Monday, 15 January 2018

Companies are more profitable, but workers are feeling the pain of a drop in real wages.

The profitability of UK companies has risen above pre-crisis levels, despite this there is growing concern amongst working families about a significant fall in real wages.

Figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that the profitability of UK registered companies has risen by 12.6% in the last quarter of 2017 compared to 11.4 in the same period in 2007. In the public -sector profitability had risen by 19.1% compared to 14% ten years ago. Over the same period real wages have fallen by 4.4%.

Commenting on the fall in real wages TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said ‘working people are caught in the middle of the longest pay squeeze since Napoleonic times'.

Adding that it was ‘galling to see so many people on poverty pay in the public sector, where profits have shot up'.

Price inflation in the UK is at its highest level since 2012, creating problems that will hit families on low incomes hardest.

Bus and coach fares have risen by 13.9%, meaning that low income families, who are often more dependent on public transport will have to budget for spending an extra £116.15 a year on travel costs. Energy costs have risen by 6.4% and food bills by 4.3%, meaning low income families will need an extra £130 just to cover these basic expenses.
(source Joseph Rowntree Foundation)

As the cost of living rises inexorably wages are struggling to keep pace, workers in Western Europe will see an average wage rise of 0.9%, in the UK wages are likely to decrease by 0.5%.

Benjamin Frost, a senior global manager at Korn Ferry told City AM that UK workers will ‘find themselves worse off than French or German workers when it comes to pay increases’ in what was, he said, going to be a ‘tough year’ for business.

In November inflation hit 3.1%, on the back of a weak pound and fears over the consequences of a hard Brexit, forcing Bank of England chief Mark Carney to write a letter of explanation to the chancellor.

At the time David Morrison, a senior analyst for GKFX told City AM that workers would see their ‘spending power decease’ as wages failed to keep pace with price rises.

Speaking about the fears of her members as they see their incomes swallowed up by ever riding prices TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said the ‘pay crisis’ should be the government’s first priority, adding that ‘we need a plan to get wages growing with real investment, a higher minimum wage and stronger rights for trade unions'.

The ONS figures showed, she said that Britain ‘not only deserves a pay rise, and that business can afford it too'.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Having 300,000 ‘forgotten’ unemployed people shames a government that isn’t working for anyone.

A report published by the Resolution Foundation two days into the new year shows that 300,000 people who are unemployed or on low wages are missing out on benefits worth £73 a week each.

They are mostly older people, particularly women aged 55-64 and young males. Whilst most are out of work a significant minority have so few hours paid work they are still entitled to support. As the ‘gig economy’ continues to grow this latter situation is going to become ever more common.

David Finch, Senior Economic Analyst for the Resolution Foundation said, ‘over the past twenty years, a growing number of unemployed people are not claiming unemployment benefits.’

This is something successive governments have been relaxed about since the 1990’s, there are, of course, a variety of reasons why people don’t claim the benefits they’re entitled to. Sometimes they have support from a partner or family member, the general assumption on the part of government though is, as David Finch points out, that it is ‘largely due to people finding new work quickly’.

There is though another and more problematic interpretation, namely that a benefits system that has become progressively more antagonistic towards claimants puts people off from applying.

A spokesperson for the DWP quoted on the Welfare Weekly website said ‘anyone who believes they’re entitled to out of work benefits should contact Job Centre Plus', adding that ‘our dedicated advisors are on hand to help people claim what they are entitled to'.

These words ring hollow in the face of accounts of Kafkaesque struggles to claim Universal Credit and those who are successful being left without any income for months before their first payment arrives.

People who study crime often talk about the ‘dark figure', the real crime rate that exists in the shadows behind the official statistics. It is almost always higher due to a complex set of reasons why people might not report being a victim of crime.

There are reasonable grounds for thinking something similar might exist in relation to people who claim, or in this case don’t claim, unemployment benefits. Even the 300,000 suggested by the Resolution Foundation seems conservative.

Since 2010 the process of claiming benefits has been made ever more difficult and negative media representations make doing so unattractive. This has created a situation where people with legitimate needs are sinking into poverty because they feat being labelled as ‘scroungers’.

A small, in governmental terms, cash saving has been achieved at incalculable cost in human misery. As the lines at the food banks grow, the one sold by Teresa May when she took office in 2016 that she wanted to lead a Britain that works for everyone look noticeably threadbare.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Understaffing is damaging the mental health of prisoners.

A report from the Commons public accounts committee cites understaffing and the ‘deterioration’ of the prison service as exacerbating factors in mental health problems faced by inmates.

The report states that 2016 was the year that saw the most suicides in UK prisons (120) and the highest number of incidents of self harm (40,161). It goes on to say that the ‘current level of self inflicted deaths and incidents of self harm in prisons is appalling’, adding that the system for supporting prisoners with mental health needs ‘isn’t working as it should’.

Mental health in UK prisons is a serious problem, 10% of male and 30% of female inmates have had a previous psychiatric admission before going to prison. Levels of anxiety and depression are high, according to a Ministry of Justice survey 49% of female and 23% of male prisoners reported symptoms, personality disorders are also common with 62% of males and 23% of females reporting symptoms, 46% of female prisoners reported making a suicide attempt at some stage of their lives. This is twice the number of males, 21%.

The rates of depression and anxiety in the general population are 12% for males and 19% for females. In the general population, the suicide rate is 6%.
(Source: The Prison Reform Trust)

Lack of effective screening, the report says, means the government has no ‘reliable or up to date measure of the number of prisoners who have mental health problems’. Prisoners with acute mental health problems should wait no more than fourteen days for an admission to a secure hospital, in 2016/17 three quarters waited longer for treatment.

The committee chaired by Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch Meg Hillier recommends that HM Prison and Probation Service improve the screening process and how it uses the data gathered to give an accurate picture of prisoner’s mental health needs. It also calls for improvements to addiction support and better sharing or information between the Prison Service and the NHS.

The report concludes that improving the mental health of prisoners is a ‘difficult and complex task’, but vital to reducing reoffending. Adding that to date the government’s efforts to improve mental health services in prisons had been ‘poorly coordinated’.

(Additional sources: Mental Health Today/ The House of Commons Library.)

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Charity warns Universal Credit could lead to one million children missing out on free school meals.

The Children's Society has warned that the roll out of Universal Credit could result in up to a million children from low income families missing out on free school meals.

Figures published by the charity show that a family with one child in receipt of Universal Credit earning over the £7,400 threshold would need an extra £1,124 in income, equivalent to working for an extra 2.4 hours a week, to make up for losing their entitlement to free school meals.

This calculation is based on the annual cost of school meals for a family being £400, meaning they would need 7.7 hours worth of extra income every week to meet the cost, based on the National Living Wage,

Out of 2 million children living on or near the poverty line just 700,000 would have access to free school meals. The regions worst affected will be London, where 212,000 children will miss out and the West Midlands and North West, in both regions 130,000 children will miss out.

Chief Executive of the Children’s Society Matthew Reed said the government was missing out on a ‘golden opportunity to ensure that almost every child in England does not go hungry at school'.

He added that by continuing to provide free school meals to all children currently entitled the government would ‘not only help vulnerable children,’ it would prevent parents on low incomes from ‘losing out if they take on extra hours or get a pay rise'.

These figures come hard on the heels of a recent report from the Child Poverty Action Group shoeing that Universal Credit will have a damaging impact on working families struggling to get by on low Incomes.

Calks are mounting for the government to pause the roll out of Universal Credit and to rethink a policy that seems to be failing in its main purpose of enduring that work always pays.

To date they have not been disposed to listen and Prime Minister Theresa May added to concerns the government fails to understand the struggles of families on low incomes with an I’ll thought out comment made at the last PMQ's before Christmas.

Answering a question from Labour MP for Tooting Rosena Allin-Kahn about the 2,500 children in her constituency likely to wake up homeless on Christmas Day she said: ‘anyone hearing that question would assume that what it means is that 2,500 children will be sleeping on the streets. It does not:

She went on to say that families with children who are recognised as homeless would be provided with accommodation.

Speaking to the Guardian Ms Allin-Khan said she was ‘appalled’ by Mrs May's ‘callous’ answer to her question, adding that she was ‘effectively telling these children they should be grateful they’re not sleeping on the streets'.

Official figures show they the number of families in temporary accommodation is 79,190, 48% higher than in 2010.

Policy director for homelessness charity Crisis Matthew Downie, also speaking to the Guardian, said that children not having to sleep on the street was something to ‘celebrate’, but the government should do more to help people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless to get into ‘proper, stable, decent accommodation'.

The line between just getting by on a low income where meeting the basic costs of everyday living us an ongoing struggle and falling through the net onto the streets has always been thinner than we like to think. Globalization and the expanding gap between the rich and everyone else has made it thinner still.

As more and more families walk the debt tightrope the May government, with it’s determination to force through the roll out of Universal Credit despite growing evidence that it is a disaster in the making, seems ever more out of touch with the insecurity that haunts our society.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Brexit could threaten worker’s rights if Boris gets his way.

There is an old saying that you should be careful what you wish for just in case you get it. The same sort of caution should be exercised over the things for which you vote too.

That is a lesson the 52% of British voters who backed leaving the EU in 2016 are likely to learn the hard way if the extreme Brexiteers in the cabinet get their way.

Over the weekend The Sun and The Sunday Times reported that Boris Johnson and Michael Give were in favour of scrapping the Working Time Directive when Britain leaves the EU in March 2019.

This, the article in The Sun quoted Johnson as saying, is necessary to ‘maximise the benefits of Brexit'. An unavoidable exit from ‘restrictive' rules and, in one of his trademark colourful turns of phrase, our last best hope against becoming a ‘vassal state' in thrall to Brussels.

In practice, this would see 7million workers, 4.7million of whom are women, would be at risk of losing the right to paid holidays. Other rights likely to go into the fire would include that to work no more than 48 hours in any given week, rest breaks and health and safety protection for night workers.

Trades Union Council General Secretary Frances O'Grady said, if it went ahead, such a move would be a ‘straight up attack on our rights at work'.

If enacted any scrapping of the Working Time Directive would happen as part of the bonfire of EU inspired laws known as the Great Repeal Bill. Calming voices say such an outcome would never happen, our captains of industry would never be so foolish as to wish for it; I'm not so sure, many of them make Captain Pugwash look like Nelson.

Whatever happens merely hinting at such a thing helps to fuel the feud between Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Chancellor Phillip Hammond. These two sorry characters are, by their own estimation at least, big beasts poised to engage in the two bald men fighting over a comb battle to lead the Tory party any day now.

Hammond, currently out of the country on a trade mission to China, was reported by the Independent as saying that although the UK would not ‘technically or legally be in the customs union or the single market,’ the aim of negotiations would be to create an ‘environment which will effectively replicate the status quo, so that businesses can carry on trading with their commercial partners across the EU as they do now'.

Not exactly Henry V on the eve of Agincourt, but you can hear the distinct sound of a line being drawn in the sand as not sides prepare for another squabble disguised as a showdown.

In a public statement on Sunday Frances O'Grady called on the Prime Minister to keep her promise to protect worker’s rights after Brexit saying, ‘now we will see if she can keep her word, or if she is a hostage to extremists in her own cabinet'.

There is a certain Tory type on whom the Working Time Directive works in the same way a red rag does on a bull. They see it as an obscene hindrance to the great project of making everyone, meaning everyone they go to dinner parties with, rich. How dare those scoundrels in Brussels force British workers to have paid holidays and decent rest brakes?

They assert with the determination of the deranged that if people were able to work for longer, they’d work harder too. Conveniently ignoring the fact that despite working some of the longest hours Britain has shockingly low levels of productivity.

Scrapping the Working Time Directive wouldn’t make our economy more efficient, it would still be beset by low levels of investment and poor management. All that would be added is an extra helping of alienation for an already dissatisfied workforce.

If this were just another round in the ongoing internal squabbles of the political establishment if would be bad enough; unfortunately, there is a potentially worse outcome.

Hard pressed communities around the country were sold the line that a vote for Brexit was a vote for regaining control; turns out it wasn’t. If the extremists get their way it will be a vote to hand back hard -won rights in return for unsatisfying jobs in an economy that bumps along the bottom until we drop out of the G7.

The countries that will prosper in the twenty first century are those that find new ways of thinking about how their citizens work and about the idea of work itself. Trundling ever onwards in the delusion that the important thing about business is being busy is a recipe for going nowhere fast.

The vote to leave the EU is an established fact, the sort of relationship we have with Europe afterwards isn’t, yet. If we get it wrong and ideology trumps common sense, then we may shunt ourselves into an economic cul-de-sac.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

‘Staggering’ rise in attempted suicides shows up the cruelty of ESA assessments.

Figures revealed in an article published by the Disability News Service (DNS) show a ‘staggering’ rise in suicide attempts by ESA claimants between 2007 and 2014.

The figures originally published by the NHS in 2016 show the number of Incapacity Benefit claimants who attempted suicide in 2007, the year before Work Capability Assessments (WCA) were introduced was 21%. By 2014, following four years of austerity and benefit ‘reforms', this had risen to 43%.

An analysis of the figures carried out for DNS by Sally McManus of social research agency NatCen found no conclusive link between WCA and the rise in suicide as attempts. However, she told DNS the ‘rates of attempted suicide have clearly increased amongst people in receipt on disability related benefits.’

Several mental health campaign groups have expressed concern about the link between the stress of undergoing WCA and attempted suicide.

Speaking to DNS Denise McKenna of the Mental Health Resistance Network said the figures were ‘shocking, but they certainly to not come as a surprise’, adding that it was routine for people with mental health conditions to be ‘bullied, harassed and terrified' during the assessment process.

Paula Peters of Disabled People Against Cuts said they showed ‘how harmful the work capability assessment is,’ adding that it ‘ramps up claimant’s feelings of anxiety and depression'.

Dr Jay Watts of the Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy said the rise in the number of attempted suicides was ‘staggering’ and that it was ‘simply inexcusable' to treat claimants like ‘second class citizens'.

The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) has, to date, refused to recognise ESA claimants as an ‘at risk' group, despite growing evidence of the difficulties they face.

Research conducted by the universities of Oxford and Liverpool and cited in the DNS article shows that for every 10,000 ESA claimants between 2010 and 2013 there were 2700 extra cases of self harm and 7000 prescriptions for antidepressants. Over the same period WCA was cited in 279,000 self reported cases of mental illness.

A spokesperson for the DWP quoted in the DNS article defended work capability assessments, saying ‘significant improvements’ had been made since 2008, including removing the requirement for people with the most serious conditions to be reassessed.

The unique cruelty of WCA is an example of the government’s intransigent belief that work is the solution to every social problem. Following such thinking to its illogical conclusion there is nobody who can’t work; just a lot of awkward people who don’t want to.

Real life is seldom so clear cut, living with a serious health condition isn’t a free pass in the game of responsibility, it is a full -time job from which it is impossible to go home at the end of the day. Claimants deserve to be treated fairly, not presumed to be lying and placed under often intolerable pressure.

Figures like those published by the DNS along with Oxford and Liverpool universities show there is a serious problem with the assessment regime. The failure of a government hidebound by ideology to address it is a social disaster in the making.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Universal Credit promises a bleak Christmas for millions of people in our disunited kingdom.

The Christmas season is with us again and tinsel is being hung from trees as the internet glows with thousands of individual clicks, each one a present bring bought, setting the virtual tills ringing like sleigh bells.

Behind the saccharine vision presented in the television adverts of major retailers there is another Britain and its inhabitants aren’t likely to have a happy holiday thanks to the government’s determination to introduce Universal Credit at all costs.

‘The Austerity Generation', a report written for the Child Poverty Action Group by Josephine Tucker and based on analysis by the Institute for Public Policy Research has labelled Universal Credit as being ‘poverty producing'.

Despite improvements announced in the budget the charity says Universal Credit will push a million more children into poverty by 2020, 900,000 of whom will fall into extreme poverty.

Working families on low incomes will, the report says, lose £420 a year through the introduction of Universal Credit. Families where a member is disabled will be out of pocket by £300 under Universal Credit, if the disability is severe this could rise to £530.

The CPAG report concludes that a decade of cuts to social security has hit families hard, particularly those that were already at risk of falling into poverty.

Criticism has also been levelled at DWP for its decision to close the helpline for claimants over the Christmas period. In a letter to the prime minister Frank Field, chair of the commons work and pensions committee wrote that the thought of claimants potentially being made destitute as a result was ‘deeply troubling.’

In response, the department of work and pensions said that it was usual for government offices to close over Christmas and that payments would be brought forward. Given the so far problematic roll out of Universal Credit their optimism is unlikely to be shared by claimants.

Problems accessing Universal Credit may be a factor behind the rise in the number of people using food banks. In December 2016, the Trussell Trust who run food banks across the country provided 146,798 three- day food parcels with 61,093 of those going to hungry children. This year demand is expected to be even higher.

Interim chief executive Mark Ward said this Christmas ‘will not be a time of celebration' for many struggling families.

Research conducted by the Women’s Budget Group and the Runnymede Trust shows that female and BME claimants will also lose out significantly under Universal Credit. The report suggests that 2.2million female claimants who are in work could lose an average of £1400 a year, those who are out of work stand to lose a average of £600 a year; female BME claimants stand to lose the most with their income falling by £1500.

Green Party deputy leader Amelia Womack said the report ‘lays bare the cruelty of the system', and that it punishes ‘women simply for being women'. She went on to describe Universal Credit as ‘nothing more than an attack on Britain’s most vulnerable people’.

The Green Party advocates the introduction of a universal basic income as a more effective way of tackling poverty. Ms Womack said the party was calling on the government to scrap Universal Credit and ‘invest in a universal basic income trial instead, which would make more of a difference to families living in poverty’.

The government may have gone into the huge social experiment that is Universal Credit with noble intentions to end poverty and make work play. Deep flaws in the plan itself and a shambolic roll out have robbed the scheme of any trace of legitimacy.

Trialling a universal basic income may be too radical a step for a government lacking direction. It is though looking ever more like an idea that merits at least serious investigation as the number of people forced into poverty by a dysfunctional economy continues to grow.