Thursday, 17 July 2014

Union resists call to boycott benefit sanctions

From the current edition of the Big Issue in the North magazine, please buy a copy if you see a seller. 

Britain’s largest civil servants union is resisting calls by welfare rights campaigners to ballot its members for non- cooperation on sanctions and workfare.
The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) represents staff within the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), which administers working age benefits such as jobseeker’s allowance (JSA)
and employment and support allowance (ESA), as well as the disability and carers service that deals with benefits to disabled people, including the disability living allowance. (DLA).
At £174 billion, the DWP has the largest budget of any government department. It has been the policy of the current government to reduce it. Chancellor George Osborne announced in January that if the Conservatives win the general election next year he will seek a further £12 billion reduction in welfare spending in the following two years.
One way of saving money has been through benefit sanctions. The government has required claimants to do more to actively prove they are seeking work.
In the year to September 2013, 897,690 benefit claimants had sanctions applied against them – the highest total since JSA began in 1996.
There were also 22,840 sanctions on ESA claimants – the largest total since sanctions started for such claimants six years ago. According to the DWP work services director Neil Couling: “Benefit recipients welcome the jolt that a sanction can give them... there are some very positive outcomes from tough conversations... there have been sanctions since the benefit system started.”
Workfare programme
Sanction levels vary from four weeks up to three years.
The government has also expanded the workfare programme, introduced under the last Labour government, under which individuals must work in return for benefit payments or risk losing them. Mandatory work placements last four weeks. Many major companies, including Asda, Greggs and Poundland, have used workfare. Charities such as the YMCA have also done so.
There are many critics of sanctions and workfare policies. Boycott Workfare, an organisation committed to “ending forced unpaid labour for people who receive welfare”, claims there is no evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work and is about pushing people deeper into poverty.
The disabled charity Scope has calculated that cuts to DLA, ESA, housing benefit and the bedroom tax will lead to 3.7 million disabled people losing a total of £28.3 billion by 2018. It has been calculated that disabled people are being hit nine times harder than able-bodied people under the government’s cutbacks.
Food banks
Photograph courtesy of Mark Harvey
Citizens Advice is assisting record numbers affected by benefit sanctions and finding that many people are now struggling to pay their utility bills and rent, and put food on the table. Consequently, more people are turning to food banks and payday loan companies.
Despite this, opinion polls regularly record high levels of support for benefit cuts and sanctions, and the opposition Labour Party has said it would cut £5 billion from welfare if it wins next year’s election.
Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) campaigns against all austerity measures and has undertaken a number of civil disobedience actions including blockading venues.
According to its spokesperson: “Increasing numbers of disabled people are losing their benefits. In some cases people are starving and forced to search in rubbish bins to find things to eat and wear. We want political parties to stop these attacks on the poorest people in our society.”
DPAC has combined with Boycott Workfare and the Black Triangle disabled people’s group to seek support from DWP workers. The trio has issued a joint statement on PCS and non-cooperation, which urges the union’s national executive committee to “consult members on adopting a tactic of non- cooperation with workfare and sanctions”.
At the PCS conference last year delegates were told of legal advice that non-cooperation could be employed as part of its campaign of industrial action short of a strike. However at the 2014 conference, delegates voted only to “build a broad campaigning alliance against conditionality, sanctions and workfare”.
According to a PCS spokesman, the vote passed “acknowledged the legal difficulties in taking industrial action over sanctions”.
The spokesperson said two-thirds of members had experienced pressure from managers to refer claimants for sanction inappropriately and faced the threat of being disciplined if they don’t.
However, Joanna Long of Boycott Workfare, accused the PCS leadership of “ignoring the mandate they have got from their members to investigate non-compliance and cooperation and of failing to fully inform their members about the impact of benefit referrals and when they can use their discretion. We are not seeking strike action as non cooperation would have great implications for claimants.”

Jane Aitchison, the secretary of PCS DWP Leeds branch, backed the call for non-cooperation. She said: “Members hate sanctions and implementing them. They would welcome being balloted over an inhumane benefit regime that leaves people destitute and is being employed to drive down wages.”

No comments:

Post a Comment