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.

 

 

Mark unravels after sanctions: “The process left me feeling suicidal.”

Mark unravels after sanctions: “The process left me feeling suicidal.”
Mark Bothwell is now recovering from his sanctions trauma
Mark Bothwell is now recovering from his sanctions trauma

According to Vox Political  and the Disability News Service, the UK government seems to have become the first country to face a high-level inquiry by the United Nation’s Committee on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (CRPD). The committee has the power to do this if it receives what it calls “reliable information of grave or systemic violations” of the rights of disabled people by a country signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and its optional protocol.

The committee conducts its investigations “confidentially”, so it has refused to confirm or deny that the UK is being investigated. Disability News Service has reported that CRPD appeared to have put off its public examination of the UK’s approach to implementing the disability convention until after next year’s general election. According to Vox Political, it now appears that the committee “may have taken this decision because it had launched the much more serious – and so far unprecedented – inquiry into the UK’s violation of disabled people’s rights”.

Surely here in the UK we wouldn’t abuse disabled people? Could that really happen in London, for example – a sophisticated and rich world capital, recently revealed by an article in Forbes as the world’s “most influential global city”. London was ranked first in the world on the Z/Yen Group’s 2013 Global Financial Centres Index. The article admiringly states that “its location outside the United States and the eurozone keeps it away from unfriendly regulators”, and it’s a “preferred domicile for the global rich”. Given all that serendipity and wealth, the world’s most influential city must also be in a position to influence things to ensure its residents don’t starve?

The benefits of London’s position as a welcoming home for the world’s rich don’t appear to be improving matters for the clients at the food bank frontline in London – or nationally for that matter. Greenwich food bank (which is currently operating from seven locations across the borough) has seen visitors increasing from 776 to 5025 in the past year. In nearby Lewisham, the figure rose from 623 to 3895. Mananger of the Greenwich food banks Alan Robinson tracks the increase he’s seen to welfare changes dating from April 2013, including the bedroom tax and welfare cap.

A few days ago I caught up with long-standing Greenwich food bank client Mark Bothwell, who has depression and whose shoulder injury had developed into a chronic problem. I’ve interviewed Mark many times, and he’s a warm, intelligent and engaging young man of 29. His experiences must make him one of those said to be experiencing diabolical treatment – those “grave violations” – at the hands of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) over many, many months. Mark told me that by July he was so distraught that he felt  suicidal.

Despite having already waited  for a prolonged period on jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) while believing that his claim for employment and support allowance (ESA) was being assessed, Mark was not only told that his ESA paperwork had been lost, but that he had been sanctioned – twice – for supposedly failing turn up for jobseeker advice appointments with Greenwich Local Labour and Business (GLLaB). He was told that he’d received the first sanction stopping his JSA at the end of May and that they had written to him telling him about the appointment. He says he did not receive any such letter. He began an appeals process with the help of Greenwich borough’s Welfare Rights Service. While he was told that the appeal for this sanction was being allowed, he was informed “in the same sentence that I was not going to get any money, because there was a second sanction for the same period of time for another missed appointment that I didn’t know about”. He says they told him they had sent another letter – “but I didn’t receive them”.

When the initial sanction was imposed, Mark was plunged into a nightmare of making multiple phone calls to different people in an attempt to get some help. It took two weeks to get a DWP hardship payment (about 40 per cent of normal JSA) through, and this was not enough to cover his bills – ” I had to borrow money”. He had to make multiple calls to the JSA enquiry line on his landline. He was told that if he wanted to talk to a “decision maker” he would have to call the enquiry line and leave a message for the “decision maker”, who would then call him back. He says that “on almost every phone call he was told something different”.

He added: “From about the beginning of June until mid-July I made about 60 phone calls trying to sort out the appeals and the (lost) ESA (claim). I had to resubmit the application for ESA because they said they lost it. On almost every phone call I’d be told something different. That process left me feeling suicidal. They were telling me a different thing every single time. They would tell me it (my money) would be a week, then I phoned up and they said no they shouldn’t have told you that. Then with the last phone call the woman said, no it doesn’t happen like that, it takes another two weeks. She was so rude I just hung up and collapsed on the floor. Tears were running down my face. I actually said out loud the word suicide to my flatmate, to my family and to complete strangers. I hit rock bottom around July 10-12.”

About a week later, Mark was told that he would get ESA, and that it would be backdated from the end of May. He is now receiving £144.80 a fortnight. The regular money is “helping a lot” and he says he can now buy food items such as fresh meat. He’s certainly looking brighter and stronger now.  Mark shares a home with a disabled flatmate and friend. This person has been told he’ll be getting a Personal Independence Payment (PIP) for help with some of the extra costs of being disabled. With the PIP finally in place, Mark has at last been able to fill in the application form for Carer’s Allowance in relation to the help he gives his friend. He’s also finally getting better help for his depression, and has been able to come off his Tramadol medication, which was beginning to badly affect his short-term memory.

Finally, after this atrocious wait and a host of adverse developments, Mark is starting to get the benefits he’s entitled to. But why did the state allow him to languish for such a long time waiting to move from JSA to ESA, and without Carer’s Allowance? Mark began experiencing problems with his shoulder last October, and in May, I reported that he’d already been waiting months for his ESA claim to be processed. In respect of his friend’s PIP application, we know that PIP claim backlogs during the first year of its introduction have caused tremendous problems for the disabled.

During his time without benefits because of the sanctions, Mark had to survive for two days without any food. As a long-standing client of Greenwich food bank, Mark has been provided with the usual three days’ supply of nutritionally-balanced non-perishable food on about a dozen occasions. Greenwich food bank is part of the Trussell Trust network of food banks. Its policy and commitment is to provide short-term help through a crisis for people who’ve been referred by a frontline professional such as a social worker or health visitor. The decision was taken not to provide another food parcel. This happened after careful discussion and review. The Trussell Trust believes that providing food aid on multiple occasions for an individual can remove an essential incentive to fix the underlying problems that drive people to the food bank in the first place.

Mark has been very appreciative of the support he’s received from the food bank over the last number of months. Very thoughtfully, once his ESA money came through he brought in a cake and a thank-you card – to the delight of the volunteers.

Mark shows his appreciation for the food bank's help
Mark shows his appreciation for the food bank’s help

In July, a report – Dignity and Opportunity for All: Securing the Rights of Disabled People in the Austerity Era – was published by the Just Fair consortium, which included Disabled People Against Cuts and Inclusion London. it suggests the UK had moved from being an international disability rights leader to risking becoming a “systematic violator of these same rights”. Many of the individual accounts I’ve collected here, including Mark’s, add to the evidence that the vulnerable and disabled are the subject of the gravest injustices.