The Confederation of British Industry has started its usual pre-election campaign against the Labour Party – with the usual nonsense claims about Labour nationalisation policies.
It seems we are being asked to believe that bringing national utilities, the railways and the Royal Mail back into public ownership will cost the Treasury £196 billion, with no concurrent benefits to the economy.
I have to agree with Labour on this; it is nothing but scaremongering – and not very clever scaremongering, at that.
For a start, most of the utilities and railway firms Labour wants to take back into public ownership are currently owned by foreign firms – many of them owned by foreign governments.
That’s a lot of UK citizens’ money going abroad, right there. Bringing those firms back into public ownership would bring huge amounts of money back into the UK economy, instead of subsidising services in other lands.
We have been led to believe that Vince Cable sold our Royal Mail to hedge funds. Who knows where they’re putting the profits? That cash certainly doesn’t seem to be going back into the business. A tax haven, perhaps?
If so, then bringing the Royal Mail back into public ownership not only safeguards our postal service but brings huge amounts of money back into the UK economy.
That’s just off the top of my head.
The CBI admits its analysis is flawed, in that it only concentrates on the costs of any renationalisation, and explicitly does not consider any benefits.
The claims of this organisation have no value at all.
Have YOU donated to my crowdfunding appeal, raising funds to fight false libel claims by TV celebrities who should know better? These court cases cost a lot of money so every penny will help ensure that wealth doesn’t beat justice.
Money: Boris Johnson is rolling in it but his policies have starved the UK of the cash that is the lifeblood of the economy.
Nearly 2.2 million people in the UK are struggling to pay council tax, rent and utility bills because they aren’t paid enough, according to research by two universities.
The reason is Conservative restrictions on pay rises since 2010.
So much for the “trickle-down” economics of neoliberalism, beloved by Boris Johnson and his cronies.
The research by the University of Birmingham and the University of Lincoln shows that nearly 1.6 million people have fallen behind with council tax payments.
Nearly a million people are behind with their rent and more than a million are in arrears over their water bills.
Nearly 2.2 million people have been contacted by bailiffs over failure to pay (which suggests that many have multiple bill-related problems), and nearly one million have said bailiffs have broken the rules.
These findings make a nonsense of claims that average wages are rising.
Perhaps those figures have been skewed by huge increases in the amounts paid to top earners, while those of us who do the work are left to struggle?
Experience shows that higher pay for workers results in increased productivity and market dominance – as Henry Ford learned when he doubled the wages of employees at his motor company in the early 20th century.
He called it the best cost-cutting measure he ever made.
Conversely, as workers struggle to survive real-terms wage cut after wage cut, productivity in the UK has suffered its worst drop in five years.
We have nearly a million people struggling to cope with zero-hours contracts in which they don’t know whether they’ll be working (and therefore earning) from one week to the next.
Average weekly real-terms earnings are not as high as they were before the 2008 financial crash, while bills have increased.
Poverty is particularly high in accommodation and food services; agriculture, forestry and fishing; administrative and support services; and wholesale and retail.
Few households have any savings worth mentioning – the rate is lower than the EU average and far lower than many of our largest and closest European neighbours.
Oh, and Boris Johnson is determined to force us into a “no deal” Brexit, creating even harsher economic conditions.
Considering the situation now, it seems this would be a huge mistake.
He would literally run the entire country into the gutter.
Have YOU donated to my crowdfunding appeal, raising funds to fight false libel claims by TV celebrities who should know better? These court cases cost a lot of money so every penny will help ensure that wealth doesn’t beat justice.
Five-time Parliamentary ‘Beard of the Year’ – the likeable Jeremy Corbyn.
If any of you have been struggling to work out whether you know anything at all about Jeremy Corbyn, you are not alone!
This Writer has also been at something of a loss with regard to his personality and achievements.
So let’s all be grateful to Owen Jones, who knows Mr Corbyn well, for scribbling a few details into his latest Guardiancomment piece.
According to Owen, Mr Corbyn is:
The very antithesis of the negative caricature of an MP: he’s defined by his principles and beliefs, uninterested in personal self-advancement, and determined to use his platform to further the interests of people and causes that are otherwise ignored.
One of the most likable MPs – and a five-time winner of Parliamentary Beard of the Year.
A proponent of peace, a staunch internationalist (he was protesting against Saddam Hussein when the west was arming him), a fervent believer in workers’ rights, and an opponent of austerity whoever peddles it
Not only does he seem exactly what we’re looking for, he even seems to fit what people in this nation genuinely want, as Owen explains:
“According to the polls, millions of Britons support a living wage, a radical house building programme, public ownership of utilities and services and higher taxes on the rich… Given their widespread backing, these policies surely at least need a hearing in the leadership contest of the dominant, purportedly left-of-centre party in Britain.”
In conclusion, this blog can only echo the article’s final words:
“If Labour MPs deny the party and the country a genuine debate, it will reflect disastrously on them. It will do whoever emerges victorious no good, either. Labour has just suffered one of the worst defeats in its history. If the party doesn’t have the good sense to have a meaningful debate now, you might wonder why it doesn’t just pack up. So come on, Labour MPs. Put your future careers aside for party and national interest.
“Lend Corbyn a nomination, and let a real debate begin.”
Harriet Harman: Will the acting leader of the Labour Party listen to pleas from the grassroots to get Labour back on track?
