Targetting the weak and vulnerable

It is a while since we have posted on here, but a story in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper concerning the proposals to end Contributions Based Employment & Support Allowance for claimants after 12 months cannot pass without comment. The story can be found here.

It has been apparent to our advisers over recent months that the DWP appears to be targetting the most vulnerable members of society. We see this on a regular basis with clients who have been sanctioned (i.e. had their benefit suspended). Invariably those who are affected are those who speak little English and are unlikely to fight back. Decisions on sanctions can be challenged (although you need to provide evidence that you were seeking work during the period you were sanctioned for).

The deliberate targetting of the sick and disabled, which has been going for some time now, is a further area in which the DWP is attacking the vulnerable. Disabled people and those who are too sick to work feel, justifiably, that they are being victimised. The Guardian report quotes a DWP spokesperson as saying of the terminally ill: The process of working may even be helpful in giving them a sense of being useful and prolonging their lives. So it seems that Government policy is not only to victimise the weakest members of society but to force them to work until the day they die.

They should hang their heads in shame. So too should anyone who voted for the Condem parties who are targetting the weakest members of society and making them pay for the mistakes of the banking elite whose gambling excesses have precipitated the financial situation the country is in.

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New Opening Hours

From Monday 11 April our office will only be staffed on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. We will continue to provide drop-in advice in the mornings for welfare benefits and generalist issues but our services will be substantially reduced due to loss of funding. If you require help with employment law issues please telephone us on 0121-771-0871 during office hours on these days and we will try to assist you.

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The Great March

Saturday’s march in London was a chance for people to show how much they cared about their local services, their own jobs and those of the many thousands who work in the public sector. A chance to show the government that people don’t accept that cuts are inevitable and that there is no alternative. I made the trip to London to demonstrate against the coalition’s dismantling of the welfare state and the withdrawal of funding to local organisations like Birmingham TUC Centre for the Unemployed. If Cameron were serious about the importance the ‘Big Society’ and the importance of volunteering he wouldn’t be killing off organisations that allow people to work to improve the live of others.

It was great to see so many other people coming together to send a clear message to the government. The march started at the Embankment and slowly made its way to Hyde Park. Standing on the pavement watching the marchers go past, before joining the procession, was a moving experience. The banners and signs showed that the government had made enemies of people from all walks of life, from all over the country and the young and old. The unions were out in force but so were many different community groups.

It took almost 4 hours to make it from the Embankment to Hyde Park. It didn’t help that I had a pulled hamstring. Many weren’t able to finish the march because they had to leave to get their coaches. The march was good natured and even the police seemed friendly – perhaps they would have preferred to have been marching rather than protecting the premises of the banks, Top Shop, Vodafone, Boots and the posh hotels. I didn’t see any violence although there were a few broken windows and paint had been thrown at some buildings.


With the police estimating that there were 250,000 marchers you can assume that there were twice that number. The question is, where do we go from here? One well-attended march on its own isn’t going to make the government chance its mind. We have to continue to fight to reverse the planned cuts. The march showed that there is a genuine desire for people to come together to protect their local services. We need to build on the successful march and continue to make it clear to the coalition government that there is an alternative and that it is better to fight the cuts together than on our own.

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Disastrous Unemployment Figures

The unemployment figures were announced yesterday and the headline figures were pretty disastrous for the Con Dem government:

  • 2.5 million out of work (8% of the working age population)
  • Highest numbers out of work for 17 years
  • The number of unemployed women at the highest level since 1988
  • Youth unemployment at unprecedented levels

The response of the government has been very predictable: the figures are “disappointing” and the fault of the previous Labour government. Politicians are known for being economical with the truth and this is a perfect example of that practice. If we were to believe the various pronouncements from ministers the economy is doing well and growing, especially in manufacturing. To those of us working on the ground this certainly doesn’t tie in with the situation we can see. There are few jobs on offer and those that are available tend to be part-time, temporary positions, agency work or a combination of these.

