Lord Freud, Theresa, and the evil of workfare: The ‘fragile artifice’ of morality

In a long essay in yesterday’s Guardian, John Gray notes that our leaders talk frequently about conquering the forces of evil – for example when Barak Obama vows to destroy ISIS’s ‘brand of evil’. But he believes that this rhetoric illuminates a failure to accept that cruelty and conflict are basic human traits.

John Gray’s essay – I urge you to read it here – refers us back to an ‘old-fashioned understanding’ that is ‘a central insight of western religion’, as well as Greek tragic drama and the work of the Roman historians  that ‘evil is a propensity to destructive and self-destructive behaviour that is humanly universal’.  He adds: ‘The restraints of morality exist to curb this innate human frailty; but morality is a fragile artifice that regularly breaks down. Dealing with evil requires an acceptance that it never goes away.’

His essay continues: ‘When large populations collude with repressive regimes it need not be from thoughtlessness or inertia. Liberal meliorists like to think that human life contains many things that are bad, some of which may never be entirely eliminated; but there is nothing that is intrinsically destructive or malevolent in human beings themselves – nothing in other words, that corresponds to a traditional idea of evil. But another view is possible and one that need make no call on theology. What has been described as evil in the past can be understood as a natural tendency to animosity and destruction, co-existing in human beings alongside tendencies to sympathy and cooperation.’

He refers to the study On Compromise and Rotten Compromises by the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit, which distinguishes between regimes that rest on cruelty and humiliation, ‘as many have done throughout history, and those that go further by excluding some human beings altogether from moral concern…. Describing the latter as radically evil, he (Margalit) argues that Nazi Germany falls into this category’.  Judged by Margalit’s formula, John Gray says that the Soviet Union was also implicated in ‘radical evil’.  He adds: ‘The Soviet state implemented a policy of exclusion from society of “former persons” – a group that included those who lived off unearned income, clergy of all religions and tsarist functionaries – who were denied civic rights, prohibited from seeking public office and restricted in their access to the rationing system. Many died of starvation or were consigned to camps where they perished from overwork, undernourishment and brutal treatment.’

I read the phrase ‘restricted in their access to the rationing system’ , noted the role of the work camps and thought of  the impact of current ‘welfare’ policies in the UK on the lives of  the people who visit the food banks in this area of London. Many of them have complex long-term health problems – often including mental health issues. Take the case of  Theresa (not her real name), a lovely and intelligent single person who came into the food bank recently. She ended up in England as a teenager. When she ran away from her home she was very young, pregnant and already the mother of  a small child. She took that child with her.  Her tough, traumatic history has left her struggling on many fronts. She’s now a grandmother and is finally on the waiting list for long-term counselling, following a fairly recent diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD). BPD can make an individual at risk of self-harm and suicidal behaviour.

She had been struggling to survive on her current employment and support allowance (ESA) rate of £140.80 a fortnight, and her inability to find enough money to buy food after she’d paid her bedroom tax (included in her rent of £47 a fortnight), council tax and other bills (her gas and electric costs alone are £25 a week) had forced her to ask a Jobcentre Plus adviser for a food bank voucher. That voucher was welcome – and good of course as far as it went. The three days of emergency help is designed to see someone through a short-term crisis. But a crisis had been building over the course of Theresa’s life, and the crisis had already come to a head.  Theresa’s life is still a very hard one, and she will keep on struggling to survive on ESA while she waits for her recent application for the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) to be assessed. In the UK these assessments for people who need help with some of the extra costs caused by long-term ill-health or disability have been mired in long delays. Theresa, like many of those awaiting PIP assessments,  has no idea how long this process will take.

‘Things started to get really bad two years ago with regard to food,’ says Theresa. ‘I’ve had to go completely without food at times. I sit in my flat without the gas on. I have no choice. I can’t afford to put the gas on during the day.’

