Sunday, 31 March 2013

A Very Cruel Game

A very cruel game begins in earnest on April Fool's day this year. I should have written about it sooner, but my excuse is a preoccupation with government plans for privatising us. In the process though I've completely neglected the impending plight for many of our charges.

If you didn't know better you might think the government had unknowingly or accidentally decided to declare war on a significant section of the population, but of course the welfare 'reforms' are entirely deliberate and ironically will do nothing but hinder any attempt at a 'rehabilitation revolution.' 

Many, if not most, clients of the probation service are in receipt of State Benefit of one kind or another and as a group have never been particularly good at managing their limited incomes, often due to chaotic lifestyles involving either drink or drugs. A significant number have either learning disabilities or mental health problems that means coping on very tight budgets is extra difficult and there is a danger that spending decisions will not always be prudent. Of course the politically-correct would say it was about 'choice' and helps to encourage 'responsibility'.  

As a consequence, much of a probation officer's time has always had to be devoted to helping clients manage crisis situations brought about by a severe lack of money. I can tell you it's draining and extremely depressing for us, let alone the poor client, and often forms an effective barrier to any work we might wish to undertake concerning offending behaviour. But it's going to get a whole lot worse from Monday and as Polly Toynbee of the Guardian says, it will be the day that defines this government. 

Interestingly, as I write this, Grant Shaps, the Conservative Party chairman cites the present system as being cruel and hence justification for 'reforms', thus flying in the face of the new Archbishop of Canterbury and other church leaders who are quite-rightly pointing out they will hit the vulnerable.

Even before the new measures take effect, we know through leaked internal memos from the Department of Work and Pensions that Job Centre staff are being required to 'sanction' as many claimants as possible and try and trip them up at 'botherability' interviews. As always, this despicable tactic will mostly catch the scared and vulnerable, rather than the undeserving malingerers. As one staff member puts it, suicides will result, indeed just as we've seen with the infamous Atos capability tests designed to throw as many people off Disability Living allowance as possible. 

The saddest bit of all in this new twist to a cruel game is that many, many claimants have no idea what's about to hit them. In effect the changes in Council Tax Benefit, which will now only be a 'contribution' towards the total, coupled with the so-called Bedroom Tax, is in many ways a reincarnation of the despised Thatcher Community Charge or Poll Tax of the 90's. In one fell swoop, hundreds of thousands of claimants will see their benefit reduce significantly over night due to 'under-occupancy' and with virtually no hope of being able to move easily to smaller accommodation and retain their rights as tenants of social landlords.

As if this wasn't bad enough, payments will be made monthly instead of fortnightly and in respect of Housing Benefit, direct to the claimant and not the landlord anymore. Everyone aware of the situation knows that arrears of rent are going to accumulate quickly as many clients find it difficult or impossible to make up the shortfall, together with the extra responsibility of managing finances on a monthly basis. This is a gift to the 'payday' and door-to-door loan sharks as many claimants will feel pushed into their arms as a misguided way of coping. 

There is no doubt that the number of evictions will increase and many clients of ours will simply be unable to cope. They will be pushed over the edge. The final twist in this cruel game of making the poorest and most vulnerable pay for the mess we've got into, is that all new claims for benefit will have to be made online FFS. Can someone tell me how homeless, vulnerable and often chaotic people trying to get back into mainstream life can get easy access to a secure e-mail account, especially with libraries closing?

I see a massive amount of extra welfare-type work for the probation service and other statutory agencies, especially as funding for Citizen Advice Bureau's and civil Legal Aid have been dramatically cut. I wonder if any of this is making those carpet baggers currently sizing up contracts for probation work think twice? These 'reforms' are hardly going to assist with their efforts at making money out of the 'rehabilitation revolution' under PbR are they?

Even after these punitive cuts and with benefit levels capped at 1% for three years, thus ensuring inflation does its bit to help make the poorest even poorer, and before the Universal Benefit changes come into effect, astonishingly I see that the government is saying that the total welfare budget is not expected to reduce, merely that any increase will be 'managed.'

It seems even more radical measures to cut 'welfare dependency' could be on the way with the government feeling increasingly confident that the public mood is behind the deliberate widening of the division between the deserving and undeserving poor. This cannot be good for the well-being of any civilised society and I see the potential for serious trouble and unrest ahead.    

Some are saying that April 1st 2013 marks the beginning of the end of the Welfare State as we know it. On this day massive changes also come into effect as to how NHS services are commissioned, thus opening the door not just to more privatisation, but appallingly plenty of scope for many of these new commissioners to feather their own nest, despite supposed conflict of interest policies. 

