever the truth 40 per cent of people initially denied their benefits are reinstated on appeal, and that figure rises to 70 per cent if they are represented by a lawyer. It's a wry joke among disability campaigners that the government doesn't give Atos about them.

Housing benefit is being similarly restricted. After successive governments selling off council homes and failing to build to replace the social housing stock - thus fuelling the inflation in the private housing market, especially in London and south-east England - much of the welfare state's budget is now being spent in giving large amounts of money to private landlords, unencumbered by the regulations or rent tribunals of the past.

The government's solution is neither to build new council housing - which would be a huge and necessary economic stimulus - nor to cap the rents that landlords charge, but to cut housing benefit which will inevitably force people out of their homes. Croydon is one of the London boroughs seeking to "exile" local residents by relocating their tenants to other parts of England, tearing up community and family ties.

We mustn't be drawn into their beggar-thy-neighbour approach. Instead we should come together to campaign against the cuts wherever we can - in your local community group, in your trade union, in your political party and on the streets on October 20.

Written by Andrew Fisher of  the LRC
Published by Inside Croydon/Morning Star 

Monday, 13 August 2012

Government launches £2m Olympic volunteering legacy charity

A new £2 million government-backed Olympic volunteering legacy charity has been set up by David Cameron, with volunteering leaders Lucy de Groot and Justin Davis Smith as trustees. The chief executives of CSV and Volunteering England, respectively, will help lead the Join In Trust - set up to promote volunteering in local community organisations. Its first project, Join In Local Sport, has been heavily promoted today on an official Olympic email to millions of people. 

Join In Local Sport's first campaign is to get as many people as possible to turn up, take part and join in at their local sports facilities this weekend. Its website includes online listings of local sporting events around the country and allows members of the public to search for events via postcodes, and groups to add events via an online form. As part of the weekend, sporting icons Daley Thompson, Sharron Davies and Jonathan Edwards, broadcaster John Inverdale and current Olympians will visit a wide range of these sports clubs. 

David Cameron said: "We need to make the most of this magic moment and harness the enthusiasm for sport and for volunteering the Games has generated. That's why the Join In Local Sport project is so important, so that we bring London 2012 back to the place it begins for every great champion: their local sports club and the great volunteers who make it all possible."

The Join In Trust board is made of eight trustees and is chaired by Sir Charles Allen CBE. The organisation is led by a mix of people from sporting, business and volunteering backgrounds and has been funded with a £2m grant from the Cabinet Office.

Civil Society

Social housing construction work plummets

The amount of new social housing construction work has plummeted 25 per cent in a year, official government figures show.

The Office for National Statistics published figures on Friday showing the volume of new work in the public housing sector in April to June fell 7.6 per cent compared to the previous quarter and 25 per cent compared to the same period in 2011.

Public housing sector work dropped from £1.15 billion in April to June 2011 to £865,000 in the same period this year. The decrease in private housing work was much smaller. It fell from £3.5 billion to £3.3 billion, a decrease of 6.6 per cent.

The figures show that the total volume of construction output fell by 9.5 per cent year-on-year, and 3.9 per cent quarter on quarter.

Noble Francis, economics director at the Construction Products Association, said: ‘Looking at these figures, it is very hard to find anything positive to say in any part of construction. This situation is rapidly becoming a crisis and at this rate I wouldn't be surprised if manufacturers begin to shut down their operations and lay people off.’

Inside Housing

Friday, 3 August 2012

Olympic legacy? You're having a laugh, aren't you?

A study of Sydney by Australia's Monash University found there was no tangible benefit "or economic boost" from the Games. An IASE report on Atlanta called Bidding for the Games: Fool's Gold? found that "diverting scarce resources from more productive uses translates into slower rates of economic growth". Civic leaders talk desperately of "legacy" but no survey can find any. Barcelona saw hotel occupancy fall from 80% to 50% in the year after the Games. The city's subsequent prosperity is now attributed to cheap flights and the Spanish boom. Beijing has seen no games-related uplift.

On London, an exhaustive 2006 report for the European Tour Operators Association pointed out that sport is a "notoriously narrowly focused" form of travel, with no spillover into wider tourism. "During the Olympics, a destination effectively closes for normal business," it warned. Mark Perryman's spirited survey, Why the Olympics Aren't Good for Us and How They Can Be, charts the same tale. More ironic is Mitchell Moss's How New York City Won the Olympics. It points to how, by losing the 2012 bid, resources allocated to the Games were diverted to the Lower West Side and other, now booming, locations.

There is no shred of evidence for claims still being made by the government and others of an Olympics profit, fast weakening to a "promotional legacy". Nor is there evidence of ministers recovering their brains. Today the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, described talk of ghost London as "absolute nonsense". The city was booming, he said, and "quids in". The sports minister, Hugh Robertson, attacked ailing businesses, saying: "This is hardly a surprise … there has been ample time to plan for [the Olympics]."

Their problem is they did. For years Robertson's department told everyone to prepare for a boom. Hotels raised prices and took on extra staff. Bus and tube drivers were paid bonuses to cope with the crush. Central London was told to expect an invasion and that residents should stay at home. This was the tone of every statement from the mayor, Boris Johnson, and his transport boss, Peter Hendy. Either these men were lying or their apparatchiks dared not tell them the truth.

I can find no warning in recent years from any official body that August 2012 would be anything but a cash-rich bonanza. Last week Johnson was still hyperventilating like Big Brother over tube loudspeakers that passengers should expect "a million extra visitors a day". He must have known this was rubbish. Reports were pouring in from London business associations of trade at hotel, restaurant, theatre and other tourist venues plummeting by an average of 30%. With August always down, they had been told to greet a "games uplift". They must have a strong case for a class action against the mayor, who has been milking the games for all the politics he can.

Clearly the authorities massively misjudged, but it was entirely because they refused to believe the evidence of past games. They were glory-blinded. Had the government said from the start that London was a rich city staging the Olympics as a costly but generous gesture to the world, there could be no further argument. Ministers said no such thing. From Cameron down, they claimed the games would make money, now and, if not now, then some time in the future. This was plain dishonest. Everyone knows there is no Olympic legacy, but, as with Santa Claus, we dare not tell the children.

Simon Jenkins (extract), The Guardian

ADDENDUM 04.08.12
Meanwhile, Michael Burke writes, also in The Guardian, that "the prospect of an Olympics bounce would have been far greater if the mayor of London had not cut the budgets for all the agencies promoting tourism, international students and foreign direct investment to London." 

"Another bitter blow for sick and disabled people" as ATOS wins three more contracts

Charities reacted with horror yesterday as the Government announced that Atos and another private company, Capita, had won three contracts to run a new work-capability check for disabled people being brought in next year. The Government has suggested that half a million people could lose their benefits as part of the reforms, which affect working age disabled people from April next year. Children and pensioners will not be affected. The companies will assess disabled people for a benefit to help with their higher costs of living, called the Personal Independence Payment (PIP), which replaces the Disability Living Allowance (DLA).

Atos, which has been criticised for carrying out inaccurate assessments on the unemployed, will be responsible for tests in Scotland, London, the North-east, North-west and South of England, while Capita will administer Wales and central England. There have been huge concerns about Atos's existing scheme, with criticism of the "tick box" nature of the tests and accusations of a high rate of inaccurate decisions, with 40 per cent of rulings being overturned on appeal.

Steve Ford, chief executive of Parkinson's UK, described the news as "another bitter blow for sick and disabled people". In a letter to The Independent, Mr Ford wrote: "It is hugely concerning to see that Atos have been given the green light for the Personal Independence Payment contract. Assessments carried out by Atos have led to many people being forced to appeal against decisions that are plainly wrong. How can someone with Parkinson's – a progressive neurological condition – have an assessment report that implies they will be ready for work again in six, 12 or 18 months?"

Gillian Morbey, chief executive of the deafblind charity Sense, said: "We are concerned that the Government has awarded another contract to Atos. Their track record of poor initial Work Capability Assessments is costing more in the long run." Hayley Jordan, co-chair of the Disability Benefits Consortium, a coalition of charities representing disabled people, added: "PIP will be a lifeline for disabled people and it is essential this difficult process is managed well."

The Government yesterday described the DLA – worth up to £131.50 a week – as an outdated benefit and said the new assessment would "ensure that, unlike in DLA, disabled people will be able to have a detailed discussion with a health professional about how their impairment affects their everyday lives". Ministers have expressed concern at the rise in the number of people claiming the benefit, which has gone from 2.5 million nine years ago to 3.2 million this year, at an annual cost of £13bn.

The Independent

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

South West England hospitals seek to slash wages

by Ajanta Silva

Nineteen National Health Service (NHS) Trusts in South West England, covering 60,000 hospital workers, have formed a Pay, Terms and Conditions Consortium (PTC).

The South West pay cartel’s objectives are to reduce wages and introduce a performance-based pay system, increase working hours, reduce unsocial-hours payments, remove sickness absence enhancements and cut down annual leave. The cartel threatens that any staff resisting the plans will risk their existing contracts being terminated. These attacks are a test-case for the 1.5 million NHS workers across the country.

The leaked Project Initiation Document (PID) of the consortium reveals the cold-blooded preparations of the highly paid NHS chief executives against their employees. Among the key objectives of the consortium is to reduce the pay bill of the South West region NHS trusts by nearly 10 percent. It argues, “Economic challenges require health providers to continue to reduce costs over the next three to four years and probably beyond... the scale of change required is unlikely to be met (and will not be sustainable) without reducing the pay bill.”

The cartel is aiming to reduce wages and conditions ahead of further privatisation of NHS hospitals. Officials claim the failure to slash wages and conditions at Hinchingbrooke hospital in Cambridgeshire, the first to be privatised, has contributed to its current financial problems. The PID states that it wants to “create terms and conditions that are focussed on improving engagement of staff and aligning to create a fit for purpose, flexible workforce able to respond to any qualified provider.” For “qualified provider,” read any private company that is looking to make profits from patient care.

To achieve these outcomes, the PID stresses, “Unless ‘voluntary’ agreement could be secured via either collective bargaining or majority acceptance following direct appeal to staff, it is likely that Trusts would be obliged to dismiss and re-engage staff to secure such changes.”

The PTC intends to implement these changes in the South West NHS trusts by April next year and then extend them to Mental Health/Community and Social Enterprise Trusts across the region. Trust managements have already started to intimidate and suppress workers who oppose this bloodbath, with some banning any discussion of the proposals in staff meetings. Unions have been told not to display information on notice boards and workers who have spontaneously started circulating petitions were forced to stop.

These attacks are a direct outcome of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government’s Health and Social Care Bill and ongoing health cuts to the tune of £20 billion pounds—almost a fifth of the NHS’s entire annual £108 billion budget.

Currently, full-time NHS workers are on a 37.5 hour week and have seven weeks of annual leave a year. They receive enhanced pay when they work unsocial hours, weekend and nights, which most are obliged to do. They receive an incremental progression each year until they get to the top of the pay band and until recently received a pay rise every year linked to inflation.

With the complicity of the unions, the government imposed a two-year pay freeze in its 2010 budget. Since then, inflation of 3-5 percent a year has forced many NHS workers into financial hardship. On top of this, workers are forced to pay much more into the pension scheme at the same time as the retirement age has been increased, child tax credits have been reduced and child care fees increased. The government’s meagre £250 a year increase for workers earning less than £21,000 a year is a farce.

Significant numbers of workers have been forced to work extra hours in the Staff Resource Pool (known as the “bank”) or with employment agencies in a desperate attempt to compensate for plummeting living standards.

The same “efficiency savings” have severely affected patient care. The government has already reduced staff numbers through natural wastage [attrition] and the non-filling of vacancies and has earmarked more than 60,000 posts to be axed throughout the country. This has resulted in staff shortages and non-availability of specialist and experienced workers on weekends, public holidays, nights and other unsocial hours. The PTC insists that “further more radical changes to the pay and conditions of the workforce” are needed.

The South West NHS chief executive group, which initiated the cartel, believes that the existing “Agenda for Change” agreement is a barrier to implementing radical changes to pay, terms and conditions. The Agenda for Change was agreed between unions, the previous Labour government and NHS employers in December 2004. With promises of extra cash and under the guise of a “devolved health service, offering wider choice and greater diversity”, it was a vital component of Labour’s plans for a “new national architecture” that involved the dismantling of the NHS and turning the provision of health care over to private corporations.

The unions sold the Agenda for Change to NHS workers, claiming that the radical reorganisation of NHS staff’s job descriptions and work patterns would protect wages and conditions. However, at the core of the Agenda for Change were provisions for the end of national pay scales and an increased dependency on discretionary pay based on productivity gains. The actions now being taken by the PTC are a predictable outcome of the agreements made earlier.

Trade unions function as collaborators in implementing these drastic measures. Unison and Unite played the crucial role in selling out the struggle of 4,000 Southampton City Council workers last year against the council’s policy of firing and rehiring at lower wages. All the NHS trade unions have agreed to the government’s increase in the retirement age and attack on pensions.

The PID reveals further evidence of the treachery of the unions, which have indicated their willingness to take part in further discussions on cutting down sickness absence enhancements, removing the requirement to offer enhanced payments for unsocial hours, and cutting down yearly incremental progression.

The unions have kept workers in the dark on the PTC proposals for months. Now that workers are starting to take matters into their own hands, the unions have started fruitless petition campaigns pleading with individual trust managements to withdraw from the Pay Cartel and preventing any broader mobilisation of NHS workers.

Time and again the unions have demonstrated that they are not capable of defending even the existing social position of the working class, let alone improving them. NHS workers must form action committees to unify all staff regardless of what they do, with patients and the wider population, with the aim of preventing the dismantling of the NHS and bringing down the government that is behind these plans.

Written by Ajanta Silva for