Theresa managed to access some college courses two years ago – at which point she discovered she was dyslexic. To some extent this belated knowledge helped this bright and talented woman to start to make sense of some of the problems she had experienced in her early life. The peak of the crisis came when a while back someone – or ‘the system’ –  took the decision to place Theresa on the Work Programme. This involved Theresa offering her ‘free’ labour to two different businesses while she claimed Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) . Putting her on the programme caused her ‘tremendous problems’ , she says.

About 14 years earlier she had been hospitalised for depression, but she had hidden the scale of her depression from her children. But she says the unpaid work placements – one in a retail outlet and the other in a cafe – exposed her to issues she found traumatic – including bullying. The manager of the shop ‘for some reason picked on me and he wanted me behind the till all day and he wouldn’t let me fill shelves. I was working there six days a week’.  She finished the work placements and took an overdose very quickly after that. ‘I phoned my sister after I had taken lots of tablets. She rang an ambulance and I went to A&E. I was then discharged and referred to a mental health clinic. They referred me for a mental health assessment and it was then that the BPD was diagnosed.’ She’s now on the waiting list for the specialist therapy she needs for her condition. The only recent positive developments in Theresa’s life as she waits for therapy is that an individual Jobcentre Plus adviser has taken an interest and has spoken to the local council to try to sort out a temporary reduction in her rent. That would make her rent arrears more manageable. She is also receiving support from mental health charity Mind.

The Work Programme describes itself as ‘designed to help people who are at risk of becoming long-term unemployed’ and it says it  ‘aims to support people into sustained employment’. The Work Programme is delivered by providers from the private and voluntary sector, and ‘once a claimant has joined the Work Programme they will be supported by their provider for up to two years’. In reality, just 48,000 people found long-term jobs under the programme in the almost three-year period between the start of the scheme in 2011 and early 2014. That only represents 3.2% of the 1.5 million people the Department for Work and Pensions said it had referred to the programme in total. The financial cost of the programme to the public sector for the three years to March 2014 has been £1.37 billion – but it doesn’t seem as if even the most fragile artifice of morality has been factored into a scheme which puts claimants  – many of whom are some of the most vulnerable people in society – to work for no money.

Writing in the Guardian, Aditya Chakrabortty is one of  many commentators to highlight the fact that the most vulnerable people have been hit the hardest by a perfect storm of cuts to a number of core disability benefits at once. This is at a time when ‘going by GDP data, this country has never been so wealthy. It certainly has the money to look after a group that you and I would recognise as being among our most vulnerable’. His view is that the comments by Lord Freud at a Conservative party conference fringe meeting on whether people with disabilities should work for just £2 an hour  are ‘just the smallest injury Freud has dealt disabled people’.  He says ‘contempt for disabled people runs right through coalition policy’.

Writer and campaigner Johnny Void sees workfare as nothing more than a scheme for employers wishing to scrounge free workers. He asked recently: ‘Is it any wonder that unpaid work is fast becoming the new segregation for many disabled workers?’ Mike Sivier at Vox Political has also written extensively about workfare, including the decision by the High Court to declare as illegal Iain Duncan Smith’s retroactive 2013 law to refuse docked payments to jobseekers who had refused to take part in the workfare scheme. Canadian disabilities studies specialist and disability activist Samuel Miller has been reporting voluntarily to the UN’s human rights office in Geneva on what he describes as the welfare crisis for the UK’s sick and disabled. He has also written to UN High Commissioner Navi Pillay asking for an urgent investigation into the UK’s approach to benefit sanctioning.

It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that the basic human trait of cruelty has already  been embraced and given a secure home within the UK system of government in relation to its treatment of anyone rash enough to be poor and vulnerable in the sixth richest country in the world.

 

 

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Mohammed and the night bus: A search for #asylum and hope

Mohammed and the night bus: A search for #asylum and hope
Mohammed's asylum application has been refused
Mohammed’s asylum application has been refused

Mohammed came into this  south-east London food bank in search of help. But he feels no sense of belonging here any more – and seems disconnected from the events taking place around him.

