Fear and Loathing in the Public Sector – Or Why I despise Oliver Letwin

Oliver Letwin, United Kingdom Conservative Par...

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Yesterday I read this article about Oliver Letwin, who, according to the Guardian article

..warned that it was only through “some real discipline and some fear” of job losses that excellence would be achieved in the public sector.

Letwin added that some of those running schools and hospitals would not survive the process and that it was an “inevitable and intended” consequence of government policy.

A little background about Oliver Letwin. I’m always a little wary of using Wikipedia as a source but a few choice verifiable ‘quotes’  jump out.

He is the ‘architect of modern Conservative party policy’.

He would rather ‘beg than send his children to an inner city school’

Oh and earlier this year he said did not ‘want more families from Sheffield taking cheap foreign holidays’.

So do we have a picture of the man? The Eton-educated man who would not know the real effects of true fear in the workplace? That encompassing, sleep depriving fear of not knowing if you can afford your next mortgage payment or if your job will be there next week, next month or next year.

Does fear drive excellence?

Let me tell Mr Letwin exactly what it means in the working environment that I am based in.

I work in a Community Mental Health Team – our team has been decimated – actually to use that word literally, it is far worse than decimation – over the past two years. No, I don’t restrict the blame to the current government but include changes under the previous government in my criticism.

We have piles of unallocated ‘virtual’ files while we are pushed to the limits by increasing expectations regarding recording and inputting data which is supposed to ‘prove’ our efficiency.

We have had wards closed at the local hospital such that people who need emergency hospital admissions to psychiatric hospitals are placed away from their communities or on ‘inappropriate’ wards. I have police unable to provide assistance because their services have been cut.

Fear drives efficiency, he says? In our service we have been told there will be job cuts including possibilities of compulsory redundancies. Yes, I’m fearful.

The ‘consultation’ about what will actually be proposed for our jobs will probably be announced soon but we’ve known it has been coming for months. We’ve heard rumours. We’ve heard gossip. We’ve heard absolutely zero from our managers though. Nice. Way to generate lots of fear. All boxes ticked.

So what has this fear done for our efficiency? We are beyond demoralised. We have more people leaving and taking jobs elsewhere and  people are  taking longer periods of sick leave.

I know that Letwin wasn’t referring to the ‘front line’ staff in the public sector – oh no, he meant the managers because he is of a class and a mindset that probably finds it hard to hold a conversation on a human level with anyone who earns under £100,000 per year.

The distinction between ‘frontline’ and ‘backroom’ is a false one though as it is impossible that can operate without the other.

Hospital wards are closing. Cuts are being pushed through. We feel your ‘pressure’ Letwin. We feel your fear. But I could not possibly despise  you any more than I do for your ignorance and self-serving words that for me, epitomise what the Conservative Party and their ideology-driven cuts want to do to this country.

I would like to ask Letwin if he is happy to condone a country of Castlebecks. Well, you see, coming from someone who would ‘rather beg than send his child to an inner city school’ – he would never be in a position to actually know or understand the real concerns of people who are dependent on public services because he can always choose the private course for himself and his family.

I know he wants to ‘make a name for himself’. He likes to garner attention and oh, how clever he is to want to drive ‘fear’ into the public sector but that, to me, sounds close to cruelty.

Efficiency? I think we can do with  fewer MPs who feel the need to make claims for repairs to their tennis courts and to have their Agas serviced.

What kind of society have we become when we feel it is appropriate for a Government ‘Policy Minister’ to drive a disdain and almost bullying approach to a public sector that provides services he will never need?

Oh and the speech he made these remarks in?

It took place

at the London headquarters of KPMG, one of the biggest recipients of government cash, which won the first contract for NHS commissioning following the decision to scrap primary care trusts and further open the health service to private companies.

Nice work, Letwin. Roll on, executive consultancy. You are all in each others’ pockets.

Meanwhile I have work tomorrow.

You enjoy your private tennis court today.

Three Strikes

Iain Duncan Smith-Nightingale House-March 2010

Image via Wikipedia

Over the weekend, I was listening to This Week in Westminster and I was curiously concerned by Conservative MP, Nick Boles who appeared on the programme, assertion that no-one would be affected by the ‘third strike’ of the ‘three strikes’ benefit sanctions to hit those who refused jobs that were offered because, and I’m not quoting verbatim but something along the lines of no-one in their right mind would turn down three jobs that were offered to them if they didn’t have support either by their own financial means or a partner supporting them.

Sanctioning the workless to three years without benefits for turning down three jobs was something so far out of his own concept for comprehension that he didn’t and couldn’t address the question of ‘what happens when a family have no means to support themselves because they are subject to these sanctions?’.

For me, this was a concern. Of course people who don’t work and are offered jobs and can work, should – but there are so many variables and subtleties that this seems like either a gross oversimplification or we haven’t seen (and the coalition haven’t shared with their own MPs) the complex contingencies that will be in place to prevent child poverty growing as a direct result of these sanctions.

The ‘three strikes’ goes something along the lines of if you turn down one job, benefit is withheld for three months, two jobs increases this to six months and after the third offer, the sanction is for three years.

