Tag: government

Labour would end this Government’s demonisation of benefits claimants – Chi Onwurah MP

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This afternoon I will be leading a debate on the treatment – or more accurately the demonisation – of benefits claimants.

On my website I publish monthly pie charts of the issues constituents raise with me. Benefits is consistently in the top three.

Benefits claimants are by definition going through a tough time; they may have lost a job, have an illness or disability or are in low-paid or part time work, or they are caring for young children or relatives, making it harder to work.

They need our support, our care, concern for and understanding of the challenges they face. As our Shadow Secretary of State Rachel Reeves has said: “Jobcentres, and the HMRC offices that currently administer tax credits, are vital public services that British citizens pay for with their taxes. People who use them have as much right to expect fair and respectful treatment as patients in an NHS hospital, parents dealing with their child’s school, or victims reporting a crime at a police station.”

But it has become increasingly clear to me that that is not what is happening.

I have dealt with casework where the only explanation for the inhumane way in which my constituents were being treated is that the employees of the Department and its agencies had forgotten – or had been told to forget – that benefits claimants were people, human beings with lives, loved ones and feelings.

In the debate I give three examples. I could have given three hundred.

The first a vulnerable constituent on Employment Support Allowance and incapacity allowance. He was being helped by Newcastle Welfare Rights, who told the DWP that after suddenly being found fit to work:

“..he was acutely distressed; he struggled to talk, he was having thoughts of suicide, he had also started drinking alcohol to cope and had struggled to leave the house”

Despite supporting psychological assessments, other evidence, and an attempted suicide, the decision was not reversed and in January 2014 he was found hanged by his neighbour.

The second case an IT worker made unemployed, earnestly applying for every possible vacancy.

But he was sanctioned by the Jobcentre because his work search record was judged inadequate – in the week his father died.

Now think about that for a moment. Is there anyone in this country of whatever political persuasion who does not believe that a son should be given the opportunity to grieve for and bury his father?

Whether or not he is claiming benefits.

Yet the culture that this Government has put in place is such that this is what happens. And whilst Esther McVey may claim it is nothing to do with them, organisational culture is determined by those at the top.

My third example is a constituent sanctioned at the beginning of December for not returning a review form he never received which asked him the same questions he answered when he first signed on. Despite trying to complete the form over the phone, going to the Job Centre, asking for and being promised an emergency payment he spent the whole month including the festive period dependent on handouts from friends and family, unable to afford heating or even to go and see his young daughter at Christmas.

And all the while the Government is paying for adverts on buses saying “Think you know a Newcastle upon Tyne Benefits Cheat? Report them anonymously.”

There are people on benefits who are abusing the system – who take what they can get and consider benefits both a lifestyle and a right.

But that is a very small proportion. It is estimated that 0.7% of welfare spending is lost to fraud in comparison with 1.3% lost to overpayment because of mistakes.

I have yet to see adverts encouraging people to turn in tax evaders, despite the Treasury itself estimating the ‘tax gap’ at £34 bn and others putting it much higher.

The sense that they are being treated as second class citizens, scroungers, cheats, has a terrible impact on the wellbeing and particularly the mental health of claimants.

I have some experience of that.

I was brought up largely on benefits. We were a one parent family. It was very hard for my mother who was crippled with rheumatoid arthritis and also suffered breast cancer, not only because of our poverty but also because of her shame at taking hand outs.

I am very glad she did not have to face the sort of vilification and abuse experienced now, abuse caused in part by a sustained campaign from some politicians on the right.

Contrary to what many of them would imagine, I was brought up with a strong work ethic, and also to believe that the state would provide a robust safety net for those that needed it.

I am not proud that I grew up on benefits. But I am not ashamed either. A Labour Government must and will put an end to this Government’s demonisation of those claiming benefits today.

Author: Chi OnwurahMember of Parliament for Newcastle Central.

The full debate may be read here on Hansard2.30pm, 7 Jan 2015: from Column 112WH.


 Labour MPs have persistently raised the issue of the government and media demonisation of those claiming benefits in Parliamentry debate, challenging serial offenders such as Iain Duncan Smith. Other MPs included are Glenda Jackson, Dame Anne Begg, Anne McGuire, Liam Byrne, John McDonnell and Sheila Gilmore, amongst others.

Rachel Reeves has also pledged to end the benefit sanction targets.

