- Category: Analysis
- Published on Tuesday, 18 March 2014
- Written by Richard Atkinson
The announcement by French IT giant ATOS that it would be withdrawing from its main contract with the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) is a significant event for opponents of the coalition government. From the beginning - with its emergency budget of June 2010 - the government has placed ‘welfare reform’ at the centre of its agenda and marshalled all its ideological forces into a concerted attack on poor and disabled people. The assault appeared at times unstoppable, and it has been hugely successful in shifting attitudes to welfare and in creating divisions between different sections of the working class - as well as in causing largely untold levels of suffering and systematically uncounted deaths.
Now, for the first time, they have experienced major setbacks - over ATOS and, in a different way, around the bedroom tax - and it is entirely down to the determined campaign by tens of thousands of disabled people, tenants and their supporters, largely without leadership from the organised left. These are, unambiguously, victories for our side and, if we can build on their momentum, it gives us a chance to begin the rolling back of the government’s entire assault on welfare and the poor, and to rebuild our own strength.
ATOS were no innocents dragged into war unwillingly. They, and their allies in the private health insurance and assessment industry, were the principal architects of government strategy under both Labour, who first commissioned their services in 2008, and the coalition. The plan was to push back the boundaries of state support for people with illnesses or disabilities, through systematic disbelief, arbitrary and contemptuous assessments and the narrowest possible view of the difficulties disabled people face. Both sides of the deal benefited - ATOS by a string of contracts worth hundreds of millions; government who used the results of ATOS assessments for black propaganda.
But as ATOS became a byword for cruel, incompetent and perverse decision-making they began to hit problems. They had difficulties recruiting, particularly recruiting doctors, after the BMA condemned their fake test which routinely overrode GPs’ opinions. Their administration began to break down; they even faced industrial action by their own staff. Politicians of both parties, diverting attention from their own complicity, and senior civil servants at the DWP, began to criticise the quality of ATOS reports. Labour announced their intention not to renew ATOS’s main contract and the DWP was forced repeatedly to delay the introduction of PIP (Personal Independence Payment, their replacement for Disability Living Allowance) because the new requirement that every claimant attend an assessment could not be delivered in time by ATOS, or by their competitor, Capita.
Meanwhile repeated exposes of perverse and unreasonable decisions forced a gradual change of practice on ATOS and on the civil service decision-makers who used their reports to stop benefits. In July 2011, an infamous string of newspapers headlines, orchestrated by the DWP press office, proclaimed that “75% of sickness benefit claims were fake”. By January 2014 the proportion failing the work capability assessment had fallen to 39%, while the number entering the support group - designed for the most severely ill or disabled and arbitrarily set by the DWP to be no more than 12% of claimants - had reached an extraordinary 39%. These are important numbers - they translate directly into reduced misery and increased security for tens of thousands of people.
Finally, as campaigners organised a national day of action against the company, with protests outside most of its assessment centres, the damage became too severe and ATOS announced that it was seeking to withdraw early from its main contract for assessing ESA claimants under the work capability assessment (but not, yet, from its PIP contract). And, to emphasise the seriousness of ATOS’s collapse for the government, on the day of their withdrawal, news emerged of an emergency instruction to DWP staff not to make any further referrals to ATOS for repeat assessments - for people who have already passed the test once - until further notice, a massive relief for all those whose assessments were due to run out.
Yet even in departing this evil company - anyone who queries the word should remember the case of Mark Wood, who starved to death after an ATOS assessment - could not resist a Parthian shot at the campaigners who had brought it down. Ideological to the last ATOS alleged that it was leaving because of death threats against its staff, a laughable accusation given the number of claimant deaths for which ATOS are directly responsible and the entirely peaceful protests that saw the firm on its way.
Over the same period during which ATOS’s contracts began to unravel, another government assault - the bedroom tax - was being driven into a legal quagmire where it can be expected to die a slow, if painful, death. The bedroom tax was conceived from the start as one element in a more general assault on social housing. By driving down benefit conditions for social housing tenants to the levels of insecurity and arbitrariness already experienced by private sector tenants, the government hoped to neuter opposition to the longstanding, cross-party policy aim of granting private capital access to the massive, unexploited value locked up in social housing. A lot of sitting tenants would be driven out, everyone would become less secure.
It looked so promising and straightforward for them. This was a relatively small cut, affecting only half a million or so people and redressed an apparent unfairness - why should social sector tenants be allowed a spare bedroom when private sector tenants weren’t? (No one mentioned homeowners who can under occupy at will, even when claiming benefits.) Councils and Housing Associations could be relied upon not to speak out on behalf of their residents or tenants. Pensioners would be exempt, thus excluding all the sympathetic cases, it seemed.
So almost everyone was surprised when, early in 2013, a few handfuls of local campaigns sprang up against the new tax. With the far left racing to catch up it was left to the Labour left to initiate a national Facebook campaign, backed by the Sunday People, which led to demonstrations across the country in March. Unfortunately Labour had no interest in sustained local campaigns and most of the promising local initiatives faded away - with notable exceptions of which I single out ReClaim in Bootle. The bedroom tax was on a slow burning fuse anyway - some got discretionary Housing Payments for a while, some tried to pay, some moved some appealed - rent arrears built up. What was established by the early campaigning was the name - bedroom tax, not ‘spare room subsidy’ or ‘under occupation penalty’ - a vital first blow; and a general conviction that it was unfair. Then someone else stepped in.
There is a small group of generally rather sad and insignificant people who have spent much of their lives studying benefit regulations. They do not work for the DWP, or for the legal profession; they work ultimately out of some kind of conviction. As a result they know the rules better than the DWP, better than any lawyer. And we (for I was one of these social inadequates) get annoyed when the DWP get sloppy in drafting their regulations, with their double negatives and exceptions to exceptions to exceptions. If we get annoyed enough we challenge them. Step forward Peter Barker and Joe Halewood (who, typically, tend not to agree with each other on most bedroom tax questions).
Joe it was who hammered home the pointed question - what is a bedroom? - more than anyone. The DWP hadn’t bothered to define ‘bedroom’, as they really should have done. Tribunals are now regularly agreeing that not everything that says it’s a bedroom is really as it seems - in particular rooms under 70 square feet (minimum) cannot be proper bedrooms. Peter unearthed long forgotten amendment rules, from 1996 but still in force, that disapplied the bedroom tax for anyone renting and claiming Housing Benefit since before 1996. The DWP had forgotten those rules like everyone else, but a few people keep old copies of benefits legislation, just in case.
This idleness in drafting regulations is not an accident, coming as it does from a government whose administrative practice combines arrogance and sloppiness. As a result the bedroom tax is trapped in a morass of technicalities and appeals and likely to remain that way. Labour and the SNP have made cost-free commitments to abolish it and the people who have to enforce it - in the finance sections of local authorities - are rapidly losing all faith in, and commitment to, the policy.
