The war on welfare scroungers, part 77

Can ministers or newspapers get their facts straight on benefit fraud, unemployment and the "work-sh

In my column in the magazine last week, I wrote:

Is this a cabinet guided by the national interest or vested interests? Not since the days of Harold Macmillan in the late 1950s has Britain been governed by politicians representing such a narrow social base. And Supermac and his millionaire colleagues at least believed in the universal welfare state. Cameron and his rich chums, in contrast, are engaged in a war on welfare.

In June, the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith (net worth: £1m), used an interview with the Sunday Telegraph to urge jobless people to move in order to find work ("Coalition to tell unemployed to 'get on your bike' ", was the headline). In September, Osborne (£4.6m) castigated benefit claimants for making a "lifestyle choice". Earlier this month, the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt (£4.5m), told poor families to have fewer children.

Since then, we've had Iain Duncan Smith with his "get on the bus to get a job" jibe. Yes, in the current economic climate, IDS seems to think that jobs can be found for most if not all the unemployed. But how do you squeeze 2.4 million people into 459,000 vacancies? Maths doesn't seem to be the coalition's strong point.

Meanwhile, right-wing newspapers, taking their lead from dubious Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) briefings, have continued to demonise the "scoungers" and "spongers" on benefits. Here is the headline in today's Daily Mail:

Seventy-five per cent of incapacity claimants are fit to work: tough new benefits test weeds out the work-shy

The "work-shy"? Nice. According to the Mail's Gerri Peev:

Three-quarters of people who applied for new benefits for the long-term sick failed tests to prove they were too ill to work.

Out of about 840,000 who tried to obtain the £95-a-week Employment and Support Allowance, 640,000 were told they were fit for work or withdrew their applications before they took the tests -- suggesting they were "trying it on".

Conveniently, the article itself makes no mention of the number of claimants who have won on appeal or the criticisms levelled at the "tough new benefits test" from a range of charities and doctors. As even the Metro managed to note, in its coverage of this story:

Lizzie Iron, Citizens Advice head of welfare policy, said 40 per cent of people who failed the assessment and then appealed won.

"Seriously ill and disabled people are being severely let down by the crude approach of the work capability assessment," she said.

The Mail does make a passing reference to the private company, Atos, which has been contracted by the DWP to conduct the work capability assessments for all new claimants of the new ESA benefit.

Those who go in front of Atos-hired doctors are tested on how far they can walk, how long they can sit and whether they can bend and touch their knees.

But, again, the Mail conveniently makes no mention at all of the various concerns that have emerged about Atos and the tests that its doctors carry out on behalf of the DWP. For example, a BBC investigation in January quoted two former Atos doctors who had "expressed concerns that the checks are being done too quickly and that the system is biased towards declaring people fit for work". And a BBC freedom of information request revealed:

. . . there are 8,000 ESA appeals heard every month. This is double the number of the next most appealed benefit, disability living allowance, which has seven times more claimants than ESA.

The TUC has identified a number of case studies who have been awarded "0 points" by Atos and declared fit to work, despite previously having been declared too ill to do so:

When they met with Atos Origin Ltd, Sue Hutchings had breast cancer and was awaiting surgery, while John Watkins had his arm in plaster from his shoulder to his fingertips following an operation.

They were moved from ESA at £96.85 a week on to JSA at £65.45 a week, losing them each £1,632.80 a year in benefit support, and forcing them to start looking for work.

These criticisms of Atos are nothing new. And I should add, of course, that Atos was first contracted by the DWP to carry out their assessments of benefit claimants under the last (New) Labour government. Her Majesty's opposition can't take the moral high ground here.

UPDATE: More Lib Dem U-turns. From the charity Mind's website:

Before the election, Lib Dem Danny Alexander, the new Secretary of State for Scotland, expressed reservations about the expansion of the new system, suggesting that "there must be a very serious concern about whether the roll-out is appropriate". He claimed at the time that the transfer of IB claimants could lead to "tens of thousands of appeals", and that this would result in "a system that then is close to meltdown".

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot