Sunday, 22 May 2011

Benefit claimants and benefit workers - in it together!

mark-serwotka.jpg“It’s the mark of a civilised society to support people when they are in need, whether they are ill, disabled or unemployed. Welfare is there to provide a decent existence. Coming from the South Wales valleys and working in a DHSS office I saw the importance of the social security system before my eyes every day.”

Mark Serwotka

Living in Brighton gives local union activists a welcome opportunity to dip into the fringes of the trade union conferences which take place here.  So last Thursday I went along to the PCS Conference fringe meeting on welfare reform.

It was quite refreshing, as a visitor with no accreditation, to just walk into the Brighton Centre off the street and browse the stalls and check out fringe meetings.  Had it been Unison conference, some heavy would have been blocking my path and demanding to see my credentials - and no doubt check my name against an ever-lengthening list of "suspended" (read "witchunted") members who are not allowed in!

But I digress.  The meeting was to launch the PCS' new pamphlet on welfare reform which is a very welcome addition to the debate.  PCS is of course in a unique position on this issue, being the union which organises workers who deliver welfare benefits, many of whom are recipients of benefits themselves.

John McDonnell MP spoke powerfully about the "real suffering" he sees at his constituency surgery - people losing their jobs, suddenly having benefits removed, facing homelessness because the reductions in housing benefit mean that they cannot pay their rent.  The wait for a council home in his constituency is 8 years.

Mark Serwotka spoke about the stresses on his members caused by working with the most deprived people facing even more benefit cuts.  The pamphlet points out that admin assistants in the DWP are paid only just above the minimum wage, 50% of DWP staff earn less than £20,000 pa and 25% less than £15,000.  This means of course that many of them receive the benefits they administer.  Jobcentres are being closed all over the country and claimants forced to deal with call centres where staff have to put their hands up for a timed toilet break and get harrassed by management if they spend "too long" with a caller.

The pamphlet also points out that large amounts of benefit money are in effect subsidising low pay and high rents - the money is really going to employers who pay badly and private landlords who charge sky-high rents.  Benefit costs could be slashed if we had a decent minimum wage and there was statutory control over rent levels.

In 2010 £16 billion in benefits were unclaimed.  Only £5 billion is lost through the combined effects of error and fraud.

Linda Burnip of Disabled People Against Cuts also spoke very well about the problems faced by disabled people and carers.  Disabled people on benefits are stigmatised and their rights to benefit constantly questioned.  The tabloids lead the campaign to demonise them and soften up public opinion for cuts.  Carers Allowance is a paltry £53 a week and only payable if your caring responsibilities are over 35 hours a week.  Again, this represents a huge but largely hidden public subsidy to the costs of caring.  The fraud rate in Disability Living Allowance is just 0.5%, and in the last 15 years, an estimated 500,000 people have had incapacity benefits wrongly removed by the state.

From the floor, Tony Greenstein of Brighton Unemployed Workers Centre, remarked on the fall in union membership and the drastic drop in the number if unemployed centres.  He pointed out that claimants are workers too and the the organised trade union movement needed to recognise this.

This pamphlet tells a huge, largely untold, story.  Read it now, and get everyone you know to read it too!

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