Tory Poster Campaign “Lets Cut Benefits”

I posted the below on the Guardian site following the report of one of the latest Tory Election Posters on cutting benefite for those who refuse to work. My experience from last year rather proves that the problem is more complex then people seem to think In the context of a place like North Staffordshire a range of long term, secure well paid jobs do not exist. For many remaining on benefits and there are now about 24% of the population is the safest option. In my experiences the real problems occur when you try to break out of your predicament

“I worked for a private training company based on Merseyside between 2006-7. I can confirm some of the comments made about A4E. A number of computers at the centre did not work although saying that there were a number of the young people who were unrealistic and lacked drive. The older ones were better motivated.

I should add that I heard Blunkett on Radio 4 a few months ago lambasting people who lie in bed when others are out working early. Blunkett receives a paid directorship from A4E. S its in his interest to point out this problem.

I was out of work myself from March to November last year. I found the Job Centre I attended in Stoke chaotic. Many of the people attending were people who had worked for years and were unused to how to go about the system. Staff at the Job Centre were very variable and many simply ignorant of procedures- I do some voluntary work for the CAB. In one example I was speaking to one claimant who was told to go to a job interview for a warehouse job. He turned up- the interview required a 30 mile round trip- to discover that the warehouse on a new site had not even been built.

I took an exam invigilator job for 4 weeks in may/June to discover that my JSA was stopped instantly even though it took weeks before I was paid by Staffordshire. Sometimes being honest with the system can be counter productive. It took 11 phone calls over 4 days before they they re-instated contributionary JSA.

Now it is true that there are people who don’t sem to want to work. In my experience they are in a minority. Life on JSA is not an easy one on £64 a week, how could it be! But people make choices and the marginal tax rates from moving into work are extremely high especially when council tax and housing benefit is concerned and the local Council is rather wolfish in chasing you when you get into Council Tax arrears as my experience in the CAB again proves.

In November I took a job on the tills at the local supermarket. Its part time 14.25 hours a week. I am 55 and finding a job has been very hard. I made about 80 applications before getting this. Many of the jobs that are advertised are temporary or part time and I guess the difference between this recession and the last two in the 80s and the 90s was that in this area of North Staffs there were jobs that still existed in textilles or the potteries, not anymore. I checked out where the nearest pottery worker job and it was in Rugby about 80 miles away.

I am hoping that my self employment options also work out I do a history/ghost walk in Leek where I live- shriek in leek – as well as family history/ local resarch to go alongside the supermarket work.

I am a graduate and I have post graduate qualifications.

To recap, Its not easy in my experience in getting back to work and I think that the majority of people approach the crisis of being unemployed in the hope that their predicament is a temporary one and work hard in changing the situation. However the Job centre in Hanley I went to cannot cope with the numbers and lack the know all to help too many are inexperienced staff. There are people who work the system, but I guess they make economic decisions especially when the tapering effect of benefit withdrawl is taken into account- not everyone can access WTC. On the dole at least you know that you get the benefit on a certain date and time and you can budget accordingly.

And finally vacancies which have dried up from the numbers of 18 months ago. The local paper- as an indicator- used to boast that they advertised 700 jobs a week now that number in North Staffs is probably down to 150 and a number of them are voluntary.

The solution well I favour the Basic Income approach perhaps if you scrap the present system to provide a liveable income and perhaps people such as my exam invigilator experience would be willing to try short term pieces of work”

The North South divide could get worse

There was an interesting article in the Observer yesterday on the north south divide in the economy. In effect the piece by Ruth Sunderland was a damming indictment of the industrial policy of successive governments since Thatcher and the loss of jobs in the manufacturing sector.

In the same edition of the paper there was a major feature on Middlesborough and the likely impact on the end steel making on the town. But as Middlesborough the same applies to many communities in the country, Stoke included, which have been reliant on a couple of industries.

