Oakeshott’s Nazi slave-labour approach to street-cleaning simply won’t work

A far-right-wing Torygraph columnist wants benefit claimants put to work cleaning the UK’s streets. But Isabel Oakeshott’s Nazi slave-labour approach to street-cleaning simply won’t work.

Her article is riddled with emotive language – which is also a Nazi technique, as it happens.

“Excuse me while I side-step steaming piles of rubbish and try not to tread on the remains of someone’s take-away,” she writes. “The pavement is so flecked with blobs of chewing gum and putrid pools of God-knows-what that getting from A to B by Shanks’s pony requires a hopscotch-style jump/walk.”

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She references her Reform UK colleague Lee Anderson in a transparent attempt to make his insanities look reasonable: “Back streets in certain deprived areas are now little short of a health hazard – as shocking images posted on social media by the MP Lee Anderson recently exposed. His video of an alleyway in Blackpool outside ‘homes of multiple occupancy’ featured plastic bags, dirty nappies, even a dead pigeon – a damning illustration of a total loss of respect for public spaces in some areas.”

Oh, but how does she know that this detritus came from these Blackpool ‘homes of multiple occupancy’? For all she – and the Leeanderthal – knows, passing rich people could have slung them up there. We all know how wasteful the rich are.

By contrast, she refers to streets in other countries: “Anti-social behaviour, marauding around tossing half-eaten kebabs in the gutter and throwing up on the pavement just isn’t a thing [in places like Tokyo or Dubai].”

But she doesn’t mention how Tokyo or Dubai handle street cleaning. Tokyo is full of trash – so much so that the Japanese devised a new sport/competition – Spogomi – to encourage people to clean it up.

Tokyo hosted the Spogomi World Cup last year, when teams from across the world competed to collect trash from designated areas within a time limit. The amount and type of trash picked up determined their scores.

Want to know which country won? The United Kingdom. Its team, “The North Will Rise Again,” collected a total of 83.70kg of trash across two sessions. In all, 548kg of trash was picked up from Tokyo’s “litter free” (as Oakeshott describes them) streets.

Perhaps there was so much crap to pick up because, as Oakeshott states, Tokyo “hardly has any bins”. Perhaps her claim that “pedestrians have been conditioned to take their rubbish home” is similarly misguided.

Dubai’s city authorities pay a force of 2,500-3,000 workers and street cleaners, who clean up almost 9,000 tonnes of waste over the course of six hours every day, starting at 5am. There is a rubbish bin in every corner of the city and recycling options are being promoted; anti-litter laws are strongly enforced (“no-one is ever fined” in the UK, says Oakeshott – isn’t that because the Tories have slashed police numbers?) and there is – yes – education in schools that teaches children not to litter. But doesn’t that also happen here in the UK?

Whichever way you cut it, there’s a lot more to what happens in both Tokyo and Dubai than “civic pride” and higher “general standards of behaviour”. There’s nothing wrong with the UK’s sense of civic pride or standards of behaviour, as the victory of “The North Will Rise Again” in Tokyo proved.

In fairness, she does also mention “the prioritisation of local government resources”, but gives it far less prominence because then she would have to criticise the UK’s Tory government for cutting funding to the bone.

In other words, Oakeshott’s article is riddled with inaccuracies, if not outright lies.

The Tory government has stripped away councils’ ability to clean our streets by removing the funding that might have made it possible for them to employ a cleaning force proportionate to that of Dubai – but Oakeshott doesn’t mention that. She simply says: “As councils grapple with a soaring population and salami-sliced budgets, street cleaning is taking a hammering,” without acknowledging the right-wing reason for it.

Her solution is to force people who don’t have a job to go out and scrub the streets. This is what the Nazis did in Germany during the 1930s and look what happened to them.

She laments the failures of previous attempts to force jobseekers into unpaid slave labour – by Hazel Blears during the New Labour years, and Iain Duncan Smith’s “Mandatory Work Activity” scheme that allowed huge businesses like Poundland to profit massively from the efforts of people who were paid – not by them, but by the public purse.

No wonder a judge declared it unlawful. This Site covered the case, back in the day, and I’ll refer to Mr Justice Foskett’s reasons further down this article. For now, let’s satisfy ourselves by noting Oakeshott’s opinion: “The decision reinforced the idea of something for nothing, and erected more political obstacles to the introduction of other such schemes.”

You see? Oakeshott’s Nazi slave-labour approach to street-cleaning simply won’t work.