If the Labour Party is to regain the confidence it has lost, it needs to re-state its identity with a core message of purpose – one that not only encapsulates what Labour is about, but also what it opposes.
That is what was missing from Labour’s general election campaign, and is as much a reason for Ed Miliband’s defeat as the Conservative campaign, which was not based on objective facts but on political spin.
In a nutshell, it is time to remind the voters and the public that Labour is the enabling party. This creates a clear contrast with the Conservatives – the party of restriction.
So, for example, with the National Health Service, Labour should support a service available to everyone – free. That means noprivateinvolvement. With the Tory privatisation in full swing, funds are being restricted and so are services. The NHS is now a postcode lottery, with care allocated on the basis of profitability. That’s not good enough; the privateers must be told to jog on.
Education must also be available to everybody, up to the level each person can achieve (or wants to). Again, this means there should be no charge for state-provided services. A state school system has no place for privately-owned ‘academies’ or ‘free schools’. These are Tory devices; the private sector will, by its nature, restrict access in order to extract a profit. It also means notuitionfees for students in further/higher education.
Labour should be helping anyone who wants to start a business, by ensuring there are as few obstacles in the way as possible; it must be the enabling party. That means, for example, a graded taxation system, with lower business rates and taxes for start-ups, progressing to a higher rate for medium-sized enterprises, and a highest rate for multinationals – who should be taxed on all takings made in the UK; no excuses.
Another part of the enabling agenda must be ensuring that people can pay a minimum price for things we cannot live without: Accommodation, services, utilities.
There is now an appalling shortage of appropriate housing for many people – mostly because the Tories sold off so many council houses and did not replace them. This is why the Tories were able to impose the Bedroom Tax on so many innocent people – a restrictive idea, intended to push people out of some areas and into others; shifting Labour voters out of places the Tories didn’t think they should have to share with the riff-raff, you see – a gerrymandering tactic to make those constituencies easier to win in elections. The solution is simple: Build council houses again.
When the utility companies – gas, water and electricity suppliers – were privatised, we were all promised that household bills would be kept down by more efficient private-sector business models and private investment. That has not happened. Instead, consumers have been held to ransom by a small cabal of corporations who have been able to charge rip-off prices. Remember the electricity price scandal of 2013? Who told those firms to quit their restrictive practices and cut bills? Labour. The enabling party. The fear of a Labour government imposing new rules in the consumer’s favour helped hold the greedy private bosses in check for a while, but now we have a Conservative government. How long do you think it will be before prices soar? This Writer reckons they’ll take the first opportunity. Even now, after Labour managed to secure price cuts, the poorest families still have to choose between heating and eating during the winter (the phrase has been used so often it is now a modern cliché). This must not be allowed to continue and the solution is clear: Re-nationalise. There are even two bonus factors in such a plan: Firstly, as many of these utilities are owned – or part-owned – by firms or governments based abroad, it will ensure that our bills pay people in the UK rather than boosting foreign economies at the expense of our own and, secondly, takings will help the UK Treasury balance the books.
There is at least one other privatised service that could also be re-nationalised: The railway system. Prices have rocketed while government subsidies have also soared, since the system was turned over to private hands in the early 1990s. This is madness; it is a huge drain on resources and must not be allowed to continue. We should re-nationalise and follow the example of Northern Ireland, where the service was never privatised and where any profit is ploughed into improvements, not profit.
Then there is our grocery bill, which keeps escalating. This is a particularly thorny subject as, for example, farmers are being ripped off by supermarkets over the price of milk, but the same corporations will happily send apples to the other side of the world and back, just to have them polished. It’s time to straighten out that system as well – although it will take a while.
So this is how Labour should frame its arguments from now on: Labour enables; the Tories restrict.
It should be stressed that the themes raised above are just starting-points which occurred to This Writer while considering the issue last night. The above is not an exhaustive list. Undoubtedly there are many more.
This Gary Baker cartoon illustrates the belief that successive Labour leaders, from Blair to Brown to Miliband, have steered the party ever-further away from its support base until it became a pale shadow of the Conservative Party it claims to oppose, leaving the majority of the UK’s population with nobody to speak for them.
Watching a drama on DVD yesterday evening (yes, there is more to life than Vox Political), Yr Obdt Srvt was impressed by the very old idea of the partners in a married couple supporting each other – that behind every great man is a great woman, and vice versa.
It occurred to This Writer that perhaps the biggest problem with the Labour Party’s campaign – not just for the May election but over the last five years – has been the leadership’s insistent refusal to support the requirements of its grassroots campaigners.
So, for example, on the economy: We all know for a fact that the big crash of 2008 or thereabouts was caused by the profligacy of bankers, and not by any overspending on the part of the Labour government of the time. Economists say it, blogs like VP say it, and we all have the evidence to support the claim. So why the blazes didn’t the Labour Party say it? Instead they let the Conservative Party walk all over us with their speeches about “The mess that Labour left us”.
