government

Could you go five weeks without money? Under a new DWP plan you might have to

[Reposted from Left Foot Forward]

Further punitive restrictions on Universal Credit are on the way

Job Centre ncrjThe latest development of Ian Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit scheme will soon mean that people made unemployed will have to wait at least five weeks before getting any financial support.

At present it’s two weeks; still a long time to wait when you have bills to pay and mouths to feed.

Some of this is administrative delay, but with the new five week wait it will be a deliberate strategy to force people into immediate work or push them into penury – the latter being more likely in an economy where jobs increasingly can’t actually fund even basic necessities like housing and energy costs.

That’s why the TUC have launched a campaign to ‘Stop the Five Week Wait’ as part of their Saving Our Safety Net project, launching a petition against IDS’ impoverishment strategy.

It poses a very clear question: how long could you go without any income? Even for those in work, many have to scrape together money from friends and family at the end of the month in what some call ‘scrounge week’. Imagine that week becoming five.

Why so long? A whole calendar month will be spent ‘assessing’ the amount of benefit you’ll be able to receive. Then you’ll have to wait a week for the DWP to actually arrange your payment.

But you’ll also have a week-long period when you will be unable to even apply for Universal Credit. The government is deciding whether this will be during the assessment period or beforehand, meaning potentially sixweeks in assessment, admin and spiteful restrictions.

And this from a government that supposedly hates bureaucracy and red tape.

There will be some emergency support available. But the rules on who can claim it will be so strict that very few able to claim Universal Credit will be eligible. Richard Exell at the TUC writes that “one reason for being turned down, for instance, will be that your family has debts that might make it hard for you to repay the advance.” Unbelievable.

The public are against it, understandably – by 70 per cent to 18 per cent when told about the policy. Even the vast majority of UKIP and Conservative voters oppose the wait.

But there’s a problem: just 13 per cent have actually heard of it. We need, therefore, to spread the word fast if there’s to be any chance of stopping this disastrous scheme going under wraps.

The policy can be summarised quite simply: the state safety net being outsourced to food banks and payday loan sharks. This is a government hand-out to Wonga and co, while returning to the Victorian welfare state of unreliable charity. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady has branded it+ ‘cruel and vindictive’.

It comes in next April – just a month before the General Election. With a strong enough campaign, it can be halted or pushed beyond that date. So there is an opportunity for the opposition to succeed. Millions of people who might be made redundant over the coming years are relying on that outcome.

You can read the TUC’s report on the five week wait, Universal Credit: Solving the problem of delay in benefit payments, here.

Please share this and spread the word against this deeply disturbing plan.

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As Tories bicker over a flat tax, here’s why it doesn’t work…

Tory policy chief Oliver Letwin is calling for a ‘flat tax’ rate, according to a Mirror exclusive yesterday.

He was talking in private to a laissez faire think tank, Politeia, and although instantly rebutted by Conservative Party HQ, it has sparked debate about Tory plans to cut tax for the rich, with Ed Balls today arguing the party is ‘champing at the bit’ to slash the top rate to 40%.

But that itself marks a step towards a flat tax, a policy both George Osborne and David Cameron have praised in the past. Left Foot Forward covered the topic last year amid a renewal of right-wing interest in the policy. What is it though?

The policy entails everyone paying the same basic rate – usually touted as around 20 or 30%. But it has two major possible implications.

If it was set at a low rate, it would require enormous further cuts to public services to compensate for tax income plummeting overnight. But if it was set at a high rate, it would require enormous tax rises among the poor to fund an effective tax cut for the rich, i.e. from the 45% top rate down to the 31% that the Institute for Fiscal Studies says would be necessary to maintain current Treasury tax receipts.

So we have two options with the flat tax – Cameron’s ‘permanent austerity’ hailed by neoliberals (an outcome which would hit the poorest hardest), or significant tax rises for low earners, which would also hit the poorest hardest. The flat tax is therefore, as is commonly understood, deeply regressive. Doesn’t take a genius to work it out.

But it’s also verified by several studies. Here’s an analysis of US flat tax plans by income bracket:

Flat tax

Citizens for Tax Justice, based in the US where calls for a flat tax rate are frequent, have therefore determined that the shift would result in ‘enormous tax cuts for the richest five percent of taxpayers’ alongside ‘tax hikes for all other income groups’, while leaving the investment income of the wealthy essentially untaxed.

Moreover, there’s little evidence to suggest it would ‘work’ in the way right-wing advocates say it would. It has only been introduced in some Baltic states and Russia. In the latter, it was hailed as dramatically boosting actual payment of tax, where previously it had been avoided. But according to a London School of Economics report, this coincided with a dramatic boost in tax collecting powers, and sweeping changes to other forms of taxation, a finding confirmed by another 2007 study.

Meanwhile, another key argument for the Flat Tax, ‘simplicity’, has been fundamentally rebutted by a University of Chicago study, which showed that in any complex economy there is no such thing as a ‘simple’ tax system, particularly when companies and individuals can avoid tax at whatever level it is set. The implementation costs for shifting to such a system were also significant.

Even a study by the free market IMF stressed ‘empirical evidence on [flat taxes’] effects is very limited’ although they did find that ‘there is no sign of Laffer [curve]-type behavioural responses generating revenue increases from the tax cut’ – in non-academic terms, cutting tax didn’t stop avoidance or boost productivity and government income.

So with the evidence unclear, or if anything pointing against a flat tax rate, the Tories have a choice to make. They could adopt a policy so right-wing even UKIP have abandoned it, in what would entrench their perception as the party of the rich forever…or they could ‘do the right thing’ for ‘hardworking people’ and drop the ludicrous plans.

Drop the cynicism – Cornwall’s national minority status should be welcomed

[Cross-posted from my article for OpenDemocracy]

Cornish politics, including nationalist politics, is a strange beast. It ranges from would-be-terrorists who demand English flags be removed, to those who envy the SNP’s success and seek to imitate a progressive patriotism (to steal a phrase from Billy Bragg). But speaking as a ‘naturalised’ Cornishman myself, the news that Cornwall has been given ‘national minority’ status under the Council of Europe’s ‘Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities’ is one which, despite some caveats, should be welcomed.

The caveats are worth mentioning, of course. Firstly, Cornwall is one of the most impoverished counties in the country – and famously the only to receive the EU’s ‘Objective One’ funding for ‘undeveloped’ regions. It has one of the highest house price-to wage ratios, a source in itself of much anti-English ‘immigrant’ (or emmet, in Cornish dialect) hostility. This in itself has prompted calls for extra hotel taxes and second-home expropriations.

Policies like the bedroom tax (and austerity in general) have hit Cornwall hard, with 61% of those hit by the policy in the county falling into arrears – prompting the council to send over Christmas thousands of fairly-offensive ‘Pay Your Rent Before It’s Spent’ newsletters. Meanwhile, just 14% of the bedroom tax relief fund has actually been spent.

My own city of Truro – the only Cornish city, by virtue of its Cathedral – is now the third most expensive in the country, while thousands linger on the minimum wage in the county’s main sectors of tourism (when it’s not raining), retail, and hospitality – from pasty shops to pubs and B&Bs. But with little progressive or trade union tradition, there’s scant pressure to radically alter Cornish society – except, perhaps, to abolish the outdated model of the Duchy which grants immense land and inheritance rights to the Duke of Cornwall.

But politics, as always, partly explains the government’s unexpected decision. Cornwall is a firmly Lib Dem/Conservative swing area – there hasn’t had a Labour MP in many years, and only then confined to the deprived Camborne & Redruth constituency. Is the government eying up the three Lib Dem seats – all of which rest on slender majorities? Just 6000 extra votes could bring all three to the Tories. Needless to say, the Lib Dems aren’t too popular in the county at present, despite narrowly taking control of the council in a coalition last year, so an all-Tory Cornwall is a theoretically plausible outcome, while the Tories are desperately trying to see off an insurgent UKIP threat – the party won six seats on the council last year, while left-wing Cornish nationalists Mebyon Kernow sadly won just four (although encouragingly, the Greens won our first ever unitary seat, in St Ives).

The decision to give Cornwall national minority status doesn’t grant it any extra funding, desperately needed both culturally and economically. But it does add gravitas to a welcome £120,000 given to the Cornish Language Partnership recently to promote the on-going revival, while it opens up possibilities for easier grant applications through the EU and other bodies. At the same time, Bewans Kernow, a local charity, has just been granted £40k to increase community cohesion and boost knowledge of Cornish culture.

