David Cameron promises opportunity for the few and hopelessness for the rest

Under the Conservatives' new plans to remedy the “something for nothing culture” in the UK, you will now be getting nothing for something.

There is now a well established pattern of the Conservative Party kicking the poorest, in reaction to a crisis. It is like a nervous tic. If an asteroid threatened the earth with imminent Armageddon, their reaction - I am quite sure - would be to privatise all observatories, give a tax break to a restrictively defined class of married astronaut and cut all benefits.

After a very successful Labour Party conference, George Osborne announced wide ranging schemes which would once and for all tackle the “something for nothing culture” in the UK. I was very willing to listen. If anyone knows about the “something for nothing culture”, after all, it is a man who inherited his considerable wealth and flipped his taxpayer-funded constituency home for a profit of £400k; the only man in history whose CV reads “Data Entry Clerk, Towel Folder, Member of Parliament, Chancellor of the Exchequer”. This comes less than a week after revealing he is launching a legal challenge against the EU, at taxpayers’ expense, to protect grotesque Bankers’ bonuses. Protecting the people whose selfish and malicious decisions caused this crisis, while punishing the many innocents who lost their living as a result of it.

Never mind the fact that workfare schemes of the kind proposed do absolutely nothing to create jobs and their success in getting people to work is questionable, at best. Never mind that no work has been done to model whether such schemes actually cannibalise real jobs and have a deflationary effect on wages. The report the government itself commissioned to look at such schemes abroad concluded that “Workfare is least effective in getting people into jobs in weak labour markets where unemployment is high.” Never mind that, rather than eliminating the “something for nothing culture”, these schemes actually elevate it to the corporate level.  

The popularity of such initiatives is predicated on a bizarre form of reverse social envy against those less fortunate; built on stories of rhetorical drawn curtains and fictional families no member of which has worked in three generations. “Getting up early in the morning and doing something I hate for money is what I have to do. You should have to, too. Even if it is entirely counterproductive.” That seems to be the cri-de-coeur rising from the people whom the Tories claim to represent. Those “hardworking taxpayers” so self-sufficient they do not even need hyphens.

“Is this the start of a process where people will work for no salary?” asked a BBC News anchor. “Not quite. They will still get benefits,” countered their chief political correspondent, Norman Smith. But here is a question which has not been answered: if National Insurance no longer insures me against unemployment - one of the key elements for which both I and my employer pay it – why should we still be paying it at precisely the same rate? To cross-subsidise a cut of the top rate of tax? To pay for the pensions’ liability of Royal Mail employees, long after we have sold the assets? To fund legal action which seeks to protect City bonuses?

The whole concept of insurance is that you pay into it, knowing you may never need it, in order to purchase peace of mind. Nobody would stand for a car insurer suddenly turning around and asking its customers to do a bit of free work in its offices in order for their claim to be honoured. It may be emotionally easy to support such schemes if you connect them to rare but overly publicised cases of people defrauding the state. It is less easy to support them if you connect them to, for instance, military personnel which were dumped en mass by the 2010 review, have had great trouble getting back into the civilian workforce and many of whom will be coming up to two years unemployed soon. Lloyd George, introducing the National Insurance bill to Parliament in 1911, called it “a measure that will relieve untold misery in myriads of homes — misery that is undeserved; that will help to prevent a good deal of wretchedness.” The only thing that has changed, subtly but insidiously, appears to be public perception of “undeserved”.

What do these measures, which you may support emotionally, mean for you logically? Do they not vitiate one of the most important principles of our society? How certain are you that you or your children will not find yourselves cleaning graffiti or sweeping streets in two year’s time, for no remuneration other than the luxury of claiming back from a system into which you have paid? Will our lives be better or worse for the lack of that safety net? Now, you may answer all those questions in a way which confirms your support of such punitive measures. But at least make sure you ask them.

Cameron went further on Wednesday. He announced proposals to withdraw housing benefit, possibly all benefits, from under 25s. Again, very little thought has gone on the economic effect on parents, who will have to subsidise their children for seven years more than they might have budgeted. Not to mention the human cost for families who cannot afford to. That, in a nutshell, is what one gets with the Conservatives. A transfer of liability, en mass, from the state to the citizen, while personal and indirect taxation add up to more and more and, crucially, unbeknown to most the national debt continues to increase from under £800bn in 2010 to an eye-watering £1.4trn in 2015. Sorry to inform you, some “tough decisions” have had to be made. You are now getting nothing for something. Paying National Insurance, then having to work below minimum wage for your payout. Paying to buy shares in a mail service you already own and end up not owning it.

Certainty for corporations. Uncertainty for individuals. Land of opportunity for the few. Wasteland of hopelessness for the rest. The relentless focus is on creating an environment of advantage and security for business – and only large multinational business, at that – so that they may budget, invest and thrive. The implication is that individuals do not budget, do not invest and do not deserve to thrive. Were you planning to retire around 60? Did you think you had discharged your financial responsibility to your offspring when they reached majority? Were you under the impression that paying into a social security kitty granted you to some level of social security?

Not to worry, though; at least both you and your neighbour have to open your curtains at the same time in the morning. Which is what really matters, right?

When the going gets tough, the Conservatives kick the poorest. Photo: Getty

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.