Monthly Archives: November 2012

A few simple ideas to save the UK economy (Part One)

Tax: Nobody likes paying it but progressive tax reform could be one of the fastest ways to rebalance the UK budget.

Tax: Nobody likes paying it but progressive tax reform could be one of the fastest ways to rebalance the UK budget.

It seems I have been challenged. Commenting on my post ‘Iain Duncan Smith – what went wrong?’, a correspondent calling himself ‘Brian’ suggested I should use “a little grey matter and suggest where to cut instead”.

This is a question that has exercised my intelligence for much of the last two years, ever since it dawned on me that the current Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition was not going to do anything at all to help the UK economy in real terms.

In fact we have seen them try to make it worse – look at Gideon George Osborne’s changes to tax laws, that make it easier for multinationals to put their profits into tax havens rather than pay the UK Treasury what it deserves; look at the way Workfare keeps unemployment artificially high; look at the proposals for a two-tier road tax system that will disproportionately affect small businesses.

In fairness, I haven’t updated my ideas over the 12 months since I have been writing the blog. What follows must stand as a document of what could have been done. I put together more than 20 ideas at the time. Some of them may be impractical now, due to the many and various incompetences of the current government. I will try to include the best.

This is looking like the first part of a series, as there is an amazing number of possibilities available. I’ll try to concentrate on just one issue at a time.

Here goes:

1. TAX

“What we need now is a deficit cutting policy aimed at increasing government income.

“There are three ways to achieve this. The first is for the government to stimulate a moribund economy by encouraging investment. This is the Keynesian solution that is proven to work. The second is to raise selective new taxes on those best able to pay them. This is possible. The third option is to tackle the tax gap.

“The tax gap has three parts. The first is tax avoidance. I estimate this to be about £25 billion a year. This arises from the exploitation of loopholes in UK tax law and between UK tax law and that of other states – especially tax havens. The second part is tax evasion – that is breaking the law. I estimate this to be £70 billion a year. H M Revenue & Customs claim it is much less, but their methodology for estimating anything but VAT evasion is very weak. Lastly, there is unpaid and late paid tax – currently according to H M Revenue & Customs at least £26 billion.

“Put these figures together and they come to more than £120 billion, or enough, at least in principle, to close the whole current government deficit.” – Richard Murphy, Director of Tax Research UK.

If we compare the estimate of the tax gap with the DWP estimate of benefit fraud, we can see that benefit fraud is less than 1 per cent of the total lost in the tax gap; tax is therefore far more important than welfare in the struggle to balance the UK budget book.

So the first measure must be to minimise personal and corporate tax avoidance by requiring tax havens to disclose information fully and changing the definition of ‘tax residence’; these two reforms are estimated minimally to yield £10 billion.

Introduce a 50 per cent Income Tax band for gross incomes above £100,000. This reform introduces a new 50 per cent band of Income Tax for taxable incomes above £94,000 per year (approximately £100,000 a year gross income). This would raise £4.7 billion compared with the 2009/10 tax system, or an extra £2.3 billion compared with introducing this band at £150,000 as proposed by the previous chancellor. (The Coalition has lowered the previously-existing 50 per cent band to 45 per cent, giving a £40,000 tax break to the richest in society when the UK economy needs the money far more than they do).

Introduce minimum tax rates. This reform introduces a lower limit to effective rates of Income Tax above certain levels of gross income. As gross income approaches each threshold, the personal allowance and other reliefs (for example, tax relief on pension contributions) are ‘clawed back’ at a high marginal rate until the average tax rate – as well as the marginal tax rate – on income above each threshold is equal to tax rates of 40 per cent and 50 per cent on incomes of above £100,000 and £150,000 respectively. Such a reform raises an additional £14.9 billion.

Introduce a special lower tax band of 10 per cent below the poverty line (below £13,500 per annum), while restoring the ‘basic rate’ to 22 per cent – in order not to hit the poorest hardest. This costs £11.5 billion, far less than the extra tax take outlined above.

Uncap National Insurance Contributions (NICs) so they are paid at 11 per cent all the way up the income scale (continuing to exempt pensioners). In 2009/10, employee NICs were payable at 11 per cent from £100 a week up to £884 per week – and at just 1 per cent above this level. Self-employed NICs have an equivalent structure based on annual profits, paid at 8 per cent up to profits of £43,875 and then at 1 per cent above this. Also, unearned income (for example, income from investments and savings) is not subject to NICs. This reform removes the upper threshold so that employee NICs are payable at 11 per cent on all earnings above £884 per week for employees and at 8 per cent on all profits above £5,715 per year for the self-employed. Additionally, all investment income above £110 per week (or the annualised equivalent) is made liable to NICs at 11 per cent. This results in further revenue of £9.1 billion; thus uncapping NICs would rake in a great deal of money. It would also turn NICs into a flat tax, making it ‘merely regressive’ rather than ‘über regressive’.

Increase the tax payable (higher multipliers) for houses in Council Tax bands E to H. This would raise a further £4.2 billion.

£5bn could be raised every year with an Empty Property Tax on vacant dwellings which exacerbate housing shortages and harm neighbourhoods.

Urge that all current small limited companies be re-registered as limited liability partnerships to simplify their administration and reduce opportunities for tax avoidance.

These measures alone are likely to bring at least £34 billion into the UK Treasury every year.

The great Leveson whitewash

Lord Justice Leveson, delivering his speech.

Oh, all right – greywash.

Please note: This is an initial reaction to the Leveson report, based on Lord Justice Leveson’s speech today (November 29). The report itself is 2,000 pages long and may contain much more that is of interest to us. But that will have to wait for another day.

