The site may be down intermittently over the next couple of weeks.
People have been asking for copies of my book as the previous pdf link has expired.
Have set the pdf here for download. Many thanks to everyone who has downloaded and read it. The response has been incredibly encouraging.
The book collects interviews with people who have relied on the benefits system in austerity and goes behind the scenes to jobcentre & homelessness meetings to show people’s experiences of the austerity state.
This Saturday (8 August), NHS staff will hold protests for pay – as well they might. They were excluded from Rishi Sunak’s recent public sector pay rise deal.
I sat in on a call with NHS workers and protest organisers last Saturday. There’s a lot of anger around, which is hardly surprising. Hundreds of health workers have died from coronavirus this year – a toll we may well not have seen had Boris Johnson got around to lockdowns and making sure people had adequate PPE.
This weekend’s (socially-distanced) protests are largely being generated and organised by staff themselves. According to staff on last Saturday’s call, one reason for that is that unions have been too slow to move on the issue. People decided to take things into their own hands. How often have we heard that?
Anyway. Can’t wait to see Boris Johnson out clapping for protesting NHS workers on the 8th. Here’s a list of protest events.
Download a pdf copy of my book
My 2020 book “Abusing Power” is a collection of interviews with people who needed benefits and housing help in austerity.
You can access a pdf of the book here.
The book goes behind the scenes to jobcentre & homelessness meetings and shows how people’s experiences of the austerity state shaped their politics and thinking.
Thanks to Aditya Chakrabortty for the shoutout on the book in today’s Guardian.
Here’s another covid-19 clusterf*ck to add to the pile – this one is about careworkers and Statutory Sick Pay:
Someone recently showed me facebook posts in which a ridiculous carehome manager said that they wouldn’t use the government-issued Infection Control Fund to fund full pay for careworkers who were off work and isolating with covid symptoms. As many of you will know, a lot of careworkers are only entitled to Statutory Sick Pay when they’re off sick – SSP being a paltry £95 a week that absolutely nobody can live on. Careworkers certainly can’t live on it and so they go to work when they’re sick. They take illnesses into work with them.
The Infection Control Fund is a £600m whack that Boris Johnson’s dozy government belatedly set aside in May for councils to distribute to carehomes in their boroughs – Matt Hancock or some other Einstein having finally cottoned onto the fact that careworkers with covid-19 symptoms who were only entitled to SSP’s £95 a week would continue to attend work and spread coronavirus, because they couldn’t afford not to.
The idea was that carehomes could use the ICF to (among other infection control measures) pay full wages to careworkers who were off work and isolating with covid symptoms. A far better idea, of course, would be to admit that SSP of £95 a week is an absolute disgrace and to always pay everyone full wages when they’re off sick – with covid or otherwise – but nobody important wants to admit or address that. Elites and employers the world over live in fear that if sick leave pays enough for people to live on, the serfs will simply pretend that they’re ill and groove away on one long beano. This fear is particularly prevalent among care home brass for some reason. They seem to think that inside every careworker is a goof-off just waiting to take the piss and party. Carehomes have been cutting “too generous” sick pay packages for careworkers to the statutory minimum for years.
Thus, the Infection Control Fund – a thin paper to stretch over another yawning central crack. Needless to say, at the local level, interpretations of the use of the ICF have been intriguing – ie absolutely random and often a circus. This ALWAYS happens when government attempts to address a major structural problem (such as Statutory Sick Pay) in a crisis (such as covid-19’s razing through carehomes) by lobbing a handful of cash at it and hoping for the best.
The problem is that you don’t always get the best, no matter how much government hopes for it. The social media screenshots I received of a conversation about the ICF with a carehome manager were certainly an eye-opener. The manager in that dialogue said that they wouldn’t use ICF money to pay full wages for careworkers who were off work with covid symptoms, because it wouldn’t be fair to careworkers who were off sick with illnesses other than covid (the ICF is aimed at careworkers with covid symptoms, or who’ve had a positive test, etc). That manager in that post said the choice was a “moral” one – ie that it would be unfair to pay full wages to one group of sick careworkers, but not to another.
As someone who has written about cuts to careworker conditions for more years than I care to recall, I am confident that this argument is a pile. Over a decade on the scene has taught me that finance, as opposed to morals, tends to be the motivation for management actions at carehomes. Let’s think about this for a bit. If careworkers were allowed to isolate at home on full pay for 2 weeks, a carehome would have to find and pay replacement staff. Some councils are apparently helping some carehomes cover some of those costs during covid, but they can hardly all be doing that everywhere (I’ve been checking through council ICF plans to try and understand who is doing what and with what). Then, there’s that ever-present carehome terror of setting dangerous precedents by paying careworkers decent sick pay. If careworkers get to experience decent sick pay once, they might get cocky and ask for it again. They might even demand that all staff receive their full wages when sick, all of the time. Continue reading
I’m back. I’ve finished my book on austerity – more on getting a copy at the end of this article.
This article is about careworkers. Careworkers’ dreadful pay and working conditions won fleeting attention earlier this year when the coronavirus started wiping out carehome staff and residents, but alas – big media has moved onto new thrills. That can’t be the end of the story, though. Things have to change. Careworkers and carehome residents have been treated like garbage for years:
There is a problem with writing about attacks on careworker wages and working conditions over the past decades or so: I have too many examples to choose from.
Every carehome worker I met in the last decade was on a picket line in that first instance, fighting to protect already-meagre careworker wages from attacks and cutbacks. For as long as I’ve been writing, careworker wages and conditions have been targeted by a particularly witless brand of neoliberal: local councillors (of all political stripes), MPs (ditto) and the boards/trustees of private and third sector care companies who’ve been united by two of our era’s more perverted beliefs: 1) that care can be provided on the cheap and 2) if you achieve this cheapness by slashing careworker wages and standards, care can turn a profit.
Spawned in this manure, the stories are always, always the same. It all starts when care services, in one form or another, are outsourced from councils, or the NHS, to private or third sector companies. In the following months and years, managers of these companies cut careworker wages and sick-and-annual leave allowances, and direct that money elsewhere. Careworker contracts that were based on public sector wages and conditions – wages and conditions that private care companies swear they will protect – are, needless to say, quickly trashed. New carework starters begin on much-reduced wages and leave provisions – the bar set so low that it more or less disappears.
This model is so standard that you can cut and paste examples straight into it. Take the Fremantle careworkers in Barnet – a group of carerworkers who I first met on a picket line in 2007 and at plenty of strikes in the years after that. These long-time Barnet carehome workers (most were women) went home one day to find a letter from the Fremantle Trust, the company to which Barnet council had outsourced carehomes and the careworkers’ jobs.
That letter did not bring good news. The Trust told the the careworkers that their pay would be frozen and their all-important weekend enhancement pay rates removed. Many of the careworkers relied on that after-hours enhancement pay to meet their bills and mortgages. They hardly earned a fortune even with that money. Losing it was a catastrophe. The sums were simple enough – careworkers’ jobs no longer paid the bills:
“Some people are down three or four hundred (pounds) a month,” Fremantle careworker Carmel Reynolds told me at that time. Reynolds been in the job for 23 years at that point. “People organise their families around [that money].”
There was more, of course. There always is. The Fremantle Trust told the careworkers that it would also cut their annual leave allowances and slash their sick leave to the statutory minimum – the very same first-3-days-without-pay statutory sick leave “package” that many are convinced helped to fuel covid-19’s blaze through carehomes in 2020. Careworkers can’t afford to take 3 days’ sick leave unpaid, so they go to work when they’re ill. Fremantle careworkers were pointing that out even in 2007.
True to pompous form, Fremantle management told the shocked careworkers that they could either sign the new contract, or leave. Then, management rubbed the careworkers’ noses in it a little harder – managers told careworkers that if they were really worried about money, they could try and make their stolen wages back by working extra shifts. More work for less money – Fremantle Trust management seemed to reason that careworkers would be grateful for such a gig. No matter that many of the careworkers had children at home and would suddenly have childcare costs that they couldn’t cover. No matter either that the destruction of careworker wages and working conditions was grossly unfair:
“I said [to Fremantle managers] – how do you expect us to be able to cope…?” careworker Lango Gamanga told me. “They [Fremantle managers] said we could do more hours to make up the money… but what about the quality of our life – our daily life?”
