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Friday, January 24, 2014

Why the Liberal Democrats are just as compassionless as the Tories when it comes to welfare



The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg inspired me to write this article by informing listeners to his talk radio show that "we want a welfare system which is compassionate".

Now pretty much everyone knows that Nick Clegg is such a turncoat that his name has become synonymous with self-serving political dishonesty, however I believe it is still a useful exercise to look at some of the welfare policies that Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrat sidekicks have helped the Tories to bring about and judge how "compassionate" they have been.

Iain Duncan Smith
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The first thing to note is that anyone with the slightest real interest in building a "compassionate" welfare system would have done everything in their power to keep the moral and intellectual pygmy that is Iain Duncan Smith as far away from the welfare system as possible. Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats not only refused to veto the appointment of Iain Duncan Smith as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, they have used their parliamentary votes to ram through all compassionless (and in many cases hopelessly botched) - policies. Even worse than that, they even voted to save him from the consequences of his own blundering incompetence, when anyone in their right mind would demanded his immediate resignation.

The Atos administered WCA regime
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If you are even remotely familiar with the Atos WCA regime, you will know how compassionless it it. Not only are there countless first hand testimonies as to how cruel and inaccurate it is, the government's own statistics admit that thousands of people a year have died within weeks of undergoing the Atos administered assessment regime, and the Courts have twice declared that it discriminates against those with mental health conditions.

Despite the court ruling that the Atos administered WCA regime is discriminatory, Iain Duncan Smith has refused to halt the process, a decision that elicited not a squeak of protest from Nick Clegg nor the rest of the Liberal Democrat leadership.

Aside from the fact that the Atos administered WCA regime discriminates against the mentally ill, another enormous problem is the incompetent way in which the process is administered. Nearly 40% of people who appeal against the decision to strip them of benefits win their cases and have their benefits reinstated*. There are so many appeals against dodgy Atos decisions that it costs the taxpayer (not Atos) £50 million a year to deal with them all.

One would have thought that the company responsible for costing the taxpayer £50 million a year in appeals against their dodgy decisions would hang their heads in shame, but on the contrary, the boss of Atos earns a salary of £40,000 a week, and despite this appalling legacy of failure causing untold misery to tens of thousands of families (and costing the UK taxpayer tens of millions of pounds) he was rewarded with a £1,000,000 bonus in 2012.

Have the Liberal Democrats taken any noteworthy action to stop this appalling and discriminatory abuse of disabled people, whilst the people responsible for administering it lord it around on seven figure salaries? Of course they haven't.

The Benefits "Up-Rating" Bill

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Despite its absurdly Orwellian title (an honest title would have been the Benefits Down-Rating Bill), Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats used their parliamentary votes to push through this appalling piece of legislation, which was designed to impose below inflation rises (real terms cuts) on the incomes of the unemployed and low paid workers alike.

The Tory narrative to justify this economic attack on the poorest people in society was the utterly misleading "why should your unemployed neighbour get more than you?" argument, which is misleading on countless grounds. I'll briefly outline three.

1. The Tories are responsible for the longest sustained campaign of wage repression on record, so saying that they are going to cut benefits even more harshly than wages is like saying "We've been kicking you in the groin for three years straight, so in order to make you feel better, we're going to wear steel toe capped boots as we kick your neighbour in the groin from now on".

2. The unemployed neighbour wasn't "getting more" anyway, since an inflation matching 2.5% addition to £71 per week in Jobseekers' Allowance is actually significantly less than a 1.5% increase on the average salary of £500 per week.

3. The vast majority of people to be affected by the Benefits Up-Raring Bill are actually the working poor, not the unemployed. This is because the bill didn't just cut unemployment benefits, it cut all kinds of in-work benefits too (Working Tax Credits, Child Tax Credits, Child Benefit, Housing Benefit, Income Support, Maternity Pay, Paternity Pay, Statutory Sickness Pay ...). The fact that the "up-rating" bill actually reduces the incomes of far more working families than it does unemployed people illustrates the utter dishonesty and maliciousness of the people that devised the "why should your unemployed neighbour get more than you?" narrative.
None of these objections bothered the Liberal Democrats, who used their parliamentary votes to get the "up-rating" bill through parliament.