As expected, the No10 petition has topped 20,000. You can sign it here.            


  1. What about the unfairness of the excessive taxation on those struggling in work to allow generous benefits to be paid.

    It really is time to call a halt to the benefits gravy train.

    Sorry, but that is the fact. One fifth of all UK government expenditure is for benefits.

    1. hammer in the north5 April 2013 at 12:12

      Most people on benefits I know are desperate to work. The problem is lack of jobs to go round, plus low wages for many. A tiny handful might abuse the system, which does not deter Tories from portraying all claimants as scroungers. The richest 1% could pay off the deficit so benefitting the 99%. Where's the problem in this?

    2. hammer in the north - a good point there!

  2. The Income Tax threshold is increasing next week to £9,440 per annum from the present level of £8,105. It will rise again to £10,000 from April 2014. These are facts too.

  3. The reason people who work struggle is not excess taxation or the consequence of high benefits, it is low wages paid by big multi-national companies who maximise their profits at the expense of employee terms and conditions. Fight for better wages not lower benefits.

  4. The Strivers can't survive on the pay they earn, so they receive various benefits. Now many of these benefits are being cut. The argument about incentivising the poor doesn't work with this group. They will be impoverished by the changes and no use saying they should work more hours as there are hundreds of thousands who are under-employed.

    And why can't the Strivers survive on their pay? It's not a living wage. Their employers don't pay them enough, so the state sets in and subsidises. The employers gets his workers on the cheap. Quite perverse. I agree: we need decent wages and then fewer benefits would be needed to live to a decent level in this deeply unequal society.

  5. A majority of the populace support the government's welfare changes. I find that a bit depressing, but that's the price of democracy which allows the ignorant as well as the spiteful a vote. I image a YouGov vote would favour the return of capital punishment. If only there was such a thing as a benovolent tyranny...

    The tabloids have done a good job scapegoating and the so-called official opposition has been mealy mouthed and anyway I think they are secretly onboard. They recently colluded with the government in changing the law to prevent those who won a court case on compulsory work to receive compensation. The church of England did not lend its name to recent criticisms by four other churches and so I see the Archbishop of Canterbury as no real friend of the poor. How much of the church of England is still the Tory party at prayer?

    The poor must play less bingo, smoke less and watch less Sky television, such was the advice contained in a newsletter issued to tenants by a housing association in the north-west. The housing asssociation quickly put an apology on its website when it weighed it words following criticisms from tenants. So much for diversity. But the less advantaged are easy meat at the moment!

  6. Thank you, Jim, for this searingly accurate account of the likely effect of the latest welfare reforms on the most vulnerable in our society. I have not read anywhere else such a genuinely understanding analysis of the cumulative and pernicious destabilisation of claimants, who already struggle to keep up with the deliberately cruel and demeaning treatment to which they are subjected by those "in authority". Your revelations about the "botheration" tactics of JobCentre+ staff are sickening. That this comes from a professional who deals on a daily basis with the fall-out of spurious suspensions of benefits only adds to its pertinence. I am in despair at the thought of the damage this will cause, and the perverse knock-on effects this policy will have.

  7. "A majority of the populace support the government's welfare changes"

    A majority of the population can be convinced to support most things by their government. History will tell you that.

    My question for Jim is that if these clients can't manage their money (for reasons that could easily be considered not of their own making I'll freely admit), then is giving them more money going to make any difference, other than allowing them slightly more access to drink & drugs?

    1. Duncan,

      You pose a very, very difficult question and I've struggled with the issue for years. As you imply and as I alluded to, clients do not always seem to spend as wisely as you or I might, but we're not in their situation and it's wrong to overlay our probable middle class values and beliefs on them.

      Very limited incomes often means very limited choices. Remember also that 'colour' tv, cigarettes, drink or drugs provide a degree of release or amnesia from very depressing lives.

      Of course living on £53 a week is nigh-on impossible and to say anything else is to be grossly disingenuous. Clients are expected to live on this sort of amount for years, not a token week or two.

      In the end as a society we have to decide what is a reasonable level of subsistence to pay people, irrespective of the fact that they might 'misspend' some of it according to middle class values.

      It's a big issue and probably worth a post of it's own.



  8. Why does Duncan assume that if clients have money it's more likely to be spent on alcohol and drugs? The majority of probation clients do not have drink and drug addictions, but the stereotypes persist. And in terms of the general population, it is estimated that about 4% of recipients of welfare have addictions.

    And it's no wonder, therefore, that the populace are generally unsympathetic to those on welfare, when stereotypical thinking is the order of the day.