Sunday, 23 February 2014

Behind the Boom in Self Employment: More Working Poor

Recently much has been made about new stats revealing a "surprise" boom in the numbers of the Self Employed. While various distinguished writers and newspaper reporters have grappled with  the rising stats and asked why there is such a large increase, no one has got behind those stats and revealed the people and reasons why they have become Self Employed. One in seven of the UKs workforce is now apparently Self Employed. This figure is a staggering 367,000 more than in 2008. Even more surprising is that 84% of the increase has been in people aged 50+ according to the ONS.  A third of the newly Self Employed are women.

Have we suddenly become a nation that is providing growing numbers of entrepreneurs or is there something a little more telling as I scratched the surface of who is becoming self employed and why?

Among the figures there will of course be people who have decided to use their skills to become self employed electricians, carpenters,  plumbers, but I uncovered vast numbers of people in the Sales Reps industry for example, who, until  a few years ago were earning £20-30 per month as "a bit extra" and were not registered with HMRC as self employed. All that has changed of course and now Avon, Kleeneze, Betterware sales reps have been told by HMRC to register as self employed however little they earn. I have personal experience as an Independent Avon  Sales rep. You earn income on your sales once every 3 weeks. You are given a couple of set roads to sell in, and are unable to sell outside these boundaries/territory, unless to personal friends. Predominantly women who are carers, or have health/disability problems or men who have been made newly unemployed themselves take up this work. You have to sell £500 worth of products to make £80 every 3 weeks on average and these are the successful reps! Most sell under £200 and  for example in January (the leanest month of the year for sales) if you sell less than £80 of products you get £0. You have to pay for all your own sales literature yourself like brochures, bags and sales tools.There is a very high turnover of reps, as the rewards are not very high unless you can sell to friends outside of the set road territory. HMRC did a campaign 2 years ago to get all Avon reps to register as self employed and told of the consequences of not doing so. Thus a vast army of reps, who are in the most part working poor, earning pittances, are added to the list of Self Employed.

The Government, not content with seeing people desperately scrabbling for low paid self employment  in a vain effort to put food on the table, are now intent on demonising them too. This has turned into a concerted effort to savage the low paid and  have the far right media raging over immigration, when they have found that those people selling The Big Issue are in fact self employed and many of them immigrants.The Big Issue sellers are people wanting to work, wanting to earn money and contribute to the economy. They pay £1 to buy the paper and sell it for £2. Very entrepreneurial, but not good enough for right wing newspapers who don't recognise it as a "proper job."Many Big Issue sellers are earning small amounts of money to get by and need working tax credit top ups, like the other 4 million working poor, but because they happen to be self employed, they are demonised further and scoffed at for not being in employment. What should they do? Swop self employment for zero hours contract employment  if they can get it or be further demonised as "scroungers" on the dole?

Many men who were previously employed as skilled electricians for example,in factories, have been made redundant or replaced by zero hours contract agency staff. Proud men who have always worked, rather than drag themselves down to Job Centres to sign on, have made the switch to become self employed handymen, who will turn their hand to any domestic household tasks and gardening work. I spoke to a friend who was forced to make this switch.

"Some weeks, especially in the winter I earn less than £100. But I have earnt it: hanging light fittings, painting rooms, even shopping for an elderly person. Whatever someone needs doing, I will do it. No work is beneath me and while I am working as a self employed handyman, my kids can see me going
 out to work each day knowing I am doing my best to house, feed and clothe them. I get working tax credits to make up my low pay and I don't want to be doing this for ever, but I will do what it takes to
work. This Government has no right to say someone like me is not working hard enough or that I should get a paid employed job on part time zero hours contracts. If a job as an electrician in a factory came up on a permanent full time contract I would take it, simple as. I need the security of knowing I can pay my rent and bills and zero hours cannot provide this."

Many people who are low paid and self employed have had no wage increases since 2010 and indeed many are taking pay cuts to keep themselves afloat. A huge anomaly here is when the Government say under Universal Credit, that if your self employment is not earning you a minimum income floor of £11k per year, they will force you to seek paid employment instead. Thus many millions of self
employed working poor, could end up unemployed instead! Yet another barmy idea to erupt from the ideology department at the DWP! The reality is that the self employed dearly want to stay self employed, even when their earnings are low, to give them self respect and not be thrown onto the dole scrapheap. Yet the harsh Government rhetoric is they are not working hard enough. The Tories in particular fail to realise that for the self employed there is no such thing as being able to demand the minimum wage, a set hourly rate in many cases or let alone a Living Wage!

Hauling the self employed into Job Centres every month, scrutinising their income and threatening them with unemployment, if they dare to claim Universal Credit, is indeed a policy only the Tories could dream up. The party that supposedly supports entrepreneurs, those who would rather work for any pay than have to sign on as unemployed, is a caricature of itself.  The mantra seems to be the Tories will support only those self employed  worthy enough to already be earning £££££s and not the self employed working poor. To threaten the working poor with the dole as an alternative is indeed one of the most ill thought out, far right, nasty party policies that makes no sense. But then combined with the policies on the sick, disabled and vulnerable members of society, we have come to expect the idiotic from Cameron and co. Policies first thought out on the playing fields at Eton cannot be further from the reality of ordinary people's experiences. The self employed working poor are now a small army. We deserve better from an economy and Government that is supporting low pay, and "getting something for next to nothing" culture for our services. Come 2015 we have the power to vote this Government out. Hopefully the Labour Party will recognise  what a valuable resource the self employed are and support us, not punish us for working.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Unite Arm Community Activists with Tools to fight Austerity

Empowerment. Closely followed by Inspirational, Educational and Fired Up are all key feelings I came away with, after spending  two days on community courses with Unite the Union in Cardiff recently.