On austerity: We all know that fiscal austerity will never achieve the economic boom that George Osborne claimed for it. If you take money out of the economy, there is less money – not more. What the UK needed in 2010 was a programme of investment in creating jobs with decent wages for the people who make the economy work – ordinary people, not bankers, fatcat business executives and MPs. The money would then have trickled up through the economy, creating extra value as it went. Quantitative easing could have done some good if it had been used properly, but after the Bank of England created the new money it passed the cash to other banks, rather than putting it anywhere useful. The Conservative Party said austerity was the only way forward: “There is no alternative”. Why did Labour agree? Party bigwigs might protest that Labour’s austerity was less, but the simple fact is that the UK was never in any danger of bankruptcy and there was no need to balance the books in a hurry. There’s still no need for it. Austerity was just a way of taking money from those of us who need it and giving it to those who don’t.
On the national debt: The Tories have hammered home a message that their policies are cutting the national deficit and paying down the national debt. That message is a lie. The national debt has doubled since the Conservatives took over. Labour hardly mentioned that.
On benefits: Iain Duncan Smith’s ‘welfare reforms’ have cut a murderous swathe through the sick and the poor, with more than 10,000 deaths recorded in 11 months during 2011, among ESA claimants alone. Many have chosen to attack Labour for introducing ESA in the first place, and for employing Atos to carry out the brutal and nonsensical Work Capability Assessments, based on a bastardised version of the unproven ‘biopsychosocial’ model, that ruled so many people ineligible for a benefit they had funded throughout their working lives. Labour should have promised to scrap ESA and the Work Capability Assessment in favour of an alternative – possibly even a rational – system. But Labour continued to support the Work Capability Assessment, earning the hatred of the sick and disabled. Why? According to Shadow Welsh Secretary Owen Smith, it was because the party leadership was afraid of provoking the right-wing press. Well done, Labour! As a result, instead of tearing into Labour like rabid attack dogs, the right-wing media… tore into Labour like rabid attack dogs. This pitifully weak attitude made no difference at all and Labour would have earned more votes by promising to ditch a policy it should never have adopted.
On education: This Writer attended a hustings on education, here in Brecon and Radnorshire. It was attended by many local teachers and it was clear that they all wanted to hear someone say they would clear away the layers of bureaucracy and constant interference that interfere with their jobs, and allow them to get on with teaching our youngsters. Nobody said anything of the kind, including the Labour candidate. Meanwhile, Michael Gove’s pet project – the very expensive ‘Free Schools’, continues unabated, and state-owned schools continue to be turned into privately-run ‘academies’, with all their assets turned over to private companies for free. And what about the debate over what should be taught in our schools and colleges? With employers now merrily shirking any training responsibilities and taking on foreign workers because they know what to do, can our educational institutions not take up the slack and provide that training for British people, so we don’t need to import as many people from abroad?
On immigration and the European Union: Right wingers including Tories and Kippers (members and supporters of UKIP) have made many claims that immigrants are a threat to the UK and to our way of life. In fact, migrant workers are a net benefit to the country, contributing far more to the UK Treasury in taxes than they ever claim in benefits. Ah, but they’re occupying houses that could be taken by British people; they use our NHS and their children take up places in our schools – and it’s all Labour’s fault because Labour signed the treaty that let them in, according to the right-wing critics. In fact, the Conservative Party signed that treaty, in the early 1970s. Free movement between European Union countries has always been a condition of membership and was never a problem when the EU consisted of nations that were on a relatively equal economic standing. The problem arose when the poorer eastern European countries were admitted to the union and people from those countries took advantage of the rule to seek a better life in the more affluent West. The simple fact is that those nations should not have been allowed full Union membership until their economies had grown enough that people would not want to move here – that was a matter that EU officials failed to address, not the UK government. Labour’s response was to fall in line with the right-wingers and promise harsh immigration controls. People naturally asked why they should vote Labour if Labour was no different from the nasty Tories.
On the NHS: Labour promised to repeal the Health and Social Care Act, ending the creeping privatisation of the NHS – and then said that it would limit the profits of private firms working in the NHS. This is contradictory and confusing. People wanted to end NHS privatisation, not let it go on with limited profits!
On housing: Labour promised an increased home-building programme, but what people need right now are council houses – cheaply-rentable properties run on a not-for-profit basis by local authorities. They need this because there is an appalling shortage of appropriate housing for individuals and families of varying sizes, due to the Conservative ‘Right to Buy’ policies that started in the 1980s. Council houses were sold off to their tenants, who in turn sold them to private landlords, who rented them out for more money than councils ever demanded. Labour never offered to build council houses again. Instead, we were promised more expensive alternatives from the private sector that we didn’t – and don’t – want.
On privatisation: More than 70 per cent of the general public wanted energy firms re-nationalised when the controversy over bills arose in 2013. Labour should have promised at least to consider it. Labour did not. Labour is the party that should represent public ownership of utilities. The private water, electricity and gas companies have ripped off consumers with high rates that were never part of the offer when their shares were floated on the stock exchange. But Labour was happy to allow those firms to continue.
These are just a few reasons Labour let the people down. They arise from the disastrous philosophical reversal of the 1990s that changed the party from one that represents the people into one that exploits us instead. Now, right-wingers in the party like Peter Mandelson are claiming that Ed Miliband pulled Labour too far back to the Left; instead, they want Labour to push further into Tory territory, utterly abandoning its core voters.
That would be a tragedy – not only for the people of the UK, but also for Labour. We already have one Conservative Party; we don’t need another.
Labour must rid itself of the right-wingers in its ranks and return to its original values – before it is too late for all of us.