Of course – careworkers’ quality of life is rarely a concern in these scenarios. Concern about workers’ quality of life was certainly nowhere to be seen in another battle I’ve picked from my list: the 2014 Care UK support workers dispute in Doncaster. That was the year that Doncaster Care UK workers took weeks-long strike action in protest at – you guessed it – wage cuts in the form of the removal of enhanced weekend and night rates, new-starter pay cut to £7 an hour and – again – cuts to sick leave.
As ever, this shambles started with privatisation. The Doncaster workers – they worked with people with learning difficulties – had their jobs transferred from the NHS to Care UK when the service was outsourced to Care UK. It didn’t take Care UK long to target their new employees. Implying that the careworkers had been spoiled by their NHS wages and working conditions – “annual holiday… for some people is close to 7 weeks on top of public holidays,” groused Care UK learning disability service boss Chris Hindle with the faux outrage that these people specialise in – Care UK proposed wage cuts that saw the Doncaster workers facing losses of £300 and £400 a month – just like the Fremantle workers
At one strike action, careworker Mags Dalton told me the wage cuts were so severe that she’d have to leave her flat and her job, and move back in with her parents in Newcastle while she found another job and saved up for the deposit on another flat. The Care UK cuts meant that she’d lose about £400 a month. Her rent was £465 a month. She couldn’t afford to keep paying:
“I made a life for myself in Doncaster with friends that I love and a job that I love. I only signed up for the house a year ago. I moved in on the 26th of June last year and the 25th of June this year, I moved out. How did that happen?”
It happened for the same reason that it always happens: when services are outsourced, money is re-routed from frontline staff. At Doncaster, Care UK executives tried to argue the usual toss – that cuts to workers’ wages were necessary if the rest of the business was to stay afloat financially. Curiously, senior staff and executive incomes appeared to be exempt from this do-or-die belt-tightening. Bridgepoint Capital, the private equity firm that owned Care UK, had managed to find around £14m for bonuses to senior staff while careworkers were facing pay cuts of £400 a month. Care UK was also reportedly expecting to make a profit of around 6% for the Doncaster contract. Careworker wages were obviously key to this windfall.
They say that you should keep to your routines in lockdown, so I’ve been getting at Newham council about standards in temporary housing for homeless people – and going nowhere much.
Habit aside, there has been a point to this often-pointless exercise: to ask what the council was doing to protect homeless families from coronavirus in crowded temporary housing such as the Brimstone House homelessness hostel in Stratford.
I recently wrote about Marsha D, a 30-year-old homeless woman who lives with her 6-year-old daughter in a single room in that hostel. The two share that small space and one bed in it – a living arrangement that is replicated across the hostel and across emergency and temporary housing everywhere. They have their own tiny bathroom and kitchen. It’d be hard to isolate in those. Theirs is the sort of cheek-by-jowl setup that would have any contagion licking its lips. Even in so-called normal times, people feel entombed in such places. When there’s a plague on and a stay-at-home lockdown in place, people in these hostels talk about being buried alive.
You should hardly pin hopes on a virus, but I have wondered if this one might spark new sympathy (or even some sympathy) for people who must live in these hellholes.
If covid doesn’t do it, god knows what will. For a very long time now, the problem has been to convince the wider world to give a damn about homelessness, or, even, to convince the wider world to give enough of a damn to change things – to really change things, that is. For all that homelessness is seen as a plague in its own right, it still feels like one that the world is happy to live alongside – certainly one that Tory-voting members of the world are happy to live alongside and even enjoy. You don’t have to be too plugged in to know that this is because that for generations now, many voters have felt that homelessness and poverty are beneath sympathy: the individual’s fault. End of.
