Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Ian Duncan Smith's lame Workfare propaganda

As regular readers will know, I am not a big fan of the Tory Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith. Whether it's claiming tens of thousands of pounds from the taxpayer to "employ" his wife (hardly ever actually seen in the Constituency office) as an assistant or callously interrupting a tribute to dead disabled people with an angry political tirade, the man never ceases to provoke a profound sense of revulsion.

His latest nauseating performance came on the BBC Andrew Marr show where he lamely attempted to defend his farming out of the unemployed to profit making corporations via mandatory unpaid (Workfare) schemes in the wake of the Court of Appeals ruling that these schemes are "unlawful".

I'm going to go through many of the things he said in the interview explaining exactly how flawed and fallacious his arguments are (bear in mind he had five days between the court ruling and the interview to develop his defence). You can check the quotations (in red) against the embedded video below if you like.



Iain started out with an absurdly misleading description of what the Court of Appeals judgement was.
"They said that the regulations were set too wide and weren't specific enough"
Lets bypass the tautological aspect of this statement ("too wide" and "not specific enough" are different ways of saying the same thing) and move on to the fact that it is an outright misrepresentation of what the Court of Appeals actually said, which was this:
"There is a constitutional issue involved ... The loss of Jobseeker's allowance may result in considerable personal hardship, and it is not surprising that parliament should have been careful in making provision for the circumstances in which the sanction may be imposed ... any scheme must be such as has been authorised by parliament."
The words of the ruling make it absolutely clear that they are not just saying that "the regulations weren't specific enough". The actual ruling is an outright condemnation of Iain Duncan Smith and the DWP for completely bypassing parliament in order to impose these unlawful mandatory unpaid labour schemes on tens of thousands of people. The judges ruled that under section 17a of the 1995 Jobseekers Act (as amended in 2009), the secretary of state could not just do as he saw fit and had to lay the details of the those programmes before parliament.
"I've already put emergency regulations down, that's ended it."
So after being criticised for bypassing parliament, Iain's solution is to bypass parliament again to impose some new "emergency regulations"? The fact that he thinks that this insidious action has "ended it" is a crystal clear demonstration of his contempt for the rule of law and his contempt for parliamentary democracy.
"I'm not going to give way on this"
This is yet another assertion of his contempt for due process. It doesn't matter what the courts of law say, or what parliament rules (if he ever does decide to do as the court instructed and subject his schemes to democratic scrutiny), Iain will never give up his vendetta against the unemployed.
"I absolutely clearly tell you this; people that think it is their right to take benefit and do nothing for it, those days are over"
This is shockingly inaccurate stuff from the guy at the head of the DWP. Anyone with the faintest understanding of unemployment benefits knows what a "Jobseeker's Agreement" is. It is a deal that in return for a pitiful subsistence income, the jobseeker will demonstrate on a regular basis that they are "actively seeking work". For decades the staff at the Jobcentre have had the power to revoke benefits if they have reason to suspect that the claimant has not been seeking work. By pretending that before he came along that the claimant could collect benefits and "do nothing for it" he is using one of the classic Tory propaganda techniques; the misleading justification narrative. The technique of convincing gullible and reactionary people into backing their policies with a simplistic story, in this instance, the invocation of entirely fictional "idle scoroungers" that think it is their right to "do nothing" in return for their benefits.
"They volunteered"
They did not volunteer, Cait Reilly was actually compelled to give up her skilled voluntary work at a museum (that she found through her own initiative) in order to do unskilled labour (stacking shelves, sweeping floors) on a non-voluntary basis. The mandatory element of these schemes is what the whole court case was about! Pretending that these Workfare schemes are purely voluntary schemes is an absurdly misleading thing to do, if they were purely voluntary, very many fewer people would be complaining and the DWP would not have ended up in court being told that their schemes are unlawful.
"We allow people to have two months in  company, work experience, just working, doing what other people would do"
Firstly, this use of the word "allowed" is another flagrant abuse of the English language. When people are compelled to undertake these schemes under the threat of destitution, "allowed" is an Orwellian word to use. More appropriate words could be "compel", "force" or "coerce".

