Fairness

Yesterday Cameron spoke to the Conservative Party Conference wrapping up what seems like an interminable conference season. I can’t say that there was anything ‘different’ in the speech nor anything earth-shattering.

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The speech started by talking about ‘new politics’ – gone is the tribalism of the old party system but then, rather bafflingly or perhaps obviously, he went on to a full scale attack on the Labour government.

He played on a rhetoric of ‘fairness’ that he seems to want to overshadow the cuts that will be forthcoming. I have no problem with child benefit being cut, by the way, but there is a very strong hint of a return to the dichotomy of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor and coming from a descendent of King William IV married to the daughter of a baronet, he is moving into increasingly dangerous ground.

He said

Fairness means giving people what they deserve – and what people deserve depends on how they behave.

If you really cannot work, we’ll look after you.

But if you can work, but refuse to work, we will not let you live off the hard work of others.

What people deserve depends on how they behave? Really? And who is the arbiter of this behaviour? My concern is that this judgement will be made by the readers of the Daily Mail as that is the true constituency that Cameron is playing to.

If you can work, but refuse to work – yes, we can see the inherent ‘unfairness’ of that but what about the not having work because THERE IS NO WORK? And what exactly does ‘refuse to work’ mean? Who will decide what refusal is? Is refusal not taking a job in the next town? Is refusal not taking a job that doesn’t  use one’s qualifications?

There are a lot of questions to be answered.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no time for people who might be wilfully deceptive on their applications for state benefits but I continue to believe that that is a very tiny minority. As for those who are claiming what they are entitled to, sure the methods of entitlement may be and possibly are wrong but these people ARE NOT CRIMINALS and they are repeatedly targeted as being the most evil influence  on our society.

We, in our comfortable and safe ‘employed’ status can chortle merrily at ‘chavs’ but it doesn’t take much to redraw the lines of the haves and have-nots and for those ‘safe and comfortable’ jobs to melt away.

Of course, the further removed you are from the baseline, the more likely it is that you will laugh harder at the weak jokes made by the government.

One of the things I am grateful for in my job (while I still have it!) is that I work with people from a wide range of backgrounds. Mental illness strikes across lines of race, class, culture and language. Age also affects all groups of all types of people equally.

I see fairness and unfairness up very close on a day to day basis. Mostly I see unfairness. I see nothing, absolutely nothing in this government’s agenda that will tackle this unfairness. The last government didn’t do much better though.

But the one thing I am most sceptical about is Cameron’s promise to protect the NHS. The White Paper is more likely to destroy it and whoever buys into his guff about services in the NHS not being cut clearly has no experience of working within it.

Yesterday we had another meeting in our office about cuts. I can’t go into the details. We are already a few staff down and can’t recruit but other cuts are being made on the services we can directly provide. Money is being pulled from directly provided services and pushed into personal budgets. This will have a horrendous impact on some of the most needy people I work with because personal budgets work best for the people who shout the loudest.

I grew increasingly angry during the meeting about the direct services that were being cut because I know the people who use them and benefit from them. People who don’t want to access personal budgets that they would be entirely entitled to because they ‘don’t want to make a fuss’ or they ‘don’t want to scrounge from the state’.

Mr Cameron, members of the Conservative Party – by stigmatising people who claim, by talking about deserving and undeserving poor, you are putting off elderly, vulnerable people who are ABSOLUTELY ENTITLED to support from claiming precisely what they have worked hard for and are able to claim.

The damage of the rhetoric is not that it will ‘guilt’ people who are mis-claiming, it won’t. It will draw applause from us hard-working ‘entitled’ middle classes who don’t want anyone to have anything they ‘don’t work for’ – entirely forgetting about the structural discrimination which exists in our society and it will also shame those who need our help into not asking for it.

I have spent so much time over the last ten years begging people to accept services and benefits they are wholly entitled to to apply for them than I ever have come across anyone getting things they are not entitled to.

That is the effect of this talk. That is what I’d like the government to have an appreciation of.

This is pretty rhetoric. But it is also very very damaging to the social fabric of a country and a society that I care very deeply about.

On Welfare Reform

It’s easy to say that things need to be different as regards the welfare payment structure in the UK. Anyone could say it and to be honest, the system and the ways in which is it used and most of all the intricate complexities of the system beg for changes.

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So Cameron has got through the easy part there. Reform is overdue.

The details however remain forthcoming. A ‘universal benefit’ of overarching status that will encompass current Jobseekers Allowance, Council Tax Benefit, Housing Benefit, Employment and Support Allowance, Tax Credits of various types – but, quite rightly, not Disability Living Allowance which will remain separate – will be merged into one type of system which will, apparently reward additional work undertaken rather than penalise it.

Well, it’s hard to criticise the idea but to use a well-worn cliche’ the devil will be in the detail.

The one thing that is frightening me about this system – although to be fair – it isn’t this system in particular, is the reliance on a fantasy ‘new computer system’ that will ‘just be able to work everything out’. Hmm. Heard that one before.

As for changes in universal benefits such as child benefit, winter fuel allowance, free bus passes – I have no issue with those being more tightly controlled.

There are a couple of difficulties with the agenda that is being presented though apart from the ‘fantasy perfect computer system’ that will know everything.

Firstly, to push people back to work there have to be jobs to push people into.

Secondly and perhaps more importantly, the government and the right wing press have pushed an agenda and a narrative of ‘benefit cheats’ and ‘malingerers’ into the public perception. This is no doubt going to be a precursor to cuts.

We are, by nature a rather selfish society, looking to our own pockets before the needs of the citizen as a whole. If we see our  next door neighbour who SEEMS to be doing very well on benefits with a nice new plasma TV, we will moan and groan ad infinitum about the base unfairness of it all.

The truth is that no-one knows what is happening in someone elses’ life and household, the choices they might be making and the invisible disabilities they might be facing – but we all seem to become omnipotent when we are able to judge or compare what we, the perfect tax-paying citizen might be doing in comparison.

The Guardian quote Iain Duncan Smith as saying

there is “something fundamentally wrong” with a system that pays 5 million people not to work while immigrants come in to do jobs those on benefit reject: “You’re just replacing one group of unwilling workers with another group of willing workers. That doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

I think this is generally a dangerous narrative and one that needs to be explored and questioned much more fully. There is an assumption that the ‘system’ is paying 5 million people not to work. I’d challenge that assumption. Of that 5 million, I assume that almost all are desperate to find good, dignified employment. Someone does not claim Jobseeker’s Allowance because they don’t WANT to work but because they cannot find work.

Knowing personally a few people who have had to claim, I think that trying to make an assumption that these people are ‘rejecting jobs’ that are then taken by immigrants plays (unsurprisingly) into the narrative of the Daily Mail and the Sun. This needs to be challenged. The job centre system needs to be reformed but as long as we treat people who don’t have jobs as quasi-criminals rather than individuals with skills that can be utilised in different ways, we will perpetuate the ‘us and them’ system.

Forcing people into jobs that have no match with their skill-set does not build an effective and strong economy.

There is also an underhand ‘blame’ of immigrants ‘coming in and taking ‘our’ jobs’ that is perfidious in the extreme. Many of these ‘jobs’ that are being ‘stolen’ are taken by citizens of member states of the European Union. It may not be that British people are unwilling to take the jobs but more than our culture values different types of jobs differently or that we do not train sufficiently in certain skill areas.

Helpfully, the Guardian also relates that

Cameron also promised today that unemployed people who refuse work would face tougher benefit sanctions, but gave no details.

That’s a really useful statement, Mr Cameron – but with no details, it is completely valueless.

At the moment, it sounds like empty crowd-pleasing rhetoric and a kick at people who are unable to find work – not because they are ‘being picky’ but because the manufacturing and industrial base of this country was torn apart by the previous Conservative government in the 1980s and because the global credit crash has affected the worldwide economy.

Cameron has picked an easy target and uses crowd-pleasing words. That makes me nervous.