Or is it already too late, thanks to the dithering of the last five years?
The Conservatives’ latest negative campaign advert: The Tories seem to think they are the only party who should be allowed to steal the cash from poor people.
Twice, in a matter of days, Vox Political‘s findings on political issues have been supported by the evidence of a scholar.
Today, the Mainly Macroblog written by Professor Simon Wren-Lewis, who teaches Economics at Oxford University, supports This Writer’s argument that the so-called economic recovery, that began in 2013, had little or nothing positive to do with the Coalition Government or George Osborne’s policies.
“The idea that austerity during the first two years of the coalition government was vindicated by the 2013 recovery is so ludicrous that it is almost embarrassing to have to explain why,” he writes.
“Imagine that a government on a whim decided to close down half the economy for a year. That would be a crazy thing to do, and with only half as much produced everyone would be a lot poorer. However a year later when that half of the economy started up again, economic growth would be around 100%. The government could claim that this miraculous recovery vindicated its decision to close half the economy down the year before. That would be absurd, but it is a pretty good analogy with claiming that the 2013 recovery vindicated 2010 austerity.”
That’s right. George Osborne did huge harm to the economy when he imposed austerity in 2010, choking off Labour’s recovery. It is senseless for him to claim that easing off on that policy has created an economic miracle. As this blog has repeatedly stated, any economic recovery enjoyed by the UK has had nothing to do with the actions of the Coalition Government.
It is important to remember that the Tories intend to impose even deeper austerity if they win the election next month, causing catastrophic harm to anyone who isn’t in the richest 10 per cent of the population.
But why do this at all? What was the point of it?
A commenter to this blog’s Facebook page put it very well only today. Tracey Wilkinson Clarke wrote: “Corporations and capitalism [were]crashing…the banking crisis was created … as a reason to bring in austerity measures to feed the money back up to the few.” This opinion is supported by an article on this blog at the time.
It is also supported by the Conservative Party’s most recent anti-SNP campaign advert. Following on from David Cameron’s overheard comment on television last week, that Alex Salmond was a pickpocket, the advert has an image of the SNP candidate reaching towards a member of the public’s pocket, with the tagline, “Don’t let the SNP grab your cash.”
It is Conservative Party policy to do exactly that – and hand it over to the very rich in the form of tax breaks (both personal and business-orientated), tax avoidance, lucrative public ‘service’ contracts, and shares in privatised utilities.
The day job: Rebecca Evans AM in the more familiar environment of the Assembly debating chamber [Image: ITV].
I wanted to share this with you because, as a constituent and a member of the Labour Party, I’m quite proud of Mid and West Wales Labour AM Rebecca Evans, who spent a week living on an amount equivalent to Jobseekers’ Allowance and discussing ‘welfare reform’ with people who deal with its effects on a day-to-day basis, to find out what it is like.
She wrote an article about her experience for Wales Onlinewhich I am taking the liberty of excerpting here. Over to you, Rebecca:
With the average household in Wales expected to lose 4.1 per cent of their income due to policy changes, support is vital for those living on the poverty line.
Although people are understandably cynical when politicians attempt to live life on the breadline, I wanted to raise awareness of the challenges facing welfare claimants and gain a better understanding of how well understood the changes are.
Living off £72.40 for one week, I did not expect to truly experience the day-to-day life of people who rely on welfare support. I was aware that when Monday came around I would step back into my normal routine. But I wanted to experience at least some of the challenges and difficult decisions facing many thousands of people every day.
The Your Benefits are Changing money advice team calculated that the average weekly expenditure for someone living off Jobseeker’s Allowance in my home area of Carmarthenshire leaves just £13.58 for food and essentials once transport costs, utilities, the TV licence, phone bills and the bedroom tax have been paid – which equates to less than £2 a day.
On this income, any trip to the supermarket becomes a stressful task as every single penny matters.
When speaking with job seekers, food bank volunteers, YBAC money advisors and housing association staff and tenants during the week, the message was the same: people are struggling and many have had their lives irrevocably damaged by welfare policies.
The Bedroom Tax has had a serious impact on thousands of people across Wales, and the shortage of suitable housing has only enhanced poverty levels. Brought in as part of the Welfare Reform Act… the policy is estimated to have affected 36,000 tenants in the social housing sector, including 3,500 disabled households. As a direct result… housing association tenants accrued £1.1 million in arrears during the first six months.
Housing associations are rightly concerned that a move to monthly payments will prove incredibly challenging for those on low incomes, leading to an increase in the number of people that turn to emergency food supplies.
A YBAC money advisor told me food poverty levels can be worse for people who live on housing estates because they may only have one shop within walking distance, and that shop may have limited discounts. Food prices have risen by 12 per cent since 2007, so it is no surprise 900,000 people across the UK have turned to food banks in the past year… but the fact that we need food banks in 21st never ceases to be shocking.
The families I met during my week on benefits rely on second hand clothes and goods, and rarely buy anything new – let alone any kind of treats. They try to put aside £20 a week, but unexpected emergencies leave them unable to save.
A YBAC money advisor told me that around a quarter of people seeking advice are actually in work, and that the majority of children in poverty live in a household where one adult works. One mum with a young baby told me that her husband is on a zero-hour contract, meaning that the family can’t plan financially with any certainty.
This smashes the myth that welfare reform is all about supporting the unemployed back to work.
