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Dom Aversano: Why I Want Iain Duncan Smith to Try Living on £53 a Week

April 4, 2013 Leave a comment

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/dom-aversano/iain-duncan-smith-petition-change_b_3004459.html

Like many people on Monday morning I heard Iain Duncan Smith say, without hesitation that he could live on £53 a week if he had to. I thought this an insensitive and callous statement to make while so many are suffering in conditions that can only be described as poverty, and most of all, coming from a man who is currently residing in a £2million mansion, and earning £134,565 a year as a cabinet minister.

Social media seemed to offer an avenue for myself, and others to challenge him to prove his claim, and allow him the opportunity to realise his party`s mantra, “we are all in this together”.

Only minutes after starting the petition on Change.org it was clear it had legs and was running, and that it had tapped into a sentiment shared by so many others. I watched all day as the signatures kept coming and by midnight 100,000 people has signed.

I have been asked by a few people if I thought that Iain Duncan Smith would take up the offer. The simple answer is no. Of course there is no reason why he could not, and I did not consider it impossible.

I felt the point was to highlight the hypocrisy of the leadership of this government who are full of moralistic language, and love any opportunity to espouse nobel sentiments, but in actual fact live in a dreamy bubble of privilege, detached from the reality of all those who are suffering, but despite this, do not hesitate to judge and lecture them.

I think the petition achieved this. It turned the tables on the debate, and put the focus onto the leadership. It tapped into what a tweeter described to me as a “mine of anger”. I think it shows without doubt that online petitions have power, and the power to make real changes, and voice public opinion, without the necessary requirement of representation through mainstream media, or political leadership. It is a modern exciting tool.

Some of the comments on the petition are from people living on benefits. One man, a father of six says that his family will suffer from the cuts and he just wants people like Iain Duncan Smith “to realise how hard it is for people.”

One person who identifies themselves as a Conservative said “there may not be enough money to do everything that needs doing, but some compassion wouldn’t go amiss.”

I’m not living on benefits myself, but I hear so many stories of families struggling and worry that the cuts seem to be affecting the poorest people the most. It has been so encouraging to see the huge support for this petition. There is a deep anxiety about the benefit cuts that are being introduced and hundreds of thousands of people want their concerns to be taken seriously.

Although Iain Duncan Smith has not replied directly to me, he has released a short statement to his local paper referring to the petition as “a complete stunt which distracts attention from the welfare reforms”. It is the total opposite.

The petition is a modern democratic tool, and this one in particular represents over 350,000* people concerned by the welfare reforms. It is he who is obfuscating from serious issues, and refusing so far, to answer in any meaningful way to his electorate.

He then goes on to say that “I have been unemployed twice in my life so I have already done this (lived on the equivalent of £53 a week). I know what it is like to live on the breadline.” Whether Iain Duncan Smith`s has or has not suffered in the past, in a way similar to those suffering now, was never the question. If, as he said, he believes he could withstand living on £53, and thinks that “we are all in this together”, he should should prove it with by his actions, now.

I think the top voted comment on the petition sums up people`s feelings perfectly: “If you are going to lead… Lead by example”

You can sign Dom’s petition challenging Iain Duncan Smith to live on £53 a week on the Change.org site here

*figure correct as time of publishing

Follow Dom Aversano on Twitter: www.twitter.com/domaversano

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Mehdi Hasan, Huffington Post: Strivers vs Shirkers? Ten Things They Don’t Tell You About the Welfare Budget

December 22, 2012 Leave a comment

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/mehdi-hasan/welfare-budget-10-things-they-dont-tell-you_b_2314578.html

Strivers vs Shirkers? Ten Things They Don’t Tell You About the Welfare Budget

With the Conservative Party unveiling a new ad campaign in marginal seats, which basically divides voters into hard-working ‘strivers’ and stay-at-home ‘shirkers’, and with Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg launching an attack on universal benefits, it seems the perfect time to debunk 10 key myths about the UK’s welfare budget and, specifically, ‘out of work benefits’.

(Yesterday, you may have seen me tackling some of these falsehoods on BBC1’s Sunday Politics – if not, you can watch my debate with Tory MP Chris Skidmore on the iPlayer; scroll forward to 29mins40secs in…)

Here are the 10 things about welfare that they – Tories, Lib Dems, some New Labour figures, the centre-right press and the CBI – don’t tell you:

1) Myth: ‘THE 1% RISE IN BENEFITS IS FAIR BECAUSE IT HITS SHIRKERS, NOT STRIVERS’

Fact: According to the Resolution Foundation, “far from hitting only the out of work, 60% of the value of the £3.7 billion cut would fall on in-work households”. Why? Because the 1% rise – which equates to a real-terms cut – affects universal benefits like child benefit and tax credits like child tax credit.

Also, the benefit loss for a low to middle-income household is about twice the size of the personal allowance gain (the same allowance gain, incidentally, that the Tories have tried to use to deflect attention from the 1% squeeze).

2) Myth: ‘SPENDING ON OUT OF WORK BENEFITS IS OUT OF CONTROL’

Fact: First, according to the DWP’s own figures, the majority of all welfare spending is on pensioners – 53% – with out of work benefits accounting for less than a quarter of the welfare budget.

Second, on average, between 2000 and 2010, welfare spending grew annually, in real terms, by 1.75% – compared to 5.5% in the 1950s and 1960s, and 3% in the 1980s (under Margaret Thatcher).

Third, benefit spending in 2011-12 accounted for 10.4% of GDP, lower than under Margaret Thatcher in the mid-80s (11%) and under John Major in the mid-1990s (12%). (There are also a million fewer people on out of work benefits now than there were in the mid-1990s, off the back of the previous recession.)

Fourth, it may surprise you to discover that benefit spending as a share of GDP fell during the first 11 years of the last Labour government; it only began to rise in 2008, after the financial crash, as hundreds of thousands of Britons found themselves out of work through no fault of their own.

(They key point here is to distinguish between benefit spending figures presented in scary, cash terms and those presented – much more accurately – as a proportion of a nation’s GDP.)

3) Myth: ‘OUT OF WORK BENEFITS HAVE RISEN MORE THAN AVERAGE EARNINGS’

Fact: While the chancellor George Osborne was correct to point out, in his Autumn Statement, that “average earnings have risen by around 10% since 2007” but “out of work benefits have gone up by around 20%” he chose a narrow, self-serving time period, i.e. the past five years. Over the past 30 years, wages have outstripped benefits.

As economist Jonathan Portes, head of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR), pointed out: “In 1979, unemployment benefit (the predecessor to Jobseekers’ Allowance) was about 22% of average weekly earnings; today it’s about 15%, a relative decline of about a third. What’s going on? Simple: JSA has been indexed to inflation. In normal times, earnings rise faster than prices…”

But as Osborne knows, we are not living in ‘normal times’, partly thanks to his growth-killing austerity measures…

On a side note, Jobseekers’ Allowance is currently £71 a week, or £10 a day. Could Osborne, or any other Tory minister, live on £10 a day? Could you?

4) Myth: ‘WORK IS THE BEST ROUTE OUT OF POVERTY’

Fact: The majority of children and working-age adults in poverty in the UK live in working, not workless, households. That’s 6.1million people – 2million children and 4.1million adults – a million more people than are living in poverty in workless households. Low pay is the biggest cause of poverty in this country – a fifth of British workers are paid less than the ‘living wage’. The national minimum wage is now worth less in real terms than it did in 2004.

5) Myth: ‘THERE ARE LOTS OF OUT OF WORK HOUSEHOLDS WITH BIG FAMILIES’

Fact: Families with more than five children account for 1% of out of work benefit claims; families with more than three children account for less than 10% of claims.

6) Myth: ‘THE WELFARE STATE IS BEING UNDERMINED BY AN INTERGENERATIONAL CULTURE OF WORKLESSNESS’

Fact: Despite repeated Tory references to “three generations of worklessness” (Iain Duncan Smith) and “four generations of families where no one has ever had a job” (Chris Grayling), this whole “culture of worklessness” and inter-generational fecklessness is a complete exaggeration based on little or no empirical evidence.

Consider the conclusion of a recent, in-depth report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF): “Despite strenuous efforts, the researchers were unable to locate any such families. Even two generations of complete worklessness in the same family was a very rare phenomenon.”

In fact, a Bristol University study of Labour Force Survey figures found that only 0.3% of UK households have two generations – let alone three or even four (!) generations – that have never worked.

7) Myth: ‘THE BENEFITS BILL IS RISING BECAUSE OF CHEATS AND FRAUDSTERS’

Fact: The government’s own figures show that just 0.7%, or £1bn, of benefit expenditure is overpaid due to fraud – compared to, say,£70bn lost to HM Treasury through illegal tax evasion.

8) Myth: ‘HOUSING BENEFIT IS BEING WASTED ON LAZY, OUT OF WORK HOUSEHOLDS’

Fact: According to the homeless charity Shelter, only one out of every eight people who receive housing benefit is unemployed – the vast majority of HB claimants are pensioners, carers, people with disability and, of course, people on low incomes (see myth 4).

As even the Daily Mail conceded back in October, there has been an 86% rise in housing benefit claims by working families over the past three years.

9) MYTH: ‘PEOPLE GET PARKED ON BENEFITS FOR YEARS AND FORGOTTEN’

Fact: As public policy analyst Declan Gaffney has pointed out: “Benefit claims are much less likely to be ‘long-term’ as people seem to believe. The majority of people on Jobseeker’s Allowance claim the benefit for less than three months; less than 10% claim it for more than a year.”

10) Myth: ‘MEANS TESTING BENEFITS IS FAIRER AND CHEAPER THAN HAVING UNIVERSAL BENEFITS’

Fact: According to the National Audit Office (NAO), means testing “makes the administration of benefits more complex and is associated with higher costs as well as increased rates of fraud and error”. The NAO also notes that “there can be disincentives for recipients of means-tested benefits to return to work”.