Another utterly misleading element to this particular statement is the fact that Iain reiterates and reassures that these workfare labourers are just like ordinary workers, but neglects to mention that they get no salary for doing exactly the work that paid employees should be doing.
"It's been so successful that more than half of those kids have left benefits, it's the most successful programme we've got"
The first part relies upon the use of grotesquely manipulated statistics. If marginally more than half of these "kids" have found work the scheme is actually failing spectacularly, since the average rate of "off-flow" from benefits is much higher. The latest available labour market statistics (September - November 2012, table 9.1) show us that the natural off-flow from benefits for the 18-24 age group was 69.4% over the course of one year, and 88.2% over the course of two years. What is more, the off-flow rate for 18-24 year olds has actually slowed down dramatically since Iain's Workfare schemes were introduced. During the September - November 2009 period, under Labour, the off flow rates were 79.8% over one year and 92.0% over the course of two years. As I've stated before, there is actually a wealth of economic evidence that Iain Duncan Smith's policies are pushing ever more people into long-term unemployment.

This isn't the only criticism of this particular sentence. The conclusion is also absurd. Any scheme at all would look pretty good in comparison to Iain's other brainchild the Work Programme, which cost over £400 million to find work for just 31,240 people, well over £10,000 a pop. What is worse is that every single one of the 18 private sector contractors in the Work Programme failed to meet their absolute minimum target of getting just 5.5% of their "clients" into work. The Work Programme is going to end up costing £billions in fees to private companies, yet the outcomes so far are significantly worse than had nothing been done at all! Trying to make Workfare look "successful" by comparing it to the Work Programme is a strategy akin to making dog food look like a reasonably appetising choice of meal by making the only other choice on the menu dog excrement!

Next, Iain turned his attention on Cait Reilly, the brave young woman that got Iain's schemes ruled unlawful.
"She [Cait Reilly] says that she wasn't paid. She was paid Jobseekers Allowance by the taxpayer to do this"
Well firstly, she wasn't paid in accordance with the National Minimum Wage. If her Jobseeker's Allowance is to be considered her salary for stacking shelves and sweeping floors at Poundland, then she made less than £1.50 an hour. Does anyone really believe that that is an appropriate wage for anyone? Would you work for £1.50 an hour? Does anyone believe that working for such a pittance would improve a person's self-esteem as Iain likes to claim? Treating unemployment benefits as if they were a salary is a deliberate attempt to undermine the National Minimum Wage and an insult to anyone that has paid National Insurance contributions on the understanding that the money would be used to provide a "social safety net".

This assault on the National Minimum Wage isn't even the worst thing about it. The worst thing is that this is an outright admission that she was made to carry out menial work at Poundland (which belongs to a gigantic US based conglomerate called Warburg Pincus) at the expense of the UK taxpayer. What on earth is the man thinking? Why is he expecting people to be fine with this UK taxpayer subsidisation of a US company via schemes that revoke the labour rights of British workers?
"Most young people love this scheme"
Lets assume for a moment that this statement is true: All that would demonstrate is that today's youth are idiots that "love" being stripped of their labour rights and being compelled to work for a fraction of the statutory minimum wage.

The problem of course is that most young people don't "love this scheme", they hate it. Iain presented absolutely no supporting evidence to justify his use of the word "most". I don't have the means or the inclination to carry out a valid statistical analysis on whether young people love Workfare (do cats love having a bath?), however I can present a wealth of anecdotal evidence, which definitely trumps Iain's no evidence at all. I've spoken to dozens of people that absolutely hated these schemes, they felt exploited and abused. What is worse, some of them were even bullied by the remaining paid staff, because the paid staff saw these free-labour workers as a threat to their own jobs.

Only one young person has ever attempted to defend Workfare to me, but she knew absolutely nothing about the long and painful battle to win the labour rights she seemed happy to dismiss as unnecessary, and she was also working under the assumption that I'm opposed to voluntary work, which I'm absolutely not. I have absolutely nothing against the idea of unemployed people doing some voluntary work, in fact when I was made unemployed (many years ago) that's precisely what I chose to do to increase my skillset. The DWP forcing people to do menial work (under threat of sanctions) at profit making corporations on the other hand is immoral, unlawful and economically illiterate.
"I'm sorry, but there is a group of people out there who think they're too good for this kind of stuff."  
Iain was clearly implying that people that oppose Workfare are too uppity to do menial jobs, which is a brazen appeal to reverse snobbery. Intelligent people (some of them university educated, some of them not) are not opposed to Workfare because they don't want to do menial work, the object because they understand that these schemes are outrageous attacks on the labour rights so many of our forefathers fought and died for. People oppose workfare not because of the nature of the work, but the nature of the pay.

