Screwing the unemployed in the North of Ireland

Belfast Plebian

work-fare211

One development in the North of Ireland that has come into existence largely unmentioned is Stormont’s new welfare to work programme. There have been quite a few of these in the past, New Deal, Steps to Work, but this one is more than just a hand me down modification, it fits with the now.

It emerged from out of the thinkery of the Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) as recently as 2012. The protocols were first aired in a draft published in April 2012 (feasibility study; DEL web site). Tenders were then put out to the private sector for attention at the beginning of 2013 and the Stormont Executive approved the full regulations in June 1914. Implementation of the programme started in October 2014 and it is still being rolled out. The Alliance party man in the Executive, Minister Farry declared that this was ‘a major change in the way we help people, focusing on providing more flexible support for individual’s needs and their barriers to work.’

It is certainly a major change all right; it is the semi- privatisation of Stormont’s unemployment responsibility. The job of getting the north’s unemployed reserve army into work has just been handed over to three ‘lead contractors’ i.e. to profit seeking private companies.

  • Belfast Ingeus UK Ltd, supported by Armstrong Learning NI, People 1st, Springvale Learning, SES Consortium and Addiction NI.
  • Northern Region – EOS (Trading) Northern Ireland Ltd, supported by Elle Enterprises, Customised Training Services, Network Personnel, Ulster Supported Employment Limited, North City Business, Roe Valley Enterprise Ltd and Roe Valley Community Education Forum.
  • Southern Region Reed in Partnership, supported by Global Education Ltd, Network Personnel, Rutledge Recruitment and Training and South Eastern Regional College.

From now on the private sector will be gifted an opportunity to make a profit out of the unemployed with contracts worth £35 million. The only objection raised by those MLA’s who were there for the Committee stage was that DEL had unkindly overlooked some locally run training organisations in favour of the bigger outsider businesses -Pat Ramsey of the SDLP worried that 400 jobs could be lost to local training organisations in the transition period.

Ingenus, for example is a welfare to work international business founded in 1989 by the wife of the former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.  Therese Rein sold the business to Providence Service Corporation of Arizona in April 2014 in a deal said to be worth £65 million in cash and another £25 million in stock options, and she agreed to stay on as the Chief Executive.

Although present in several countries, Ingenus makes seventy percent of its declared profit from the British Government’s welfare to work contracts. The Australian government has been pretty ruthless in the slashing of the social entitlements of workers and this gradgrind model is being imposed in Britain via companies like Ingenus.

Another lead contractor is Reed Partnership a division of the Reed Group that includes Reed Specialist Recruitment and Reed Online. The Reed Partnership boasts on its web site that it was the first welfare to work contractor to be trusted by New Labour to deliver the service under the New Deal Programme – “We launched as one of the first private welfare to work providers in the UK. Our first contract started in Hackney in 1998.”

News journalists in Britain frequently claim that the welfare to work programme has been an unmitigated disaster, on the basis that it has been shown to be not good value for the taxpayer’s money lavished on it.  It has been reported that less than 5 percent of those forced under its iron wheels find any permanent work. These sorts of ‘I feel sorry for the taxpayer’ type of political analyses has become the norm for almost all news media criticism of government policy.

When asked about the work programmes’ lamentable failure reported by the news media in England, the DEL civil servants simply told the Assembly Committee that civil servants were under no legislative obligation to take the poor results into consideration when inventing their own scheme specially tailored for the North of Ireland. The DEL officials told the Assembly Committee they were aiming at a better programme and at a higher achieving rate of 29%. Success is defined as finding a job for anyone on the programme for at least three or six months.

The ‘getting good value for taxpayers money’ model of social criticism is an absolutely hopeless one in dealing with the private welfare to work model as it is to be applied in the North of Ireland. The only model of political analysis useful here is the one that relates important government policy decisions directly to the aims of the Good Friday Agreement and fulfilling the mandate of the peace process.