‘For the privileged few’: If you’re earning the average wage of £26,500 per year, or less, then nothing George Osborne says will be relevant to you.
Why are the mainstream media so keen to make you think falling inflation means your wages will rise?
There is absolutely no indication that this will happen.
If you are lucky, and the drop in inflation (to 1.7 per cent) affects things that make a difference to the pound in your pocket, like fuel prices, groceries and utility bills, then their prices are now outstripping your ability to pay for them at a slightly slower rate. Big deal.
The reports all say that private sector wages are on the way up – but this includes the salaries of fatcat company bosses along with the lowest-paid office cleaners.
FTSE-100 bosses all received more pay by January 8 than average workers earn in a year. Their average annual pay rise is 14 per cent. Bankers get 35 per cent. These are all included in the national private sector average of 1.7 per cent, which means you get a lot less than the figures suggest.
Occasional Chancellor George Osborne said: “These latest inflation numbers are welcome news for families.” Why? Because they aren’t sinking into debt quite as fast as they were last month? They’re great news for the fatcats mentioned above, along with MPs, who are in line to get an inflation-busting 11 per cent rise; but as far as families are concerned, rest assured he’s lying again.
“Lower inflation and rising job numbers show our long-term plan is working, and bringing greater economic security,” he had the cheek to add. Employment has risen, although we should probably discount a large proportion of the self-employed statistics as these are most likely people who’ve been encouraged to claim tax credits rather than unemployment benefits and will be hit with a huge overpayment bill once HMRC finds out (as discussed in many previous articles).
The problem is, Britain’s economic performance has not improved in line with the number of extra jobs. If we have more people in work now than ever before in this nation’s history, then the economy should be going gangbusters – surging ahead, meaning higher pay for everybody and a much bigger tax take for the government, solving its debt reduction problem and ensuring it can pay for our public services – right?
We all know that isn’t happening. It isn’t happening because the large employment figures are based on a mixture of lies and low wages. The economy can’t surge forward because ordinary people aren’t being paid enough – and ordinary working people are the ones who fuel national economies; from necessity they spend a far higher percentage of their earnings than the fatcats and it is the circulation of this money that generates profit, and tax revenues.
Osborne compounded his lies by adding: “There is still much more we need to do to build the resilient economy I spoke of at the Budget.” He has no intention of doing any such thing. He never had.
Conservative economic policy is twofold, it seems: Create widescale unemployment in order to depress wages for those who do the actual work and boost profits for bosses and shareholders; and cut the national tax take to ensure that they can tell us the UK cannot afford a welfare state, opening the door for privatised medicine and private health and income insurance firms.
This is why, as has been discussed very recently, leaders of the Margaret Thatcher era including Nicholas Ridley and Keith Joseph determined that the defeat of the workers would require “the substantial destruction of Britain’s remaining industrial base” (according to ‘The Impact of Thatcherism on Health and Well-Being in Britain’). It is, therefore, impossible for George Osborne to seek to build any “resilient economy” that will improve your lot, unless you are a company boss, banker, or shareholder.
The plan to starve the public sector, as has been repeated many times on this blog, has been named ‘Starving the Beast’ and involves ensuring that the tax take cannot sustain public services by keeping working wages so low that hardly any tax comes in (the Tory Democrat determination to raise the threshold at which takes is paid plays right into this scheme) and cutting taxes for the extremely well-paid (and we have seen this take place, from 50 per cent to 45. Corporation tax has also been cut by 25 per cent).
This is why Ed Balls is right to say that average earnings are £1,600 per year less than in May 2010, why Labour is right to point out that the economy is still performing well below its height under Labour…
… and why the government and the mainstream media are lying to you yet again.
Standing in the shadow of a giant: Vox Political’s Mike Sivier (front) at ‘Cooper Corner’, with Caerphilly Castle in the background.
Vox Political was relatively quiet yesterday; although I reblogged plenty of articles from other sources, there was no new piece from the site itself because I was in Caerphilly, delivering a speech at a Bedroom Tax protest there.
Caerphilly is the birthplace of the late, great comic Tommy Cooper, and it was in the shadow of his statue that the demonstration took place. I instantly (and privately) named the location ‘Cooper Corner’.
I took the opportunity to lighten proceedings at the start by suggesting that Mr Cooper (albeit in petrified effigy) would be providing the jokes. I held the microphone up towards the statue. “Anything? No? No. I didn’t think so.” Turning back to the crowd I added: “The Bedroom Tax is no laughing matter.” Then I got into the body of the speech:
“I write a small blog called Vox Political. I started it a couple of years ago as an attempt to put in writing what a reasonable, thinking person might have to say about government policies in these years of forced austerity, and politics in general.
“As you can probably imagine, this means I knew about the Bedroom Tax, several months before it was actually imposed on us all. I was writing articles warning people against it from October 2012. The trouble was, Vox Political is a small blog that even now has only a few thousand readers a day – and the mainstream media has been almost entirely bought by a political machine with far more funding than I have.
“It is a tax, by the way. You may have heard a lot of nonsense that it isn’t, but consider it this way: a tax is defined as a compulsory contribution to state revenue, levied by the government against a citizen’s person, property or activity, to support government policies.