The next targets
Both the ATOS withdrawal and the neutering of the bedroom tax are victories for our side in the war on welfare. Not unalloyed or sweeping victories at all - the work capability assessment will continue with a new contractor, whenever this can be organised, and people in their tens of thousands will still be punished for being ill or disabled. The bedroom tax will limp on for a while - a few people will still lose their homes, more will leave - self-evicting - others will build up debt. And, yes, the victories manifest themselves as much in growing ruling class divisions as in outright success. That is what victories look like coming out of an epoch of defeats - partial and provisional, temporary blockages in the procession of ruling class successes. But we can learn from these modest wins:
- learn for instance that every policy of welfare reform has to be put into practice and administered by somebody - generally quite junior and subordinate somebodies in the lower reaches of the state bureaucracy. Those somebodies - tribunal judges, DWP decision-makers, ATOS assessors - can be influenced, persuaded or frankly bullied by their management - or by us (this isn’t a gentlemanly war);
- learn to use simple, intensely personalised arguments. Tag a policy simply, recognisably and often. Identify the villains responsible and attack them at every turn - landlords and bureaucrats for instance rather than claimants. Find an argument that connects and use it relentlessly;
- choose the campaigns we work on carefully - for instance the biggest cuts to the welfare budget come from inadequate uprating - now fixed at 1% a year for an indefinite future period. This won’t work, yet, for a campaign, although we can mention it. We should find other, more dramatic and compelling, issues;
- work with anyone and everyone with whom we can win at least partial agreement. Churches, for instance, who in many areas are the main, or even only voices opposing welfare reform. The Baptist, Methodist and United Reformed Churches, and the Church of Scotland, produced a report in 2013 - “The Lies We Tell Ourselves - ending comfortable myths about poverty” - which is as good as anything I’ve seen as an overview of the government’s assault. Quakers are becoming active as well and even the Trussell Trust, principal provider of food banks, widely mistrusted by the left at the inception because of their brief association with Cameron’s Big Society, and their assumption that food poverty was caused by poor budgeting, are becoming radicalised by their experiences. We won’t agree on everything but we can work together;
- what name we use, what organisational forms we adopt, matters less than the fact of organisation. Local People's Assemblies, UNITE Community branches, Left Unity branches, anti-cuts groups, claimants' unions, one-off local campaigns can all be used. The essential political criterion is to avoid co-option by Labour who have their own agenda;
- whatever we are doing, good information is a key resource. There is a tension here between becoming ‘experts’ for poor ‘clients’ and promoting self-activity which needs thought and discussion, but getting the information right is a precondition;
- Above all, work with claimants. This is not easy: there is no real alternative to the hard slog of leafleting outside DWP and council offices with good information stalls. Not easy either because people who have to to claim benefits do not, as a result, develop a mutual solidarity in the way that is enforced on people who work together. It is telling that the lead in confronting the coalition has been taken by the one group of claimants - disabled people - with a real, lived, recent tradition of activism and solidarity. There is a long way to go, and many false starts and dead ends, before we have any tradition of collective resistance to the DWP. But if we don’t start this, we miss the chance of reconstructing the basic levels of class organisation that have atrophied, or been swept aside, under neoliberal hegemony.
A couple of proposals for our next targets - sanctions and workfare - follow below. There are plenty of others - like the benefit cap, especially in London, and the local welfare schemes that councils are, or are not, providing to replace the Social Fund - but I think we should concentrate, immediately, on these. Boycott Workfare are already organising a Week of Action against workfare from 29 March to 6 April; anti-ATOS campaigners are proposing a further Day of Action for 1 April.
The number of benefit sanctions is fast approaching a million a year, each one causing immediate hardship. Sanctions are getting longer as more people get ‘second offence’ sanctions, typically for 13 weeks. They are increasingly hitting not just unemployed families but disabled people - who have either failed the ATOS work capability assessment and been forced to sign on, or placed in the work-related activity group and required to undergo futile ‘activities’ under the Work Programme - as well as single parents and young people - 42% of people sanctioned are under 25.
The current sanctions regime - SBR or stricter benefits regime is the internal name - was a personal initiative of David Cameron’s, announced at the Tory conference in 2012 and implemented from November 2012. The DWP are hardly bothering to deny any more - in the face of ample evidence - that Jobcentre staff and private Work Programme providers are incentivised, whether by formal quotas or ‘supervision’ against informal ‘norms’, to refer as many cases as possible for sanction decisions. Occasions, or excuses, for sanctions are multiplying as the ‘claimant commitment’, another Cameron initiative, is rolled out across the country, with its impossible demands for 35 hours searching for non-existent jobs, week in, week out. The result is - just as it was for the work capability assessments under ATOS - a constant stream of sanction decisions ranging from the merely unfair to the bizarre or outrageous.
Yet sanctions can be rolled back. Firstly, sanction decisions can be challenged. The decision-making process is important here. A sanction starts with with a referral - a public-facing Jobcentre staff member, or someone working for a private Work Programme provider, has to refer the claimant and their alleged inadequacies, for a sanctions decision to be made, on the papers, in a remote office, often many weeks later. (Which is why so many people do not know why they have been sanctioned - their “offence” is long past and forgotten.) Less than half of referrals result in a sanction - and this proportion is falling, although sanctions continue to increase as the number of referrals goes up. Making your case, in writing, as soon as there is a even a suggestion of a referral being made, can avert many sanctions. Appealing is less effective because the sanction has already happened - appeals take months. Nonetheless a recent study suggests that approaching 90% of sanctions appeals are now successful if they are pursued as far as a tribunal hearing.
Then we can put pressure on Jobcentre and Work Programme staff not to make referrals. Local publicity for the worst decisions, pickets and protests outside offices and aggressive advocacy inside can all make a difference. For every psychopath, revelling in the power given to them by the petty tyrannies of the Jobcentre and Work Programme, there is another worker who is quietly appalled by what they have to do. It only takes a slight shift in the internal balance between these groups to send the referrals statistics heading downhill and for management to start losing control.
Eventually, but not just yet, we may be able to get the unions - primarily the PCS here - to move. Jobcentre staff are being instructed to implement policies in flagrant breach of legal obligations in the Civil Service Code apart from anything else. That a good part of the national leadership of the PCS is made up of ‘revolutionary socialists’ of one stripe or another who have shown themselves unprepared to take any risks whatever in defence of sections of the working class under under vicious and continuous attack through the agency, however unwilling, of their members, must speak for itself.
April 2014 sees a massive expansion of helot labour in the UK. Helots were a subservient caste in classical Sparta, free to own land, raise families and make their own living, unlike slaves, and not apt to be bought and sold, but required, at any time, to provide food and labour for any member of the Spartan ruling class, who collectively controlled them.
In this country, in the period of the senescence of capitalism, any employer, public or private, charitable or profit making, who can claim that their enterprise serves some community good, will be able to recruit publicly funded labour, at no cost to themselves, through Community Work Placements, which open their doors in April. Discipline and subsistence for these workers is provided by the state through the DWP. Conversely, anyone who has been out of work for over two years, and has exhausted the largely useless services provided under the Work Programme, can be required to perform six months unpaid labour - 780 hours - on pain of losing all their benefits. This far more than the maximum (300 hours) to which a court can sentence you for a criminal offence.
Community Work Placements are bundled with a couple of other options as ‘Help to Work’ but no one expects the other options - daily signing on and ‘intensive support’ for people with literacy problems - to amount to much since no one makes much money from them (claimants don’t make money under any option but someone does). And they build on various existing Workfare schemes all with the same strict safeguards against job substitution (the employer has to say that there is no job substitution).
But Workfare, of every variety, can be beaten too, primarily by pressure on prospective placement providers. Some charities are expected to be large users of CWPs - the Salvation Army and the YMCA being notorious for their use of free workers already. Councils, and the DWP itself, are expected to provide most of the public sector opportunities for coerced unpaid labour. And retail opportunities for these novel zero-pay, 30 hours jobs are expected to abound.
What all these sectors have in common is a public face and a degree of public accountability. Therefore they are susceptible to pressure. Get a statement to be put to all voluntary organisations through local Voluntary Action groups which coordinate the sector, eschewing all use of forced labour. This is quite an easy argument to win, emphasising the difference between authentic volunteering and CWPs, which devalue and undermine the genuine article. Then take the same campaign to local councils and other employers. Then for residual CWP users - picket, protest, boycott. We won’t succeed entirely but we can significantly restrict the supply of placements.
Another feature of helotry was that members of the Spartan ruling class had the power of life or death over all helots. At an annual festival secret bands of Spartan killers - the krypteia - were given anticipatory religious absolution for their murders and went out to spread terror by slaughter of the helots. Times move on; today we use Channel 4 documentaries and Sun front pages.
The government have not of course given up. They have alternatives to ATOS lined up to administer the same tests. And the government are proposing to let all employers access the services of their disability police - ATOS are happy to oblige and are now marketing this service as OH Assist. People in work can soon expect to experience the miraculous curative powers of an ATOS assessment as employers seek to tighten sickness discipline. They will continue to try to enforce the bedroom tax - abolishing the pre-1996 exemption from April for instance. Landlords and councils need continual counter-pressure to stop evictions. These are not fronts we can abandon.
