We’re in a recession heading for a depression, and George Osborne is Chancellor of the Exchequer. Osborne believes that the right thing to do when the economy is failing is to cut government spending and to make large numbers of people unemployed. Even economists who thought this theoretically might work realise it’s long since proved to be not working (Martin Wolf of the Financial Times was recommending in May that the government announce a change of plan): Nobel Prize winning economists Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, turn out – strangely enough – to know more about the economy than a man whose main qualification for being Chancellor is that he was in the Bullingdon Club with David Cameron.
Yet Osborne is set to continue cutting till May 2015. And short of revolution, we can’t get rid of him.
At a time like this, we need someone at the Department for Work and Pensions who understands that:
If you’ve ever had the misfortune to become seriously ill, you’ll know that your priorities are dramatically and rapidly redrawn. You and your family will simply ask: “How do we get through this?”. Work, holidays, and all the minutiae of daily life fade into the distance as you focus on having the bare minimum of income, or fall back on your savings, to get through your health crisis. At this point in your life all you want is to stay alive.
Someone like Iain Duncan Smith, who has been through this mill himself. In 2009, his wife Betsy was diagnosed with breast cancer:
‘Betsy told me the doctor feared it was cancer,’ Duncan Smith says quietly. ‘He was correct. It took my breath away. I said: “right, I’m coming home.”
“I went straight back to my office, picked up my bag and caught the train. I didn’t come back to Parliament for some time after that.’
Sitting in his spartan, modern office at Westminster, this is the first time Duncan Smith has spoken about this heart-breaking time. A deeply private man, dealing with such personal issues does not come easy to him, and he is clearly emotional when recalling those traumatic days.
In the event, he didn’t return to work for more than six months. Virtually the only time he left the house was to drive his wife to hospital, where she underwent gruelling sessions of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and frightening surgery. (Daily Mail, 19th July 2010)
But it turns out that Iain Duncan Smith thinks that what should really have happened to Betsy, if she wouldn’t “take part in work-related activities such as training or work placements”: she should have had her ESA docked. Not that this would matter to Betsy, who is independently wealthy and even richer than her husband (Iain Duncan Smith continued to claim his salary and expenses during the six months he took off work to care for her). To the Duncan-Smiths, the loss of £71 a week would mean nothing, and so Iain Duncan Smith is far from indifferent to the suffering this will cause: in fact, he turned down a move in the reshuffle because he’s “passionate” to see this through, according to a close aide.
Let’s remember: these sanctions are going to be applied to people who are as sick or sicker than Betsy was, who have been awarded ESA because the government accepts they are very ill or so recently injured that they need help. Iain Duncan Smith, while tender to his wealthy wife, regards with indifference the prospect of poorer women with breast cancer undergoing chemotherapy and DWP-mandated workfare or “training”.
Don’t misunderstand this, these sanctions apply only to people who have already gone through the merciless work capability assessment and been deemed ill enough by the government’s own harsh standards to need employment and support allowance (ESA), the new incapacity benefit. By the government’s own admission, people who are put into work-related activity group ESA are sick and not yet well enough to go back to work, although they may be able to in the future. People on work-related ESA include those who are rehabilitating from strokes, undergoing intensive cancer treatment, or have recently lost limbs and may perhaps be the future Paralympic stars that Cameron and co are so keen to venerate. All these people will have a future in which they pray work will once again feature. But that will only come if they are allowed to focus solely on getting well again in the present.
But the government expects such ESA claimants to sign up to work-related activities including attending training courses or job centre interviews. Even more outrageously it is finalising plans on whether to make unpaid and unlimited work experience placements part of such work-related activities, even though those fit and healthy and in receipt on jobseeker’s allowance are at worst expected to do just three months of unpaid work experience.
Unpaid and unlimited work experience placements for the desperately ill. A day’s work for a day’s pay is a snooty demand. That’s Iain Duncan Smith’s passion till May 2015. And short of revolution, we can’t get rid of him.
Chris Grayling, who fiddled his expenses, has gone from the DWP to be Secretary for Justice, the first non-lawyer appointment to the role since 1556, when Queen Mary appointed Nicholas Heath, Archbishop of York. (You know, I would rather John Sentamu were Secretary for Justice. Do you suppose Cameron would consider it? It could be considered a sop to the anti-marriage Tories.)
Now Grayling’s experience with workfare will stand him in good stead:
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) confirmed [August 2012] that dozens of prisoners from Prescoed prison in Monmouthshire, south Wales, had done “work experience” for at least two months at a rate of 40p an hour in the private company’s telephone sales division in Cardiff.
People working in the prisons sector described the scheme as “disgusting” and a “worrying development”.
But Grayling likes workfare. He likes it as much as IDS likes it and even more than he dislikes the Equality Act 2010. He is “a firm believer that prison works” – which it certainly does if you’re an employer looking to pay a minimum wage of £4 a week.
Yet Chris Grayling is set to continue as non-lawyer for non-justice till May 2015. And short of revolution, we can’t get rid of him.
Michael Gove remains as Secretary of State for Education, dragging the state education system in England towards a system of centrally-funded and centrally-controlled “free schools”, spending millions on schools local government and local parents don’t want. Three of these “free schools” are run by Creationists. Gove’s past educational experience includes over a decade working for Rupert Murdoch at The Times. Gove’s approved American homophobic prolife propaganda to be taught in schools. And most recently, seems to have been guilty of a really nasty bit of sharp practice at the students who were taking their GCSEs this summer:
Incredibly, it has become apparent that the raw marks given for this part of the course, when converted, are now worth less than originally suggested and less than the credit given to those students whose identical work was submitted in January. This has, in turn, meant that these students were entering the exam, where they traditionally struggle due to issues with accessing the questions, on D grades. They never stood a chance, but they didn’t know. Unfortunately, they found out today. They can’t understand why someone would want to play around with their futures in such a cruel way and we, as teachers, should not have to be the ones to explain it to them.
You have not simply moved the goalposts. You have demolished them, sold off the playing fields where they once stood and left the dreams of these youngsters in tatters.
So, there we go. It appears that today you got what you wanted. The statistics show that GCSE passes are down and to you, statistics is all they will ever be. But to me and every other teacher I have had the pleasure of working with, these children are not statistics. They are young people who you have betrayed and will forever be affected by the contents in that envelope which they opened today. We teachers will continue to do our jobs and sleep soundly in the knowledge that we did all that we could and will continue to do so.
And the NHS in England, such as it still is, has been turned over to Jeremy Hunt. I wish I could make more homeopathy jokes, but my sense of humour has been diluted by discovering that, just as when he was Secretary for Culture he was cosying up with the Murdochs, so he also has a good relationship with the health privateers: Hunt
personally intervened to encourage the controversial takeover of NHS hospitals in his constituency by a private company, Virgin Care, raising fresh concerns last night over his appointment.
Hunt, who replaced Andrew Lansley in last week’s cabinet reshuffle, was so concerned by a delay to the £650m deal earlier this year that he asked for assurances from NHS Surrey officials that it would be swiftly signed.
Virgin Care, which is part-owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, subsequently agreed on a five-year contract in March to run seven hospitals along with dentistry services, sexual health clinics, breast cancer screening and other community services. The takeover took place despite concerns being raised in the local NHS risk register about the impact on patient care following the transfer of management from the NHS to one of the country’s largest private healthcare firms, until recently known as Assura Medical.
Yet Jeremy Hunt is set to continue in charge of the NHS till May 2015. And short of revolution, we can’t get rid of him.
There are many other people in this government I have problems with, great and small – including Grant Shapps or Michael Green or whatever his name is – but the fact is: presiding over the economy, welfare, justice, and health, are four men whose track record is on the lines of being able to organise a piss-up in a brewery if they think to hire someone who knows how to do that for them and don’t try to interfere.
Men whose political goals are to steer the UK to be more and more like the US, with consequent appalling financial, social, legal, and health consequences for all of us.
And what is the theoretical opposition to this malarky doing with their time?
Well, David Miliband and Douglas Alexander are looking admiringly at the American equivalent of the Conservative Party, and saying things like how Obama has “moved on” from Clinton without dissing Clinton’s “legacy”: arguing that the Labour Party should move rightwards to capture LibDem voters and disgruntled Tories, on the presumption that the left-wing voters will have to vote Labour, because who else is there?
They also say Labour, as the Democrats have done, must show it is committed to reform of the state, as well as reform of the markets – and to economic prudence in the medium term following a burst of Keynesian stimulus advocated by the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls.
Their intervention reflects unease on the Blairite wing of the party that the Labour leader is shifting too far left, out of a belief that the financial crisis has created a fundamental change in public attitudes towards rampant wealth creation and unregulated markets. They argue the message has to remain unequivocally in favour of the market economy.
The Democratic Party in the US has, not for years but for decades, been operating nationally on the principle that it doesn’t matter how bad they are, the Republicans are always reliably worse and left-wing / human-rights voters have no alternative.