He’s a casualty of war. He made the journey from Iraq to the UK in 2005 as a stowaway on a lorry, when he was 22 years old. His father, one of Saddam Hussein’s policemen, had been killed. The terrible trip took three or four weeks. To this day he doesn’t know what happened to the rest of his Kurdish family. They ran away to Syria and he lost track of them after that.

He’s homeless now and his asylum case has been refused. He can’t work, because he hasn’t got the immigration status to do that. Feeling that he’s come to the end of the line here in England, he wants to return to Iraq. The UK Immigration Services won’t let him, given the ongoing insurgency. Now 33, Mohammed is drinking heavily and depressed.  Some days, when he doesn’t have a drink, he starts shaking. ‘I drink too much and I’m thinking about my family.’ He’s had enough of life on the streets of London, where he sleeps when he can’t find a place on the floor of a pub. Some nights he sleeps at the train station or at a homeless shelter. On a few occasions he is allowed  to stay at a friend’s flat.

It’s cold and he doesn’t feel it would be any more dangerous in Iraq than it is here. ‘I have no home – nowhere to go. Two weeks ago I saw someone stab a person with a knife on the streets. Sometimes you see very dangerous people. Three months ago someone attacked me. He punched me in the mouth and I lost a tooth.’ His health is deteriorating. ‘I went to the GP today and told him I can’t eat properly.’ He showed me some medicine he’s been given.

In 2008 Mohammed ended up in prison for a year, followed by a 17-month spell in a detention centre because of his immigration status. Mohammed says all he had done was to ask someone for a cigarette – ‘but the man said I robbed him’.  He says that he challenged the detention at High Court and ‘won the case – I should have got £60,000, but they gave me £5,000. His girlfriend at the time stood by him while he was in detention and offered good support. But the relationship foundered.

He was sent to hospital for help to overcome his addiction to alcohol, but the detox therapy would have cost £4,800 and the Immigration Services refused to fund it. He has to check in with the Immigration Services regularly to prove he’s still in the country. Because he is destitute he can’t afford the train ticket. So every time he travels by train he runs the risk of a fine he can’t pay – followed by a trip to court and potentially another conviction for a criminal offence.

This Trussell Trust food bank was able to give Mohammed a supply of three days non-perishable food. This food is long life, and much of it needs to be cooked or heated. That’s a problem, because Mohammed normally has nowhere to cook it. He’s homeless. On the night we met he was trying hard to contact a friend to see if he could sleep at his home. I spoke to one of  the volunteers at the food bank, who said how difficult it can be to ‘signpost’ people such as Mohammed, to try to get them some help. There don’t seem to be any avenues left for him.

Mohammed told me he often sleeps on the night buses that connect the centre of London to the outer suburbs. ‘It’s not just me – there are many people who do this. People without houses.’

You don’t have to be an asylum seeker to be at risk of  homelessness in the UK. A recent analysis of government data by the University of St Andrews on behalf of Shelter, found that one in 8 UK households are surviving on low incomes while paying unaffordable housing costs. This is putting them under huge financial pressure, and  ‘more than one in 10 working families in England have had to sell possessions to cover their housing costs’. A two-bedroom flat in London costs up to £1,470 in rent, with many remaining empty and unlet for months because many public sector workers and pensioners just can’t afford them.

Next time you’re in London on a night bus, try looking around to work out  how many people are there because they have nowhere else to go.  But you might find that everyone is staring at you.

Many thanks to Mohammed for sharing his experiences of  life as an asylum seeker in London.

 

High rent, unemployment, homelessness and rehousing: The Ahmeds at the #Londonfoodbank

Sadida Ahmed at Greenwich food bank
Sadida Ahmed at Greenwich foodbank

 

Sadida Ahmed and her husband Malik used to have a reasonable life. Yes, they rented from a private landlord, and because this is London they paid a lot for the ‘privilege’ – £1,200 a month. But they both used to work – Malik had spent 15 years working full-time as a security guard. According to Malik, 44,  ‘everything was fine’. But now they are struggling, and they came into the Greenwich food bank pushing their two  daughters of just 17 months and six months in the pram. They became homeless when the landlord gave them notice to quit. The rent had become too high for the couple to afford. They were rehoused by Lambeth Council ‘out of borough’, so they ended up living in a council property  in the Royal Borough of Greenwich.

