Sunday, 14 July 2013

Exeter City Council adopts Living Wage Policy

In amongst the wage freezes and wage cuts across the public sector Exeter City Council has done a quietly revolutionary thing: to make sure that no employees earn less than a living wage.

A living wage is not the same as the minimum wage, (which is set by the government), it is the amount seen as the minimum a person can live by  cover the basic living costs.

The council have afforded it very simply: by reducing the wages of those at the top of the organisation, and using it to supplement the wages of those at the bottom, and to weigh the increased costs of the wages against the reduced need for income related benefits such as housing or council tax benefit.

There have been many people criticising the welfare bill recently. One of the biggest group of objectors to those claiming benefits, are not just the people at the top, but those who work full time but still live relatively close to poverty at the bottom.

Despite rising living costs, the minimum wage has stagnated and is still only £6.31, meaning that people with jobs can still be at or below the poverty line.

There is a sense that someone shouldn't be able to earn the same or more in benefits, than someone who is in the same situation but working full-time.

This was seen very clearly in the recent BBC documentary on benefits, and I think that their sense of injustice is valid. 

Because I'm disabled I have carers, and I'm shocked and somewhat appalled by how little they earn. Many of them are single parents or have children but are forced to work because their partners income is too low to support them both.

But the focus has become skewed. It shouldn't be trying to push those on benefits into greater poverty, as a way to achieve greater income equality, it should be raising the minimum wage to at least the living wage (£7.45) . 

A poor working person arguing with a poor person on benefits about who is most poor, is like 2 people arguing over who has the biggest grain of rice, whilst down the hall rich people are at an eat as much as you like.

There is no reason that it would be any more difficult to implement these changes in big business, in fact it should be easier. 

All you would have to do is take money from people at the top, and redistribute it towards the people at the bottom.

It might be harder to implement in smaller businesses, but the government could make it easier by, for example, giving tax breaks to medium-sized and small businesses who pay their employees the living wage.

Putting aside everything to do with equality, fairness, and a decent standard of living, doing this makes so much economic sense.

It means that there will be a reduction in the need for some income-based benefits, it will mean that people have more cash in their pocket. The economy will never recover if people are living in poverty, because there will be no money going into the system.

And if, as the government say, (though I'm doubtful about the truth of this) that people stay on benefits because they are financially better off, it will incentivise people to get jobs because they will be able to earn more, not less, than those on benefits.

Income inequality is incredibly important, not just for individuals, but for society as a whole. Countries with greater income equality have lower crime rates, better literacy, better health and longer lives than unequal ones. 

I would like to see this living wage extended across the public sector, and into the private sector, but unless the public sector lead the way and unless there is new legislation to encourage the adoption of the living wage, it will not change. 

So in a rare moment of praise for Exeter city council, I salute them the putting this into practice, and hope that other city and county councils will also adopt it.


Saturday, 29 June 2013

A response to a piece in the daily mail

An open letter to Mark Littlewood following this piece in the daily mail:

Dear Mr Littlewood

I read with interest your piece in the Daily Mail online about publishing all of the names of people on benefits, and I wanted to respond to it personally as one of those people on benefits.

I can understand your interest in finding out where the money you pay goes and who it is paid to, and so I will introduce myself:

My name is Katie, I am 31 years old and I have been claiming benefits for several years. I claim the higher rate of mobility allowance and the middle rate of care allowance for DLA because I find walking too painful and difficult and I need help with basic tasks like getting up and dressed, food preparation and a whole host of other practical things. Because of my disability I am unable to work and so also claim employment and support allowance, including extra money given to me to meet to meet the extra costs involved in my life due to the disability.

My money goes on lots of things, for example I cannot use my hands to write or type without pain and so I use speech recognition software, which I have to pay for myself, and including the headset comes in at around £200. A large part also goes on transport-fuel costs, wheelchair hire, taxis because I am unable to drive because of my disability.

So, I want to say First: thank you.

I am actually profoundly thankful to the people who pay their taxes to enable me to live my life. It is a frequent source of wonder to me that people I don't know are giving me money to a complete stranger, and not an infrequent source of guilt that I am reliant on other people, even though I know logically it is not my fault that I am ill or need to claim benefits. When I was a child and a young adult I never thought that this is where I would end up, but life is unpredictable, and I am grateful that when I became unable to support myself this state supported me.

