Thursday 29 September 2016

Gene Kerrigan: Forget austerity, let's blame each other

The national fantasy about dole 'crackdowns' is only distracting us from the real problem, says Gene Kerrigan

Published 19/02/2012 | 05:00

IT'S a distasteful job, slouching along after Joan Burton, sweeping up her bullshit. But someone's got to do it. Comrade Burton is the Minister for Social Protection.

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This means her job is to shield us from the worst effects of a fickle world. One minute you're seemingly secure, planning the future; the next you're struck down by accident, illness or unemployment and you need a helping hand while you try to mend your life.

Hundreds of years of struggle led to the creation of a structure of Social Protection -- it's not something that just happened. There was a savage time when bad luck destroyed your life, and your family's lives. Today, when we work, or when we buy anything -- from a box of matches to a car -- we're putting aside a small amount, through tax, for the day we might need it.

To some extent, we protect children; we protect the old, the disabled and those going through a bad patch. This isn't a handout. It's part of the social contract. Through direct and indirect taxes we build up a fund, within the public exchequer, that will even things out over a lifetime.

It's Comrade Burton's job to manage this social protection -- and she has two duties. One is to make that protection as effective and supportive as possible. And two, to make it cost-effective.

Last week, Comrade Burton was all over the media, like a bad rash. A story was leaked that she was about to reveal important initiatives and figures -- that got headlines. More headlines screamed when the figures were released. The headlines came in waves.

'Welfare Control Steps "to Yield Savings of 645m"', said Thursday's Irish Times.

'Government to Get Tough With Unemployed', said the Irish Independent the previous day. On Tuesday, the Evening Herald beat them all to the punch with 'Major Crackdown Slashes €500m Off Welfare Claims'. RTE joined in.

Bullshit, the lot of it. Those figures -- the 645m, the 500m, the "crackdown", the "savings" -- all imaginary. Oh, she's getting tough with the unemployed, okay. She's going to rattle their cages, no end. To please the austerity hawks in the Troika, the unemployed will have to increasingly apply for jobs that don't exist and go for interviews that have no purpose. They'll have to "retrain", so they're unemployed in two or more job categories.

Irritating, I know. But this is part of a peculiar national fantasy we're going through -- with Tough Comrade Burton more of a fantasist than most.

First the figures, then we'll deal with the fantasy.

The €645m is not savings due to a crackdown. It's a figure derived from the routine "control" procedures. If I claim to be unemployed, they'll look for forms that verify that. That's a routine control.

Then there are the chancers. If I, for instance, put in a claim for disability benefit, based on the fact that I recently lost one leg, I'll be means-tested. Part of that process will be an official asking me to roll up my trouser legs. "Eh . . . Mr K, you've got two legs, and fine legs they are." Claim disallowed.

Many more claims will be from people unsure of what they're entitled to. They may be disallowed one claim and allowed another benefit they're entitled to but didn't know about.

All the money that would have been paid out if these normal processes didn't exist is known within the department as "control savings". Occasionally, the figures are released to an unwary media and the headlines trumpet a "crackdown". Making the minister look tough. But it's bullshit. And the media falls for it every time.

Is welfare fraud a real problem? No, it isn't. The routine controls work. This is from the bulletin of the Oireachtas Library & Research Service: "The Department estimated the total level of fraud and error in the year 2008/2009 to be an average of 2.2 per cent across all welfare schemes."

That's the international norm. Note, that's both error and fraud. And if, as it's believed, at least two-thirds of that is clerical or claimant error, we're looking at a fraud rate of .73 of one per cent.

Those are the figures, now for the fantasy.

Do you remember, when we were Celtic Tigers, how the media was full of "lifestyle" stories about how stressed we were? We were money rich but "time poor", we were told. Remember Breakfast Roll Man? No time for breakfast. No time for sex. We worked our asses off. We'd take any work going -- full-time work, part-time, staff or freelance, contract or casual. The rate for the job or minimum wage. Whatever the job, we were up for it.

That was about four years ago. Now, suddenly, with hundreds of thousands of those very same hard workers on the dole, we're told that they've turned into skivers. So, Comrade Burton has to "crack down" on them.

Suddenly, the hard-working Irish don't want work, we're told. This is fantasy. And the economic assumption behind it is silly -- we could call it Brutonomics. The theory seems to be that the huge numbers of people who just don't want to work are a drag on the economy, preventing it from taking off. If we can "crack down" on these people, we can "incentivise" them into work -- maybe by docking some of their benefits.

Now, there are bound to be some skivers, of course, and always will be. But the evidence of our recent history is clear: if the jobs are there, people will take them. So, how many skivers are there? Ten thousand, fifty thousand? One thousand?

It doesn't matter. Those jobs, if they existed, would be quickly filled by the other hundreds of thousands who are unemployed. And the truth is, that doesn't happen because those jobs don't exist.

This is part of a national fantasy that always unwinds in times of economic stress -- the fantasy that among our neighbours there are people less honourable than us, who are taking the bread from our mouths.

So, in order to solve this non-problem conjured up by Brutonomics, we irritate the unemployed by giving them a series of extra hoops to jump through. We intimidate claimants by encouraging people to rat them out, so officials spend endless hours checking the files of people who did no wrong.

Billions of euro are being drained from the economy, to make up the losses of the reckless bankers and the international gamblers. But we avoid facing this -- instead, when septic tank charges are threatened, to raise money for a country crippled by the debts of others, the old prejudice comes out. Rural activists, with a good case, are encouraged to see "them above in Dublin" as the enemy. Dubliners feel under attack, when we should be making common cause. Private sector workers are set against the public sector. Nationals versus immigrants. Employed versus unemployed. It's all part of The Great War Against Ourselves. Don't question the insane austerity policy -- just blame our neighbours, and try to ease our burden by shifting more of it to them.

We've got another 10, 15 years of this -- maybe a lot longer.

Sunday Independent

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