It’s easy to be cynical, especially about coalition decisions. But, caveats aside, the move should be welcomed for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it grants Cornwall an automatic right to consultation over government policies, as Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland already receive. With all the social problems Cornwall has, this is undoubtedly a positive.

But, more sentimentally, it recognises an identity that is already there and one which, with no real right-wing nationalist grouping in the county, is relatively benign. There’s no real push for separation (even Mebyon Kernow reject independence), but there is a sense of community and uniqueness. 84,000 people declared themselves Cornish in the 2011 census, while thousands celebrate St Piran’s Day (treated as a bank holiday by many organisations in the Duchy), Trevithick’s Day, Flora Day and a whole raft of other festivities. There’s the language – now seeing somewhat of a revival, with Cornish-language nurseries and classes springing up all over – as well as the food, the folk scene, the surfing, the accent and even the tartan, however ugly it might be…

But more than anything, there’s a sense of pride, despite the odds. And although Eric Hobsbawm was right when he said that all national identities are to some extent ‘imagined communities’ rooted in myth, does it really matter? For now, I’m proud to be an adopted member of that imagined community – a collective in an individualistic age, or as the county’s motto goes – ‘Onen hag oll’. One and all.

Renationalise? Our railways are already publicly owned…

A frequent – and growing – call on the left in Britain is for the railways to be ‘renationalised’, ‘brought back into public ownership’ or ‘put in the public’s hands again’ – and any other number of similar phrases. It’s an interesting case really in that it’s another example of the left failing in terms of discourse in uniting the country (the phrase ‘bedroom tax’ being an obvious recent exception and success) – even if the vast majority of people do believe rail should be domestically state-owned and run.

Why is the left ‘doing it wrong’ on the rail issue? Because, as the title suggests, our rail network is already basically in public ownership. Just not by us.

According to RMT union research:

Overseas companies, mainly state-owned, now control 65% of Britain’s railways proving that the Government are happy with state ownership as long as it’s not by the British state in the interests of British people.

Yep, 65% foreign ownership – mostly by other governments.

From the Daily Express (of all newspapers…):

Nearly one in four operators are owned wholly or in part by Deutsche Bahn, the German state railway.

SNCF, the French state railway, part-owns six operators.  Three are wholly or part-owned by Dutch state railway Nederlandse Spoorwegen.

Deutsche Bahn owns Chiltern, Cross Country, Grand Central, Tyne & Wear metro and Wales & Borders and part-owns  London overground.

SNCF part-owns Gatwick Express, South Eastern, London  Midland, Southern, First TransPennine Express and Eurostar. Dutch state railways own or part-own Northern, Greater Anglia and Merseyrail.

Why am I dragging up this early-mid 2013 research now? Because UK state-owned East Coast mainline is currently in the process of being privatised…sort of – with the government announcing the final bidders last Friday. East Coast, the current (fantastic) operator of the London-Edinburgh line, is banned from bidding for the contract now up for renewal, after the government had to take over the network due to market failure a few years ago.

So the bid is an interesting case in ‘privatisation’ for a key reason – a joint bid by Eurostar and French firm Keolis is being permitted to apply to run the service, but our own East Coast is not. So in an appeal to private-sector virtue and ‘competition’ we have 55% SNCF (French state rail)-owned Eurostar alongside majority-SNCF owned Keolis bidding to run the line…while our own national service can’t. Bizarre.

It’s hypocritical because the government’s declared rationale for the sale is that:

For our railways to continue to grow we need strong private sector partners who can invest and innovate in ways that deliver a world class service.

For a start, East Coast already provides a world class service – it’s certainly one of the cheapest and has delivered over £600m to the treasury since the government took it over in 2009 (after National Express failed miserably to ‘deliver’).

Meanwhile, FirstGroup, as well as Virgin and Stagecoach (together) are also bidding to run the line. This is interesting because Stagecoach have a 49% stake in Virgin rail. Very competitive [sarc] – particularly as it’s supposedly a ‘joint venture’ anyway. FirstGroup also happen to run lines part-owned by mostly state-owned Keolis. So ‘re-privatisation’? Not really. ‘Competition’, ‘free-markets’ etc etc.? Certainly not.