Tax, and the benefits system, is to me a great gift, an evidence that we live in a civilised society. It is the embodiment of the concept that 'there for the grace of God go I". It is the acknowledgement that life is uncertain, and we would like others to be treated in the way that we would want to be treated in that situation, and that that situation can come about out of the blue.

People end up on benefits for all sorts of reasons - that they are disabled or are looking after a disabled relative, because they live in an  area where there is a lack of jobs, because they are single-parent with young children, because they are elderly, because they are between jobs, because they have graduated university only to find they graduate job market has shrunk.

These are just the people who entirely rely on benefits,  a large amount is also  spent on “top up benefits" the people who are working but are still unable to have enough money to live on.  [1]

I hope that other people will come forward with their names and their stories, to show you why we have come to be claiming benefits. But the thing is, most people won't, most people will be to frighten or ashamed to be honest about it.

You say that if people are ashamed they shouldn't claim benefits, but that shame doesn't come from inside them, it comes from internalising the judgements that people make about those on welfare like your assertion "that we now give payouts to people who don’t really need them – and for long periods of time".

It is also worrying to see your naïveté about people's behaviour towards benefit claimants. You say that “surely, no one needs to worry about violent retribution against claimants". But there has been a worrying increase in physical and verbal abuse towards people on benefits, especially disabled people, because people have internalized the government's judgement that we are “scroungers". I myself was verbally abused a few months ago by a stranger who told me that I was pretending to be disabled and that I was “one of those scroungers". [2]

What disturbs me in your article is not that you want to know where your money goes, or if it's being spent well, but that the assumption that at least half of its is being misspent on people who do not need or deserve. You say“ publishing the data will clearly show that we now give payouts to people who don’t really need them – and for long periods of time” Do you have any evidential basis to back up this claim?

You assume that, like the Victorians did of their poor, that a person's poverty and need to claim financial help is their own fault, that there is something that they could be doing to change their situation but they're not.

I don't normally bother arguing with people who think like you, but you have money, and you have the power to say what you think and it has become something that can influence other people.

You are a director of an economics institute and things you raise are questions of economics not of personal fault. The people you blame are just the ones most affected by the economic situation. They are the canaries in the mine, signalling there is something wrong.

Instead why not look at the genuine reasons for why there are higher levels of poverty that lead to benefit claims:

Why unemployment rates are so high in certain areas of the country, where industrialized manufacturing and mining has ended but new jobs have not been created.

The number of jobs available versus the number of people out of work: However strong an individual’s motivation to work the truth is that there are about 500,000 job vacancies, yet at least 2,500,000 people looking for work.

Why house prices have increased so much that many people cannot afford to pay the mortgage or the rent as well as their other living costs, and how the lack of social housing means that the government is having to fork out so much money in housing benefit to private landlords.

That thanks to new advances in medicine, people are living longer than they used to,  increasing the length of time people draw pensions. People who previously would have died through accident or disability are now also able to live, but are unable to support themselves, and so claim benefits.

At the real wage cuts and freezes for those who do have jobs, meaning that people who work are still below the poverty line and need to claim. Between 2008 and 2013 the minimum income standards for a family have four have risen 25%

Look at the number of job cuts and also the increasing instability of many jobs, where people are offered casual or short term contracts, leading to people having to claim job seekers allowance between jobs.


Sunday, 13 January 2013

Two films: Two Cultural stories

How the rise in popularity of Scandanavian TV reflects our changing views of women's status in film and TV. 

In the past 3 or 4 years our television screens have become filled with all things Scandinavian, much of it has been what is called “Scandinavian Noir" -crime and detective series such as Wallandar, the killing as well as “Borgan" which is as close to the equivalent of “West Wing" that the Danish are going to get!

One of the most popular films has been the adaptations of Stieg Larsson's series “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo", and although I haven't read the book I recently watched both the American and Swedish versions of the film. There are lots of things that are contrasting, the Swedish version was much more grittier and realistic, more understated and subtle, but the thing that struck me most were a bit different portrayals of the main character Lisbeth in the films.

