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.

 

 

Kestna’s #WCA and other reasons not to be cheerful

 

Kestna Marsh is disabled. He was forced to the foodbank after a tribunal upheld a  DWP decision to stop his benefit.
Kestna Marsh is disabled. He was forced to the foodbank after a tribunal upheld a DWP decision to stop his benefit.

Kestna Marsh was 62 this week. At the moment he probably feels he has little cause for celebration.

This former construction worker struggles to walk  as he has arthritis in his right knee,  left leg and left shoulder.  He can’t lift anything with his left arm. On the day he came into this London food bank with his voucher, his mobility was obviously restricted and he struggled with his walking stick  to move from room to room. Because of his mobility issues I felt hesitant about asking him to move even a few steps into a quieter room. Kestna walked that distance because he wanted to share his experience of Work Capability Assessment (WCA).

He was left without the money to buy adequate food after a tribunal hearing at the beginning of  last month (September) upheld the outcome  of his 2013 face-to-face ATOS WCA. He attended the tribunal on his own, without the support of a legal or welfare expert, and there were two people on the panel – a doctor and a solicitor.  The WCA awarded him zero points for his health issues, and Kestna immediately challenged this. But following the outcome of the appeal his employment and support allowance (ESA) claim was closed on September 13th. He thinks that as a result he ceased getting housing benefit on the same date. He now has to reapply for housing benefit. He’s been told by Jobcentre Plus to apply for Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), but he says he has been told by Jobcentre Plus that any claim for JSA wouldn’t be processed until October 17th.

He explains here how his health problems affect his life and how he feels about losing his tribunal appeal (apologies for the unconventional presentation of the video – camera operator in training!).

His Disability Living Allowance (DLA) of about £215 is paid monthly, but the payment in mid-September of about £50 a week has gone mainly on bills. What about food?  “I’ve been eating salad, beans, cheese and the odd sandwich here and there. I can’t do a proper food shop. If you gave me stuff to cook my gas is more or less onto nil. I haven’t got a penny to my name.”

Kestna added: “They expect me to go back to work. They’ve told me that if another illness emerges then I can apply for ESA again. Since my original assessment (in 2013) my problems have got worse. I can’t use a computer and I can’t sit too much or walk too far for too long. What sort of job do they expect me to do? I previously worked in construction and I know that for me to sit in an office would require retraining.”

The serious difficulties he faces because of his obvious ill-health and the stopping of his ESA are compounded by his council housing situation and the difficulties in building up a relationship with a GP at his new surgery who can get to know him properly.

He lives on his own, and has recently moved from one part of the Royal Borough of Greenwich  to another. He wanted to move to a ground floor flat, so he was offered one. But this new flat hasn’t been adapted to meet his mobility needs, so he is not entitled to the rent rebate that would accompany such an adaptation. He says that because the council moved him into a two bedroom flat instead of the one bedroom flat he wanted, the council has classed the flat as under-occupied. So because he’s been deemed as having an extra room, he’s having to pay an extra £12 a week towards the bedroom tax – for a flat that hasn’t even been adapted to meet his physical needs.

Kestna also says that there is apparently some discrepancy arising from his move from another flat in the borough, meaning that the council may have been paying him housing benefit for both flats. He also has council tax arrears of £112.

He left the food bank with contact details for welfare and housing rights experts.

He also left promising that he would make an appointment with his GP. “I’ve just moved into the area, so I don’t have a relationship with the GP yet. I must have had at least four or five appointments with different doctors.”

How did the tribunal decision leave him feeling? “I was really angry. I’ve never been through the food bank stuff. I always stuck to relying on my doctor. I got the certificate and sent it in on time. To find that they closed my claim without even informing me they were doing it, in my circumstances –  I feel quite disgusted really.”

Many thanks to Kestna for speaking up.

 

 

 

Benefit delays leave ‘Michael’ starving – while DWP hides the statistics

I met “Michael” (not his real name) last weekend at a different food bank in a much more visibly run-down area of our London borough. It’s a massive area of mainly social housing, straddling two boroughs. Although it’s in a corner location among endless blocks of council flats, it’s hard to find.  I was driving – and arrived late after getting lost. There are no signposts or posters indicating its existence.

The volunteers here are amazingly kind and highly committed – as they are in the other food bank I’ve been going to in the last few weeks. But the tiny size of the public room here doesn’t make it easy for them to sit people down in a comfortable way and offer them a cup of tea and a biscuit. The volunteers do try to offer this when they’re able – depending on how busy they are. But usually clients must take their place on a sad row of chairs at the side, then wait while their emergency groceries are put together in the storeroom next door.

Michael sat there quietly in this gloomy room  – imagine something worse than the most depressing GP surgery you might ever have been to – and told me why he’d ended up there.  As is the case for many of the people I’ve come across in the last few weeks, he’s run out of food because of delays to his benefits.

Life has not treated him well. He used to work for a charity before becoming unemployed. The Jobcentre has now stopped his money because he missed an appointment.  He says the reason he didn’t make the appointment was because he had been attacked and assaulted and was making a statement to the Police at the time of his Jobcentre appointment. He claims he was attacked by three men – two of whom he says are now back in prison, and the third is ‘on the run’.

The case, says Michael has still to come to court. He adds: “They were drunk and they put me in hospital. They haven’t been sentenced for this, but they (the Police) put them straight back into prison. I had a statement from the Police to say they were with me. I sent the form to the Department of Work and Pensions  (DWP), but they weren’t happy with that. I’ve had four to five weeks without any money. It’s very difficult to survive.”

This is an understatement. Michael is 39, and he’s fading away. His spirit and his body have been damaged by this attack. I wonder whether the assault has destroyed him, and whether he will be able to overcome such a setback. Has he reached the stage of thinking that this is what must be accepted from life?  Because he can’t afford to eat, his weight is down to nine and a half stones. He says that previously he was about 11 stones. This is the first time he’s had to use a food bank.  His private landlord understands his situation, he says – so at least he has a roof over his head.

This food bank and the others in the borough, were set up by the Trussell Trust, in partnership with churches and communities. It’s one of almost 400 currently launched by the charity nationwide.  Alan, the food bank manager for all the borough’s food banks, says the DWP produces its own voucher that it can give to those claimants it chooses to refer to a food bank. But the DWP opted to introduce its own voucher in April that no longer records the reasons why a claimant has been referred. Before then a tick box had been included that allowed them to record the reasons for referral, including delays to paying benefit. “The DWP is trying to camouflage the numbers by taking the tick boxes off these vouchers,” says Alan.

According to an article by Patrick Butler in the Guardian, this move by the DWP was “a petty, cynical obfuscation”.  That sounds about right to me.  As he puts it, the move “smudges and distorts reality”. But the Trussell Trust  – which is still using the original DWP forms as a data source,  said in April that 30 per cent of claimants were referred because of benefit delays.  That  figure feels much higher here – and we’ll return to this crucial issue very soon.