Lord Justice Leveson has come out with his report which, in effect, advocates as little change to current press regulation as he thought he could get away with.

Jeremy Hunt, the Murdochs, George Osborne and David Cameron can all sleep comfortably tonight, in the knowledge that the skeletons in their closets have not been disturbed.

Leveson wants the press governed by a new self-regulatory body, underpinned by legislation, containing no serving editors or politicians.

But he says incidents in which the press have corrupted politicians or police are exceptions to the rule, and that the norm is a “robust” (he said that word a lot) relationship.

He said: “The lawbreaking in this area is typically hidden, with the victims unaware of what has happened… I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest that corruption by the press is a widespread problem in relation to the police; however, I have identified issues to be addressed.”

On the relationship between press and politicians, he recommended steps to create greater transparency “so there is no risk of even the perception of bias”.

He said: “In a number of respects, the relationship between politicians and the press has been too close, conducted out of the public eye, between policymakers and those who stand to benefit.

“The power of the press to affect political fortunes may be used to affect policy. That undermines the belief in policy decisions being made genuinely in the public interest.”

I suppose you could say he did criticise the government with this line: “The press is entitled to lobby in its own interests, but it is the responsibility of the politicians to ensure their decisions are in the public interest. Their dealings with the press should be open and transparent and the public should have understanding of the process.”

That certainly hasn’t happened with regard to the relationships between David Cameron and either Andy Coulson or Rebekah Brooks, or the relationships of both Mr Cameron and George Osborne with the Murdochs, or indeed that of former culture secretary Jeremy Hunt with News Corporation/News International!

I don’t think his proposals will work. I think the transgressors will keep on doing what they have been doing, and the politicians will continue to pander to them because they influence the popular vote.

I would like to have seen Leveson criticise a situation that has seen powerful newspaper magnates worm their way into the retinues of ministers and even the Prime Minister; and especially welcome would be a request for an explanation, from the PM, of his over-close relationship with the former chief executive of News International, Rebekah Brooks, who is even now awaiting trial for alleged criminal acts.

I would also like to see Leveson demand disclosure of the emails and texts that Mr Cameron did not provide to the inquiry or otherwise make public. What does he have to hide? Also, since the Prime Minister should be above reproach, should we conclude that his continued opacity in this regard is an admission that he is culpable of something, and therefore should we not demand his removal from office?

Instead, Leveson seems to have drawn a line under what happened. It is future relationships that he wants to safeguard. For those involved in the phone hacking scandals and the relationship between the Murdoch organisation and the Conservative Party, this means there will always be doubt in the public mind. Mr Cameron has lost public trust over this.

I would like to have seen Leveson question the way newspaper reporters have managed to get inside information from police forces across the country, because this raises serious issues about the corruptibility of our boys in blue. It takes two people to hand over confidential information – the one who’s asking for it and the one who provides it.

Perhaps that will follow but I doubt it. Despite Lord Justice Leveson’s beliefs, it seems this affair has damaged public perception of the police – as a whole – as well.

Iain Duncan Smith – what went wrong?

The mask slips: Iain Duncan Smith shows us all his true face.

On the face of it, he looked so promising, didn’t he?

When Iain Duncan Smith took up his position as the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in 2010, it was as one of the architects of ‘Compassionate Conservatism’, a project that was the first to be announced by David Cameron after he became Tory leader in 2005.

The new minister had been involved with social issues ever since the theme of the Conservative Party spring conference in 2002 struck a chord with him – it was ‘Helping the Vulnerable’.

Apparently it touched on his beliefs as a devout Catholic, and came at the same time as he visited Easterhouse and Gallowgate in Glasgow, where he was struck by the run-down housing, visible signs of drug abuse and general lack of hope.

Critics within the Tory party said they didn’t understand his interest, as it seemed to involve him walking around housing estates. Liam Fox (now a disgraced former Defence minister) said it needed a context, such as stressing the role of the family in lifting people out of poverty. It seems he also lacked the deft communications skills that were necessary. Perhaps we should have listened to these criticisms.

Iain Duncan Smith later wrote the report ‘Breakdown Britain’ about the harsh realities of family breakdown, drug abuse and youth crime.

All of that promised a turnaround for the ‘Nasty Party’, with an emphasis on helping the most disadvantaged people to advance in society – a philosophy that many believed was vital for a party coming into power – albeit in coalition – at a time when the UK was facing its worst economic crisis for 70 years.

What a shame that it was all a lie.

George Orwell once, famously, wrote, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” To understand Iain Duncan Smith’s social security policy, insert the word “Conservative” before the word “boot”.

Just look at what he has done to the sick and disabled. People who rely on state support for their very survival have been subjected to a humiliating and highly-stressful regime of tests in order to keep their benefits – tests which are entirely pointless because it has been proved that only 13 per cent of them will be allowed to continue receiving their benefit indefinitely. The rest go into either a ‘work-related activity’ group, for people expected to be fit for work within 365 days, or are signed ‘fit for work’ and forced onto Jobseekers’ Allowance immediately.

At the time of writing, official figures show an average of 73 sick or disabled people are dying every week as a result of this Iain Duncan Smith policy. Every six weeks, more of them die than have been killed on active service in Afghanistan since the British Army moved into that country 10 years ago.

That is his worst crime – but not the only one.

He has raised the retirement age, meaning millions will have to wait longer for their state pensions.

He is forcing millions of benefit recipients to take less money by ‘streamlining’ their payments into a single Universal Credit, which will be more difficult to manage and will be governed by a computerised system that – at present – doesn’t work.

He has pushed hundreds of thousands of jobseekers onto a work programme that turned out to be more of a way for his friends in the private sector to take public money than a channel back into work. Figures released yesterday show that the government would have achieved better results if the work programme had never been put into practice.

He has taken jobseekers away from activities likely to lead them into fulfilling full-time work and pushed them onto ‘Workfare’ programmes, forcing them to carry out menial tasks like stacking shelves in shops, just to keep their meagre benefit money. The system means participating businesses don’t have to take on new employees, so unemployment remains high, and the state – in effect – subsidises those firms.

His benefit cap will lead to a rise in homelessness and child poverty.

In December 2011 he drew up proposals to stop “under-employed” people “topping up” their wages with hand-outs when they are capable of working for longer. Individuals will be told they must earn a minimum amount each week from their jobs and will face being stripped of their housing benefit and tax credits if they fall short, under the plan. He has not, to my knowledge, told employers that they must ensure they pay enough for this policy to work. Therefore we can assume that this is a plan to take housing benefit and tax credits (or Universal Credit) from low-earners – depriving them of their homes as well, as they go into debt with their landlords.

In short, far from helping to solve problems of poverty, homelessness, and crime (which is often related to these), his policies seem designed to make them worse! Despite being shown – at great length – the error of his ways, he has refused to be swayed and remains determined to stick to his homicidal course.

And this is strange, because this is a man who has personally profited greatly from state support.

His first job was taxpayer-funded military service, carrying bags for a Major-General. After six years of this, he left the Army and spent six months on the dole. You can guarantee he was getting housing benefit for it. Current plans would give a man that age only as much as if he was renting a single room in a shared house, and one must wonder how well this gentleman would have coped in that situation.

He then started a job, using the skills he had gained while being paid by the taxpayer in the Army – as a salesman for arms dealer GEC-Marconi. Remember, this is the man who would later play a major part in ‘compassionate’ Conservatism.

He moved on to a property firm, but after six months found himself back on the dole (and housing benefit, one presumes). Then he sold gun-related magazines for Jane’s Information Group.

Then he got elected to Parliament, in 1992. Every year since then, he has been paid more than most taxpayers earn, and currently receives £134,565 per year.

He has had four children and received child benefit for all of them. He currently plans to restrict child benefit, making it payable for only two children per household. He put all of his children through private school – with the help of his MP’s salary which is paid by, you guessed it, the taxpayer.

His wife’s record of work, since they married, totals 15 months as his diary secretary – for which the taxpayer gave her £15,000. It has been suggested that she did not, in fact, do any work at all while drawing this paycheck.

A more recent example of this behaviour pattern involves his policy adviser Philippa Stroud, who also receives cash from a political thinktank. Read about it here.

He lives rent-free in a £2 million Tudor farmhouse on his father-in-law’s ancestral estate in Buckinghamshire, with three acres of land, a tennis court, swimming pool and some orchards.

One would think, if anybody had reason to be grateful for taxpayer-funded benefits, and to understand how this funding can help improve the life of somebody on the dole, it would be this former jobseeker, whose salary is paid by us to this day.

What a small-minded, evil bigot.

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The work programme – a £527 million failure

The government’s flagship work programme stood revealed as an abject failure today, when the Department for Work and Pensions admitted only around three per cent of jobseekers have found “sustainable” work.

Of the 878,000 people who joined the programme, only 31,000 found a job for six months or more.

The figures mean as many unemployed people are finding sustainable jobs on their own – and are staying in employment six months after joining the work programme – than if the scheme had never existed.

There was “no direct evidence of movement into sustained employment”.

Ministers have, of course, refused to accept that the scheme is a failure – despite it reaching only three-fifths of its 5.5 per cent target (3.53 per cent) – and are claiming it is taking longer than expected to succeed. The next set of figures will be better, they claim. They said it was “early days”.

We should bear in mind that three top officials on the work programme resigned recently, before the results were released. Oh, and the figures aren’t for a year but for 14 months, from June 2011 to July 2012. Cooking the books?

Under the scheme – replacing the New Deal, Employment Zones and Pathways to Work – approved providers in England, Scotland and Wales – mostly private companies – try to find work for claimants on a payment-by-results basis. In practice they get paid per referral, with more cash coming to them for providing ‘work-related activities’.

According to Vox readers, the contract is outsourced to our good friend SERCO, which is then supposed to pass money on to six different agencies. There is a question mark hanging over whether that has actually happened.

Providers can earn between £3,700 and £13,700 per person helped into work, depending how hard it is to give support to an individual, with an initial payment of between £400 and £600.

Again, Vox readers have helped with the details: “The few hours spent on ‘work related activities’ cost the taxpayer another £200 per person.

“What did we do on this ‘course’? We drew graphs with our barriers to employment. No one was allowed to mention lack of jobs and no training. We also played silly games: the one in which everyone had to say three things about themselves and everyone had to guess the lie. We all drew a pig. If it’s facing forward you are a straightforward person. The ‘ teacher ‘ told us that this all came from some American psychologist. It looked more like one of those quizzes in Cosmopolitan.”

So we can see that, with hundreds of thousands of people being put on the work programme but only 31,000 actually finding sustainable work, the big winners are, as this site suggested previously, the private companies contracted to provide the service at up to £600 per referral plus £200 for the ‘activities’ themselves. And if the rumours are correct, even these firms are losing out because SERCO hasn’t released the cash.

It may interest you to know that 878,000 (the number of people referred to the scheme) multiplied by £600 (the minimum amount we can say was given to private companies for them) is a whopping £526,800,000!

This site reported previously that the number of people being referred to the work programme has dropped dramatically, with total monthly referrals in July fewer than 49,000 – less than half of the 100,000 who were put on the controversial scheme in July 2011.

The number of long-term Jobseekers’ Allowance claimants had risen by 188,000 during the same period.

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Iain Duncan Smith’s Question Time lies exposed

Get your jobs here: They won’t pay, they won’t last, and you’ll probably be signing on again within six months.

I bet Iain Duncan Smith was praying nobody would produce any statistics disproving his rant at Owen Jones during the BBC’s Question Time last week.

Some of us were praying for the opposite, and it turns out that our God is quicker than his.

I know the new report released today (Monday) by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, showing that more working people are living in poverty, will be just another document that the UK government will blithely ignore.

But some of its findings bite deeply into Department for Work and Pensions policy, and the claims of the man who runs that department.

For starters, in 2012, 18 per cent of working-age households were workless, but in only two per cent of households had nobody ever worked. More than half of adults in ‘never-worked’ households were under 25.

Therefore, when Iain Duncan Smith told Owen Jones on Question Time last week, “I didn’t hear you screaming about two and a half million people who were parked, nobody saw them, for over 10 years, not working, no hope, no aspiration,” he was spouting false information. Two per cent of the population is not two and a half million people, and under-25s cannot have been unemployed for more than 10 years.

The report, Monitoring poverty and social exclusion 2012, makes it clear that the proportion of ‘never-worked’ households has increased recently – most particularly since the current government came into power? – and is most likely a manifestation of high and rising young adult unemployment rather than a fixed number of people “parked” on the dole.

We all know that a million young people aged 16-24 were unemployed in the first half of 2012.

There is a weakness in how the Government has assessed the impact of welfare changes, by looking at them individually rather than as a whole, the report states. The Department for Work and Pensions’ impact assessments show that some benefit changes will produce large cuts for tens of thousands (such as the total benefit cap for workless households), and some will produce small cuts for hundreds of thousands (for example lowering the amount of local housing allowance claimable). But some households, mostly already in low income, will be hit more than once through cuts to both housing-related and non-housing, income-related benefits.

One reform is to replace Disability Living Allowance (designed to meet the actual costs of living with a disability) with the Personal Independence Payment, cutting the caseload by 20 per cent. But disabled people are more likely to be workless, so may have other benefits cut as well.

Government ministers have spent months telling us that their benefit reforms mean work will always pay; but the report makes one thing perfectly clear: It doesn’t. More than half of children and working-age adults in poverty live in a working household.

So what are they achieving by depressing benefit payments, other than condemning those who rely on state payments, who have paid into state systems throughout their working lives, and who have reason to expect those systems to support them during hardship, to destitution, health risks and possibly death (for reasons explored in other articles on this blog)?

Not a lot.

“The ‘low-pay, no-pay’ jobs market keeps millions in poverty and holds the economy back,” states the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report. “Work should always be a route out of poverty but it is not. Changing the benefits system will not solve problems such as in-work poverty, increasing underemployment and rising health inequalities.”

It states that 6.1 million working households are in poverty, so in-work poverty now exceeds workless poverty, which stands at 5.1 million households. That’s 11.2 million households – family groups – earning below 60 per cent of average income. Could that mean maybe a third of the total population is in poverty, due to current government policies?

The proportion of working age adults without children in poverty has risen steadily, from seven per cent in 1981 to 20 per cent in 2010/11. The number of working-age adults in low-income, in-work households has also increased. As pensioner poverty is now at low levels, the rate of in-work poverty is the most distinctive characteristic of poverty today.

Of those in work, 6.4 million lack the work they want. There are 1.4 million part-time workers who actually want full-time work. This is the highest figure in 20 years. You won’t hear a government representative talking about this when they trumpet their latest employment figures, and it’s always up to the news organisations to sift out how many jobs are part-time.

Only 18 per cent of people are said to be in low income at any one time – but an entire third of the population experience at least one period of low income within any four-year period; 11 per cent are in low income for more than half of that time.

Poverty is no longer concentrated in the social rented sector – people who bought their houses, thinking their wages would be able to support this, have been proved wrong as salaries have tumbled.

The number of underemployed people in the first half of 2012 was 6.4 million, comprising unemployed people (2.6 million); economically inactive people who want work (2.4 million); and people working part-time because they cannot find full-time work (1.4 million).   Underemployment increased since 2009 due to a rise of 500,000 in the number of people working part-time but wanting full-time work.

Most jobs are short-term now; around 42 per cent of Jobseekers’ Allowance claims from the first quarter of 2012 were made within six months of a previous claim.

Unemployment has remained static in the last three years – despite government claims – because employees have been willing to take fewer hours. This means they have accepted less work, and therefore less pay, in order to keep their jobs. How does the government reconcile that with its claim that it is making work pay?

Real people, experiencing these real deprivations, have a different view. As Jane Walters commented on a different article in this blog: “Employers … are making huge profits out of paying people less wages than they need to live on.”

Oh, and even though the disabled are more likely to be out of work than able-bodied people, more disabled people were in work than in the past. Considering the way the government has painted the disabled as workshy scroungers since it came into office, I believe the appropriate expression is “That’s really p*ssed on Iain Duncan Smith’s chips”.

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IDS off the hook with ICC – so evidence needed of Atos deaths

Brian McArdle. On the BBC’s Question Time last Thursday, Iain Duncan Smith flew into a rage when Owen Jones challenged him about what happened to Mr McArdle, “57 years old, paralysed down one side, blind in one eye; he couldn’t speak. He died one day after being found ‘fit for work’ by Atos.”

People whose family members have died while going through the DWP/Atos work capability assessment are being urged to contact a disability specialist – who has been seeking international legal action against the austerity-enforced injustice.