This is going to reveal important things about the plotline, so please do not read unless you have watched the film or  are not planning to! In the American version of the film the plot is very much more led by the character played by Daniel Craig: he's the one to track down Lisbeth to ask her to work for him, and the investigation is largely led by him, where as in the Swedish version it is Lisbeth who makes the 1st of the discoveries about the case he is working on, before he does. I also do not think that the decision to cast Daniel Craig, who also plays James Bond, is accidental. In the American film Lisbeth ends up being much more of a sidekick, to the charismatic and reckless Mickael. Where as in the Swedish version he is much more of a passive character, following Lisbeth's lead. 

But the most startling thing is the differences in their relationship with each other in the 2 films. Although Lisbeth instigates their relationship in both of the films, in the American one she ends up rejected and sidelined by him, and ends with him going back to his lover, and the sad final scene of her putting the present she's bought him in the trash. Where is in the Swedish film it is her who leaves mysteriously, and he who is pining after her when she doesn't keep in contact with him. 

So what's the big deal about that? Well I think it really reflects the different attitudes to women in America and Scandinavia. One of the positive things in Scandinavian TV and film is that they are willing to have female strong lead characters who drive the story, where men can take a much more passive and less controlling role .And this is reflected in Scandinavian culture and politics. It is no accident that these countries have a much higher level of equality between men and women both in income and status. In Iceland 5 out of the 11 Cabinet members are women, and the Prime Minister herself is not only a woman, but also openly gay. Can you imagine that happening in "West Wing"?

But this move away from less stereotypical roles for men and women, reflects not only greater gender equality, but the greater level of equality found in general in Scandinavian countries. Norway, Finland and Sweden all have greater equality in all other areas, in terms of income and quality of life, as well as life expectancy, educational attainment and many other things, with the US lagging behind near the bottom despite it being a so-called “developed" country.

I think that this burgeoning  interest in all things Scandinavian is a positive thing, showing that people are ready to move away from the macho, male dominated, testosterone fuelled film and television making that is so prevalent in America, towards a more equal role for women both in society and in our  choice of television and film.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Disability Witchhunt

In the past year, verbal abuse towards disabled people has increased by 41%. The governments demonisation of disabled people claiming benefits, presenting them as fraudulent, lazy and responsible for robbing a recession sunken country of its precious funds.

In a recent survey that public misconceptions about welfare have been wildly out of step with the actual figures. When asked about the proportion of the welfare budget that is fraudulently claimed, on average people placed it as 27% instead of the 0.7% that is actually estimated.

This is a context for what happened to me tonight. I was at the station waiting for a train, when a man came up to me and said:
And he said “why have you got a stick?"

I  was startled and said “pardon?" 

 “what's wrong with you?". 
“It's complicated to explain" i replied

My train had come, and I was waiting to get on it, but because he was standing between me and the train, I couldn't get on it straightaway. At that point he moved towards me, I moved back and he said aggresively:

You're not really disabled are you? Are you, are you? You're not disabled. You're one of them aren't you, you're one of them that's pretending, you're draining this whole fucking country" 

He got on the train, I didn't because I don't want to get in the carriage with him, and I sat back down at the station and burst into tears. 

My disabilities have ruined my life, they make it so hard for me to do almost everything. Every day it's a struggle, and it is terrible to be told that you are not as ill and in pain as you know you are by someone else. And it's terrible to have the government who will not believe disabled people when they tell them what they need, and what they can't do.

Picking on minority groups to divert attention from the actual problems is not something new. Jewish people, gypsies, women, gay and bisexual people have, and often still are, blamed for the ills in society. Freud says that persecution is a way of externalising your anger and hatred, by making the Other a scapegoat for the ills of society.

And I am scared: scared for myself and for other disabled people, who face loosing their income, their transport, wheelchairs, and independence and i suspect probably their lives in some cases. 

With the benefits cut back by coming in during the next year, there is going to be a witchhunt on disabled people claiming benefits. Maybe they should go back to the old way of trying people: by throwing them in water and seeing if they float. Because the way that people's disabilities and benefits are being assessed is just as ridiculous and unfair, has just as little grasp on reality, and just as little understanding and compassion and plain common sense.