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Financial Appeal

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Financial Appeal

Death and the bedroom tax

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Some extended thoughts about Stephanie Bottrill, a woman who committed suicide because of the bedroom tax. She lived with a condition similar to my MS.

DEATH AND THE BEDROOM TAX

From her childhood, Stephanie Bottrill suffered with myaesthenia gravis (MG), a condition which causes chronic weakness in the affected muscles. Characteristically the effects are seen first in the muscles around the eyes, which become droopy, and the face which can become ‘mask-like’. With lifelong treatment it becomes a debilitating rather than a fatal condition but people with MG will always have to cope with fatiguability (rather than fatigue); that is, the affected muscles become progressively weaker the more they are used and recover only with rest. It is a rare condition with only about 10,000 people affected in the UK.

Despite her condition Mrs Bottrill successfully brought up two children, Laura, now 23, and Steven, now 27, in her three-bedroom terraced house in the north of Solihull, just inside the loop of the M6 as it makes its way to Fort Dunlop. Steven found work as an HGV driver, plying the M6, left home and fathered a grandson for Mrs Bottrill, to her great delight. Then, early in 2013, Laura left home leaving Mrs Bottrill with a house, she conceded, too large, but a garden she loved. It was apparent that there was going to be a problem.

 

Underoccupation

All councils and housing associations have for many years had policies to deal with underoccupation, typically offering a cash incentive to move to suitable smaller accommodation when this can be found. The policies worked: the incidence of underoccupation by two bedrooms or more for council tenants in 1998-9 was about 15%, as compared to over 40% for homeowners. Mrs Bottrill was indeed offered a £2,000 removal grant by Solihull council but no suitable accommodation. At the time of writing Solihull Home Options, the central letting agency for all council and housing association properties in the area, was advertising just two one-bedroom flats, both in multi-storey blocks, across the entire borough.

Alternatively Mrs Bottrill could have moved into private rented accommodation. She would have to abandon most of her security of tenure, no small matter for a disabled woman of 53 with no resources. Her Local Housing Allowance (LHA - the maximum private rent met by Housing Benefit) in Solihull would have been £114.81pw and in all probability would not have met the cost of available and reasonable property (LHAs are now, since an April 2011 cut to Housing Benefit, set at a level designed to cover only the lowest 30% of rents in private rented accommodation in an area). The rent for her existing home was about £80pw.

Disability benefits

And Mrs Bottrill had no money to spare. None of the reports I have seen give any details of Mrs Bottrill’s income, except to say that she did not get disability benefits. No Disability Living Allowance (DLA). That is not outrageous or unlikely: MG is not a condition which fits easily into the DLA regulations. Mrs Bottrill could walk several hundred yards for instance - she walked that far to her death. She probably could not walk again without prolonged rest but she could walk. She could dress and feed herself, some of the time at least. There are plenty of arguments, in the copious case law surrounding DLA, which could have resulted in an award, probably on appeal. But there is no welfare rights service in Solihull to make those arguments and the CAB is five miles away in the town centre.

DLA is of course being abolished and replaced with PIP - the Personal Independence Payment. PIP codifies and restricts the flexible conditions for DLA in an attempt to save a billion pounds or so and, probably a more important aim, to subject claimants to the discipline, humiliation and anxiety of repeated assessments. Its very name is a lie - the aim is to penalise any degree of independence a disabled person achieves or maintains, by loss of benefit. However the government is proceeding noticeably slowly with the introduction of PIP for (existing claimants will not now be reassessed until after October 2015) following George Osborne’s humiliation at the Paralympics, a lesson worth noting.

But only DLA - which is paid on top of any other benefits and qualifies its successful claimants for other help such as a bus pass - allows disabled people any measure of financial comfort. And Mrs Bottrill was denied that. Instead she was, in all probability, dependent on Employment Support Allowance (ESA).

Administration

ESA was a New Labour project, enthusiastically taken on by the Tories, who have tightened the conditions twice. Administratively it was a spatchcock exercise. ESA was structured, with its contributory and income-related elements, to fit in with existing DWP computer systems dating from the introduction of Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA) in 1988.

In fact no account of the workings of the social security system which is based on the theoretical entitlements it gives will ever reflect the experience of people trying to claim from it unless proper account is taken of the chaos that frequently overcomes it. Never good, things took a real turn for the worse when Labour imposed a 30,000 job-cut target on the DWP. The mechanism for this was the closure of local offices and the creation of Benefit Delivery Centres, large centralised offices for processing all claims, with public access confined to a national call centre operation. Since then there has been no way for a claimant to speak to anyone actually dealing with their claim and no facility for face to face contact at all. Job Centres, where they remain, do not deal with, or assist with, benefit claims. The Tories are taking all this a stage further from April, trying to prevent JSA claimants from even making telephone contact and insisting on online communication only (but no emails).

