Sunday, October 17, 2010

1980 & 2010: screwing the poor

Courtesy of 56a Info Shop in SE London, I have recently had access to an archive of radical publications from the early 1980s, in particular The Leveller, a London-based 'independent socialist magazine'. So I'm going to start a new series called 1980, highlighting things that happened 30 years ago. There are quite a lot of similarities between 1980 and 2010, not least the fact that in both cases in the UK, a Conservative government had recently come to power and was implementing a programme of public spending cuts amidst rising unemployment. So there's plenty of food for thought for the present in looking back.


So here we are in 2010, with the multi-millionaire Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announcing a new campaign against the poorest people in the country: benefits claimants. According to the BBC today:

'The government has set out a series of measures to tackle benefit fraud, as ministers spend the weekend finalising spending cuts. The steps would mean anyone with three convictions could forfeit their rights to benefits for up to three years...

Mr Osborne said state aid had "to go to the people who need it, and people who pay for it these days are going to demand no less". Under the new scheme every welfare offence - no matter how minor - would mean an immediate fine of £50. The government is promising to share more data with credit reference agencies to find patterns of offending. It is also recruiting 200 new inspectors, creating a mobile task force to go into areas with high rates of fraud and check every claim individually. The strategy, to be unveiled on Monday, will use hi-tech data tracking techniques between government offices and credit reference agencies'.


Here's a report of something very similar, an article written by Tim Gopsill published in The Leveller, no.36, March 1980:

'Any doubt the Tory leadership might have had about Reg Prentice’s reactionary credentials must now be dispelled [Reg Prentice was a former Labour politician who switched to the Tories]. Chosen as Minister of State for Social Security to direct the attack on unemployed people and single parents, he has undertaken the task with tremendous zeal. On February 13 he announced a ‘new clampdown on scroungers’, a programme of breathtaking savagery against the Tories’ favourite target, the poor.

Margaret Thatcher knew how well Prentice was qualified for the job. He has a vast experience and proven ability in the field of fraud, having arguably deceived more honest Labour voters than any other politician. And like his mythical millions of scroungers, he has lived off the back of the taxpayer and the state for many years.

The ‘clampdown’ is not on scroungers at all. In co-ordination with the rest of Tory strategy, it is on working and unemployed people’s living standards and organisation. It is scapegoatism on a huge scale, making the poor pay for the failures of capital. And it is a strengthening of the apparatus of the state to this end. It is the same story as the new laws to break the unions, the cuts in housing, education, health and social service expenditure on the one hand, and the increase in resources allocated to police and military expenditure on the other.

Prentice announced the appointment of more than 1,000 extra staff to tackle ‘fraud and abuse’, which he predicted would save £50 million of the estimated £200 million to be lost over the coming year.

Before we consider the real facts, a few more figments from Prentice’s fevered brain. This figure of £200 million, which picked up a good deal of publicity, where did it come from? Embarrassed DHSS officials, under pressure, while maintaining that of course you can’t, by definition, produce a figure for something you know nothing about, concede the following: (You aren’t going to believe this) that big retail chains and other companies handling large amounts of money regularly reckon to write off 1 to 2 percent of turnover to theft. And that’s it: Prentice got his officials to work out what was 1 per cent of the estimated £19,000 million to be paid out by the DHSS in 1980-81, rounded it up to a headline-grabbing £200 million, and gave it out as the scroungers’ swag…

More than half his new staff will be extra Unemployment Review Officers — 530 new UROs, more than doubling the present establishment of 447. These men and women are not at all concerned with fraud. Their job is to stop the long- term unemployed (people who’ve been jobless for six months) receiving the benefit which is their perfect entitlement.

UROs are armed with quite an arsenal. They can cut benefit or stop it altogether if they consider claimants fail, without justification, to find work. They can send them to Assessment or Re-establishment Centres (workhouses). They can initiate prosecutions for failure to maintain oneself or one’s dependents. These powers do not often have to be used. Their threat is usually enough to achieve the aim of getting a claimant off the books — whether to some low-paid non-union sweatshop, or into a limbo without income, or petty crime, they don’t care...

The next biggest increases in personnel are to be new Fraud Officers and Liable Relative Officers — 170 of each. The Liable Relative (LR) operations are already the heaviest harassment squad in the business, with 2,034 officers nationwide. Their job, quite simply, is to get hold of people (usually deserting fathers) who are considered to be responsible for dependent relatives that are receiving benefit, and extort money from them.

Again, there is no ‘fraud’ involved. The common picture is of a husband who has left the home. The wife and child need supplementary benefit (SB) to survive, and while one department is grudgingly paying this out, the LROs are despatched to find the errant father. He is presented with a bill for the benefit paid, with the sanction of prosecution for failure to maintain his dependents. The mother is cajoled to prosecute or give evidence against him for failure to pay maintenance. In many cases, the father may be poor, or have acquired a new home and dependents; either way he can’t pay much, and it helps no-one to prosecute; no-one except DHSS officials with their fanatical determination not to pay benefit.

Claimants’ Union activists around the country are reporting a recent upsurge in enthusiasm on the part of LROs, with cases of men being presented with bills for years of benefit, running into thousands of pounds.

The other classes of new staff are the Fraud Officers, and 100 more Special Investigators. The SIs are the elite fraud detectives; they are the scum of the earth. They are the ones who rise with the dawn to sit outside the homes of women claimants to spot a man coming out to work. They are the collectors who can convert tittle-tattle from nasty neighbours into cases for the courts. They work a lot with the police, and with employers, for the majority of their cases are ‘working and drawing’ — that is, unemployed claimants or dependents who are found to be supplementing their state pittances by taking jobs. Not usually comfortable, established jobs with tax and insurance deducted of course, but casual ones: seasonal agricultural work, window-cleaning, decorating, odd jobs. These cases made up 55 per cent of prosecutions for SB fraud in 1978-79, and 69 per cent of Unemployment Benefit (UB) fraud.

What the DHSS’s ridiculous figures for projected savings (50 million out of estimated fraud and abuse losses of £53 million) mean is that every claimant will be under suspicion. How else can all estimated fraud or abuse be eliminated? It has already been policy for two years that every case proved will be taken to court. This explains the prosecution statistics (hold your breath, comrades): In 1976 there were 19,000 prosecutions for benefit fraud. In 1977-78: 26,000. In 1978-79: 29,147.

The conviction rate was 98 per cent. To put these facts into context, compare the zeal with which government is pursuing fraud of two other kinds that should be comparable — that are comparable, if truth can be admitted in Thatcher’s Britain: income tax evasion, and under-payment by employers...

So same old rhetoric about 'scroungers' and punitive measures against people just trying to get by on very low incomes, sometimes by knowingly or unknowingly getting round the rules. Still maybe something reassuring about the fact that after 30 years or more of endless persecution of the poor, the state apparently still finds itself in the same position.

And here, by Crass from the same period (from 1978 to be precise), is the only possible response to the Osbornes and Prentices of this world. Do they owe us a living? Of course they do...

1 comment:

c0mmunard said...

For your series, you might be interested to look at this:

- final version published 1980, despite the link. Describes alot of the attacks happening at the time in very similar terms to what you might now.