Vox Political reported back in September that Samuel Miller had contacted the International Criminal Court in The Hague, intending to file a complaint against Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling and Maria Miller, the ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions, considered most responsible for “draconian welfare reforms and the resultant deaths of their society’s most vulnerable”.

Mr Miller got in touch over the weekend, but said that the result had been disappointing: “They stated that the International Criminal Court has a very limited jurisdiction. The Court may only address the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes as defined by Articles 6 to 8 of the Rome Statute.”

The Rome Statute is the document under which the ICC was established. Article 7, which covers crimes against humanity, states: “For the purpose of this Statute, “crime against humanity” means any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack:

“(k) Inhumane acts … intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.”

I thought this – Article 7 (k) – was a perfect description of what the DWP and its ministers are trying to achieve, and Mr Miller agreed. But he said: “Clearly the ICC is striving to discourage the filing of austerity complaints.”

There is a way forward. He added: “On a welcome note, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights recently acknowledged that austerity measures may violate human rights — which certainly is a step in the right direction.”

He’s right. The chair of the UN committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Ariranga Govindasamy Pillay said on October 23 that, although member states face tough decisions when dealing with rising public deficits, austerity measures are potentially violations of their legal obligations to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

“All States Parties should avoid at all times taking decisions which lead to the denial or infringement of economic, social and cultural rights,” Pillay said, citing an open letter to States Parties from the committee earlier this year that clarified the committee’s position on austerity measures.

By ratifying the Covenant, member states like the UK have a legally binding obligation to progressively improve, without retrogression, universal access to goods and services such as healthcare, education, housing and social security and to ensure just and favourable conditions of work, without discrimination, in accordance with established international standards. These rights must be achieved by using the maximum of available resources.

Pillay pointed out that austerity measures are also a disincentive to economic growth and thereby hamper progressive realization of economic and social rights.

The committee had pointed out that social insecurity and political instability, as seen in parts of Europe today, were also potential effects of the denial or infringement of economic, social and cultural rights.

The poor, women, children, persons with disabilities, older persons, people with HIV/AIDS, indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities, migrants and refugees were particularly at risk, the committee had noted.

Having identified the possibility, we come to the burden of proof. Mr Miller said: “My best hope lies in procuring coroner’s reports where the cause of death is found to be destitution and/or suicide.”

Inevitably, there is a problem. The UK Coronial system does not involve the collating of such information, nor does it look for national trends. The role of the Coroner is case specific, so wider information is not available. This is because the system of inquests into deaths was never intended to investigate whether those deaths were being caused by insane decisions of the government itself.

The law in relation to death certification may be amended in 2014 to provide for Medical Examiners whose role will be to examine such matters – but that is two years from now, and the DWP/Atos system could pile up another 7,600 bodies in that time (using the generally-accepted average of 73 deaths per week).

Mr Miller has written to the DWP, seeking a change of coroners’ duties to allow proper and robust reporting of trends such as stress-related deaths, suicides and/or destitution deaths of welfare recipients and recipients who perished shortly after being stripped of their benefits can be reported to both the DWP and the Ministry of Justice.

But I think we all know there is little chance of success there. This government is hardly going to hand over the tools by which its own ministers might end up in an international court. They’re insane, but they’re not stupid!

So people are going to have to do it themselves. We know about high-profile cases in which deaths have been blamed on Atos. Information about the others needs to be available now.

This is why I want to appeal for anyone who has lost a loved one because of the DWP/Atos work capability assessment system to get in touch with Mr Miller. He needs to know the verdict that was reached at the inquests into their deaths.

His email address is [email protected]

I would strongly urge that anyone writing to Mr Miller keeps their correspondence to the point. It is to be hoped that he will receive a strong response, but this entails a large amount of work. It is therefore important to make that work as easy as possible, perhaps by putting the deceased’s name, address and the verdict at the top of your email.

Tax and tax avoidance: Osborne’s attack on small businesses

The Madness of George: Mr Osborne’s latest attack is on the smaller businesses and sole traders who prop up the UK’s economy. Does he understand nothing at all about his job?

It seems George Osborne wants to focus his next attack on the small businesses of the UK – the firms that form the vast majority of the nation’s business base.

Lunacy, you might say. Craziness. You may ask why he would want to do such a thing, and what evidence I have to suggest it.

Well, let’s start with the letters going out to 1,500 people suspected of taking part in a tax avoidance scheme – which is currently legal, although the BBC report suggests its legality will be challenged. These people are suspected of depriving the Treasury of £10 billion per year.

The National Audit Office said HM Revenue and Customs was dealing with a backlog of 41,000 cases of aggressive tax avoidance involving individuals and small companies.

That’s all very interesting. Why not write to the shareholders of the Thames, Anglian and Yorkshire Water companies, whose tax avoidance history received an airing in the press and on this blog very recently? The evidence suggested they were removing a combined total of £1 billion per year to tax havens offshore and, to me, it seems far simpler to write letters to three companies, and investigate them, than to 150 individuals.

Could it be because the water companies were exploiting tax loopholes that had been created especially for them, and other large businesses, by Mr Osborne himself in 2011?

Could it be that shareholders in those large concerns might also be donating money to the Conservative Party? Attacking them would be the political equivalent of self-harming, if that were the case.

So the focus of attack goes down to the smaller business or sole trader.

Were you aware that Mr Osborne is considering changing road tax rules, to introduce a new two-tier system?

It seems he wants to create a class system for the roads, in which second-class citizens will be licensed to use the smaller roads, while first-class citizens will be able to pay for the extra tax disc, entitling them to use the motorways.

I see that as an attack – on the private driver, yes, but also on the small businessperson. Think about it. Small businesses can spend a lot of time on the roads, zipping around between jobs. An extra expense on the balance sheet could be the difference between being a profitable concern and going under.