I am pleased that Labour have also pledged to legislate to protect disabled people from hate crime . We need to see an end to the stigmatisation of people who have to rely on lifeline benefits. After all, most people needing support have worked and paid taxes, they ought to be able to claim the support that they have paid for without being punished and scapegoated by the government and media. KSJ


Thanks to Robert Livingstone 


It’s the Tories that want something for nothing: the democratic contract and government responsibility

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The Conservative defense of increasing economic inequality, the lionisation of Randian, Libertarian, selfish individualism and the proliferation of ideological justification narratives regarding the dismantling of the “Big (Welfare) State”, where the latter, in Orwellian fashion, is now being indicted for many of the very social and economic ills that the free market era has actually delivered has surely worn threadbare by now. 

It’s abundantly clear that it’s the Tories and the very wealthy that want something for nothing. Cameron’s mantra is “social responsibility, not state control equals Big Society.” Cameron, in his Hugo Young lecture (2009), claimed that the “Big Society demands mass engagement: a broad culture of responsibility, mutuality and obligation”.

But this isn’t about a transfer of political power or decision-making from government to the public: it’s a transfer of responsibility and duty only.

In true Orwellian spirit, Cameron went on to say: “The recent growth of the state has promoted not social solidarity, but selfishness and individualism.”  Only a conservative would claim poverty and social cohesion as their concern and passion, and then attack  the mechanism that until now has been used to alleviate them  – publicly funded state spending.

Democracy (based on the partnership between political and economic enfranchisement) happens when the concept of property encompasses access to “social goods” such as healthcare, education and public infrastructure as a right of citizenship. The idea of political representation becomes consolidated when access to such social goods is guaranteed by a legal process, as well as a political process.

The electoral franchise in countries which adopted a Lockean liberal constitutional  system, such as  Britain, had a property qualification attached to it. Universal suffrage coincided with a wider public access to social goods, giving rise to a new type of social contract: by giving up a portion of their property by way of taxation, the propertied class ensured the survival of capitalism, and the working class escaped the worst ravages of capitalism.

Access to social goods was a means of widening and legitimising the scope of democratic political representation.

However, whilst removing all of our public services, provisions, destroying our post-war settlement, the key features of which were accepted in principle by the main political parties at the time, namely: a mixed economy, a free public sector healthcare and education, a guaranteed (though minimal) state pension and social welfare provision, the government is removing social goods, nullifying the established social contract between state and individual, and is expecting that we each fend for ourselves.

I don’t remember any consent amongst the public to accept diminished living standards in return for Cameron’s proposal of national fiscal security (which he has consistently and spectacularly failed to deliver) and the maintenance of the “market-state”. Nor was there consent for authority, inequality and hierarchy, or an acceptance of being less than we can be and having less than we can have.

Our welfare provision (and I include our National Health Service, here), paid for by us, IS OUR MEANS OF BEING RESPONSIBLE AS A SOCIETY AND INDIVIDUALLY: it is a means of securing provision for ourselves if or when we need it. Our welfare provision is, and has been since its inception, each citizens’ responsibility, because we pay for it. It doesn’t belong to the government.

The consensus that the welfare state was the best basis for a healthy society was first rejected by Thatcher, who notoriously denied the very existence of society, and unashamedly espoused greed as the  “best social driver.”  Cameron, building on Thatcher’s previous groundwork, has effectively delivered an economic enclosure act, claiming OUR collective, public funds, turning that money into the private property right of the rich, in the same way the land enclosure act robbed the public of their commonly shared land, and enabled rich landowners use of their control of state processes to appropriate public land for their private benefit.

Yet despite this blatant theft: the massive transference of public funds to a few private accounts, the demands being made by the state on citizens have never been greater. All the Tories talk about are OUR obligations and individual responsibilities, whilst they claim they have NO responsibility for citizen well-being. But we have paid for state services and continue to do so via the tax and national insurance system.

In 2013 the Government spent approximately £93.5billion of our money on the private sector. This is half the £187bn government usually spends on goods and services each year. Recent growth in outsourcing of government services to private providers has been widely criticised for a lack of transparency, poor management of money and, in particular, excessive remuneration of top executives and pay inequality between employees. Extreme pay inequality and a succession of scandals in the largest government suppliers suggests that, in its present form, government outsourcing is a very poor use of tax payers’ money and not fit for purpose. This is verified by the Equality Trust’s research report: Subsidising Unfairness

It’s only the very wealthy that gain (enormously) from austerity, and they  manage to avoid  any socially responsible contribution by using government endorsed accounting systems and dodges to avoid paying taxes wherever possible. The estimated amount of taxes unpaid, thanks to evasion, avoidance, error and criminality, soared to £34 billion, according to HM Revenue and Customs. This equates to £1 in every £15 owed in taxes not being collected last year.

Furthermore, it is the poorest 10 percent of households that pay eight percent more of their income in all taxes than the richest – 43 percent compared to 35 percent, outlined in a report from the Equality Trust. The poorest pay more than four times as much of their income, in Cameron’s poll tax-styled council tax system, than the wealthiest top 10 precent.

The government’s “hardworking taxpayer” myth which is at the heart of the Tory ideologically driven austerity narrative, and divert, divide and poison strategy, creates an artificial dichotomy between benefit claimants and taxpayers. Cameron’s diversionary rhetoric has got nothing to do with responsibility and fairness: it’s simply about justifying policies that privilege a wealthy elite at the expense of the poor.

 Such us and them dichotomies  can be linked to the distinctions made between the “deserving” and  “undeserving” poor, going back over a hundred years or more, to the cruel and punitive Poor Law Reform Act. The Tories have purposefully created scapegoats: adversarial identities that are politically constructed according to notions of difference which simultaneously encourages a public comparison to, and rejection of, Others. This Othering narrative portrays benefit recipients as the enemy in a battle against fairness and responsibility.

And the public have bought into it, the Equality Trust thinktank highlights a gulf between perceptions of the tax system and its reality. A poll, conducted with Ipsos Mori, found that nearly seven in ten people believe that households in the highest 10% income group pay more of their income in tax than those in the lowest 10%.

Wealth concentration damages economies. It focuses activity within finance and other services geared towards only towards serving the super rich.Maintaining inequality requires penalising and further impoverishing the poor.

Reducing  wealth inequalities will require the introduction of wealth taxes, like the inheritance tax  we introduced a century ago. Reducing inequality requires a high top rate of income tax. This reduces income inequality not only by raising revenue, but by deterring the profit-driven greedy from asking for more money. When there is a tax rate of 60 percent on incomes above £200,000 a year, it makes little sense to pay employees much more than that.

But the wealthy tend to get so indignant when policy proposals from the opposition indicate that they will be required to actually contribute something to a society that they have taken so much more than others from. There’s been an outraged outcry, for example, regarding Labour’s Mansion tax proposals. These ignoble, self-serving Randians are happy to sit back and allow the poorest and most vulnerable to suffer and starve, whilst being subjected to the unfair, punitive bedroom tax, which contravened human rights: the poorest are bearing the terrible burden of austerity cuts whilst the wealthy continue to profit massively. Presumably, Cameron exempted the very rich from responsibility, duty and contributing  to society in any meaningful way.

Of course this is about restricting political engagement, the Conservatives have always sought to reduce it to a basic partnership between corporate interests and professional politicians. Cameron’s Conservatism rests on the unwitting rejection  of the social democratic consensus by the population which, paradoxically, need what they reject. Public consent is being manipulated to accommodate the idea that democracy is a relationship between rulers and governed, rather than it being about an elected government that reflects, represents and serves public needs. The population are being incrementally subordinated to a political system which is not conducive to the betterment of their lives, well-being or material conditions –  the Tories are imposing an imbalanced social contract comprised of citizen duties with no citizen rights; the acceptance of ever-lower living standards and increasing state authoritarianism.

The Conservative scapegoating narratives, which have blamed Labour, the poor and the unemployed for a recession caused by the private finance sector, and not the “big state” as claimed, have permitted the Coalition to pursue an ideological, destructive and grossly unfair economic strategy, which has generated only a bogus and isolated recovery largely based on government-fuelled asset bubbles in real estate and private finance, with stagnant productivity, plummeting wages, millions of people in precarious jobs, inflated living costs and utterly savage welfare cuts.

One obligation that all democratic states have, surely, is that of protecting citizens rights and freedoms. Those are most certainly being steadily diminished, and Cameron has been quite candid about scrapping our Human Rights Act, and withdrawing from the ECHR in the future.

See what I mean? It’s all take take take…

Danny Dorling says: “Gross economic inequality is as vile as racism, misogyny and hatred of the disabled; as damaging in effect; and as dependent on a small group of supporters who believe that just a few should have more and more and more, because they’re “worth it”.”

I believe that growing social inequality generates a political necessity for prejudices: they are entrenched vis-à-vis Social Darwinism in Tory ideology, fueled and perpetuated through justification narratives and amplified via the media.

I’ve said many times previously that never in this country have those who fight for democracy and social justice carried a greater burden or faced the possibility of bigger losses of human rights, human freedoms, human dignity and human welfare than they do right now.

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 Many thanks to Robert Livingstone for his brilliant art work