“It is not a ‘spare-room subsidy’. If anyone in authority tries to tell you you’re having your ‘spare-room subsidy’ removed (or more likely, imposed, they’re so confused about this), just tell them to go and find the Act of Parliament that introduced the ‘spare room subsidy’, using those words. Tell them if they can find it, you’ll pay it – but if they can’t, they must not take any money away from you. They won’t be able to find it because it doesn’t exist.
“It is more accurately described as the ‘State Underoccupation Charge’ – SUC! And it really does suck.
“It sucks money that social housing tenants need for food, heat, water and other necessities out of their pockets and forces them to send it to their landlord instead – either the local council or a social landlord like a housing association. The reasoning behind it has always been that this would encourage people to move, but in fact we know that there is no social accommodation for them to move into. When the Bedroom Tax became law, there was only enough smaller housing to accommodate around 15 per cent of the affected households. It is clearly a trap, designed to make poor people poorer.
“This is why the first advice I put on my blog was for anyone affected by the Bedroom Tax to appeal against it – and I was criticised quite harshly for it, because some people decided such action would mark tenants out as troublemakers and create more problems for them. At the time, I thought it was right to give some of the aggravation back to the people who were foisting this additional burden onto lower-income families; make them work for it, if they want it so badly. As it turns out, I was right to do so, because there are so many loopholes in the legislation that it seems almost anybody could avoid paying!
“Do you think Stephanie Bottrill would have died if she had known that she could successfully appeal against her Bedroom Tax, on the grounds that she had been a social housing tenant since before January 1996 and was therefore exempt? The government spitefully closed that particular loophole earlier this month, but that lady is already dead, due to a lie. Had she been properly informed, she could have successfully fought it off and then taken advice on how to cope with it after the government amendment was brought in.
“There is a case for corporate manslaughter against the Department for Work and Pensions, right there. If tested in court, it seems likely that the way its activities have been managed and organised by senior management – the fact that it foisted the Bedroom Tax, wrongly, on this lady – will be found to have led to her death, in gross breach of its duty of care to those who claim state benefits (in this case, Housing Benefit).
“David Cameron has wasted a great deal of oxygen telling us all that disabled people are not affected by the tax. Perhaps he could explain why a disabled gentleman in my home town was forced to move out of his specially-adapted home, incurring not only the cost of moving but an extra £5,000 for removing the adaptations and installing them into new accommodation? He appealed against Bedroom Tax decision but the result came back after the date when he had to be out of his home. Can you guess what it was? That’s right – he won. I have been trying to get him to take legal action against the council and the government about this as it would be an important test case.
“It includes a study, a utility room, a play room, even an Iain Duncan Smith voodoo doll-making room, if that takes your fancy!
“I was particularly happy to hear that you can have a study as I’ve been writing my blog from the broom cupboard – oh! That’s another room you can have!
“Check the DWP’s online forms. They ask about bedrooms, and then they ask about other rooms. The distinction is clear.”
Then I closed the speech. In retrospect, I should have finished with a few words about the fact that this was the first bit of public speaking I had ever done. I could have given them something along these lines: “I am aware that speech-making is a lucrative sideline for many people, including comedians (although I’m not aware that Mr Cooper ever made any) and also politicians. Perhaps I should use this platform to suggest that, if you know anybody who is considering booking a speaker for a special occasion – society dinner, rugby club social, wedding or party, why not ask them to get in touch with me – instead of Iain Duncan Smith!”
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Calls for a ‘commission of inquiry’ into the impact of the government’s changes to social security entitlements on poverty have won overwhelming support from Parliament.
The motion by Labour’s Michael Meacher was passed with a massive majority of 123 votes; only two people – David Nuttall and Jacob Rees-Mogg – voted against it.
The debate enjoyed cross-party support, having been secured by Mr Meacher with Sir Peter Bottomley (Conservative) and John Hemming (Liberal Democrat).
Introducing the motion, Mr Meacher said: “It is clear that something terrible is happening across the face of Britain. We are seeing the return of absolute poverty, which has not existed in this country since the Victorian age more than a century ago. Absolute poverty is when people do not have the money to pay for even their most basic needs.”
He said the evidence was all around:
There are at least 345 food banks and, according to the Trussell Trust, emergency food aid was given to 350,000 households for at least three days in the last year.
The Red Cross is setting up centres to help the destitute, just as it does in developing countries.
Even in prosperous areas like London, more than a quarter of the population is living in poverty.
According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, for the first time, the number of people in working families who are living in poverty, at 6.7 million, is greater than the number of people in workless and retired families who are living in poverty, at 6.3 million.
Child poverty will rise from 2.5 million to 3.2 million during this Parliament, around 24 per cent of children in the UK. By 2020, if the rise is not stopped, it will increase to four million – around 30 per cent of children in the UK.
The use of sanctions depriving people of all their benefits for several weeks at a time, had increased by 126 per cent since 2010 and 120 disabled people who had been receiving jobseeker’s allowance had been given a three-year fixed duration sanction in the previous year.
There are now more than 2,000 families who have been placed in emergency bed-and-breakfast accommodation after losing their homes.
The per cent rise in the overall homelessness figures last year included nearly 9,000 families with children, which is the equivalent of one family losing their home every 15 minutes.
A third of families spent less than £20 a week on food and that the average spend on food per person per day was precisely £2.10. That is a third less than those families were able to afford three months before that.