Government knows that all too well. There can be no doubt that Boris Johnson and his cabinet of sociopaths have felt tremendously comfortable about losing interest in homeless people who must live sardined into tiny spaces as a killer virus rampages through cramped populations. A whole month has passed since government said it would publish new covid guidance for providers of homelessness hostels and day centres, so I think I’ll stop looking for it. They’ve either hidden it really well, or not bothered to write it.
As for government funding for councils during the outbreak crisis – do me a favour. The bits of money and advance payments that government has chucked at councils to sort out a morass of covid-era housing, homelessness and council tax problems barely amount to a fistful of change when you remember the billions that Tory-led governments have removed from councils in austerity (pdf) – a carnage of cost-cutting, mass redundancies (often of experienced staff) and anti-social-security policies which caused the homelessness problems for people in Marsha’s situation in the first place. As everyone on the scene knows, housing and support needs caused by welfare reform have skyrocketed as funding to meet those needs has disappeared.
The most you can say about this government’s last-minute covid-inspired overtures to councils is that they’re less shit than government’s most recent foul insult to covid-era careworkers – the one where Matt Hancock actually tried to sell the idea that the careworkers who government have left working for poverty wages in a swamp of covid and corpses, and with no PPE, would enjoy the day more with a badge. It was hard to imagine how government could top that for repulsive empty gestures, but there have been attempts. One must be last week’s thanks-for-housing-the-1000s-of-rough-sleepers-that-government-created letter to council homelessness managers from Dame Louise Casey, the government’s homelessness “spearhead” (whatever the f that is). What an absolute pile. I can only imagine how thrilled council staff were to see that in their inboxes. Oddly, Casey’s letter didn’t mention the billions wiped from council budgets since 2010, or the experienced staff lost in that blitz, or the LHA caps, benefit caps, out-of-control market rents and Universal Credit delays that have pushed people out of their homes and into the gutter and the hostels where many still sit, waiting for covid. If lockdown lifts, let’s see Casey deliver those letters to frontline staff in person.
As for Newham and councils in general: I could get very sick of the charades on that front, too. I can tell you how those charades go, though, so let’s do that.
The whole moribund process usually starts with me interviewing a homeless family who have been living in a one-room hostel, or some temporary-housing hellhole for month, or a year, or 2, or 3 years, or whatever it is. Next, I’ll email Newham mayor Rokhsana Fiaz and Newham housing lead John Gray and ask what the council plans to do for that homeless family and how much longer the family should expect to languish in temporary housing squalor, etc. Next, there usually comes a lagtime, which Gray and I sometimes use to bitch at each other over email, or, on a couple of memorable pre-lockdown occasions, in person. At some point in this farce, I’ll usually throw in a question about the empty flats on Newham’s Carpenters estate. Carpenters estate residents were kicked out of their homes years ago to make room for a planned University College London campus which never materialised due to a host of planning and financial screwups. The fallout from that shambles goes on. Flats on the estate continue empty while people in Marsha’s situation grind on in Brimstone House. Continue reading
For thrills, I’ve been reading violent arguments for and against ongoing lockdown. I should give social media a swerve on these things, but in lockdown’s longer hours, there is something to be said for focusing on a lockdown thread and trying to decide which side is more revolting.
I’m thinking dead heat at the moment. You have on the one side the righteous types who feel that anyone who breaks lockdown should be tasered out as a human canker and on the other, the (often younger) people who believe that a) their economic chances should trump any flu for geriatrics and b) that covid’s cull of the Boomer and Gen X demographics is one of its selling points (climate and pangolin rescue being the others. I am 51, so am more on board with the last two).
There is a disturbing aspect to this reading though. It’s the fact that so many people seem to think that the Time Before Covid was different – that this furious debate about a stark choice between a strong economy and abandoning thousands of inconvenient people to a grim death is, somehow, new.
