Osborne attacks people in tenuous employment

Life on a zero-hour contract looks set to get much harder.

As George writes, unemployed people were the biggest losers in the spending review. The overall welfare bill is to be capped (although pensions, inevitably, won't be included in that cap), and a new raft of punitive measures have been brought in to make unemployment as painful as possible. In full, they are:

  • introducing upfront work search, requiring all claimants to prepare for work and search for jobs right from the start of their claim;
  • introducing weekly rather than fortnightly visits to Jobcentres for half of all jobseekers;
  • requiring all unemployed claimants, and those earning less than the Government expects them to, to wait seven days before becoming eligible for financial support;
  • requiring all claimants who are subject to conditionality to verify their claim every year;
  • requiring all claimants whose poor spoken English is a barrier to work to improve their English language skills; and
  • requiring lone parents who are not working to prepare for work once the youngest child turns three.

All will make life significantly harder for the groups hit by them. But by far the worst are the first and third policies. All claimants will now need to jump a significant hurdle before they can register for benefits – being asked to write a CV, register with the Government’s new Universal Jobmatch service, and start looking for work on day one, as well as having longer [read: more probing] initial interviews with Jobcentre staff. Then, once the hurdle is jumped, there will be a seven-day wait before any funds are actually transferred, up from the three days required now.

A third of British households have no savings at all. Pushing the wait up to seven days will ruin them – or, more likely, drive them into the arms of payday lenders. Robert Peston called it the Wonga budget, and he's not far wrong.

But there's an even more long-reaching effect of the changes. It's counterintuitive, but they will act as a disincentive to work.

In effect, taking short-term work actively costs £71.70. That's how much JSA you lose in the week after you finish your job; and, of course, that's on top of the fact that you can't claim JSA and work more than 15 hours a week.

Here's how that works in practice: you are unemployed, and have the opportunity of temp work at a local event for a week. It will pay £247.60 at the minimum wage. That's an increase of £175.90 over what you would be getting otherwise. Except now you have to take into account that you'll be losing another £71.70 in the week after the posting is over. Suddenly a week's work provides an actual pay increase of barely £100, and even that's neglecting to cover the costs of actually getting to and from work.

Even worse, the news applies to people getting income support on low-or-zero-hour jobs, as well. So, it appears (and we'll have to wait for the details to come out in the wash to be sure) that if you work the sort of job where you work 20 hours one week and 10 hours the next, you will have the wait a further week to get a top-up. By which time you make have worked another 20 hour week and reset the clock again.

That's where this change will really hit home. We've covered the forward march of zero-hour contracts before, but now life is set to get a lot harder for people signed up to this precarious work.

A bartender pours drinks. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage