Thursday, September 08, 2011

Punish the poor 1930s style back with a vengeance

Fake data claiming that the majority of those who took part in the recent riots had previous records is behind the government’s plans for a new, punitive regime.

Actually, the figures only show that those who were caught had previous, and since the police have been knocking on the doors of everyone “known” to them in the weeks since the riots, that’s hardly surprising.

Now the Coalition wants to give the courts powers not only to fine people but also to withdraw their benefits or tax credits. Both the government and Labour accept the unsubstantiated claim that a small number of families in every area are the source of most of the problems in society.

They have brought in the architect of New Labour’s “anti-social behaviour orders” or Asbos, Louise Casey, to tell them how to “sort out” these “problem families”. As well as withdrawing benefits, they are looking at evictions, parenting orders, making people work for free in the community, and other measures.

On the basis of unscientific prejudice, teachers are asked to identify children who, whilst not a problem now might BECOME a problem because of what is known about their home circumstances. There is growing pressure on the NHS to abandon the principle of patient confidentiality, so that doctors and district nurses could identify families that MIGHT at some point in the future become “problem families”.

Also to be announced is a proposal that people leaving prison without a job to go to - i.e. almost everyone - will not be given time to find work but be automatically registered on a government “work for benefits” programme.

From next year, everyone unemployed for more than six months will have to either join a “volunteer” work programme or a “work experience” programme, which means, for example, working for a company for 13 weeks for Job Seekers’ Allowance plus £10.

And right now, thousands of sick and disabled people are being forced through a humiliating new testing regime, operated by private companies, in order to prove they are well enough to work – even though there isn’t any work for most of them.

This pretence that the poor and the unemployed are the state’s biggest problem is not new in Britain. History shows that in Britain, the criminalisation and punishment of the poorest people - the unemployed, sick or desperate - is the so-called democratic government’s knee-jerk reaction to economic crisis, and the situation is no different today.

During the 1930s depression, the state was obsessed with the imagined inability of the unemployed to take up work. From 1929 to 1938, thousands of unemployed men were sent to be “reconditioned for work”, with physical exercise and work projects at British Instructional Centres which were, in practice, labour camps.

At the same period the fake science of eugenics was common currency amongst the ruling class and in 1932, the Brock Committee was formed to make recommendations on how “feeble-minded people” in England and Wales could be sterilised. Voluntary sterilisation never got off the ground in Britain - as it did during the same period in the United States - but as a result of so-called “medical” decisions, many hundreds of men and women incarcerated in long-stay hospitals and asylums, were sterilised without their knowledge or consent.

In 1931 the means test was introduced, where government inspectors entered people’s homes and if anything was left worth selling, its value was deducted from their benefit. Cooking pots, chairs, tables, bedding - all were at one time or another classified as unwarranted luxuries.

Housing, education and health workers should refuse to join Lib-Tory-Labour attack on the poor. They should instead use their skills to work, through local People’s Assemblies, towards an employment, training, housing, education and support system that enables the disadvantaged instead of punishing them for being poor.

Penny Cole

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