Some years ago I wrote sketches of Stoke during the decades from the 50s onwards. The decline in the industrial base is a well-known story but it is useful to give the account some statistical shape.

It was an area dominated by a few industries at the start of the 50s. Chief amongst them was the Pottery Industry, which employed over 70,000 people, approximately half the workforce. It was followed by mining which employed 20,000 people in the North Staffordshire Coalfield and then the iron and steel industry with 3,000 workers. However, these industries even before the war were in decline and the unique small scale industrial landscape of the area mentioned by the writer JB Priestley in 1936 in his book “English Journey” were already archaic. Companies such as the Michelin Tyre Company had been established by the 1920s offering higher rates of pay than the predominate industry of ceramics.

By the 90s the pottery industry was down to 20,000 jobs and steel making and the mining industries were finished in the area.

In short in a period of 50 years something like 100,000 jobs have been lost to the area.

Sunderland found that research from Manchester University indicated that despite a decade of growth in the economy the private sector had not generated the jobs to fill the gap from the loss of jobs in the traditional industries.

Instead jobs in the public sector and supported by the state accounted for over half the jobs created nationally with a higher proportion in the old industrial areas. Any glance of the Sentinel over the last decade will prove this assertion.

The article calculates that 1.3 million jobs have been lost in the manufacturing sector between 1990-2007. And the argument that the private sector would fill the gap with new high value jobs would fill the gap has not proved to be the case. The trickle down argument has proved to be false.

Ruth Sunderland points out that manufacturing jobs are crucial not only in terms of the money generated in exports but also because the local economy creates more jobs through the support given by other local industries through supply chains.

The expansion of the finance industry has not really had much of an impact on the north or the midlands. She cites the example of the north east where jobs in the financial sector only account for 2% of all jobs compared with 30% in the south east and those jobs generally exist in the low pay call centres jobs. In short the high value jobs are not being created.

The reliance on finance has plunged the country back to Victorian levels of wealth inequality where money is concentrated in the south east. The worst impact of this has been hidden by the slack taken up by the growth of jobs locally in health, education and social care. And of course it will be these jobs that are most under threat if spending cuts bite.

The article points out that many of the industrial areas such as Middlesborough, and the same applies to North Staffs, have never recovered from the recessions of the 1980s and 90s. In this area over 24% of the population are reliant on some form of benefit. There are areas of the country Middlesborough and Stoke included where a high proportion of the population is claiming incapacity benefit.

“What is needed on Teesside and elsewhere is an acknowledgement of the situation and a manufacturing strategy. The former industrial regions need support as they move from the old industries to the new green ones. Otherwise, the risk is that skilled workers will be lost, and whole areas consigned to the scrap heap.

Both the Conservatives and Labour are planning major public expenditure cuts, which will have a negative impact on employment. This will fall disproportionately on the already beleaguered regions. The moral is we should not simply see the debate about the inevitable cutting ““ to finance the bank bailouts ““ from the consumerist perspective of whether we will have the same services in health or education, or even what will happen to our personal tax rates. They should also be seen in a regional context, in that they could kick away the last props from areas like the north-east.

Teesside is making brave attempts to fight back, but what has become apparent now is the Thatcherite razing of industry was pain with no gain, and that tragically, Labour did not do enough to repair the damage”

However the point that she makes about the green sector is an important one and it is an argument that I will return to later.

Benefit cheats repaying almost half a million pounds

By Mike Rawlins

Figures released this week by Stoke-on-Trent City Council show that as a result of a number of successful investigations by the Benefit Investigation Team in the last financial year, almost half a million pounds in fraudulently claimed benefits is now being recovered.

Investigations have led to a total of 135 sanctions, including 40 prosecutions  being imposed against benefit fraudsters and £472,356.00 in overpaid benefits currently being repaid to the Council. Over the last 3 years fraudsters have now had to repay over one and a quarter million pounds. These figures show the continued commitment from the council to crackdown on this crime and in finding and punishing people who abuse the benefits system.