Raising this isn’t an appeal to nationalism, merely a case study in the contradictions of the neoliberal ideology that dominates the British political arena. Through understanding that the government doesn’t really care who owns our services and bleeds them dry as long as a) the owners hopefully aren’t us and b) corporations/capitalism get to make a killing, we can see the political ideology that drives our national politics for what it really is – socialism for the rich.

This was best highlighted in the equally questionable ‘privatisation’ of Royal Mail last year. In order to privatise it ‘successfully’ – i.e. to make sure companies got the most out of tax-payers – not only did the government set a ridiculously low selling price but they were also simultaneously nationalised Royal Mail’s pension fund to sweeten up the offer for investors.

How do we get around this and reassert domestic popular control of our infrastructure? Getting rid of capitalism altogether is one obvious/implausible answer, but until then, we need to deconstruct the decisions and discourses politicians use and show them for what they really are. A sham and a facade. And (I would say this wouldn’t I?) to get behind the only party that is pushing for genuine public ownership of rail (and water and energy for that matter – the Greens.

On top of this, and finally, the left needs to change its language about rail ownership – instead of calling for ‘renationalisation’, we should call for some form of ‘local/British public ownership’ – a call that would win even more support from right across the spectrum than the slightly inaccurate/misleading terms used now. Language isn’t everything (and I’m not one to jump up and down about ‘value-framing theory’ etc.), but it is one good weapon in our arsenal.

So it’s local public ownership the left should be demanding – e.g. regional municipalisation – not just any old state running our services. And who’s to say it’s not possible? Labour are making promising noises – with a few big pushes they could well embrace the idea in government post-2015…

Osborne’s Autumn Statement wasn’t just class war. It was age war, too

‘Do you remember when people used to retire?’ I can just imagine our generation’s grandkids asking us that in 50-odd years’ time. Our generation – the 1990s crew – will be working into our 70s. That means that a fair few of you reading this, given the vast inequalities in life expectancy in Britain, will be toiling flat-out and non-stop…till we drop.

The budget did nothing for students or graduates – nearly half of whom are in non-graduate roles, from shelf-stackers to baristas and receptionists. A tenth are unemployed. I’ve lost count of the numbers of old uni friends who’ve recently been on the dole. Where they have found work, many are whiling away their hours gaining ‘work experience’ or what anthropologist David Graeber politely termed ‘bullshit jobs’ – roles which serve no useful purpose. You’ll all know many more. The Autumn Statement announcement of a legislated welfare cap of 1% will push them further into the ground amid rising food costs and energy bills.

Neither will their woes – or just early world-weariness – be made any easier by announcement that the government plans to sell-off of the entire Student Loans Company, part of the coalition’s much-mooted £20bn (doubled from their previous aim) plan to flog-off a whole swathe of public assets – from Eurostar to potentially the Met Office, air traffic control and plenty more. It will make the forestry sell-off a couple of years ago look like a walk in the park. Pardon the pun.

What will it mean to us? Eventually, the terms of our loans will change. Where companies can no longer make a profit off our debt, they will seek to remove or lift the interest rate cap. And with that, we’ll have a de facto rise in tuition fees. Since the loans will be in private hands, we’ll have no say over the matter.

The implications are of course far deeper than this. If not even our student loans are publicly owned any more, our education system certainly won’t be either. Thus Higher Education becomes a commercial enterprise with barely a whisper of democratic discussion.

It’s not just privatisation that we have to contend with. The next few years will see £1bn worth of extra cuts year on year, further limiting demand in the economy and thus jobs growth. The dole queue won’t be going down any time soon. Nearly a million of our generation – five years after the crash – still remain stranded without work.

Already 300,000 public sector jobs have been slashed since the government came to power – on a pledge, cynically, to protect ‘front-line services’ – and the Institute for Fiscal studies reckons the another 900,000 job losses are yet to come by 2017/18. Brace yourselves.