You see the word “normal” bandied around a lot, and with a wistful note – as in it could be 6 months before we return to normal, or when will things return to normal? I can only assume that by “normal,” people – or whoever thinks or writes this stuff – mean a time when they didn’t know, or didn’t have to know, that there was already a body count on the economy vs altruism front (altruism having been outgunned for longer than I care to recall). To those who know the austerity scene, there’s nothing new on offer in these covid debates. The economy vs lockdown-to-save-lives dispute is just the latest chapter in a bloody years-old battle between those who champion a nation’s economic fortitude (read “the one percent’s right to rampant personal wealth creation”) at any cost and those who are horrified by that cost. The cost has generally been the deaths of thousands of sick, disabled and/or poor people who were and are cut loose from benefits, care and housing, because those people are considered a financial drag.
Sick or disabled people and anyone with an underlying health condition (I count poverty as such a condition) have been sacrificed for years for the purported economic good (see earlier note about the one percent and wealth creation). The coronavirus has simply brought a hot-news angle to situations where you hardly hoped there’d be one. For example: careworkers have been working for next-to-nothing in godawful conditions for years (weekend pay removed, no pay for travel time, sick leave slashed to the statutory minimum where the first 3 days off sick are unpaid, etc). I’ve written about this many times myself over the years and can confirm that absolutely nobody cared. However – things have improved for careworkers – on the visibility front, at least. The working conditions of careworkers are suddenly centre stage, because covid-19 is killing them and wiping out their clientele. Talk about scoring in extra time. Who says that fortunes can’t change? I don’t suppose that many of us imagined the day when reporters would stake out resthomes for retweets and the latest action, but here we are and there you go.
One more point before I return to the forums: whatever happens next, it’ll be people without economic power who’ll pay. We’ve learned this one over the years as well. Lift the lockdown and people who are at increased risk from covid will die. Plenty of people who don’t have the coronavirus will die as well, because the NHS and care systems will be stretched too thin to meet other needs. If lockdowns go on, though, it’ll be people who need to work to feed their families who will sink. Low paid people who have no savings will probably be knocked out altogether.
The real problem is that millions of people were living on the edge before the coronavirus turned up to push them over it. Sick, disabled and elderly people were dying. Millions of low-paid people couldn’t feed themselves and meet the rent. Lifting lockdowns, or keeping lockdowns doesn’t really take us anywhere new. There has to be a structure that gives everyone a chance. The pre-lockdown structure isn’t it.
I’ve been searching for updated government guidance on hostel and day centre provision during the coronavirus and can’t find it anywhere. On 25 March, Gov.uk said it would be updated soon. I’m not sure what date the government had in mind for Soon, but I’m thinking that we have yet to arrive at it.
Am also looking for any government guidance for councils and/or others who are housing homeless families in cramped (often single room) hostels and emergency or temporary housing – housing in which people can’t isolate from other family members, because they only have one room to live in. I don’t necessarily mean shared accommodation, although that’s relevant. I mean temporary or emergency accommodation where people have their own kitchen and bathroom, such as they are, but only have a single room to live in. Hostel accommodation is often as cramped as that – several people living in one room. Family members who need to isolate have nowhere to go in those places..
If you’ve seen updated guidance for people in these scenarios – or any guidance at all – along the above lines, you’re welcome to leave a comment, or to contact me here if that is better. I’m hoping that I’ve just missed those things and that they are not actually missing.
I have to point this out:
Last week, the DWP issued a press release for Universal Credit claimants that made me wonder if I was dreaming, still high, or even dead.
Instead of the usual vile, threatening and judgmental dross, this statement went somewhere new. The tone of the release was vaguely respectful and the content – this lightning surely won’t strike twice – a shade better than useless. Talk about novelty value. Who thought we’d see the day?
In this release, it appeared that the DWP was attempting to reassure Universal Credit’s million-plus new covid-era claimants that the department was working to make its famously useless and nine-tenths moribund Universal Credit claims process easier to use. People would no longer have to phone-queue for hours on the ironically-named Helpline to speak to a Universal Credit adviser. The DWP even said that it was putting on more staff to help people get their claims going and their benefit money paid. I’d put my last fiver on this proving to be the usual bollocks in reality – but who knew the department even had the words? The DWP actually used the phrase “you can rest assured” in this dispatch. There was no way that head honcho minister/front-of-house sociopath Therese Coffey had previous acquaintance with these words. She must have had help finding them.