(With thanks to the Resolution Foundation, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Declan Gaffney, Jonathan Portes, Chris Dillow and David Wearing.)

Follow Mehdi Hasan on Twitter:www.twitter.com/mehdirhasan

Huffington Post: Universal Credit and Disability Allowance Controversy

September 14, 2012 Leave a comment

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/vincent-brogan/disability-allowance-universal-credit_b_1869194.html

Vincent Brogan

A scheme to get claimants off long term disability back to work is turning into something of a PR nightmare for the government. The sight of disabled protesters and their growing number of supporters taking to the streets, after a widely acclaimed Paralympics, is one it might wish to avoid.

At the heart of this controversy is something called the ‘Work Capability Assessment’ (WCA) which determines if you are entitled to Employment Support Allowance (ESA). This benefit is paid to those with limited capability to work because of ill health or disability.

To many who have been through the contentious ‘medical assessment’, part of the WCA carried out by ATOS Healthcare on the Department of Work and Pensions’ (DWP) behalf, it is a blunt instrument which, they argue, makes a mockery of their illnesses and can be demeaning.

Having to apply for ESA is causing unnecessary stress for some claimants who feel the extent of their disability speaks for itself. This is not how policy strategists see it, however.

The WCA is an integral part of the new system as is the more demanding medical assessment. But when up to 40%of appeals by unhappy claimants to overturn initial assessments were successful then something is clearly wrong, adding weight to concerns the process is more than simply flawed.

Indeed, rarely has implementation of any new policy caused so much outrage. Media is awash with reports of claimants dying after being declared fit to work, MPs on about the sheer injustice of it, olympic protests against ATOS, suicides and terminal cancer or even psychotic patients being told they are fit for work.

With the Universal Credit being rolled out in 2013 the distrust generated by the ongoing controversy over ESA won’t help endear sceptics to another package that could, in spite of concerns about readiness, make life easier for many welfare recipients. Sorting out the Employment Support Allowance mess first might help.

Excepting those who clearly are too ill or disabled, the default premise of the present strategy introduced in 2008 appears to be that huge numbers on disability are able to do some work, and the onus is on them to show they can”t.

But a common grievance with the scheme is that it is work, not ‘condition‘ oriented. It emphasises what you can, rather than what you can’t do and makes a virtue of looking beyond your limitations, concentrating, unrealistically some feel, on your capabilities.

Claimants undergoing WCA fill a questionnaire some find confusing, even duplicitous. Such is the unfortunate level of mistrust trust surrounding the whole thing that support groups frequently tell their clients to consider how they respond to even informal, friendly queries like “did you come by car?”or “did you walk from the bus stop?” as these reveal snippets about the physical capabilities of the informant.

Many have a medical assessment which is nothing like the illness-orientated clinical exam they are used to when they visit their own doctor. This can be disconcerting for some more attuned to pouring hearts out to healthcare professionals they trust and know.

The focus of proceedings is very much on all that is right, like checking how long you can stand or sit for, if you can move your arms freely or pick something off the floor without too much discomfort. If you can complete these and other tasks, and pass basic clinical tests then you may be deemed fit to work and lose entitlement to ESA..

But many patients complain that distressing symptoms they intermittently complain of, or other illnesses they suffer from, appear to be ignored or are described as not being relevant when they bring them to an examiner’s attention

Although the present strategy is justifiably framed to encourage those capable of work break the cycle of dependence many feel that the rigid, impersonal way it is implemented signals a divisive plan to slash social welfare spending by targeting those in no position to complain.

There is no doubt that some claimants, unable to withstand the bureaucratic onslaught conveniently fronted by what they perceive as a medical inquisition they do not comprehend, will succumb and give up without a fight. This, critics suggest, could be part of the agenda

If we are to challenge a decades-long ‘culture of dependence’ then we need to tread carefully, know its extent and not confuse ‘dependence’ with ‘disability’.

An aggressive strategy aimed at helping the genuinely disabled unable to work which lumps many of them in with those who possibly can, on top of a very small minority of shirkers is bound to be problematic. Not recognising this is a serious failing in its own right.

It is the silent minority you don’t see or hear complaining on social media, but who accept ‘judgements’ that they are ‘fit to work’ when clearly many are not and have little prospect of ever finding it, who are the hidden victims of a policy being implemented with the finesse and speed of a runaway freight-train.

An equitable system would help those who need assistance and challenge those – there are many – who don’t. It will work if there is trust but won’t if there is not. Certifying dubious cases – and this lies at the heart of the present debate – is nearly always a matter of clinical judgement. But it can be done fairly, effectively, authoritatively and with consensus.

A one cap fits all approach to a complex social issue involving disability is not ideal. Factors like opportunity, unemployment, discrimination, exploitation in the workforce or ongoing medical support simmer in the minds of many concerned about being forced back to work. And these concerns need to be addressed, not just talked about. That takes time and patience, something which is missing from the present debate.

Follow Vincent Brogan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@DrBrogan

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