It is all very well for the Government of Millionaires to call these statistics “disappointing,” but each and every one of those out of work is an individual, someone trying to survive on Jobseekers’ Allowance, someone struggling to survive on a day-to-day basis, someone desperate to find a job when there are no vacancies for which they are qualified. Someone who is a real person with real problems, who the government regard as a mere statistic, a ‘disappointment’ and not a real live individual.

The Birmingham claimant (JSA) figures for February 2011 are also available. The top six wards for unemployment are:

  1. Washwood Heath                    28.2%
  2. Aston                                        27.7%
  3. Lozells & East Handsworth   25.3%
  4. Nechells                                    25.1%
  5. Ladywood                                23.2%
  6. Sparkbrook                              22.9%

Unemployment in Birmingham is the second highest of all major cities in the UK, with a claimant rate of 11.6% with only Liverpool higher at 11.9%.

The lack of any real action to boost the economy stands out very clearly. Under the previous government we had Future Jobs Fund which was an effective way of providing young people with paid experience of real work. It was of course immediately cancelled by the Con Dems, who have yet to produce an alternative to tackling unemployment amongst young people.

Sadly these figures will only increase in the short term, with the government following an ideologically driven programme to cut public sector jobs by substantial amounts; on top of these there are likely to be significant numbers of those employed in the voluntary sector (most of whom are funded by local authorities or central government). The outlook for many ordinary people over the next 12 months is extremely bleak as they are forced to pay for the problems of the banking industry which created the economic crisis we are in.

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Big Society: a return to the 19th century

This morning I had the rather dubious pleasure of attending a funding event which began with an address by a speaker on one of the Tories’ favourite phrases, ‘Big Society’.

It struck me that the speaker could well have been a snake oil salesman had he been around in the nineteenth century. It was also apparent that many in the audience were not taken in by the charms on offer and could see exactly what is being proposed: activities that are needed by society and currently funded by the state will in future be delivered for free by third sector organisations through the use of volunteers.

The focus on his talk was very much on the fact that the UK’s citizens are now living longer, have greater needs and these needs cannot be met by the government as a result of the vast amounts of money that had been paid to salvage the banking industry. Significantly, there was no consideration that there might be alternative ways of providing state funding to support the weak and vulnerable in society.

What was also interesting was the range of examples quoted as what might be termed ‘the way forward’. We had a rather rosy picture of life before the existence of the welfare state and we were given three examples of organisations that had delivered this idyllic life: building societies, General Booth and the Salvation Army and ‘the village club’. 

In the light of the banking crisis and the collapse of a number of building societies it seemed rather apt to suggest that this model represents ‘the future’. The argument put was extremely simplistic: building societies were established as mutual self help organisations and look where they are now. However, the example quoted related to the very early building societies known as ‘terminating societies’ which were established from the late 18th century. These operated on a principal of mutual self help, with each member contributing a monthly payment and when sufficient funds were raised a plot of land was purchased and a house built for the member whose name was drawn by lot. The society was ‘terminated’ when every member had a house. It is often suggested that these were working class organisations, but the fact that the most common monthly payments were set at 5 shillings (25p) or 10 shillings (50p) suggests this was unlikely, as these amounts would have been well beyond the reach of most ordinary working men. The ‘terminating’ model went out of fashion very quickly to be replaced by ‘permanent’ societies which generally ran very efficiently until deregulation saw most decide to end their mutual status and become banks. The very banks that have caused the crisis the country is now in.

It seems that what is an offer is a return to 18th century, or at best 19th century, principals. A world where the rich were in control and the poor were kept in their place. Significantly the reforming and modernisation of society that began in the late 19th century came through actions of national and local government. The provision of adequate sewerage systems, of gas and electricity, all of which were essential to the growth of society, came from pioneering local councils, rarely from private individuals or ‘self help’ groups. I would recommend an article on the Broken Barnet site ( for an idea as to what is likely to be the outcome of one of Big Society’s plans: the transfer of assets to ‘the community’.

There is nothing ‘big’ about ‘Big Society’: the term sounds friendly and, perhaps most importantly for the Tory ideologists, it can be used as a counterpart to ‘Big Government’. What we are really talking about here is an abrogation of duties on behalf of government – the Tories are now saying that they have relinquished their duty to support the weak and vulnerable in society. Nor is it a progressive policy – it is a policy which takes the country back more than 100 years to a time when the rich were all powerful and the poor were kept in their place. Perhaps that is what we should expect from a ‘Government of Millionaires’, but it is a policy that must be challenged at every level by those who have a real concern for our society.

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Birmingham March Against The Cuts, 26 February

There was an extremely healthy attendance on Saturday’s march in Birmingham City Centre organised by Birmingham Against the Cuts. Around 1,000 people set off from the Cathedral grounds but many more joined as we made our way down Union Street, High Street and New Street and there must have been close to 1,500 as we returned to the Cathedral. This was despite the fact that the weather on Saturday morning was poor with steady rain falling up until just before the march was due to set off.

Many trade unions were represented with, for obvious reasons, Unison well to the fore. There was plenty of spirit amongst the marchers and support from shoppers, but this has to be seen as only the beginning of the movement to build support for the national rally in London on 26 March. With a few exceptions those marching were people whose jobs are threatened and the campaign now needs to push forward in two areas: firstly by building localised campaigns in the different areas of Birmingham and secondly by involving service users of the various projects that will have their funding axed.

Next event in the Birmingham Against The Cuts calendar is on Tuesday 1 March when there is a protest outside the Council House in Victoria Square to coincide with the Council meeting to set their budget for 2011-12. The protest is due to run from 2pm to 6pm.

(Pictures are by Ian Cuthbert,

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Making the unemployed pay for the excesses of the bankers

David Cameron is, apparently, a caring and compassionate man. He believes in the ‘Big Society’, although of course he cannot say what that is, but it sounds rather touch feely, and he feels “physically sick” when he thinks of prisoners being allowed to vote in elections. His sensitivity and compassion do not, however, extend to the unemployed who have become fair game for attack with a series of stories currently being fed through the right of centre media. In fact he and his government seem to positively revel in giving the unemployed, sick and disabled a good kicking.

If we believe the likes of the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, the country is at threat from the “sicknote” culture and that most, if not all benefit claimants are “workshy”. Of course, the words ‘sicknote’ and ‘workshy’ are sound bites with a purpose; they are designed to convince the general population that these words describe all benefit claimants. They also help divert attention from the fact that the economy under Osborne’s slash and burn policy is faltering. And, as the Tories admit, there is no Plan B. In a matter of weeks unemployment will rise further, with tens of thousands of public sector workers and a similar number in the voluntary sector being thrown on the dole by the inept policies of a government driven by ideology.

The most obvious point is being missed: the country has an unemployment problem because there are not enough jobs. Why are there not enough jobs? Because the economy is in a mess. What caused the economy to be in a mess? The crisis in the banking sector, which began in the UK with the problems at Northern Rock back in September 2007.

Let us be clear, this is not a world economic crisis – India, China, Australia and Brazil are flourishing. It is a crisis principally of the economies in North America and Western Europe which had become reliant on credit and finance to oil the wheels rather than industrial production. It is a crisis created by the financial sector, not by those who have been thrown out of work by the crisis, or by the fact that the rates of welfare benefits paid supposedly act as a disincentive to people working.

One effect of sound bites such as ‘sicknote’ and ‘workshy’ and the catch phrase “make work pay” (as if work doesn’t pay) is to turn public anger away from the wealthy bankers, who created the economic problems, and blame the unemployed, sick and disabled. “Make work pay” suggests that people are so comfortable on benefits that there is no incentive for them to work. The reality is rather different. The benefits advisers in our centre see many people every day who would love to have a job, we cannot recall a single instance of a client saying that they claim benefits because of the financial rewards, or indeed of a client rejecting a job that has been offered to them because they would be better off on benefits.

The unemployed, sick and disabled are often by the nature of their status isolated within society. Their low income excludes them from many social activities and, of course, they do not experience the social interaction of the workplace, because they have no job. They are an easy target. A caring and compassionate government has a duty to protect its vulnerable citizens, not to kick them when they are down. But there again, this is not a caring and compassionate government. It is a government of millionaires who see the banking industry as their friends and the unemployed as their enemies.

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