Before the family moved in they say they were told that the council property was furnished – but it turned out to be unfurnished. So one of the babies doesn’t have a cot and the couple are sleeping (and sitting) on an old mattress in the living room. They do have a cooker – but no washing machine.

Malik is looking for work and Sadida, 28, is four months pregnant. What little money they have – Malik’s Job seeker’s Allowance, child tax credit and child benefit – doesn’t go very far. Having small children is very expensive at the best of times. Money needs to be found for nappies, formula milk and baby clothes, on top of the usual household bills.

Here Malik describes the family’s difficult circumstances.

He says: ‘I have £113 a week and I have to pay bills and pay for the babies’  food. I’m really struggling at the moment and I don’t know what to do and that’s why I’m here. I ran out of food. I’m not getting enough money to look after my family at the moment. I’m keen for work and looking for a job. When a job comes I will be fine, but at the moment it’s really hard.  I have two small babies of six months and 17 months, and my missus she’s pregnant too. Shes 14 weeks plus. It’s really hard to cope with.’

Harpinder Singh, a local councillor in Woolwich happened to be at the food bank, and met the couple. Malik has promised to get in touch with him. Harpinder, who has spent some time in this food bank recently, says that the situations he encounters might be expected ‘in the Far East or Africa, but we shouldn’t see them here’. He says he recently heard of a young family with no electricity or gas at home – ‘and then it becomes a safeguarding issue as they can’t cook food’. The next step in that case was to refer the issue to staff at the council, for an immediate response’.

He believes that the Royal Borough of Greenwich ‘has a willingness to help’. He says that before the most significant changes to the benefits system kicked in, ‘we identified people who were most likely to be affected by the changes – we identified them early and tried to help them get back into work’. He said that ‘to his knowledge we have not had to move people out of borough – not like in Tower Hamlets or Westminster’. He added: ‘It’s about using your resources – we’ve done well (at helping the vulnerable on the limited resources we have.’

Councillor Singh believes that its going to get even harder to help the most needy.  The Local Government Association has warned that support for vulnerable people in crisis will either have to be scaled back or scrapped completely in almost three-quarters of council areas from next April when government stops funding for Local Welfare Assistance schemes. A survey of local authorities suggests ‘councils will hugely struggle to maintain current levels of help for vulnerable people when government scraps the £347 million Local Welfare Assistance fund next year’, according to the LGA, and ‘the ending of government funding for councils’ emergency support schemes comes on top of a 40 per cent reduction in local government funding over the course of this Parliament’.

The Local Welfare Assistance fund was introduced in 2013 to replace government-provided crisis loans, with each local authority area allocated money from the £347 million total. Government’s local government finance settlement published last December revealed that funding would not be continued from 2015, despite no consultation being held on the scheme’s future.

Meanwhile, in the increasingly surreal world of London housing, London Mayor Boris Johnson is said to be about to approve plans today for ‘affordable housing’ flats that could cost tenants up to £2,800 a month to rent. He’s not fighting a one-man crusade either. According to a letter in the Guardian yesterday from chairs of the former crown estate residents’ associations, Peabody, a charity whose founding purpose is to improve the conditions of the poor and needy in London, is ‘also advertising homes it bought from the crown estate in 2011 at ‘affordable’ rents that no key worker can afford’. The former chairs have called on Peabody to ‘scrap this ludicrous rent model and honour its commitments to us and to its founding principles’.

When Malik finds a job, what are the chances that he can move his young family into a home in a location of their choice, at a level of rent that still enables them to lead a decent life?

Is that too much to ask?