The managerial side of the Stormont regime is certainly not dedicated to ‘helping’ the unemployed section of the working class into some new era of private sector prosperity – that much is obvious.  Rather it is preparing and training them for a future based on low expectations, frequent changes to part time working and acceptance of a long life on the minimum wage.

One of the most significant new protocols attached to the steps to success programme is that the new providers are not obligated by their DEL contract to offer training and education to their unemployed clients. All of the previous work programmes at least contained such a proviso, stipulating some skills training.  This new iteration does not.  It was no doubt thought to be an added expense that the private contractors could well do without.

There is no expectation that the jobs the private sector currently has on offer will be anything but part time, temporary, low skilled and low waged. The fact that the private contractors will receive a payment from the Department on the basis of any three or six months job take-up speaks volumes.

It should be said that participation on the new work programme is mandatory. Even the 60 to 65 age group are forced to take part, something that did not previously apply.

There are to be five client groups – Jobseekers 18-24, Jobseekers early entry, ESA’s (employment support allowance) voluntary ESA’s and Returners. The ‘client’s’ routine is to change from visiting the job centre once a fortnight, to show sufficient evidence of really seeking work, to carrying on with this plus an added second routine of meeting with the ‘provider’ at least three or four times per week for sessions lasting either one or two hours – supervised job searching to really really show they are seeking work.

The larger client group must do a minimum of five hours supervised searching spread out over the week.  This routine includes cold calling of employers who may not have even adverted any vacancies. This is obviously an enhanced surveilling of the lives of the unemployed. The ‘clients’ even have to hand over their mobile phone details and email addresses for random contacts about job offers. They also have to sign wavers allowing the providers to retain and make use of their personal details.

You are asked to inform them of any health problems you may have and to let them know if you are a ‘substance abuser.’  Some of the client groups have to agree to do work placements without pay. The client can in theory claim travelling expenses if they are especially diligent.  I had to delve deep into the DEL protocols documents to discover this.

Claims for travel expenses will be submitted at participant level and can be claimed on a four weekly basis. The Department will make payments within 30 working days of receipt provided receipts are offered.’ The least expensive way to travel in Belfast is to buy a bus day ticket costing £3.40 or £3.90. So the typical travel expense for participants is likely to be between 10 and 15 pounds per week. A single person under 25 on JSA receives £57.35 and the over 25 person gets £72.40. Obviously one training tip you are going to get on this programme is a vital lesson on keeping receipts.

Any unemployed person who is deemed not to be ‘performing’ to the protocols will be sanctioned with a withholding of benefit. The rules state that:

‘Your benefits will be stopped for two weeks for the first time you

  1. Give up, or fail to attend the required S2S attendance without good reason or are asked to leave for non-compliant behaviour.
  2. Your benefits will be stopped for four weeks for a second breach of the rules.
  3. It will be stopped for 26 weeks if the client breaks the rules for a third time.’

There is as yet no evidence available for current sanction rates in the North of Ireland. The rates of sanction penalisation in GB are amazingly high.  On 12 February, DWP published an important Freedom of Information response 2014-4972 showing the proportion of JSA claimants sanctioned and the numbers of repeat JSA sanctions.

Almost one-fifth (18.4%) of the 3,097,630 individuals who claimed JSA during 2013/14 were sanctioned: 568,430 people.  During 2013/14 the maximum number of JSA claimants at any one time was 1,474,428. This gives some idea of the amount of turnover in the claimant count.

We know from Stat-Xplore that there were 888,936 JSA sanctions in 2013/14, so that the average number of sanctions imposed on sanctioned claimants in 2013/14 was 1.56. It should be remembered that these figures show the proportion of claimants sanctioned after reviews/reconsiderations and appeals. The proportion sanctioned before these challenges in 2013/14 must have been about 20%.

Incredibly the Work Programme continues to deliver far more JSA sanctions than successful JSA job outcomes. The official statistics show that up to 30 September 2014 there had been 345,640 JSA Work Programme job outcomes and 575,399 JSA Work Programme sanctions.