An interesting contrast can be made with the way the Liberal Democrats constantly bang on about how they raised the income tax threshold (the one allegad success that they so desperately cling onto). What they never say is that they voted through Tory measures like the Benefits Up-Rating Bill which are designed to snatch back any gains the working poor may have made through the raising of the income tax threshold. The Lib-Dems won't shut up about how they gave the working poor a few extra quid, but they remain absolutely silent on the fact that they have used their parliamentary votes to help the Tories snatch it all back again, meaning the only real beneficiaries from the raised income tax threshold are the already wealthy.
 

Bedroom Tax
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One of the most convincing examples of the Liberal Democrat commitment to harsh and compassionless welfare reforms is the "Bedroom Tax", which was voted into existence with Lib-Dem parliamentary votes and defended in Parliament by the Liberal Democrat MP Steve Webb.

The "Bedroom Tax" is an abomination which disproportionately penalises disabled people (around two thirds of all families affected by "Bedroom Tax" have disabled members).

"Bedroom Tax" is a cruel and arbitrary regime which attempts to drive people out of their homes - even though there are nowhere near enough smaller properties to rehouse all of these displaced people.

Perhaps it might be possible to consider it fair for extra charges to be levied upon on a person (or small family) that refuses to move out of a large social housing property after the council have said they need it to house a large family, despite having been offered a smaller property in return. However slamming all "under-occupiers" with arbitrary charges when there are absolutely no smaller properties available for them to move into is as compassionless as it is unfair and economically illiterate.

This lack of available smaller properties exposes "Bedroom Tax" for what it is: Yet another attempt by the Tory party to impose austerity on the poor (whilst simultaneously giving vast tax cuts to the rich).

Not only is the "Bedroom Tax" an abomination, it was also introduced in such a cack-handed manner that it turns out that some 40,000 people who have been forced to pay it aren't actually liable and should surely be entitled to reimbursement.

The Liberal Democrats didn't just use their parliamentary votes to pass this abomination into law, one of their own MPs (Steve Webb) was part of the team that devised and defended the scheme.


Retroactive "Workfare" legislation

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Another blatant demonstration of the Liberal Democrat commitment to support the compassionless Tory attacks on the welfare system was their decision to vote in favour of Iain Duncan Smith's absurd retroactive lawmaking exercise called the Jobseekers' (Back to Work) Bill, but which should more accurately have been called Iain Duncan Smith's "I'm Above the Law" Bill.

This ludicrous bill came about as the result of a court judgement that Iain Duncan Smith's mandatory unpaid "Workfare" schemes were unlawful. The judgement was made on the grounds that Iain Duncan Smith had drawn up a bunch of unintelligible rules and that he hadn't even bothered to subject them to parliamentary scrutiny before enacting them.

Thousands of people were stripped of their benefits for failing to comply with Iain Duncan Smith's unintelligible "workfare" rules, then once the court ruled that these schemes were unlawful, it seemed that the victims of these unintelligible and unlawful rules would be entitled to an estimated £130 million in compensation for the unlawful treatment they had suffered.

Iain Duncan Smith's response to this was to draw up a ludicrous piece of retroactive legislation designed to retroactively change the "Workfare" rules so that they would have been intelligible and approved by parliament had they been written that way at the time all those people were sanctioned. The Liberal Democrats happily voted in favour of this, giving their seal of approval to a truly outrageous bastardisation of the parliamentary process in order to help Iain Duncan Smith keep the £130 million he had unlawfully stolen from some of the most vulnerable people in society, and save himself from the sacking he so richly deserved.

 
Benefits sanctions
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One of the most merciless welfare reforms since the Liberal Democrats trashed their own political reputation by helping the Tories sneak back into power is the massive increase in the use of benefits sanctions, which leave people absolutely destitute, reliant upon food banks, or even worse, homeless.


In the last two and a half years, the number of unemployed people sanctioned has averaged 64,307 a month, compared with 27,108 a month between 2000 and 2010, a 137% increase. Several DWP whistleblowers have stated that this massive increase in sanctions is a direct result of sanctions league tables and intense pressure from DWP management to increase the number of weekly sanctions.

 
After repeatedly lying that there were no such things as sanctions league tables, Coalition ministers were caught out when the sanctions league tables were leaked to the public. As we have come to expect, the mainstream corporate press and the Parliamentary Standards Authority both allowed the government ministers that had repeatedly lied about the non-existence of sanctions league tables to get away with their lies without the slightest sanction.