The problem isn’t even lack of GDP growth – although there has been a lot less of it since 2010. The real issue, as Labour have belatedly tacked on to, is that wages are stagnating, with workers £5000 worse off since the crash. Labour shouldn’t take the credit however – wages were stagnating under them, too, with a minimum wage that wasn’t fit for purpose and zero hours contracts rearing their head even before 2008. And Ed Balls’ response to the Statement in the Commons was pretty pathetic, by most accounts.

Nonetheless, we’re still right to ask: recovery? What recovery? If there is one, who’s recovery is it? It certainly isn’t young people’s.

It’s not as if the pain of austerity is worth it even on its own terms – annual borrowing is £111bn, compared with the £60bn that Osborne said we’d get this year.

Thursday’s budget, in an era of leaks, was largely without surprises. But that’s the problem. We’ve grown used to austerity, becoming reluctant masochists. There are hopeful signs though that students are starting to fight back – this week has seen a wave of occupations sweep universities across the country, from Sheffield to Birmingham, Sussex to the University of London. Everywhere, of course, met with a heavy-handed response.

But hey, it’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees. I can sense that our generation – faced with the in-your-face affront we saw in the Autumn Statement – might not be pliant for much longer. Because it’s not just class war any longer, it’s age war too.

The loan privatisation protests show student activism is back

Originally published by York Vision

If there’s one thing that has been repeated about the student movement, long after the fires around Conservative HQ began to fade in 2010, it’s the claim that it’s dead.  The protests after the infamous ‘Demolition’ demonstration that November were a sorry shadow of the anger 52,000 marchers felt by Milbank – not to mention the many thousands who couldn’t make it – gradually getting smaller and smaller with the capitulation of the NUS to simple gesture politics.

But the past few days have shown that rumours of the student movement’s death were exaggerated. Underneath the seeming calm, the sense of dispossession was still there – waiting for a spark. In the government’s plans to privatise the Student Loans Company, they may have found it.

The government’s announcement in June that it plans to sell off the student loan book to private investors – literally the entirety of young people’s educational debt – marks a frightening new step in the steady decline of our education system, transformed from a universal public good to a mere business purchase – a corporate opportunity instead of the common provision of knowledge to create more rounded human beings. And it comes in the wake of the disastrous (not to mention shambolic) transfer of the Royal Mail to, overwhelmingly, institutional investors – banks, hedge funds and speculators.

By 2015, higher education could be almost completely privatised – not even our debt will be publicly owned anymore. More than this though, in order to ‘sweeten up’ the deal (since investors don’t want to buy our debt as it stands) the government is expected to reduce or remove the interest rate cap. Put simply, fees could go up, indirectly, yet again. They will have to, since the government can actually borrow more cheaply than any other institution in society. Private companies on the other hand, can’t.

So it was with this growing realisation in mind that hundreds of students marched, rallied, petitioned, leafleted and occupied their campuses on Wednesday in a national effort to block the proposals to flog off our future repayments. Coordinated by the Student Assembly Against Austerity and backed by the Young Greens (the youth branch of the Green Party), at least 25 campuses took part, with two – Birmingham and Sheffield – actually being occupied by students. The spirit of the tuition fee protests may just be coming back.

In Birmingham, students have occupied their Senate House, the historic decision-making centre of the University, to push management to ‘make a public statement against the privatisation of student loans and in defence of the public university’ – alongside other worthy pledges such as reducing the gaping pay inequality in Higher Education and getting the Vice Chancellor to take back his calls for tuition fees to be further increased. Sounds a lot like York.

And in Sheffield, students took over their campus branch of Santander – presumably a potential buyer – in a symbolic move against the loan sell-off. A pretty clear message against bankers, who obviously did much to cause the economic crisis, taking over our debt.

It wasn’t all old school revolutionary 1968 tactics being used however. Protest in the 21st century is dynamic. We had live tweeting, Facebook streams, online news coverage and flickr feeds. We had banner drops, students locking themselves together in ‘debt chains’, and in Cambridge (where police recently tried to recruit students to spy on each other) and Manchester, students lay trapped under red boxes marked ‘debt’ (no prizes for guessing the message). In York we opted for a rally, alongside getting students to sign a petition to local Tory MP Julian Sturdy to condemn the coalition’s plans. As ever, a diversity of tactics is needed.

