Socialist Worker

The hidden victims of Blair's Britain

by Helen Shooter
Issue No. 1842

'YOU MAY be unhappy with Tony Blair's international polices, but look at New Labour's achievements on the domestic front.' That's the message coming from some of Blair's ministers and supporters. But Blair's Tory policies at home are creating hardship and misery for millions of people.

Blair and chancellor Gordon Brown boast of the government's 'success' of low unemployment. A new study last week, by research organisation Local Futures, exposed the government's figures as a fraud. The official unemployment rate is around 4 percent.

But there are thousands of people existing in dire poverty, concentrated in unemployment 'hotspots', who don't appear on the official unemployment count. These are the 'hidden unemployed', the people whose stories don't even rate a mention in the speeches of government ministers.

Many have been wiped off the official unemployment figures because they are forced to claim incapacity benefit and severe disability allowance. As the report says, 'Official unemployment rates for places like Glasgow, the north east and Merseyside are less than 10 percent. 'Counting those on incapacity benefit and disability benefits, these figures more than double.'

Across Scotland, if the people on disability benefits were added to the unemployment figure the true rate would be 361,000, according to other research by universities. That's triple the official rate of 113,612. Workers aged between 50 and 65 make up the biggest group of the 'hidden unemployed'.

'The older age groups are people who are more likely to have suffered from the decline of traditional industries,' says the Local Futures study. 'They are also more likely to have fewer qualifications and therefore are much less likely to move back into the workforce.'

These people are not 'workshy' or 'benefit cheats', as the right wing press and politicians brand them.

They are victims of the economic policies of both Tory and New Labour governments. Many of them would like to do some form of work despite various physical or other health problems.

But instead all they are offered are relentless 40 hour a week jobs, under intense pressure and stress which could destroy their health. So people end up being trapped on disability benefits. As the study says, 'While industries may have left, many of the people who worked in them remain. 'Low mobility and high levels of social housing in highly deprived neighbourhoods further entrenches the level of benefit claimants.' But the 'new industries' in these areas provide fewer jobs, at much lower rates of pay.

Regeneration or degeneration?

LIVERPOOL IS one of the cities New Labour has targeted for regeneration. But money from regeneration schemes often end up prettifying some parts of a city, while more deprived areas are left to rot. In Everton, one of the wards in the area, more than 40 percent of the local labour force is on unemployment or disability benefit.

This is the highest rate in England. The local population has dropped by 65 percent over the last ten years. Life expectancy rates are amongst the lowest in Britain and the incidence of heart disease and cancer is amongst the highest.

Kenny Whittaker is 54 years old and has lived in Everton all his life. He now works at a local community centre. He said, 'I'm 54 years old now. I was made unemployed seven years ago. I used to be a scaffolder. I have to say I'd have a job climbing out of bed now! My brother was a scaffolder and he took me along as his labourer.

Then there were those Thatcher years and the construction industry went belly up. So that was the end of that. I was out of work for a while. Then I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, got a chance to go to university and finally got a job here.

But round here has the one of highest rates of unemployment in the country. A lot of unemployed people come to the centre trying to get computer skills to improve their chances of getting a job. All the places that used to provide work - builders' yards, foundries, laundries - they've all gone. I can't think of anything that has replaced them.

These job clubs aren't much help. When I was unemployed all they did was give me a Yellow Pages and a phone to ring round and ask if anyone had work. It was soul destroying. The jobs just aren't there.'

Poverty doubled

FIVE million people are living in poverty today - double the number in the 1970s. That figure was revealed in a report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation last week. It found those at high risk of being unemployed were lone parents, people with a disability, those with low qualifications and skills, those over 50, and black or Asian people.

If you fit all these categories you have a 90 percent chance of being unemployed. 'People with very high risks of non-employment spend long periods without earnings. Their difficulties cry out for policy initiatives,' says the Rowntree Foundation.

But New Labour's policy initiatives have threatened lone parents and disabled people with benefit cuts to bully them into taking a job.

'I'd never been out of work before. Now I'm like a different person'

BRIAN IS a 61 year old former docker on incapacity benefit. He lives in Liverpool, one of the areas highlighted in the study. {I left school at 15 years old and I had never been out of work. Then we were all sacked from the Liverpool docks in 1995.

We had thought our jobs were secure and safe. My father and brother had worked on the docks, and quite a few relations as well. So it was a major shock. I was 53 years old. We fought for two and half years to get our jobs back. I'd always hoped I'd get back to the docks.

After the dispute finished in 1998 a sense of desperation came over me. Me and my wife Pat had visions of losing the house. Our children were still living with us then. I just couldn't see any way out. When I started there in 1968 there were 15,000 workers on the docks. People had high hopes that their sons would follow them in there. When we were sacked there were 500 workers.

We thought that learning new technologies - computer skills and that - would open up opportunities, especially for the lads in their 40s. But of the hundreds who were around at the end of the dispute not more than 30 of us have got jobs now. I'd always thought that I was an adaptable type. But for four years I was out of work.

I'm not the same person. I get stressed out. Then last year my doctor encouraged me to try and get some light work. It has given me something to get up for in the morning. I do two hours a day, five days a week opening the mail in a civil service department.

Because I'm still on incapacity benefit I can only work up to 16 and half hours a week and can't earn more than £67 a week. I get £4.94 an hour. I never thought I'd ever work for that kind of money, and I wouldn't under normal circumstances. Even with my pension and everything l live off half what I used to when I worked.

The government talks about 'there's no jobs for life' any more. That hits the young and older people. It makes people desperate and then I see people turning on asylum seekers, saying they get loads of benefits. It's so wrong. We should turn on the people who are doing it to all of us - and that's the government.'

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Article information

Sat 15 Mar 2003, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1842
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