And they have other horrors lined up. Universal Credit (UC) is still in the wings, if drastically, and happily, delayed by Iain Duncan Smith’s incompetence. UC is still sometimes praised by people who should know better as a progressive reform. True, it does feature some modest improvements, primarily for people in mini-jobs - under 16 hours a week - who presently fall between the benefits and tax credit schemes, alongside really vicious and substantial cuts for disabled people which threaten the future of many independent living schemes. But the primary feature, and primary purpose, of UC is to bring millions of low paid working people, who currently claim tax credits and housing benefit under the control of the DWP - where they will face the same regime of sanctions, penalties, bureaucratic delay and opprobrium as those not currently in employment.
I could go on - about the deeper dependency many women in families will face when UC amalgamates income streams which could previously be shared within the family; or about the completely false claims that UC will “make work pay” - work already pays, just not very much if you have housing or childcare costs and UC will make little if any difference there. But the main point of UC is that it is not happening, except on a tiny scale, and is not going to happen this side of the next election.
What is happening is the restriction of appeal rights. Appeals are important. They affirm, practically, that the social solidarity of a welfare system confers rights not privileges. They make a difference, if a delayed one. They can keep hope alive. Under the ATOS regime nearly a million appeals were being made each year and around 40% were successful, despite the fact that tribunals on appeal were applying the same manically restrictive rules as ATOS.
And appeals have always been incredibly annoying to government, especially the senior civil servants who form the state’s long-term core - subverting its intentions, extending rights in unforeseen ways, finding technical errors in its carefully crafted legislation. This is not to idealise appeal tribunals which operate, in general, within the same system of class prejudices, bureaucratic obstructions and casual callousness as any other arm of the state. Their ‘independence’ has its limits. But it is different when people are heard in person, even across a big table or a court well, more difficult to sanction an injustice. Within their limits, legislative and ideological, tribunals can be relatively independent. And if they take a long time, they can also examine individual cases so much the more thoroughly.
Unsurprising therefore that this government wants to stop people appealing. Their ultimate weapon - deployed successfully in Employment Tribunals since July 2013 - is to charge people for access to justice. And proposals to charge for benefit appeals were indeed leaked in February. But this is for the future. They will not attempt to introduce charging this side of an election because they are already taking action to obstruct appeals - mandatory reconsideration.
Mandatory reconsideration means, briefly, that before you can appeal to a tribunal against any benefit decision (except tax credit and housing benefit decisions) you must go through the generally futile process of asking the DWP to think again. And during that process, it is becoming clear, no opportunity will be missed to deter you from actually appealing. The difference between an appeal to an independent tribunal and asking the same office to reconsider is systematically blurred so that people think the reconsideration is the appeal proper. You are telephoned so that it can be explained to you how manifestly right the decision is and how hopeless would be any challenge. And if you are claiming Employment Support Allowance you will not be paid while a reconsideration is proceeding, as you are while appealing.
Early impressions are that mandatory reconsideration, in force since October 2013, will succeed in reducing the numbers of appeals. Its success will be magnified by the carnage being wreaked in the advice sector by cuts to local government spending and legal aid. An issue for campaigners against welfare ‘reform’ over the coming months will be how far we want to go, or can go, in providing non-professional support and advocacy through the appeals process.
But these sorts of arguments are best hammered out in the course of a campaign, according to local circumstances and local resources. To achieve which a campaign must first exist. It is now a strategic priority for Left Unity branches in particular to establish active, effective, local campaigns, under whatever label is to hand and working with anyone who is willing, against the effects of welfare reform. I have touched on some possible ways of getting started here but there are many others; the important thing for now is to begin.
Significant parts of the coalition’s welfare reform programme are falling into disarray - Universal Jobmatch is the most recent. Resistance is becoming increasingly effective. Let’s make sure that, in the week from 29 March, some form of activity against welfare reform - sanctions, workfare, ATOS and the bedroom tax - takes place everywhere and that Left Unity is centrally involved.