How Stephanie Bottrill coped with the confusing and inaccurate notification letters, the irregular payments, the delays, the lack of explanation that go with ESA in particular we shall never know. But she can be assumed to have dealt with ATOS.

ATOS

The statutory requirement to receive ESA, beyond the first three months “assessment phase” for which you only require sick notes from your GP, is that you are a person with “limited capability for work” - not ‘incapable of work’ as the tabloid press and their government briefers always put it. In itself, that is reasonable: very few people are so disabled that they are completely incapable, at all times, of anything that might be described as work; many have limited capability.

The problem then is that the scoring system used to assess limited capability for work, under which ‘descriptors’ - short statements of functional limitations with points attached - are applied to each individual to see if their total score reaches 15, assesses nothing of the kind. Take the first of the descriptors: “mobilising unaided by another person with or without a walking stick, manual wheelchair or other aid if such aids can reasonably be used”. To get 15 points you have to show that you:

“Cannot either:

  1. mobilise more than 50 metres on level ground without without stopping to avoid significant discomfort or exhaustion; or
  2. repeatedly mobilise more than 50 metres within a reasonable timescale because of significant discomfort or exhaustion.”

The effect of the use of the word ‘mobilising’ rather than walking is that a person who is paraplegic, or a person without both legs, but otherwise fit, will score zero points. Of course a person who is paraplegic may be perfectly able to do some work but a system that, by deliberate design, prevents them from being treated as having ‘limited capability for work’, when their capacity for work is manifestly more restricted than that of people without a disability, is not doing what it says on the packet.

Entirely similar points apply to, for instance, blind and deaf people who are similarly at risk of not scoring enough, or any, points.

But what about more complex and less obvious conditions? (I know blindness and paraplegia can be complex and have non-obvious effects but we’re talking about ATOS here and they don’t do subtleties.) Conditions like myaesthenia gravis, say. This is where ATOS come into play.

The ESA regulations make formal acknowledgement of the difficulties caused by variable neurological conditions, like the reference to ‘repeatedly’ mobilising in the descriptor quoted above. The regulations are policed however by ATOS, a French computer company who have the right to use an American computer system, LiMA, designed to simplify the medical assessment of disabilities, primarily to resist occupational health claims. ATOS, under contract to the DWP, employ medical professionals, those who want an easy 9-5 job, to assess ESA claimants, using LiMA.

The assessment does not consist of putting the descriptors which have to be satisfied to the claimant and discussing how they might apply in their case. Instead the ATOS assessor asks the claimant to describe a typical day. “Oh, well, I get up and get dressed” - no problem dressing notes the assessor on their laptop, without asking how long this takes - “I go downstairs and have breakfast” - fully mobile inside the house, no problems cooking, eating or drinking notes the assessor without asking what they eat or if there are any problems with this process. And so on, through the pre-scripted questions and answers.

DWP doctors, in elevated mode, call this ‘evidence based medicine’. The proper description is bullying and trickery.

Mrs Bottrill stood no chance at all of being allowed to explain, for instance, that she could perform any action once - but then muscle weakness kicked in and she was obliged to rest. So she will have failed and entered the ill-defined zone of people who fail the ‘work capability assessment’, as the test is known: appealing, reclaiming, permanent members of the assessment phase on £71pw in total benefit, without enhancement.

Bedroom tax

And then the bedroom tax came into effect.

There were other things going on in the background. Mrs Bottrill’s benefits, like most non-pensioner benefits, did not go up much in April 2013. That is because the government had restricted up-rating, first to the Consumer Price Index, then to 1% - actually the biggest savings in the programme of benefit cuts are made like this. She probably wouldn’t have claimed from it anyway but the Social Fund - providing loans and grants for one-off expenses such as removals - was abolished in April 2013. And she was lucky in one respect: her council, Solihull, had decided to maintain previous levels of support when the national Council Tax Benefit scheme was abolished, also in April 2013. Had she lived in the area of my council - Cheshire West and Chester - she would have been billed for the first 25% of her council tax, say an extra £5 per week, on top of the bedroom tax.

It is often a difficult change anyway, when your children leave home. Mrs Bottrill had never let her MG prevent her making a decent life for her children, but they always leave you bereft when they go. Now though it seemed as though no one cared at all, no one recognised the struggle she had been through, least of all the government who were cutting her money and denying her disability benefits. Add a shadow of shame to the emotional mix because of all the newspaper headlines when she went down the local shops - scroungers, workshy, swinging the lead. She knew that wasn’t really the truth about her but the poison seeped in.

Then the letter from the council. £20 per week to pay towards her rent from what was already a subsistence income. She worked it out. She knew exactly how to live cheaply - heating off, lots of jumpers, cheap food. But it still just could not be done. Non-payment would lead to eviction, said the council. So she would have to move - and she started to pack. But she had nowhere at all to go.

So she went somewhere else. The rush and roar of traffic from the M6 had always been part of her life. In her back garden, where the cats were buried, it was somehow part of the peace. So she went there. And stepped into the path of the first truck that sped past.

A PERSONAL NOTE

I decided to write about Stephanie Bottrill because I suffer for another related neurological condition, multiple sclerosis (MS), and because I have spent most of my life working in welfare rights, trying to prevent cases like hers from arising. When, in June and October 2010, George Osborne announced the scale of the new government’s cuts to benefits - in total now over £20 billion - it was quite clear that a life’s work, and all pretences, were being swept away. There was barely a whimper from the benches opposite. This was class war and their side were winning.

After I finished writing, a new book on the epidemiology of austerity was published. In Greece suicides have increased by 60% since austerity began. In Britain, austerity in less severe but more sharply focused on people, working and not working, with the lowest incomes. There will be a lot more deaths like Mrs Bottrill’s. It is important, then, for everyone, that the casualties on our side of this class war do not go unmourned.

Sanctions and SBR

The most important issue I couldn’t cover above is the whole question of benefit sanctions and the Stricter Benefit Regime (SBR). SBR was a personal initiative of David Cameron’s. It means, in practice, a massive increase in the number of people whose benefit is simply stopped causing severe and immediate hardship. Leaked DWP memos show management pressing staff to sanction more and to trick claimants into giving grounds for sanctions. This is a pressing issue for the PCS in particular. The union should be actively opposing SBR and campaigning for non-implementation. Apart from anything else SBR and the way it is being pushed through by trickery is in breach of the statutory Civil Service Code - http://www.civilservice.gov.uk/about/values

Bedroom tax resources

For anyone involved in bedroom tax campaigns there is an excellent parliamentary briefing paper here: long, 26pp, detailed, but covers everything including legal arguments - except how to organise.

Additional comments

Fifty years ago the primary, often the only, source of income for working class families was the wage packet or salary. They generally didn't pay much, if any, income tax out of this, just national insurance. Today for anyone on or below average wages, for anyone in rented accommodation, for anyone with children or a disability, their financial relationship with the state is likely to be as important - as determinative for their standard of living - as their wage - which is itself set by the state for anyone on or near minimum wage. Income Tax and NICs, Child Benefit, Tax Credits, Housing Benefit, council tax reductions, DLA, free nursery places, free school meals - and so on, and so on.

This has rather profound implications for trade unions who cannot act effectively for the class simply by challenging or mediating with employers, and for class struggle generally.

When these issues are raised it is usually along the lines of a critique of state subsidies for low-wage employers (and certainly we should support 'living wage' campaigns) or for private landlords through Housing Benefit (and, yes, a mass house-building campaign is a basic, really primordial, demand). But I think underlying a lot of this sort of criticism is a nostalgic desire to re-create past terms of class struggle; and we have to be careful here - we are not campaigning for the abolition of Housing Benefit and Tax Credits.

What is interesting is that, from the ruling class side, there is no real objection being raised to this extension of state involvement into the lives and living standards of working class families. Of course there is a great deal of ruling class involvement in 'welfare reform' - it's central to the government's project. And they lie and obfuscate constantly to distract attention from the realities. But there are no proposals coming forward, there is no fake-outraged propaganda, directed at the growing importance of 'in-work' benefits. (One could easily imagine such a campaign - "Family gets tens of thousands a year in benefits - and they're WORKING!". And in fact there was such a family - the Philpotts. But the press stays silent and Osborne doesn't mention the most salient fact.)

The obvious conclusion is that the ruling class are quite happy with the situation. And this is borne out by the centrepiece of IDS's programme - Universal Credit (UC). Again most publicity about UC is on its implementation problems (long may they continue). But what UC is really about, it increasingly seems, is another massive extension of the state's role in the life of working class families - primarily families in work. By amalgamating the main in-work benefits - Tax Credits and Housing Benefit - with the mainstream DWP benefits, all the disciplines and sanctions presently being imposed - and massively toughened - on out of work families can be applied to millions more people in low-paid work. Add in the effects of Universal Jobmatch, the new DWP jobsearch programme, which can monitor claimants' job hunting activities, and which will be compulsory for all UC claimants who are not in full-time work, and you start to get as glimpse of how late capitalism proposes to manage its casualised, part-time working, masses - with a virtual Universal Workhouse.

I'm exaggerating of course, and telescoping a prolonged process. Class struggle has never been confined to the workplace - recall the long history of fighting for decent housing , recall the poll tax. And the ruling class are responding to events to a large extent, rather than having a conscious, dystopian programme. Many workers will remain free from the control of the DWP, even when UC is introduced. But I don't think I'm altogether wrong about the direction of travel.