Ah, but now, she reckons, there is “plenty” for jobseekers to do: “According to the latest official figures, not far off half a million young people aged 18 to 24 are on out-of-work benefits, the vast majority of whom would be physically able to do some work.

“So let’s fill their yawning days with a sense of purpose and get them doing their bit, transforming our streets from an embarrassment into an urban landscape befitting the sixth largest economy in the world. Once the scheme is under way, I’ll wager that there will be a rush of applications for more salubrious jobs.”

Let’s go back to that Poundland judgement, because it provides valuable perspective on Oakeshott’s claims and shows why they are utterly ridiculous.

The case centred on a lady named Cait Reilly, a geology graduate who, while unemployed but volunteering at a local museum in order to gain experience towards getting a curator’s job, had been ordered by the Department for Work and Pensions to work for her benefits, stacking shelves at Poundland.

She was wrongly told that her placement on the scheme was compulsory. Mr Justice Foskett said: “Her original complaint arose from what she was wrongly told was a compulsory placement on a scheme that (a) impeded her voluntary efforts to maintain and advance her primary career ambition and (b) having embarked upon it, from her perspective, did not offer any worthwhile experience on an alternative career path. It is not difficult to sympathise with her position from that point of view.”

Indeed: she had already been doing what she needed to do in order to get the career that her qualifications justified and it was clearly unfair of the DWP to take that away from her – particularly by lying to her that she had no choice but to join its scheme if she wanted to continue receiving her benefit payments.

There’s more – because I crunched the numbers on “Mandatory Work Activity” and they were shocking. Here‘s what I wrote at the time:

It should be remembered that Poundland is perfectly capable of employing its own workers on full wages. At the time, it ran 390 stores nationwide and made £21,500,000 profit in 2010 – enough to employ extra staff at all its branches and still make a good profit.

The amount it was saving by not paying Ms Reilly, coupled with the fiscal multiplier that adds around 60p to every pound she would have earned if she had been an employee, means Poundland could have made a £1,188.48 profit from the work she was doing for the firm at the taxpayers’ expense.

Total profit for all companies using benefit recipients on ‘Mandatory Work Activity’ between June 2011 and July 2012 (878,000 people): £894, 416, 090 – nearly £1 billion.

Loss to the taxpayer: £16,933,000 (not including payments to Work Provider companies).

So “Mandatory Work Activity” really was a slave-labour scheme designed to help big businesses profit off the backs of people who had been told they had no choice other than to work for them.

The judgement created a serious problem for then-Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, because Ms Reilly and her co-applicant, Jamieson Wilson, were not the only people to have been disadvantaged by his cockeyed caper:

the ruling opened up the government to claims for compensation, from thousands of benefit claimants, for millions of pounds that had been taken away from them because they had refused to take part in the ‘work-for-benefits’ schemes. The illegality of the regulations meant the DWP, under Iain Duncan Smith’s supervision, had broken the law more than 228,000 times – [he] is a criminal [almost] a quarter of a million times over.

The payout could have been as high as £130 million.

The government got out of the mess by passing a retrospective law making it impossible for benefit claimants to demand payouts of between £530 and £570 each for decisions made while the illegal rules were in force. This was an appalling abuse of governmental power that was achieved with the collusion of the Labour Party under Ed Miliband, which had negotiated a few “safeguards” that went on to prove useless in practice.

The only conclusion to be drawn from this is that forcing unemployed people to do menial work is illegal (slave labour) and impractical – it impedes them from doing what they must in order to obtain more appropriate careers.

Furthermore, if it were applied to street cleaning, it would take jobs away from people who are currently employed to clean our streets.

In short: Oakeshott’s Nazi slave-labour approach to street-cleaning simply won’t work.

Finally: Oakeshott refers to the current concentration on people with mental illnesses. She states: “Many complain of mental health problems that might well be alleviated by fresh air; camaraderie, and a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. The physical exercise associated with compulsory litter-picking sessions surely wouldn’t go amiss.”

There is an element of truth to that – but only if those taking part in such work did so as volunteers, and it was part of a course of therapy recommended to them by a qualified expert in mental health. Forcing it on them with a “do this or else!” mentality would merely worsen their mental conditions.

So Oakeshott’s crackpot plan is doomed to failure. Not only is it based on false beliefs, but it would not help anybody involved in it. She should have done her own homework better or – if she did – she should be ashamed.

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