Aside from the lies, there are many truly disturbing things about the massive increase in benefits sanctions, here I will briefly outline three of the worst things.

1. Thousands of people have been sanctioned for absolutely ludicrous reasons. Here are a few examples:
  • 60 year old army veteran sanctioned for selling poppies for a few hours a day in the weeks before Remembrance Day, despite applying for dozens of jobs too. [source]
  • Sanctioned for attending a job interview instead of signing on at the Jobcentre (despite contacting the Jobcentre beforehand to reschedule the signing on appointment). [source]
  • Sanctioned after being given a training appointment which clashed with the fortnightly signing on appointment. [source]
  • Sanctioned for having a heart attack during an Employment and Support Allowance interview. [source]
  • Sanctioned for a month for being five minutes late for an appointment. [source]
2. Sanctions are inherently discriminatory. When Jobcentre staff have sanctions quotas to fill (which is impossible to deny given the proven existence of sanctions league tables) it is much easier for them to trick mentally ill people into losing their sanctions than it is to try and catch out the tiny minority of hard-core benefits scroungers that probably know the rules even better than the Jobcentre staff do themselves. This isn't just idle speculation, the culture of tricking "easy targets" into losing their benefits has been exposed by whistleblowers.

3. Sanctions are used to force people into giving up their labour rights. Sanctions are the means by which Iain Duncan Smith compels people to give up their labour rights and work for free on his mandatory unpaid "workfare" schemes. These schemes are not just bad for the people who are forced onto them under threat of absolute destitution, they are bad for the rest of us too. It doesn't take an economics genius to realise that flooding a market (the labour market) with free commodities (an army of tens of thousands of rightless and unpaid "workfare" labourers) will have the effect of pushing down the value of the commodity in question (the value of our labour - the wages of the rest of us). Another appalling aspect to Workfare is the unfair market advantage handed to unethical businesses that take advantage of this supply of free rightless labour over those that eschew forced labour. Yet another negative consequence is the fact that many of the recipients of Iain Duncan Smith's supply of free labour are tax-dodgers and in many cases not even British companies, meaning the profits from the reductions in their wage bill are siphoned off abroad.
Nick Clegg's commitment to compassion within the welfare system doesn't seem to extend to preventing their Tory coalition colleagues from imposing sanctions league tables (and lying about it), more than doubling the number of people forced into destitution for "crimes" such as being 9 minutes late for a Jobcentre appointment because their preceding job interview overran, nor protecting the unemployed from being forced onto unlawful, economically illiterate Soviet style compulsory labour schemes.

Conclusion

Nick Clegg's guff about wanting a "compassionate" welfare system is totally undermined by the the track record of the government that he is part of. Many of the harshest policies like "Bedroom Tax" and the cuts to in-work benefits for the working poor were only made possible by Liberal Democrat MPs votes in parliament. Even when some of Iain Duncan Smith's worst welfare policies have been condemned as unlawful and discriminatory by the courts, the Liberal Democrats have backed him to the hilt.

It is absolutely clear that the Liberal Democrat leadership value a few years of six figure salaries and their access to ministerial cars far more highly than they value the idea of protecting the most vulnerable from Tory malice, let alone building a "compassionate" welfare system.

The electoral price the Liberal Democrats are going to pay for this collusion with the Tories will be a high one, however it is impossible to feel an iota of sympathy for them that they are going to bear the bulk of the electoral whiplash rather than the Tory party that actually devised most of these schemes.


Yes Tories like Iain Duncan Smith, David Anthony Freud and Mark Hoban have been the worst offenders, but by now we have come to expect nothing more than incompetence and malice from the Tory party. Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats have had every chance to restrain Iain Duncan Smith, or even force his removal from the position of responsibility that he is so hopelessly unfit to hold, yet they've done worse than nothing, they've backed him to the hilt and voted in favour of every single compassionless (and hopelessly botched) piece of legislation he's put before parliament.

By letting a callous and intellectually stunted monster like Iain Duncan Smith run amok, they've destroyed their credentials as a "liberal" party and lost the right to expect anyone at all to take them seriously when they speak of wanting a "compassionate" welfare system. Liberal Democrats are due their imminent resounding electoral defeat, and I doubt many people will be convinced by their pathetic "It wasn't us sir - it was the big boys in blue ties" appeals for compassion before we cast our votes in the 2015 General Election.




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*When appellants are represented by a legal professional the success rate rises to as high as 80%!

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