The war on welfare scroungers, part 94

Jobcentres are "tricking" people out of benefits to cut costs, says whistleblower.

He says that he will watch the banks "like a hawk" but allows bankers to walk away with taxpayer-funded, multimillion-pound bonuses. He says he cares about the poor but cracks down on welfare claimants. Such is our Prime Minister, David Cameron, the "compassionate Conservative".

In Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, Cameron said:

Far too much in our system is lost from fraud and error and I do not think that taxpayers go to work and work hard in order to fund benefits to which people are not entitled.

Yet, as I noted on Twitter at the time, tax evasion costs the UK exchequer more than 15 times as much as benefit fraud. Why do we not hear the PM condemning tax evasion with the same vigour and regularity with which he raises the subject of benefit fraud? Instead, Cameron kicked off PMQs by condemning and defaming the anti-tax-evasion group, UK Uncut.

The coalition's "war on welfare scroungers", however, continues unabated. Here is a shocking story from today's Guardian:

Rising numbers of vulnerable jobseekers are being tricked into losing benefits amid growing pressure to meet welfare targets, a Jobcentre Plus adviser has told the Guardian.

A whistleblower said staff at his jobcentre were given targets of three people a week to refer for sanctions, where benefits are removed for up to six months. He said it was part of a "culture change" since last summer that had led to competition between advisers, teams and regional offices.

"Suddenly you're not helping somebody into sustainable employment, which is what you're employed to do," he said. "You're looking for ways to trick your customers into 'not looking for work'. You come up with many ways. I've seen dyslexic customers given written job searches and when they don't produce them -- what a surprise -- they're sanctioned. The only target that anyone seems to care about is stopping people's money.

"'Saving the public purse' is the catchphrase that is used in our office . . . It is drummed home all the time -- you're saving the public purse. Feel good about stopping someone's money, you've just saved your own pocket. Its a joke."

The claims came as the big businesses handed contracts to get the long-term jobless into work today said the government should privatise jobcentres so that their firms could work with people who have been jobless for less than a year.

Statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) show the total number of cases where people have lost their benefits has soared since the beginning of 2010 to 75,000 in October, the latest month available. The figures also reveal the number of claimants with registered disabilities being cut off has more than doubled to almost 20,000 over the same period.

This follows a change in the rules in April last year where sanctions were extended to claimants who were late for jobcentre interviews and other less serious offences.

So much for the "morality" and "Christian ethics" of the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith. This is a callous and cruel coalition government, engaged in a war on not just welfare "scroungers" but on the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society.

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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.