Iain Duncan-Smith confirmed yesterday that this will apply to parents equally and having children will not stop these measures being taken.

Again, everyone wants to work  but I think we really need to examine who makes these judgements and the governments assertion that this will not be a discretionary role and that everyone will be subject to the same guidelines. The fact that there is no room for discretion worries me. What counts as a ‘refusal’ to work? This is all the more crucial as the move from Incapacity Benefit to Employment and Support Allowance continues on apace and there are many well-documented cases of poor decisions being made by the ESA – evidenced by the  high rate of successful appeals against their rulings (the BBC quotes a 40% successful appeal rate)  about who is and who is not ‘fit’ for work.

There are many details about what counts as an ‘offer of employment’ that need to be resolved and how much choice anyone will get about the area that they might wish to be working in or whether that will have any relevance. Apart from these details, my concern is that it will be children who will suffer as a result of potentially living in households where there is no legal income.

My fleeting experience of working with benefits in general is that often the most vulnerable and voiceless are terrified out of claiming what they may be entitled to and people who ‘defraud ‘the system’’ know exactly what and how to claim. The measures to prevent families being driven into poverty need to be clear and there needs to be an examination of the potential effect that these policies will have on children and people with disabilities and ill-health, whether those categories are accepted by ATOS or not.

(Incidently,  if you go to the ATOS link, you see at the bottom a list of numbers with the request ‘Please do not give these numbers to patients – if that doesn’t tell you a lot about accessibility and also stupidity (seriously – they put that document on a website and then tell ‘practitioners’ not to give it to patient) then I don’t know what is).

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.

The Welfare Cap

The announcement that Child Benefit would no longer be payable to higher rate tax payers came about five minutes after I pressed ‘publish’ on my post yesterday. For the record, I have no problems with reducing or means-testing child benefit although the method the government have chosen to limit Child Benefit is somewhat curious and I have no doubt that many questions will be asked about its equity in the next few months. The oft-quoted anomalies don’t need to be discussed here but the announcement fits in very well with my own concerns about the spending cuts – namely everything seems to be in panic mode at the moment without wider thoughts about the implications of the cuts.

I have graver concerns about the other parts of the millionaire Osborne’s speech yesterday. He drew wide roars of approval for his idea of capping benefit payments so that no-one would be better off on benefits than they would be in employment which sounds perfectly reasonable, especially as he specifically mentioned the proviso that this might not be the case for a household which has a disabled member.

All sounds very fair but he reverted to the benefits as lifestyle choice rhetoric again. I see this as a specific aim and sound bite to further stigmatise and discriminate against people on the basis of their employment status.

The ‘welfare cap’ is no doubt buying faithful party members but the universal ‘credit’ is going to not only include Jobseekers Allowance, Council Tax Benefit and Housing Benefit (now that’s scary for people who live in high rent areas) but also Employment and Support Allowance or the old ‘Invalidity Benefit’ – There is no reason to believe that Carer’s Allowance won’t also be included. It is a means-tested benefit and although it is a despicably small amount for what it is, it looks likely it will be a part of this capped, universal credit.

We know there are stories of people with many children living in large houses on hundreds of thousands of pounds of ‘welfare’ payments but that is not the majority experience.

Capping welfare to a specific level raises many concerns, specifically if there is no regional variation. Paying rent in London is going to take up the majority of the capped payment in any circumstances.

I can’t help but see a fundamental change in the fabric of this city when these reforms are ironed out. There will be entire towns that will be out of bounds to people who are claiming benefits because the mere cost of housing benefit will lead to a reduction in the other benefit incomes.

I know there is the argument that those who work have to choose where to live on the basis of cost, of course but we have to remember that not everyone is unemployed as a ‘lifestyle choice’ or is unemployed over the long term. What happens with someone who is made redundant in an ‘expensive’ city and needs some assistance for a few months until they find work in that same ‘expensive’ city? Would they be forced to move away from attachments, social support and familial links? It will be easier for some people than others and shifting unemployment north (because make no mistake, the cheaper moves will be northwards)  – out of the traditional ‘Tory’ areas and into the more traditional Labour strongholds, carries a hint of potential gerrymandering.

I suppose the proof will be in the details but the more I hear, the more the rhetoric of the right sickens me to my stomach.

The announcement of the ‘welfare cap’ seems to be entirely ideologically based. It was specifically to pander to the hard done by middle classes who baulked at the thought of losing their child benefit payments. This is not about cuts, make no mistake there. This is about ideology and forcing people into jobs that don’t exist.

There needs to be a move against the ‘benefits lifestyle choice’ rhetoric because it is untrue and it is unfair. Most anecdotal evidence provided has been either paraded on the front page of the right wing press – and remember, it only makes the front page BECAUSE it is rare. If we all knew real people like that, it wouldn’t actually hit the headlines.

But it feeds into an increasingly fearful societal agenda and narrative that is forming.

I know these posts are somewhat repetitive but I can’t shake the thoughts from my head at the moment and my personal politics drift merrily leftwards. I’m just glad I’ll be on another continent when the Spending Review is announced, it wouldn’t be good for my blood pressure!