The proportion of households that had to make debt repayments of more than £40 a week had doubled and the average level of debt was £2,250.
A third of families had council tax debt.
2.7 million people had lost out through the Government’s changes to council tax benefit – many of them disabled people, veterans and some of the most vulnerable in our communities.
Households were having to spend 16 per cent more on gas and electricity.
There are 2.5 million people who have been unemployed for the best part of two years, and there were 562,000 vacancies when the debate took place (Monday), so four out of five of those who are unemployed simply cannot get a job whatever they do.
Cuts to local authorities mean many home care visits are limited to 15 minutes.
The 10 per cent of local authorities that are the most deprived in the country face cuts six times higher than those faced by the 10 per cent that are the most affluent.
60 per cent of benefit cuts fall on those who are in work.
Mr Meacher said the biggest cause of absolute poverty was the huge rise in sanctioning, often for trivial reasons such as turning up five minutes late for a job interview or the Work Programme:
A dyslexic person lost his Jobseekers Allowance because his condition meant that in one fortnightly period he applied for nine jobs, not 10. He was trying to pay his way and already had work, but it provided only an extremely low income.
The jobcentre didn’t record that a claimant had informed them that he was in hospital when he was due to attend an appointment and he was sanctioned.
A claimant went to a job interview instead of signing on at the jobcentre because the appointments clashed – and was sanctioned.
A claimant had to look after their mother who was severely disabled and very ill – and was sanctioned.
A Job Centre sent the letter informing a claimant of an interview to their previous address, despite having been told about the move. The claimant was sanctioned.
A claimant was refused a job because she was in a women’s refuge, fleeing domestic violence and in the process of relocating, but I was still sanctioned.
Mr Meacher also quoted what he called a classic: “I didn’t do enough to find work in between finding work and starting the job.”
The latest DWP figures suggest that more than one million people have been sanctioned in the past 15 months and deprived of all benefit and all income. “Given that the penalties are out of all proportion to the triviality of many of the infringements, and given that, as I have said, four out of five people cannot get a job whatever they do, the use of sanctioning on this scale, with the result of utter destitution, is — one struggles for words — brutalising and profoundly unjust,” said Mr Meacher.
Other reasons for the rise in absolute poverty included:
Delays in benefit payments.
The fact that it is impossible for many poor and vulnerable people to comply with new rules – for example a jobseeker who asked to downsize to a smaller flat who was told he must pay two weeks’ full rent upfront before getting housing benefit. He does not have the funds to do so and is stuck in a situation where his benefits will not cover his outgoings due to the Bedroom Tax.
The Bedroom Tax, which applies to around 667,000 households, and two-thirds of those affected are disabled. More than 90 per cent of those affected do not have smaller social housing to move into.
The Benefit Cap, imposed on a further 33,000 households.
Mistakes by the authorities; up to 40,000 working-age tenants in social housing may have been improperly subjected to the Bedroom Tax because of DWP error (although Iain Duncan Smith claims a maximum of 5,000).
Mr Meacher said: “The Chancellor’s policy of keeping 2.5 million people unemployed makes it impossible for them to find work, even if there were employers who would be willing to take them, and the 40 per cent success rate of appeals shows how unfair the whole process is.”
Responding to a comment from David TC Davies (Conservative) that those who are not looking for work must realise there will be consequences, particularly when a million people have been able to come to the UK from eastern Europe and find work, Mr Meacher said, “Those who come to this country are more likely to be employed and take out less in benefits than many of the indigenous population.”
He asked: “Is all this brutality towards the poor really necessary? Is there any justification in intensifying the misery, as the Chancellor clearly intends, by winding up the social fund and, particularly, by imposing another £25 billion of cuts in the next Parliament, half of that from working-age benefits?
“After £80 billion of public spending cuts, with about £23 billion of cuts in this Parliament so far, the deficit has been reduced only at a glacial pace, from £118 billion in 2011 to £115 billion in 2012 and £111 billion in 2013. Frankly, the Chancellor is like one of those first world war generals who urged his men forward, over the top, in order to recover 300 yards of bombed-out ground, but lost 20,000 men in the process. How can it be justified to carry on imposing abject and unnecessary destitution on such a huge scale when the benefits in terms of deficit reduction are so small as to be almost derisory?”
Suggested alternatives to the punitive austerity programme of cuts came thick and fast during the debate. Challenged to explain what Labour’s Front Bench meant by saying they would be tougher on welfare than the Tories, Mr Meacher said: “As the shadow Chancellor has made clear on many occasions, is that we need public investment. We need to get jobs and growth. That is the alternative way: public investment in jobs, industry, infrastructure and exports to grow the real economy, not the financial froth, because that would cut the deficit far faster than the Chancellor’s beloved austerity.”
He asked: “How about the ultra-rich — Britain’s 1,000 richest citizens — contributing just a bit? Their current remuneration — I am talking about a fraction of the top 1 per cent — is £86,000 a week, which is 185 times the average wage. They received a windfall of more than £2,000 a week from the five per cent cut in the higher rate of income tax, and their wealth was recently estimated by The Sunday Times at nearly half a trillion pounds. Let us remember that we are talking about 1,000 people. Their asset gains since the 2009 crash have been calculated by the same source at about £190 billion.
