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.

 

 

James is now destitute following a sanction: ‘It’s bully boy tactics’, he says.

James is now destitute following a sanction: ‘It’s bully boy tactics’, he says.

James Dearsley, 60, receives a three-month sanction while on the Work Programme
James Dearsley, 60, receives a three-month sanction while on the Work Programme

A vulnerable 60-year-old has been left penniless and dependent on food bank support after his Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) was sanctioned at the end of July while on the Work Programme. South-east Londoner James Dearsley received a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions (below) telling him that he had been sanctioned from July 29 and that his JSA would not be reinstated until October 29. James, who is already in arrears with his council tax, has spent more than three weeks without social security. This withdrawal of money means that he’s already been forced to use Greenwich food bank twice.

He says the local job centre told him he was being sanctioned because on three consecutive occasions he had failed to turn up for his Work Programme appointment with a Seetec job search support club. The letter from the DWP states: “We have decided that you did not comply with the requirements of the scheme to which you have been referred and that you did not have sufficiently good reasons for doing so.”

The letter from the Department for Work and Pensions to James Dearsley concerning his three-month sanction
The letter from the Department for Work and Pensions to James Dearsley concerning his three-month sanction

James, who has health issues, says he was not able to make his July 16 appointment because he was sick. He received a phone call from Seetec and he told them he was ill. He says he was able to attend his next appointment on July 23, and also turned up for his appointment with Seetec on July 30, “but they sent me home because they said I had a sick note and because of that I couldn’t stay there”. He added that later they “said verbally that they were sanctioning me because of three supposed missed appointments”.

He has now submitted an application for a hardship payment – which is an emergency payment at a much lower rate than JSA. He was told last week that it would take seven to 10 days for this to come through. James has also very recently submitted an application for employment and support allowance (ESA).

How does he feel about the three-month sanction and the effect it could also have on his housing? “It’s draconian. I also owe £300 in council tax. If they cut my money off I’ll lose my flat. I’m also totally in the dark over when the ESA will come through. To state the brutal truth, it’s bully boy tactics.” James has submitted a request for a review of the decision to sanction him.

As Polly Toynbee points out in the The Guardian here, “Jobcentre Plus offices have become sanction factories”, with staff under massive pressure to cut people off. She mentions the case this summer of a diabetic former solider, who was “sanctioned into starvation” and who tragically died.

Does anyone in the system responsible for these welfare policies – including setting up a Work Programme described by the Government as “offering personalised support for claimants who need more help looking for and staying in work” – genuinely believe that giving James a three-month sanction that forces him to the food bank will ultimately lead him closer to a job and a more secure and healthy future?

Many thanks to James and to all the food bank clients who are prepared to share their experiences.

Kevin sanctioned on Work Programme and now begging for food

Kevin sanctioned on Work Programme and now begging for food
Kevin Jobbins, who's living on £7 a fortnight for food, following a benefit sanction
Kevin Jobbins, who’s living on £7 a fortnight for food, following a benefit sanction

How does it feel to be “living” on a budget for food of £3.50 a week? Kevin Jobbins is doing exactly that, but the more you think about it, the less appropriate the concept of  existence or survival seems in this context. To survive  conjures up images of Everest expeditions  – involving a set of risks voluntarily  endured  by explorers who’ve personally opted to challenge their own physical and emotional limitations.

Kevin, on the other hand, came into the Greenwich Foodbank   because  he’s  not  surviving. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has failed to reinstate his benefits following a sanction in April. Kevin is 39, and is  receiving employment and support allowance (ESA). He’s waiting to go into detox treatment for drug and alcohol issues and is also on the waiting list for surgery on his feet for problems  linked to his time as a homeless person. Despite his multiple health issues, he was registered with a Seetec job club.

He was sanctioned for missing an appointment with Seetec. He says he had no option,  as he had to look after his two year old son that day. Since April his benefit rate has plunged from £202 a fortnight to £47.  He says that Seetec have told him the sanction has been lifted, but that the job centre in Woolwich says it hasn’t. His housing benefit was stopped as a result, but has now been restarted. But out of the £47 he has to pay £9 for council tax, £10 as a contribution to rent, £10 for electricity and £10 for gas. So that leaves about £3.50 for food.

The result? “I’m begging for food or nicking stuff. I got caught in Tesco. I’m also paying £10 a fortnight in court fines. This is the first time I’ve had to use a food bank. I’m angry. I don’t think I should have to beg for food.  I should have my money reinstated.  I am literally living hand to mouth.” Kevin, who’s on pain medication, adds: ‘”If I can’t nick a sandwich from Greggs I try to beg a couple of pot noodles.”

Should Kevin have been referred to the Work Programme given the extent of his health and addiction problems, and what help has it been to him? The sanction this ill man had imposed on him for not turning up to an appointment has done nothing other than to push his life further into chaos and undoubtedly towards worse health.

For whose benefit? Mike Sivier at Vox Political has flagged up how much money has been paid to Work Programme providers from when the scheme began until March 31 this year. His post links to  alittleecon, who highlights that since the programme began, 39% of  the money paid to providers – who are mainly private sector organisations – has come from the “attachment fee”. The DWP document publishing the Work Programme costs is here.  For the first year of the programme, the attachment fee was £400, the second year it was £300 and for last year £200. From July, the fee will no longer be paid.

To quote from the alittleecon post: “To date then, on this ‘paid by results programme’, the Government has paid providers £538m (out of a total of £1.372bn) just for taking people on their books and before they have helped a single person into work.” With this payment for doing nothing now ended, will we see Work Programme providers start to walk away?” Alittleecon estimates that around 1.72 million people have been attached to the Work Programme since it began, and the DWP is saying that over the same period there have been 296,000 job outcomes,  “so that means only about 17% (1 in 7) have found work lasting at least six months – not a great return for a spend of £1.4bn, particularly when you think that a lot of these people would have found work anyway”.

This system has let Kevin down badly. Kevin has been told to inform that food bank manager here if the job centre fails to confirm early this week that his benefit has been reinstated. I’ll update on this. Are more and more individuals ending up like him – vulnerable sick people sanctioned while on the Work Programme and effectively left to starve and steal to stay alive – begging on the streets for pot noodles?

Thanks to Kevin and the many people who use the food bank who’ve decided to speak to me.