I talked to a spokesperson for the Student Assembly Against Austerity, Fiona Edwards, who agreed that the student movement is coming back to life. “There is an upturn in struggle within the student movement. Students’ living standards are being hit hard by the Tories’ austerity offensive, and just as with other sections of society, we aren’t prepared to accept this without a fight.

The coalition seems to be trying to down-play the sell-off and push it under the radar. After the Day of Action, it looks less certain they’ll get away with it however. “Wednesday’s day of action has sounded the alarm and raised huge awareness about the next big attack on education”.

This government has made it clear that it intends to push through privatisation before 2015. That means there’s not much time left. And since Labour themselves not only introduced fees but also tripled them (years before Nick Clegg could follow suit), it’s more urgent than ever that we push the government to drop the proposals. Keep your eyes out – the student movement might be back, after all.

The next national Day of Action has now been set as the 3rd of February. Over 100 people and 10 campuses have already pledged to join the action within a couple of hours of the announcement. Find out more here: https://www.facebook.com/events/237473933084637/237497453082285

Josiah Mortimer organised York’s protest and sits on the National Committee of the Young Greens, the youth branch of the Green Party of England and Wales.

The #fairpayinHE battle is about the future of education. Time for some solidarity

[A version of this article was first published by The Yorker]

York strikers rally outside management's offices

You’d think for institutions that pay their Vice Chancellors nearly £250,000 on average, over £100k more than the Prime Minister, the rest of the staff would be paid pretty handsomely as well. Universities with millions in surplus, raking in £9k-per-student fees, should be able to remunerate their staff fairly. They should. But they don’t.

At the same time as 1,633 members of Senior Management are paid more than £140k – the salary of the government’s Secretary for Higher Education – nearly 5000 struggle to get by on the Minimum Wage in HE.

This is the national trend, made clear after a Young Greens report, The Fair Pay League, revealed last week that If university heads took a pay cut to £140,000, the money raised nationally would be more than enough to pay every minimum wage worker (there’s nearly 5,000 of them in the sector) a Living Wage. At the current rate however, the lowest paid have to work on average 18.6 years to earn the annual salary of the head of their university. At York the figure is similar.

Indeed, the same report revealed that in 2012, the number of senior staff paid over £140k in our universities:

‘…gives a total of over £228 million spent annually on high wages in Higher Education. If the 113 highest paid employees are not included, the remaining 1,520 paid over £140,000 could take a reduction in pay of no more than £10,774 each (a maximum of 7.7%) in order to give the other 6,769 lowest paid staff in the Higher Education sector a raise to the Living Wage.’

So the level of inequality in Higher Education is staggering. It’s no wonder then that workers launched the first ever joint national university strike on the 31st against a measly 1% pay offer – a real-terms pay cut when inflation is taken into account.

The lecturers’ union, the UCU, was joined by thousands in the Unite and Unison trade unions in an unprecedented move of unity following strong votes in favour of action last month.

It’s about time. The 1% pay offer comes after 4 years of pay freezes and below-inflation rises, equating to a 13% cut in university workers’ incomes. This is happening while the highest paid in our universities are seeing their pay rise, while tuition fees have been hiked and while courses are closing and universities face privatisation by the back door. Even the student loan book is being sold off to private companies to make a quick buck – and make no mistake, our debt will soar as a result.

So these striking workers are fighting for education as a whole in the face of brutal attacks from central government in terms of nigh-100% cuts to humanities subjects, the butchering of other departments – and eternal attacks on pay and conditions.

If you care about the people who teach us, who clean up after us, who serve us in canteens and who keep our university going, back the campaign. If you care about what this government is doing to education, and you think sky-rocketing inequality in the education system has to stop, back the campaign. If you think everyone deserves fair pay and not an endless race to the bottom, back the campaign.

How? The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts have put out the following call for students to, over the coming days and weeks:

  • Hold meetings, protests and rallies on your campus in support of the strikes, and against the privatisation of student debt
  • Build contacts with staff and co-ordinate action at every level: across cities, on campuses and in departments
  • Hold flash occupations – ‘shockupations’ – in solidarity with the pay dispute

To sign the call, email againstfeesandcuts@gmail.com. Get organising, folks. With Sheffield, Sussex and SOAS all going into occupation over the past few days, this is a rare radical upsurge the left can’t afford to miss.