“These persons, loaded with the riches of Midas, might perhaps be prevailed upon to contribute a minute fraction of their wealth in an acute national emergency, when one-sixth of the workforce earns less than the living wage and when one million people who cannot get a job are being deprived of all income by sanctioning and thereby being left utterly destitute.
“Charging the ultra-rich’s asset gains since 2009 to capital gains tax would raise more than the £25 billion that the Chancellor purports to need. I submit that it would introduce some semblance of democracy and social justice in this country if the Chancellor paid attention to this debate and thought deeply about what he is doing to our country and its people.”
Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley, Lab) suggested that the Government might save a lot more if its members “showed the same energy and enthusiasm for getting those who evade their taxes and run to tax havens as they do for going after the poor, the sick and people on the dole”.
Against this, David TC Davies offered insults and distortions of the facts, quoting the Daily Mail as though it provided an accurate account of current events: “Members of the shadow Cabinet might need a boxing referee to sort out their disputes at the moment, as we read today in the Daily Mail.”
He said: “We took office with a deficit of £160 billion and a debt that was rising rapidly to £1 trillion. That was after years of overspending in good times, as well as in bad, by Labour, a cheap money supply and lax banking regulation under the former Government.” Labour’s spending, up until the financial crisis, was always less than that of the previous Conservative administration; Gordon Brown and Tony Blair both ran a lower deficit than John Major and Margaret Thatcher, and at one point actually achieved a surplus, which is something that the Conservatives had not managed in the previous 18 years. While Mr Davies here complained about the “lax banking regulation”, Conservatives supported it at the time and in fact demanded more DE-regulation, which would have made the financial crisis worse when it happened.
“We had disastrous economic decisions, such as that to sell gold at a fraction of its real rate,” said Mr Davies. Yes – the UK lost around £9 billion. But compare that with the disastrous economic decision by George Osborne to impose more than £80 billion worth of cuts to achieve a £7 billion cut in the national deficit. The UK has lost £73 billion there, over a three-year period.
And Mr Davies said: “Worst of all and most seriously, we had a welfare system that allowed people to get into a trap of welfare dependency, leaving them on the dole for many years, but at the same time filling the consequent gap in employment by allowing mass and uncontrolled immigration into this country, which completely undercut British workers.” The first assertion is simply untrue; the second is a legacy of previous Conservative administrations that agreed to the free movement of EU member citizens, meaning that, when the eastern European countries joined in 2004, citizens migrated to the UK in the hope of a better life. Labour has admitted it should have negotiated for a delay in free movement until the economies of those countries had improved, making such migration less likely, but the situation was created before Labour took office.
Challenged on the Coalition’s record, Mr Davies fell back on the Tories’ current trick question, which is to counter any criticism by asking: “Is he suggesting that we are not doing enough to pay down the national debt? Is he suggesting that we should cut further and faster? If so, and if we had the support of other Opposition Members, that is exactly what the Government could do and, indeed, possibly should do. I look forward to seeing that support for getting the deficit down.” This disingenuous nonsense was batted away by Labour’s Hugh Bayley, who said “investing in the economy, creating jobs and thereby getting people off welfare and into work” was the way forward.
Mr Davies’ Conservative colleague Jeremy Lefroy took a different view, agreeing that increasing numbers of people are finding it impossible to make ends meet, and that job creation and apprenticeships were a better way out of poverty than changing the social security system alone. He agreed that sanctions were applied to his constituents “in a rather arbitrary manner”. He spoke against George Osborne’s suggested plan to remove housing benefits from people aged under 25, saying this “would have a drastic impact on young people who need to live away from home and who have no support from their families”. He spoke in favour of councils increasing their housing stock. And he admitted that disabled people faced severe problems when unfairly transferred from ESA to JSA: “A lady in my constituency says, ‘I am simply not fit for work, but by signing on for JSA I have to say that I am available and fit for work.’ She does not want to tell a lie.”
Steve Rotheram (Liverpool Walton, Labour) spoke powerfully about the effect of being on benefits: “Lots of people in my city are on benefits for the very first time. Far from being in clover — it beggars belief what we read in the right-wing press — they are struggling to make ends meet, and the problem that thousands of Liverpudlians are facing is new to them. For many, the idea that they might miss a rent payment is totally alien. They have not done that in the past 20 years, but since May 2010, their individual household incomes have been on such a downward trajectory that they now find themselves in rent arrears, seeking advice on debt management and unable to afford the daily cost of travel, food and energy. Figures suggest that 40 per cent of the adult population in Liverpool are struggling with serious debt problems.”
And he said poverty had health implications, too: “David Taylor-Robinson of the University of Liverpool and his fellow academics have highlighted the doubling of malnutrition-related hospital admissions nationally since 2008.”
John Hemming (Birmingham Yardley, LD) raised concerns about “the interrelationship between the welfare cap and victims of domestic violence, and whether there are situations that need more attention. I believe that people can get discretionary housing payment to leave a violent home, but it is important that we ensure that there is a route out of domestic violence for women. I am worried about that issue, just as I am about some wrongful sanctioning that I have seen. That does not help at all, because it undermines the whole process.” He also called for “a substantial increase in the minimum wage, because as the economy is improving the Government should look at that, rather than maintain things as they are”.
The vote gave huge endorsement to the call for an independent inquiry into poverty under the Coalition.
But with an election just 15 months away, how long will we have to wait for it to report?
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