Just to demonstrate what a misleading story Iain Duncan Smith is painting, here's a quote from Cait Reilly:
"I don't think I am above working in shops like Poundland. I now work part-time in a supermarket. It is just that I expect to get paid for working."
IDS then went on to say this:
"Let me remind you that [former Tesco chief executive] Terry Leahy started his life stacking shelves."
What Iain neglects to mention is that Terry Leahy actually got paid for stacking shelves at a supermarket. As an intelligent man, I'm fairly sure that had they expected Terry to work for them yet not paid him any salary at all, instead relying on the taxpayer to provide him a meagre subsistence payment, I'm fairly sure he would have walked away from the retail business and found himself a trade that actually paid him a living wage.

What is more, citing the boss of Tesco is a pretty poor example given that in early 2012 Tesco decided to publicly quit involvement in Workfare schemes after a spate of protests at their stores.
"The next time somebody goes in - those smart people who say there's something wrong with this - they go into their supermarket, ask themselves this simple question, when they can't find the food they want on the shelves, who is more important - them, the geologist, or the person who stacked the shelves?" 
Again, this is a classic bit of reverse snobbery from Iain Duncan Smith. He certainly seems to have a chip on his shoulder about graduates doesn't he? Perhaps this stems from the fact that in 2002 he got caught brazenly lying about his higher education experience and qualifications on his CV.

Moving on from the gigantic chip on his shoulder; Iain's little "befuddled customer scenario" is all very interesting, supermarket logistics are certainly a fundamental part of the UK economy. However it is extremely difficult to see how this scenario represents any kind of argument in favour of the mandatory unpaid labour schemes that he is supposed to be defending. In essence he is dissembling tangentially to avoid discussing the actual fundamentals of the case: That he is determined to treat the unemployed like chattel; as a source of unpaid rightless labour often for foreign owned private sector interests (Poundland, Superdrug, Marriott Hotles, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Hilton Hotels ...).

Conclusion

So what could we possibly draw from Iain Duncan Smith's rambling commentary?

IDS certainly displays a dazzling array of fallacious argument strategies including but not limited to: A desperately misleading misinterpretation of what the Court of Appeals ruling actually said; contempt for the rule of law; contempt for parliamentary democracy; deliberately misleading statements about the preexisting benefits system; the use of "scrounger narratives"; repeated attempts to obscure the fact that these schemes are mandatory through repetition of the words "volunteer" and "voluntary"; several other Orwellian uses of language; deliberate citation of desperately misleading statistics; contempt for the National Minimum Wage; contempt for labour rights; contempt for people that have made National Insurance contributions; contempt for the UK taxpayer; unsubstantiated assertions; non-sequiturs; reverse snobbery; and tangential dissembling.

There are a number of deeply concerning things about Iain Duncan Smith's comments.
  • That following the court ruling IDS had almost a week to prepare for this interview and all he could offer was a shambolic jumble of brazen propagandising, cognitive illiteracy, distraction techniques and reverse snobbery.This does not reflect at all well on his capacity to do the extremely important job he is charged with.
  • That the Conservative party considers this rambling half-wit as competent enough to run a major government department suggests that they are suffering from an abject dearth of talent.
  • That despite demonstrating time and again that he is entirely unfit for his job, Neo-Labour don't seem to have the political nous to nail this guy for being both too callous and too incompetent to run a major government department.
  • That despite the idiocy of his comments, his words were reported in an entirely uncritical in the mainstream media (BBC, Telegraph, Guardian, surprisingly the Daily Mail was one of the few that actually allowed the slightest hint of criticism to slip into their coverage). It is absolutely shocking that political discourse is being dumbed-down to such a level and the mainstream media allow the very worst culprits like IDS to get away with such inept displays of cognitive illiteracy.
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