The Council’s Benefit Investigation Team work closely with the Department for Work & Pensions Fraud Investigation Service and other organisations, in their fight to combat Benefit Fraud and bring the cheats to justice.

Typical Benefit Frauds include those people who are in receipt of Housing Benefit and/or Council Tax Benefit but not declaring work, have working partners in the household when they claim to live alone and not declaring assets such as property, savings or pensions.

The investigators use the latest hi-tech methods to track down the cheats and those found guilty of Benefit Fraud face a number of possible Sanctions including a Formal Caution, a fine or prosecution, which could lead to a prison term.

Councillor Kieran Clarke cabinet member for resources said: “Although the vast majority of benefit recipients are genuine, the Council has a duty to ensure that the small minority who defraud the benefit system are investigated and dealt with according to the law. The current financial climate means that some people may see Benefit Fraud as a tempting proposition but these figures show that this isn’t the case and anyone committing these offences must realise that they may find themselves up before the courts or subject to other sanctions as well as having to repay any money obtained fraudulently. These results send out a clear message and I can assure everyone that we will continue to conduct thorough, robust investigations to eradicate the benefit cheats from Stoke-on-Trent”.

Anyone wishing to report a Benefit fraud can call the Council Fraud Hotline number on 01782 236800. An out of hours answering service is in operation and anyone giving information can remain anonymous.

Benefit Cheats Caught and Charged

by Mike Rawlins

Two benefits cheats have been ordered to repay a combined £15,000 in dishonestly claimed benefits.

Stephen Lowe, from Burslem, was given a suspended prison sentence for dishonestly claiming £11,986 in council tax and housing benefits, and Amanda Lovatt, from Longton, was given a community order for dishonestly claiming £3,365 in council tax and housing benefits. Lowe and Lovatt were both separately sentenced by magistrates sitting in Newcastle-under-Lyme on Friday (13 March).

Keiran Clarke

Kieran Clarke

Stoke-on-Trent City Council portfolio holder for resources Councillor Kieran Clarke (pictured) said: “We have a team of officers dedicated to investigating benefits fraud. We have powers to carry out thorough investigations and had compiled files of evidence against both Lowe and Lovatt.

“Benefits cheats are not simply cheating the system, they are cheating the vast majority of residents who are law abiding taxpayers. We are committed to
prosecuting offenders who break the law, and to recouping taxpayers’ money that has been claimed dishonestly.”

Lowe, 38, claimed benefits between 12 April 2004 and 22 June 2008 despite his wife starting a job at Staffordshire County Council on 5 April 2004, and despite starting a job himself at Kwik Fit on 17 May 2004. He claimed a total of £9,446.20 in housing benefits and £2,540.48 in council tax benefits.

Magistrates sentenced Lowe to a three-month prison term, suspended for 12 months, a 12-month community order, a 12-month supervision order, and £200 prosecution costs. He must pay back all the £11,986 in full.

Lovatt, 42, claimed £2,835.95 in housing benefits and £529.25 in council tax benefits between 17 December 2006 and 11 November 2007, despite her live-in partner being in full-time employment. She also pleaded guilty to a separate charge of dishonestly claiming £4,729.79 in income support during the same period. Those costs will be recovered by the Department for Work and Pensions.
Magistrates sentenced Lovatt to a 12-month community order, a 12-month supervision order, and £300 prosecution costs. She must pay back the full £3,365 housing and council tax benefits to the city council.

Councillor Clarke added: “We take a very dim view of those who deliberately cheat the system. With council tax bills now being delivered for the year ahead, it is vitally important that those residents who can pay take into account the payments they will need to make.

“But we also know that there are residents in the city who genuinely cannot afford to pay. We will do everything we can to help those residents and have teams of officers on hand to give support. I urge anyone who thinks they might legitimately be entitled to benefits to call the council on 01782 234234, and we will be happy to offer assistance.”