This new policing regime for the unemployed is already in situ while the controversial welfare reform changes that have provoked so much comment are yet to be rolled out. One intention of the welfare reform plan in waiting is to push as many of the more costly benefit claimants into the cheaper Steps to Success programme.  This anticipated change is the reason why the bigger private sector welfare to work contractors from Britain are anticipating an increasing client base. The other is to harry as many people off the benefits system as is possible within the law.

The early signs are that it is working – the last three months have seen the biggest fall in live jobseeking claims ever recorded, 1,700 per month. Many are drifting on to other benefits like claiming sickness benefit but the the economically inactive count is also rising rapidly and last month it reached 28%, the highest by far in comparison with Britain. It is the high numbers of economically inactive that is now attracting the gradgrind attention of the neo- liberal economists.

How quickly the promises of the Good Firday Agreement have turned to dust for the working class. The peace process promised a better life for all and there was much talk of a lasting peace dividend. For a few years there was all the appearance of incresasing prosperity, but it was based on bank lending, rising house prices and some increased public spending.  In retrospect the material cause of the peace process can be said to be precisely this raised State spending.

A recent study carried out by the Nevin Economic Research Institute provided data showing how the cuts may impact.  According to the report three parliamentary constituencies, Foyle, West Tyrone and West Belfast have above-average public sector employment, with West Belfast the most vulnerable to job losses with over 45% of total employment being in the public sector.

A proposed public sector redundancy scheme was announced as part of the Stormont House Agreement. The scheme is intended to “re-balance” the local economy, which is said to be disproportionately dependent on the public sector, which accounts for 31% of total local employment.

The exact number of job losses in the scheme remains the subject of speculation. The DUP Finance Minister Simon Hamilton has announced an initial “closure” of 2,410 civil service posts over the next year but trade unions have estimated an eventual figure of 20,000 job losses. The report also highlighted that the retail and hospitality sectors, which make up the second and third highest sources of employment in West Belfast for example, and which are areas where those made redundant might find alternative employment, are also the sectors with the lowest wages. (NERI Research no 20 by Paul Mac Flynn)

If so many of our people, the ‘oppressed nationalists’ are being employed in secure long term jobs by the State why are we concentrating all our efforts on destroying it? This was the objective condition faced by the revolutionary movement organised by the republican movement pre-peace process.  The long war was never targeted at the private sector just the State. We know how that story turned out.

The republican movement disarmed and then married into the State to become senior board members in a logical exercise in political thinking. Things are now changing – the British government strategy of supressing the insurgency with above-normal levels of public spending is coming to an end. You could argue that the proposed rebalancing to a private sector based economy is simply the logical extension of neoliberal austerity economics. Yet a more precise argument would have to factor in a change in the political conditions and climate of opinion.

The republican organised insurgency is finished and the peace process leverage once thought to be with Sinn Fein has all but been used up. Martin McGuiness said recently that the Tories just don’t get it like Labour did.  This was a plea for special economic clemency for the North of Ireland.  But it is Sinn Fein that doesn’t get it.  We are no more special than the Greeks.  We surely are in new times.

2 thoughts on “Screwing the unemployed in the North of Ireland

  1. Excellent written article and extremely accurate. I am currently enrolled with the Armagh branch of Reed in Partnership and have been on their program for 6 months. I find my advisor to be condescending, harassing, their training courses demeaning and the program as a whole worthless in terms of time and money.

    It is not the unemployed draining the welfare budget. It is companies like Reed asking for millions of pounds contracts off the taxpayer to fund their misguided enterprise.

    All they do in Armagh is either sanction people or make them go for temporary jobs in factories. That’s it.

    Do they take into account your education, work experience, skills, hobbies, what you want to work as? They tell you they do when you enroll, but then they tell you they have targets to meet a few weeks later.

    I would like to see Reed’s contract removed, but have a feeling, it will happen down the road anyway. Their system simply doesn’t work as have been proven by poor results in England.

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