At a time when the UK is relying on small and start-up businesses to re-ignite the economy, this is nothing short of madness.

But then, when’s the last time anyone ever suggested George Osborne had sense?

Smith v Jones over benefits, the disabled and the truth about homelessness

Finger-wagging rant: One tweeter commented, “You just KNOW IDS wanted to call Owen Jones a pleb back there…”

Iain Duncan Smith probably went home last night feeling satisfied that he had done his job well, putting forward his case for benefit cuts that will push thousands – maybe hundreds of thousands – of people out of their homes, on the BBC’s Question Time. After all, he had the last word, didn’t he?

Perhaps he didn’t count on the absolute twatting he received from the inhabitants of the social media.

Those who had seen the show wasted no time in putting forward their opinions about the clash between Smith and socialist “braying jackal” Owen Jones. Here’s what happened and what they said.

The question that sparked the clash was about whether the Work and Pensions Secretary’s plan to cap benefits would push large families out of their homes in London.

Yvette Cooper, also on this week’s panel, said the full consequences of the benefit cap and other measures being pushed through by the government were pushing up homelessness. “We’ve seen a 50 per cent increase in the number of families – families with children – living in bed and breakfast accommodation… That costs us a huge amount more… It’s a mix of the housing benefit changes but also the benefit cap – the way they have been introduced.”

Then Owen Jones stepped into the ring: “The reason this whole debate has become so toxic is a cynical demonisation campaign of people on benefits by the government,” he said. It’s as if he has been reading this blog.

“What they have tried to do is redirect people’s justifiable anger over ever-declining living standards from those at the top who’ve caused this crisis to people’s neighbours down the street. The working poor against the unemployed over benefits. Non-disabled people against disabled people. Private sector workers against public sector workers over pensions.” Absolutely correct, as pointed out and reiterated here many times in the past.

“Housing benefit is not going into the pockets of tenants, it’s lining the pockets of wealthy landlords charging extortionate rents,” he said, going on to utter something indistinct because others were talking over him. The impression I got was that he was saying successive governments, New Labour included, didn’t build council housing.

He went on to point out a statistic that the Tories have worked very hard to bury: “Most new claimants of housing benefit are in work; they don’t have enough money to pay extortionate rents.” Again, factually correct – and one must ask why employers do not pay enough. Why do they ask the government to subsidise the workforce?

“If we built housing in this country, we’d bring down the welfare bill, stimulate the economy, and create jobs.”

Having scored his first few points, Mr Jones went for the knockout blow. Although blocked in his first attempt to mention the disabled, he tried again: “There is a point that has to be made about the treatment of disabled people in this country, and there are two names I want to give Iain… Brian McArdle, 57 years old, paralysed down one side, blind in one eye; he couldn’t speak. He died one day after being found ‘fit for work’ by Atos. Another example – Karen Sherlock.”

For those who don’t know, Karen Sherlock was a desperately ill woman, suffering from kidney failure, whose Employment and Support Allowance was cut off by Iain Duncan Smith’s minions. She died on June 8 this year, apparently of a heart attack, after an operation was cancelled. Read her story here.

This is where IDS lost it. Irately wagging his finger in Mr Jones’s general direction, he barked: “We’ve heard a lot from you. I didn’t hear you screaming about two and a half million people who were parked, nobody saw them, for over 10 years, not working, no hope, no aspiration. We are changing their lives; I’m proud of doing that. Getting them off-benefit is what we’re going to do.”

What he didn’t say was, “We’re changing their lives for the better.” As for getting them off-benefit – that’s a threat, if there are no jobs for them to take (and there aren’t – or at least, not enough).

And that was the end of the programme. Owen Jones later commented that, as chairman David Dimbleby was finishing up, “a protestor yelled about Atos and left – not sure that will come across because it descended into total chaos.” It didn’t, but it would be interesting to know what their point was.

Jamie Laverty made a point about it: “Woman shouting about Atos on BBCQT – how symbolic. The BBC fails to listen to the people whilst giving the Tories a soapbox.”

Then came the verdict. Nathaniel Tapley saw through the Secretary of State straight away: “IDS thinks it’s unreasonable for anyone to receive more than £35,000 pa from the state. And claimed £98,000 in expenses last year.” Hypocritical? I think I’ve written a blog about that…

‘The UK today’ tweeted: “Only the wealthy moan about benefits for the poor but don’t complain about the bankers and shareholders who created the present problem.”

Mark Ferguson of LabourList tried sticking to the thrust of the question: “Shockingly, London MP IDS seems totally ignorant about the impact of his own government’s housing benefit cap in the capital. Astonishing.

“Build more houses, lower the cost of renting, save money on benefits. It’s not f*cking rocket science is it?”

To Iain Duncan Smith, it is. He’s a Tory, Mark! You’re suggesting they lay out money on public works. They don’t do that! Their plan is to hold money back, and use it to say they’ve balanced the books a bit more. Pointless and utterly unworkable in the long-term, but it is what it is.

Jenny Landreth made the point that’s been on everyone’s mind about housing benefit: “Do benefit claimants profit from their rent being paid? No. Landlords do. They are the reason the rents are high. HELLO?” Exactly right. Perhaps it’s time to change its title to one that is more appropriate, like Landlord’s Benefit?

John McDonnell MP applauded Mr Jones: “Well done for getting the tragedy of Mr McArdle and barbarity of Atos on the record. We must never forget or forgive this cruelty.”

Finally, there came the comments on the cabinet member himself.

