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No benefit from reform

REFORM.

Such a nice sounding word, isn't it? Defined as to make something better by removing or abandoning imperfections, faults or errors. So let's just stick the word welfare in front of it and see what a perfect, faultless, error-free world the Coalition has created, shall we?

Let's look at the wondrous revolution posed by sub-contracting to private sector companies the task of getting the long-term unemployed back into the jobs market - saving themselves, intone ministers, from a hopeless life of dependency.

And, indeed, few would quibble with the proposition that gainful employment is greatly to be preferred to inter-generational workless existences – dependent on benefit levels which wouldn't pick up the tab for a couple of bottles for the Chancellor's cellar.

Just a pity that one of the principal private contractors involved, A4e, is now the subject of a number of fraud investigations involving five arrests and alleged systematic fiddling of the numbers of "sustainable jobs" actually created, on which their £180 million per annum turnover from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) is calculated.

What has certainly been sustainable is the high-flying lifestyle of company founder and erstwhile Government "family champion" Emma Harrison, one of only five shareholders who awarded themselves £11m worth of dividends. Ms Harrison managed to fall heir to 87% of this nice little nest egg, a companion bonus to the money the Harrisons made from renting out properties they owned, allegedly including their stately pad, to their company. Enterprising or what?

And isn't it sad, too, that some austerity czar at the DWP has decreed that the number of people trained to detect fraud among private contractors should have been cut from 69 to 49 since the election. Such parsimony has not, however, extended to the business of detecting benefit fraud, a team now numbering just under 3000. The private companies also enjoy happy exemption from being scrutinised by Ofsted.

These companies often hoover up the contracts before sub-contracting to providers who finds themselves doing the lion's share of the work for scant reward. Already 85 charities have pulled out of the Government's Work Programme, having concluded that their expertise in the field was being woefully undervalued and that the game was just not worth the financial candle.

There is a basic flaw in the contention that people can easily be moved on to the Work Programme at a juncture when jobs in some areas are vying with hen's teeth for invisibility. In a buyers' market, employment really is the survival of the fittest, yet an astonishing 68% of people previously on Incapacity Benefit have been assessed as fit for work.

A recent Citizens Advice (CA) report on the new Employment Support Allowance found that among those who passed the cursory testing were clients variously suffering from cancer, recent heart attacks and strokes, and a range of mental illnesses. One assessment in Scotland cheerfully noted the claimant's ability to move his toes up and down on a foot which had none.

Little wonder that four in 10 of these assessments are subject to successful appeal, itself a very costly affair. When CA Scotland can provide a representative that goes up to 70% of assessments reversed.

A just published report by the Single Parent Action Network, funded by Oxfam, details the horrors of trying to shoehorn the UK's 1.9m single parents and their 3m kids into a one-size-fits-all Work Programme which took no account of gender – nine out of 10 are female – and scant notice of school holidays or myriad family commitments.

As with other groups, single parents in the survey reported being asked to go for an interview in the early evening, or made to apply for a host of clearly unsuitable vacancies, often with no prospect of training. At which unhelpful juncture Jobcentre Plus is also losing its specialist lone parent advisers.

Not that the once trumpeted ideal of family values seems to feature much at all in these reforms. As of this spring, a single parent will be expected to look actively for work as soon as their youngest turns five, or lose benefits.

Meanwhile, as of next week, poor families dependent on Working Families' Tax Credit are due to lose thousands of pounds unless they can work a minimum of 24 hours a week. This at a time when many full-time employees have been arbitrarily made part-time, offering scant possibilities for part-timers to up their hours. Ironically, it would pay not to be married or for couples to split up under this latest money-saving wheeze.

Little wonder that the Child Poverty Action Group is citing the tax credit cuts as a disaster. Their chief executive has characterised the welfare cuts as policies designed to make the poor poorer, in somewhat stark contrast to a Budget which ensured the very rich got that bit richer.

The notion that other measures will bring in five times as much tax as they cut for the high rollers is a wondrous fantasy in a corporate world where tax evasion and avoidance would put a Greek shopkeeper to shame.

The true injustice of this wholesale welfare reform can be gauged from the fact that the Government proclaimed how much money it would claw back from recipients before a single assessment of a single client had taken place. Now they boast of upping their proposed £20 billion savings by another 50%.

They will, too. Consider this. If you are declared fit for work you might be transferred from Incapacity Benefit to Jobseeker's Allowance. This is a short-term benefit and a contributory one. If you haven't worked for a while you aren't eligible. If you're still signed off by your doctor you aren't eligible. And if you aren't eligible you don't get support and you fall out of the unemployment statistics.

Genius. At a stroke you save billions and "cut" unemployment. And if families lose homes and children go hungry, well, you know, we're all in this together -

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