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.

 

 

London foodbank life: Surreal at times, but dangerous too

London foodbank life: Surreal at times, but dangerous too
Ben Adou hasn’t received jobseeker’s allowance since early March. He came into the foodbank hungry.

I’m pondering the brutal absurdities of day-to-day life for a growing number of the people I come across at this London Trussell Trust foodbank. Sarah (not her real name), wants a job. She’s a gentle and intelligent 28-year-old law graduate with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). A month ago she was nearly made homeless when the hostel told her they were going to evict her. The housing association running the hostel changed its mind at the last minute, but tragically she’s considering escort work as a possible way to clear debts, including a Wonga loan at extortionate rates. What does the future hold for her after she finally worked up the courage to escape a violent home situation? Will Mark, who’s trying to battle both depression and a debilitating shoulder injury, ever get his claim for employment and support allowance (ESA) processed? It’s been more than 10 weeks now, and he’s still no clearer about when he’ll get his money. Meanwhile his health is deteriorating fast, with other worrying symptoms now developing, which have driven him to the local hospital’s accident and emergency unit.

While they struggle on, Ben Adou (pictured above) came into the foodbank to share his story. Last week I mentioned that he brought along a foodbank voucher – his third. He couldn’t have survived without them, as he hasn’t received any jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) since March 7. This has plunged Ben – a widower of 56 whose wife died of cancer in 2012 – into a financial crisis. He claims housing benefit, has no savings and has nothing to fall back on. There is no safety net here. He came into the foodbank at what he somewhat ironically called lunchtime – hungry because he hadn’t been able to eat that morning. At least he was able to get some tea and a spare sandwich, and leave with his emergency pack of long-life food and some bread that had been donated that day. ‘You have brought me happiness by giving me food’, he said.

The problems started when Ben, who mostly works as a labourer, was offered a job through the controversial Universal Jobmatch scheme at the beginning of March. It turned out to be just two days of work, which he said had ‘completely messed up my JSA claim’. It’s also impacted on his ability to pay a contribution towards his rent, pay his council tax and to meet other household and phone bills. It has made it almost impossible for him to get to interviews. Crucially, of course, he can’t buy food. Any sort of a social life is totally out of the question, of course. With his JSA on hold, he now has no idea exactly when his benefit payments will resume. He called into the jobcentre to try to get to the bottom of things: ‘They said I was overpaid JSA during spells when I was working, and I disagree. They’ve put in writing that they know they owe me £431.60, but they’re saying that I owe them about £286.00 – and that this was a possible overpayment to me.’

The Government’s Universal Jobmatch website  – managed independently by private recruiter Monster – has come under much criticism. MP Frank Field said in a Guardian article, that it is ‘bedevilled with fraud’ and ‘out of control’.The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) revealed in a letter to Field that more than 350,000 job adverts might breach the website’s terms and conditions , which specify that employers must advertise a real job, not use premium rate numbers, pay at least the minimum wage and not cost the applicant any money to start.

In the meantime, Universal Jobmatch keep on sending him texts calling him to jobs he can’t take up and job interviews he can’t attend – because he has absolutely no money to get there. A few weeks ago he passed two interviews for some work in central London, but couldn’t get the money together to travel up to the job. The day before he had been offered work starting yesterday in Morden, ‘but I had to say no because I couldn’t afford to travel there’. He has no money, so needs a job. He can’t get a properly paid job, because he has no money to get there. A week previously he had been called for a first interview for a commission-based job, then was offered an induction. It was only at that point that he found out he would have to use an Oyster card and put money on it himself to enable him to travel around London to sell products door-to-door. Needless to say, ‘this wasn’t explained at the team meeting’.

He explained to JobcentrePlus that he needed some money, but doesn’t seem to have been told that he could have been given money directly by them. There’s a fund for that sort of thing, you see. But no-one seems to be told about it. Every year in April, JobcentrePlus offices are given a budget to pay for Budgeting Loans.These are interest free loans for people on JSA and other benefits. Travelling expenses within the UK are included in the needs covered by such loans. This money comes out of the JobcentrePlus Social Fund budget.

Ben, like many of the people I meet, is dealing with this ghastly situation with tremendous resilience. But there’s only so long he can cope without long-term damage to his health and wellbeing. He is diabetic and he also has a heart problem. Kafkaesque doesn’t even begin to describe the ridiculous, complex hassles faced daily by a growing number of our most vulnerable citizens. This week we found out that committed campaigner and journalist Mike Sivier’s battle to get information on deceased former sickness benefits claimants released that is clearly in the public interest has been unsuccessful – so far. He wants an update on the number of sickness benefit claimants who have died, but a tribunal has upheld the Information Commissioner’s decision that his Freedom of Information request was ‘vexatious’. But the judge criticised both the information Commissioner and the DWP for the other reasons they put forward to prevent the death figures from being made public. From what seems to be emerging here in London, do we also now need to look more closely at the equivalent figures for people on JSA?

London is no city for young women: Will Sarah return to escort work to pay for her debts?

Down at the food bank, the volunteers hope that clients can over time move on from their challenging situations to something better. Sarah, who has featured here before, is struggling to get the proper support she needs to build a better life. She came here with a voucher a few weeks ago, worried that she was about to get evicted from her hostel. Some calls to the housing association were made, and the threat of eviction was withdrawn after her case was looked at again.

So she had a roof over her head for a while longer. But Sarah (not her real name), a 28-year-old law graduate who has battled for many years with a serious mental illness – Borderline Personality Disorder – came in again today and what she told me made my heart sink. This very intelligent, thoughtful and sensitive young woman has had to deal not only with BPD – which she sees as a life sentence – but with a violent home environment, from which she’s recently fled. Her full story is here. She came to this borough as a homeless person, because she couldn’t stay where she was. While she’s not currently at risk of being homeless again, and is receiving employment and support allowance and disability living allowance, she has considerable debts, including a loan from Wonga at the usual rates (for those of you who don’t know by now, Wonga’s rate of interest is an eye-watering 365 per cent on £150 for 18 days). She is also trying to deal with a massive bill from Vodaphone, and some student credit card debt.

Sarah told me that she thinks she may have to return to escort work to pay her debts. Why is she considering this? She explained to me: ‘I feel as if I’m in fight or flight mode. It’s horrible and wrong, but if I balance all that against the risk of sinking further and further into debt…. The place I work for gives you drivers and a bodyguard. It’s a seedy underworld, but maybe that’s where I think I belong. It’s what I know.’ When she has done this work in the past, she says she ‘feels like she can blot it out with drink and cannabis…. I’ve done it before, so I think what does another time mean to me’. This work would pay her £60 an hour cash in hand.

How does she feel about her life? ‘I’m sick of being a burden and a leech. I’m heading towards 30 and what have I got to show for it? I’m not stable enough to work full time. I can’t jump from being on benefits to funding a deposit and rent for a flat. I haven’t worked full-time since 2010.’

Sarah began the first stage of some very gruelling treatment for her BPD, but to make progress she would need to undertake another two years of therapy over about three days a week. Having left her home and pulled out of treatment, she would need to start again and access services in this borough. But the GP she has registered with has not yet received the paperwork from her old GP. So although she has been prescribed her medication, she does not yet have a community psychiatric nurse. Our food bank manager made sure she left today with details of the local self-referral mental health services and details of excellent debt advice charity Christians Against Poverty. We hope she gets appointments with both very soon indeed.

Send her all the luck in the world. She’s got more inner strength that she realises and I’m left with a sense that she will now fight to get the support she needs. The most disgraceful thing is that social, housing and welfare policies are making life more difficult by the day for Sarah and the people like her, here in London and throughout the UK.