Zoe Williams, Guardian columnist, tweeted: “‘we’ve heard a lot from you’ IDS says to Owen jones. Only narrowly avoids adding ‘oik’.”

Matthew Walker added: “IDS has finger wagging rant at Owen Jones – he just needed to finish with ‘you need a damn good thrashing, lad’ and it would have been perfect.”

Simplem+ths: “All that remained was for IDS to say ‘shut it you fu#@ing pleb best you learn your fu@#ing place'”.

And the amusingly-named ‘Jeremy Twunt’ concluded: “You just know IDS wanted to call Owen Jones a pleb back there…”

Isobel Waby went for the jugular: “Iain Duncan Smith is an insult to the British people. How dare he undermine the British people, insulting our sick, disabled, unemployed kids?

“He should be sacked NOW… MPs’ inhumanity to the less fortunate.”

And Gracie Samuels made the most telling point: “The lying bastard he’s killing people, BBCQT, and we were not allowed to discuss it.”

But Diana Foster put viewers’ fear into words when she tweeted: “Disability hatecrime up, IDS gets final say – giving impression he’s whiter than white and no disabled people are affected by reform. Disgusting.”

Well, if Mr Smith (I never call him ‘Duncan Smith’ because that kind of attempt at a double-barrelled name is nothing other than pretentious) is reading this, I wonder if he’ll still be putting that appearance in the ‘plus’ column. The net result, according to the public is that he is ignorant, cruel, an insult to the British people, inhuman, a lying bastard and disgusting. Wag your finger at that, Iain!

Since IDS got the last word on television, let’s give the last word here to Owen Jones: “Blimey, thanks everyone. But what a a shame that stating the bleeding obvious on telly is such a revolutionary act.”

Follow me on Twitter: @MidWalesMike

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Parliamentary committee says Universal Credit is an attack on the most vulnerable

Dame Anne Begg, chair of the Work and Pensions committee: “We have serious concerns about about how more vulnerable people will cope with the changes, especially the online claims system and the proposed single monthly payment.”

We all know the Department for Work and Pensions is fond of claiming disabled people are “fit for work” when they aren’t. Another thing that isn’t fit for work is its flagship Universal Credit system.

The new system will start to come into effect with pilot schemes in the northwest of England in April 2013, and full national roll-out is due to start in October 2013. But a report from the Parliamentary Work and Pensions Committee says it should not progress before it addresses serious issues.

We know this won’t happen. Iain Duncan Smith is far more interested in getting a flawed system out on time than in getting it right, and Universal Credit is already seriously behind schedule, no matter what the David Cameron said in PMQs yesterday. But the report means he cannot say he was unaware of the problems.

“The Committee notes that the Government has set a very ambitious timetable for Universal Credit implementation and expresses concern about whether there will be sufficient time for the Government to learn from its pilots and whether it is desirable or necessary to implement so many changes at once,” the report states.

The committee is chaired by Dame Anne Begg, who added: “We have serious concerns about how more vulnerable people will cope with the changes, especially the online claims system and the proposed single monthly payment. Some claimants will not be able to make an online claim and others may struggle to adapt to monthly payments.”

Measures to help these claimants may be hard to access and too slow in identifying them, meaning they could fall into debt and hardship before any extra support – and none has been identified – can be applied.

The committee says vulnerable claimants will be unable to manage plans to pay rent costs to the claimant, rather than the landlord, and may fall into arrears. Appropriate “safety net” arrangements need to be developed and tested – there aren’t any at the moment. And there should be an option to continue with payments to the landlord instead – again, no such option exists in the new system.

Nor is there any process to identify claimants who are struggling to manage their housing costs, meaning the government will offer no help to them before they fall into arrears and face eviction.

There is no evidence to show that Universal Credit will provide more generous support for disabled people, despite this being a stated aim.

Some disabled people will have their entitlement reduced under Universal Credit. Transitional protection will mean that they do not lose in cash terms immediately, but this protection will erode over time, will be lost if their circumstances change, and is not available to new claimants.

Income calculation is complicated so I’ll quote the report directly:

“The Government plans to calculate monthly Universal Credit payments by using information about claimants’ employment earnings taken from data feeds from HMRC’s new Real Time Information (RTI) system, which is being introduced to administer PAYE taxation. The Committee comments that whilst Ministers are confident that RTI will be delivered on time to support Universal Credit, tax, accountancy and business organisation raised a range of specific concerns about the RTI programme, and the Committee did not receive satisfactory responses from DWP and HMRC about these issues.

“The Committee welcomes the Government’s efforts to simplify the provision of information on income by the self-employed, but shares the concerns of witnesses that the proposed system could impose a significant and unnecessary burden on the self-employed. It is also concerned that the proposed Minimum Income Floor rules could act as a disincentive to entrepreneurship.”

It’s a government IT scheme; it won’t work and we all know it.

Dame Anne Begg said: “There appears to be no contingency if the IT system doesn’t work.”

See what I mean?

The report also warns that essential elements of support are not in place. Additional resources are needed by the advice sector – such as Citizens Advice – to cope with a “significant increase in demand”.

We know this will not be forthcoming. The idea is to push people off benefits. If they get advice about how to apply correctly, this won’t happen. Advice services will be starved.

Significantly, when considered in tandem with my article on the Universal Jobmatch system, the committee attacked the sanctions regime employed by the DWP. In the report, the committee said it “believes it is essential that DWP supports claimants in the job-search and that the support available to each claimant is clearly set out and actually provided.”

Meaning: it isn’t at the moment.

The sanction system also gets a hammering: “There is little evidence that they strengthen work incentives on their own.”

The arrangements for passporting benefits, such as free school meals, are attacked as unclear: “The entitlement criteria have a significant impact on decisions about returning to work or increasing working hours… It is essential for the Government to put fair and workable criteria in place… A clear indication is now needed on the arrangements.”

In other words, fair and workable criteria are not in place at the moment.

Liam Byrne MP, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, poured scorn on the scheme: “Two and a half years in, the Government doesn’t seem to have a clue about the big questions it’s got to get right,” he said.

“If ministers don’t wake up and get a grip soon, then Universal Credit is going to continue its rapid descent into universal chaos, spelling disaster for millions of Britain’s families.”

Dame Anne recommended Paul Lewis for his commentary on the report. He said: “Online applications only, no paper forms. But 11 million adults have no internet at home. Support for them not clear. Disability benefits to change again as means tested help moved to UC. Over 400,000 to get less, but total remains same.

“Rent paid to individual, not landlord for almost everyone. Major change and hard to manage by most vulnerable, say MPs.”

In other words, this system should be put ESA as it is not “fit for work”.

Perhaps it should go in the ‘work-related activity’ group? Maybe after a year of hard work getting itself up to fitness, it might be serviceable. But I doubt it.

And that begs the question: If the DWP can’t get its own scheme – meant to simplify the system – workable within a year, how can it expect people to coax their disabled bodies into good condition within the same period?

Universal Jobmatch or Jobseekers’ Home-grab?

I predict this result when using the government’s new Universal Jobmatch. Picture from the Thurrock Heckler.

An administration united behind three key principles: freedom, fairness and
responsibility.” – David Cameron, first Coalition press conference, May 2010.

The government’s new online tool, which it claims is intended to make searching for a job easier, came into service on Monday. You might think that’s a good thing.

Think again!

It seems the appropriate term for the new system is “Orwellian”, as it tries to funnel jobseekers into any work that is available – no matter how inappropriate – and monitors responses in order to apply sanctions for any misplaced keystrokes.

These sanctions go up to three years without benefit. Bearing in mind the number of jobseekers who are living in social housing (they’re without jobs; of course they won’t be living in mansions) I think it’s safe to agree with a friend of mine, writing on Facebook: “You watch the homelessness figures skyrocket now!”

To me, that’s what it looks like: Another bid to grab people’s homes. Why the government should be so obsessed with depriving the population of its dwelling-places, I do not know – but I’m not looking forward to hearing the reason.

This is how my friend informed me about the new system:

WARNING: The government have introduced the new Orwellian jobsearch system on the directgov website.

“I was told by my adviser at the jobcentre that after some point next year, account registry will be mandatory for all JSA claimants, after which, they will be able to monitor every job you view, and when you view any job, you will not be able to leave the screen until you select a reason why you did not apply for that job.

It wont give you the details to apply for the job unless you register an account, and if you leave, the cookies will just tell them ‘refused to answer the question’.

They’re removing the Jobseekers’ Agreement. which effectively means they can now force people with First Class degrees or above to scrub toilets for four hours-plus per week, with no gain in pay.

They’re gonna call and spot-check all the jobs they recommend you for as well – even if they recommend you for jobs you know you’ll never get.

One slip-up and you lose your unemployment entitlement. First mistake: 13 week penalty, no pay. Second mistake: six months’ penalty, no pay. Third mistake: THREE YEAR penalty, no pay.

You watch the homelessness figures skyrocket now – because the fact of the matter is, there simply ARE NO JOBS for people. How many people in Pembrokeshire, where I live, unemployed? Thousands. How many jobs for the same area? A few hundred maybe. That’s for an entire SHIRE [county], not a town.”

According to, a US company was commissioned to deliver this service – Monster Worldwide, an online recruitment and technology service firm, infamous for many major personal data losses through hacking. According to a Freedom of Information request made to the government, Monster was the only company invited to tender for the contract. The system does not require the consent of the participant – it is mandatory. Job Centre staff and external contractors – we don’t know who – will have full access to all user activities, including correspondence with employers, content of CVs, applications, job searches, feedback from employers, interviews offered and personal profiles.

Job Centre staff will be able to attach job vacancy details to user accounts – and those users must then apply for those jobs. It doesn’t matter how inappropriate those jobs might be – they must apply. Otherwise: sanctions.

It’s a stunning infliction of coercion and repression on a sector of society that has no defence against it. Details on the Jobmatch database remain there for 18 months after a user leaves the system, implying a huge invasion of their privacy. Add to that the fact that this ‘service’ will be integrated with central and local government and private sector databases, showing wages paid, hours worked, credit ratings, electoral roll entries and tax liability – it will be part of a huge tool to check up on you and make sure you don’t have cash you shouldn’t have. Because, at the end of the day, it’s all about keeping you down.

And remember the other Snoopers’ Charter – the one being pushed through by Theresa May? Not only will the government – and who knows who else? – have access to your financial information; it will also be able to check your communications, track your contacts and work out your opinions and sympathies from that. Orwellian: Big Brother really is watching you.

The sanctions do, indeed, run to three years without benefit. Workfare – the mandatory work scheme – is also a possibility. Claimants must be able to give evidence that they spend 35 hours per week doing job search activities.

I wonder how that is going to work?

I don’t think it will.

Users will be unable to provide evidence of every single minute’s work; they will make mistakes; they will get frustrated and intentionally abuse the system. Then they’ll be off the books. Then they’ll be in financial trouble.

Then they’ll be homeless.

Alongside all the people who’ve been thrown out because they couldn’t afford the Bedroom Tax, or because they couldn’t pay their council tax under the new relief schemes that are coming in.

I wonder what the government plans to do with all these houses that will be going spare?

One thing’s for sure, though: I don’t think “freedom” will have anything to do with it.

Or “fairness“.