No going back

Welfare after Covid-19

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A Jobcentre worker

In the months between February and June 2020, the number of claims for Universal Credit doubled from 2.7 million to 5.4 million. Universal Credit is the primary benefit available to the unemployed, those too ill to work, and those who are in low-paid work.

Millions who have never claimed benefits before were forced to do so, in response to the economic crisis. This increase doesn’t capture the full scale of the crisis, as some people will have claimed other benefits, such as ‘new-style’ jobseeker’s allowance, but it is a good indicator.

When people made their claims, evidence was gathered remotely and processed with the focus on getting the right money to the right people at the right time. Evidence was taken on trust and the whole process of claiming benefits was speedily adapted to deal with the Covid crisis.

Terms like ‘sanction’ and ‘claimant commitment’, which have embedded vicious Tory rhetoric about ‘scroungers’ into the benefit system, were abandoned. For a shining moment, the focus of the welfare system was ensuring that people were paid.

Under huge political pressure, Tory chancellor Rishi Sunak raised the amount payable under Universal Credit by around £80 per month – not much, but the biggest rise in benefits in living memory. Why?

It is possible the government realised that all the years of dirty propaganda by their friends in the media were about to be exposed to millions more people.

They might all see the reality of the punitive, inhuman treatment of the self-employed, the low-waged, those in unstable employment, and those too ill to work – threatening the ‘national unity’ line the capitalists have been peddling.

Sunak’s increase is a tacit recognition of the potential social explosion that Universal Credit has been stoking up since the Tory-Liberal coalition introduced it in 2013.

Charities, NGOs involved in the welfare system, and local government organisations have all been critical of Universal Credit. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Citizens Advice, the Child Poverty Action Group and others have pointed to it as driving homelessness and poverty.

The housing component of Universal Credit does not cover full rent. Claimants have to top it up with money from the rest of their benefit payment, which is meant for food and other necessities.

If the government’s emergency measures preventing landlords from expelling tenants are lifted – and landlords’ organisations are actively demanding this – tens, even hundreds of thousands of people will be at risk of homelessness. This is thanks to the inadequacies of the benefit system, not to mention the 30-year-long decimation of council housing.

Calm before the welfare storm

Tory measures to get through the Covid-19 crisis have subdued angry opposition, but the crisis is far from over. Even as the R-number ebbs a little, the economic crisis which was waiting in the wings before Covid-19 gathers pace.

This is aimed directly at a working class which never recovered from a shabby decade-plus of cuts to wages, jobs and public services. Yet this hasn’t stopped Tory attempts to get back to attacking benefits claimants.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), under sharp orders from the secretary of state, has reinstituted the “claimant commitment.” That’s 35 hours a week of job searching, and the risk of being denied benefits if you don’t do ‘enough’.

What ‘enough’ means in the context of a global economic crisis is something that has the ordinary staff in DWP shaking our heads in despair at the stupidity of the bosses. The majority of DWP staff are trade union members and have little truck with government sermonising when they see the reality of Tory pension cuts and below-inflation wage ‘rises’.

During the coronavirus crisis, DWP staff have been prepared to walk out over health and safety. Unfortunately, the leadership of our union PCS, under general secretary Mark Serwotka, has not lived up to this militancy. Instead, the majority of the union leadership has succumbed to Tory ‘national unity’ rhetoric, even watering down the union’s own pay claim.

Now, PCS is balloting against the employer’s proposals to keep DWP offices open up to 8pm on weekdays and start opening on Saturdays, despite the Covid-19 crisis. Socialist Party members and others will be fighting hard to win this consultative ballot and build towards serious action as the best way to put pressure on the government.

The leadership does not seem to have the same campaigning emphasis, writing to branches: “This is not a strike ballot – this is a consultative ballot to get your views. A yes vote will help the union in negotiations to protect your safety.”

A consultative ballot must be followed by a second, statutory ballot to authorise a strike. How will playing this down, instead emphasising a simple poll of views, help the union mobilise members to achieve their demands?

This lacklustre approach has meant that only the difficulties posed by social distancing have prevented the rolling out of the whole battery of anti-claimant ‘conditionality’ measures introduced since 2012:

  • Mandatory work activity, where claimants are forced to work unpaid for 13 weeks
  • Unpaid ‘sector-based work academies’, where claimants are inducted into the joys of shelf-stacking (with a side helping of corporate propaganda)
  • Job preparation and ‘training’ delivered by private providers – who were exposed as not even helping claimants come up with a usable CV, despite being paid millions of taxpayer pounds
  • Mandatory daily attendance at Jobcentres – the Tory intent being to harass claimants into signing off benefits
  • And last but not least, a toughened sanctions regime, with a legion of new ‘offences’ that could be used to deny people Universal Credit payments

Eventually, profit pressure from the capitalist class is likely to outweigh the caution of more far-sighted Tories who understand the potential depths of the anger facing them in the aftermath of their handling of the Covid-19 crisis. They will attempt to bring back all the punitive apparatus of the last ten years, to drive down claimant numbers regardless of whether or not people can find work.

If the Tories are successful in doing this, it will not stop there. It could be worse, reflecting the scale of the crisis. They will try to go further and hit harder.

Civil servants working in DWP will also be hit. Despite the announcement of 13,500 new staff to help prop up a disastrously underfunded benefit system, the Tories will roll out plans for further privatisation, job cuts, wage freezes, and weakening of union rights.

Just last week, the patron saint of public sector union-busting, Francis Maude, who was cabinet secretary under David Cameron, was brought back in to run a review of the Cabinet Office. The outline of future Tory attacks can already be seen.

Once the focus comes off the heroic efforts of key workers, including those in DWP, the establishment media will turn to talk of the national debt, ‘lazy civil servants’ and ‘benefit scroungers’. So we need to be ready.

Unions need fighting programme

Jobs, wages and welfare are all interconnected. Recruitment freezes and redundancies are the first line of attack for bosses seeking to protect their profits. ‘Destroy jobs, withhold investment until conditions improve’ will be the mantra of the capitalist class.

The future offered by capitalism involves skyrocketing youth unemployment rates and millions thrown onto the benefit system. The first battle, therefore, must be fighting to save every single job, fighting for the nationalisation of businesses threatening job losses, and for an economic plan that creates jobs.

Alongside destroying jobs, the capitalists will attempt to hold down wages to protect their profits. Fighting for fair wages – of at least £12 per hour, and £15 in London, as a starting point – must be a major focus of a national campaign across the trade unions.

This would mobilise not just those who work in poorly paid, poorly unionised sectors like retail and care, but also the young, unemployed workers who will be pushed towards unpaid labour in those sectors if the Tories get their way.

Rishi Sunak has so far soft-pedalled the attacks on young workers. The government has created “traineeships” for 18 to 24-year-olds. When traineeships were first created in 2014, they were unpaid.

The new traineeships are paid at the national minimum wage, which can be topped up by the employer, who also gets a bonus if they keep the young worker on past the end of the traineeship.

These measures make it cheaper to hire young workers, but don’t alter the overall number of jobs available – so all they do is move the burden of unemployment around. But it shows the government is worried about a youth revolt.

Having created the unemployment, the capitalist class seeks to keep unemployment benefits low in order that workers will agree to take jobs for the lowest possible wages. If millions of workers were mobilised in a campaign to fight for jobs and wages, the unemployed would inevitably be drawn into the battle too.

As with the recent environmental school strikes, ‘claimant strikes’ could develop, allied to a militant trade union leadership that was prepared to stand up for low-paid workers – a group which overlaps with the unemployed by virtue of the shared benefit they claim: Universal Credit.

It doesn’t take much to imagine the demands posed by the unemployed. A living wage for those out of work. The end of sanctions. The end of mandatory powers for Jobcentre work coaches so that supporting claimants is the one and only focus of Jobcentres.

Improvements to the support available to find work. Proper retraining and education for workers who need to transition between sectors of the economy. A system where it is easy to contact staff for help, and which is resourced to give this help. It would not take much to get DWP staff onside with all this.

Civil servants in the lower grades have found their pay so restricted that they often get (meagre) pay rises now just by the national minimum wage increasing. Thousands of workers in DWP and other departments claim Universal Credit because their pay is so low.

DWP workers and benefit claimants are therefore natural allies, separated only by the anti-trade union laws and the anti-claimant ideology spouted by the government. Both can be defeated, and a mass trade union campaign fighting for the rights of workers in the current economic crisis is the straightest route to achieving this.

Abolish for-profit assessments

For years, in cities around the UK, groups like Disabled People Against Cuts have demonstrated outside the assessment centres where health assessments are held to determine eligibility for Universal Credit, Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payment (PIP). These assessments are delivered for profit, by privateers Capita, Atos and CHDA – meaning the whole focus is on keeping costs down.

So reliable are these assessments that in cases disputed up to tribunal level, two-thirds of the decisions based on them are overturned in claimants’ favour. It is clear that this privatised system of health assessments has to go.

Just before the crisis, the government announced plans to merge the assessments for Universal Credit and ESA with those for PIP. This is as much about salvaging a wholly discredited process as it is about cutting costs. It shows they are already under pressure.

A working class mobilised to fight on jobs, wages and welfare could sweep away these assessments in favour of something more reliable, more humane and less onerous for claimants. Disability benefits, like other benefits – and indeed the minimum wage – must be based on a real living income.

Such a campaign would also inevitably recognise that the money paid out through benefits must be supplemented with high-quality public services, and rights in both the community and the workplace, to ensure equal access and a good quality of life for all.

All workers into the unions, all unions into the struggle!

Socialists do not have illusions in the tops of the trade union movement, which tend to be heavily influenced by the capitalist class.

In respect of the traineeships for 18 to 24-year-olds discussed above, the Trades Union Congress, Britain’s union federation, put out a joint statement with the bosses’ Confederation of British Industry when they were first developed in 2014 – welcoming them, even though they were unpaid! We therefore do not expect more than fine words from most of the current crop of union leaders.

Socialists must actively build the unions – recruiting workers in their workplaces, linking up with the advanced layers of the working class, both in other workplaces covered by the same unions, and with the advanced layers of the class in other unions.

A union membership card should be held by every socialist, and they should participate in their union’s ‘broad left’ grouping, if a properly functioning one exists, to form a united front that can mobilise ordinary members and force even right-wing union leaders to act.

Working-class anger can be mobilised. The capitalists can be forced back, and concessions wrested from them directly and from their state – even as socialists campaign to supplant it with a democratic workers’ state that would give real meaning to welfare from cradle to grave.