Last month saw the launch of the Commission on Social Security (CSS).
There are various much-needed reviews and consultations going on at the moment – including that being done by the Labour Party – asking people what they think a radical alternative to the current social security system should look like.
The key distinguishing feature of the CSS however is that it is claimant-led: all the commissioners (numbering around 20) have current or recent experience as claimants within the social security system.
This is reflected in the underlying principles the Commission has developed, and the resulting questions they are asking people to respond to.
For example, one of the key principles is to “make sure everyone has enough money to live – and support extra costs, e.g. to do with disability and children.”
Another states that the system should be “involving people who have actual experience of the issues, including from all impairment groups, in creating and running the system as a whole.”
Stemming from the principles, the Commission asks questions around core issues such as “What should be done about benefit sanctions?” and “how should the system work out who should get sickness or disability benefits?”
There are disturbing echoes here of the first major attempt in Britain to give unemployed workers an organised voice.
The second conference of the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM) in November 1921 in Manchester set out some key aims including
• Full maintenance of the unemployed at trade-union rates
• The abolition of “test” or “task” work for those in receipt of relief through unemployment
• The free unconditional provision of halls to enable the unemployed to meet
• Representation of the unemployed organisation on all employment exchange committees
Closest possible links between the NUWM, the trades unions and the Labour Party, were encouraged, for example to ensure the unemployed were not used as a “reserve army of labour” to drive down wages.
We say “disturbing echoes” since, nearly a century later, many of the NUWM issues raised seem similar and as radical as those included in the Commission’s review (or Call for Solutions as we have called it). This suggests that the status and plight of unemployed, sick and disabled workers has improved little or not at all during that time.
It almost goes without saying – but still needs to be said – that actual rates of benefits for claimants remain woefully inadequate to meet their needs. Regarding the issue of “tests” or conditionality for claimants to get what they need, this has clearly got worse in recent years.
Sanctions rates, at a huge peak a few years ago, were driven down partly thanks to campaigning groups such as Unite Community, Disabled People Against Cuts and our own project London Unemployed Strategies (LUS). But they have started to rise again in areas where Universal Credit has been rolled out. Meantime the dreaded Work Capability Assessments have served to make life a living hell for many sick and disabled claimants who previously would have had more sympathetic responses from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to their situations.
As for unemployed representation at Jobcentre Plus level upwards (the modern equivalent of the “employment exchange committees” referred to by the NUWM), this sticks out all the more as a pipe dream. While the NHS constitution provides some legal obligation for it to consult patients over service development and delivery, the DWP has no such obligation to consult claimants directly – just a vague remit to consult their “representatives” which are defined by the DWP not as claimants themselves but as professional agencies such as Citizens Advice, Law Centres and so on. The idea that claimants can and should represent themselves, and have their views fully taken into account by the DWP has been a strong and ongoing campaign of LUS, which has been built into the Commission’s principles.
We do not have time here to go in depth into the role that trade unions can or should play in organising the unemployed. Clearly the NUWM of the 1920s was of the view that they should be organised independently but with strong links to organised labour.
This principle was then reflected in the surge of TUC unemployed workers centres in the 1980s, which did provide albeit briefly the physical space for the unemployed to meet and organise – one of the NUWM demands, which has again become a barrier today, given the price of renting rooms even within community centres.
More recently Unite has made great strides in recruiting unemployed workers directly into its Community section – a move which has not as yet been reflected in the policies of other large trade unions. Whatever one’s point of view, champions of the claimants’ cause welcome any initiative that can help them to organise and get representation, which should advance to self-representation and peer group support.
LUS has been instrumental in developing Stand Up For Your Rights Groups around London to this end, similar to the Claimants Unions which sprang up alongside the TUC centres in the ’80s. LUS supports the groups in getting their concerns and complaints expressed directly to the DWP at local and national level.
LUS therefore welcomes the initiative of the Commission on Social Security and is one of its co-chairs (alongside Ellen Clifford of Disabled People Against Cuts and Inclusion London). We invite all claimants and their supporters to visit the website http://www.commissiononsocialsecurity.com and click on the link near the top of the first page to fill out the online Call for Solutions form. The deadline for submissions is July 31.
If you want more information and/or you are interested in setting up your own Stand Up For Your Rights group then contact LUS on email@example.com/ (020) 7467-1283/07530 001653. Support offered is mainly London-based due to the nature of our funding (principally from Trust for London and the TUC London East and South-East region), though Unite Community should be able to provide support in other regions.
Nick Phillips is coordinator, London Unemployed Strategies and co-chair, Commission on Social Security.