It was the tone of this statement that really got me. I’ve been attending jobcentre meetings and benefit assessments with people in need for nigh on 10 years. I can confirm that before last week, “Fuck Off, Scrounger” was the DWP’s one and only message for sick, disabled or unemployed people. You do get slight variations on that theme, such as Computer Says No (a Universal Credit greatest hit), or We’ve Lost Your Sick Note/Don’t Believe You Had One, or We Didn’t Get Your Message About Your Hospital Appointment, So We’re Sanctioning You For A Month, or (my personal favourite) Tough Shit – There’s The Foodbank.
It’s been quite a decade, really. Such a time we’ve had. I’ve seen jobcentres close benefit claims for people with learning difficulties because they missed a couple of meetings when they were seriously ill (here’s a video from that event if you can stand it). I watched government close the all-important Independent Living Fund that disabled people who required 24-7 care relied on to live. I sat with people in jobcentres as advisers searched for – and found, as they do – weird excuses not to pay out Universal Credit housing costs and to leave people without rent. How I could go on. I really could go on, and on. I’ve seen little else for years.
Like many (ie everyone) in the field, I could hardly imagine the seismic event that might put the brakes on the DWP’s contempt for its clientele. It seemed pointless to set time aside to try. Still – get this. We’ve arrived. All we needed to force the DWP to realise that it was feeding real people through the grinder was a planet-wide killer virus and thousands of people – probably millions – dead, or thrown out of work. I own to some surprise that even these disasters have given the DWP pause and I wouldn’t bank on that pause lasting, but we take what we can where it falls.
Nobody would deny people who’ve just lost their jobs either money or half-decent treatment by public sector bureaucracies. A member of my own family is now out of work. I’m just trying to say that a lot of us have already seen people die, or crash into poverty while being driven mad by a torturous and unnavigable benefits system. That all went down because of the DWP, not the coronavirus. I wonder if the DWP is working up a press release for them.
Let me take you inside a homelessness hostel so that you can see how exposed homeless people are to any virus:
In recent days, I’ve talked at length with Marsha, a homeless 30-year-old Newham woman who lives with her 6-year-old daughter in a Newham homelessness hostel called Brimstone House. I’ve written about Marsha’s living conditions and housing problems many times in the last year.
Marsha’s housing situation was a disaster long before coronavirus came into the picture. In the hostel, Marsha and her daughter live in one small room together. There’s no bedroom. There’s just one room. All their belongings are piled up in that one room. They share a bed. They can’t open their main window without a key, which they must request. The two have lived in this tiny space for nearly 3 years.
Needless to say, isolation is not a starter in this type of arrangement. People actually laugh when you mention it. However – spreading bacteria and viruses IS a starter, to say the very least. Marsha says that last week, her little girl – who has asthma – had a cold. There was no escaping that for Marsha (who also has asthma) – not least because she and her daughter sleep in one bed together on the same mattress:
“You know how kids are – they cough and they don’t put their hands over their mouth…a few times she coughed and I was like, “oh my god.” I just kind of got used to it… there’s no way of escaping it.”
Great, isn’t it? Doubtless there are Tories around who think that Marsha should just learn to hold her breath. My personal view is that high-ranking party members should trade places with Marsha. Boris Johnson should be forced to see out his coronavirus isolation in one of these rooms with Matt Hancock and a few other colleagues who haven’t got covid-19 yet – Thérèse Coffey comes to mind, as does Iain Duncan Smith, who should be made to stay for the entire length of a 6 month lockdown. It is high time that these people went shoulder to shoulder with reality. These hostel rooms drive people out of their minds, even without a killer virus in the mix. With a killer virus in the mix, everyone goes down.
The truth is that there’s no way to escape ANYONE in places like Brimstone House. Several hundred people can live in this building in the cramped rooms (the figures quoted are usually around 210 “units” (flats) with 2 or more people in each tiny flat). Germs don’t have to work to get around. Literally the only way to isolate is to stick your head in a bag. If one building occupant gets so much as a sniffle, everyone gets it – even in so-called good times.