Unite are avant-garde in their thinking to open up membership of the union to ordinary people like me, who don't work in the typical unionised workplaces you associate traditionally with union membership. Mums, the unemployed, the disabled, the retired, the self employed are all being offered membership and access to courses, to equip people in the wider community to fight the dreadful cuts that this governments forced austerity are imposing on us all.

Many ordinary people face barriers to participation on courses and most of these barriers are financial. Unite recognise this, and help out with rail travel and lunches for example. The barriers melt away and allow the individual  community member access and participation. For people like myself, this support is vital, or we literally are unable to take part due to being poor and/or working poor.

I attended courses in Community Activism and Public Speaking. Barry the Unite tutor for both courses, explained succinctly that people in the community are extremely worried about a variety of austerity measures from The Bedroom Tax to the closure of local swimming pools libraries and youth clubs. Often, although people have the passion to fight to influence or stop these attacks on our communities, they lack the skills and tools to campaign effectively. Barry explained for example, with public speaking that for the likes of Cameron, Osborne etc public debating is part of their expensive Eton education that is not taught in state schools. Thus, confronted with posh boys who have been equipped with the tools to speak publically and debate, often ordinary community activists are immediately put on the back foot, as they lack these skills and have not been taught how to campaign and talk in public to any skilled degree.

From the start of the courses, there was an excited air of expectation that once we had the "keys to unlock the doors" we would be in a position within our communities to effect change, fight back, and be in a much more advantaged place to take on the dark right wing forces whose mantra is "Austerity for the Poor Only" Many people on the course were there to learn how to campaign for their particular community cause. There were 3 grandmothers who were bringing up their own grandchildren and were full time carers, often with disabled grandchildren and were getting no support from government or their local councils. They had set up a group to campaign for more support and for more rights and recognition of the fact they save the Government thousands in care costs. The group were self funding with very little resources. They approached Unite, who apart from offering the course, allowed the group to meet in the Unite building every month for no cost and also helped out with printing their promotional posters and leaflets. Thus the ladies on the course were beginning to feel more empowered, and that the ball was shifting slightly back into their court and the feelings of hopelessness were supplanted with bright hopes for the future. Again "empowerment" and  the tools to fight back will see this group make headway in their battle to  get grandparents raising grandchildren in the spotlight with their council and big government.

Throughout the first day we were taught how to plan campaigns from the outset, and look for skill sets within our campaign group.Also researching exactly who holds the power to make decisions about our cause and who to approach. Publicising our cause on the variety of media we now have from newspapers to twitter was also a key element as well as the more traditional methods of door-knocking, banners and posters were explored. We were given practical help on petitioning and lobbying the decision makers and organising our group into a very effective campaign team who would now have all the tools to fight the social injustices all around us.

On Day 2 we tackled the tricky subject of Public Speaking. Many people are terrified of standing up in front of a crowd and delivering an effective, exhilarating inspiring speech and getting the message out about our cause/belief and getting the crowd to act upon our message. For me, with the articles I write on austerity and being asked to speak to groups, it was vital that I could unlock the door to the same type of help, advice and support that union activists, politicians etc get, in order to get my message across on the impact of austerity in our communities. We were shown different speeches and critiqued them and were given valuable resources on how  to construct and deliver a successful public speech. Everything was explained in fine detail from coping with nerves to answering questions at the end of the speech from the audience.

Speaking to other community members on the course and also workplace union members on the Public Speaking course showed the diverse reasons  and causes as to why we had all decided to participate. What underlined our causes and reasons was one factor: the devastating impact of the coalitions austerity policies on individuals and the communities we live in. The real hunger to be able to fight back was very evident. The end result was of satisfaction that we were getting the tools to enable that  fight back. To know that with Unites support we can now return to our communities, impart our knowledge and make that fight back happen.

Unite and other unions are demonized in the right wing press on a weekly basis. If educating ordinary working class people to have an impact in their local communities on youth club, library and other facilities closures is wrong, "ultra left wing" or "radical" then the Tory press should hang their heads in shame. Communities need this education and skills set.

Empowerment. Or as I like to see it "Kicking down the doors and barriers to fight social injustice." Our fight comrades in the community v austerity is a worthy one. Start your own fight today.

* Special thanks to Barry (course tutor) and Jo Galazka (Community Co-Ordinator Cardiff) at Unite for enabling our empowerment

**Unite Communities already have 40 branch groups throughout the UK and are expanding rapidly with community co-ordinators in most areas including Wales, Scotland and N. Ireland as well as UK regions. To contact someone in your area for more information on courses and getting involved  phone or email: Liane Groves 07793 661 657 : who will put you in touch with your regional co-ordinator

Friday, 7 February 2014

Female MP Debate: Is there room for Poor and Working Poor Candidates?

Ed Miliband ridiculed the Coalition by pointing to the frontbench at PMQs, where not a single female MP sat, just a long line of Bullingdon boys and middle class suits. Labour can boast 81 female MPs which equates to 31% of the Labour intake: something Miliband says he will not rest over, until women account for 50% of the party. Admirable stuff from Labour, but perhaps to delve further would be beneficial.

There are no official stats for how many female MPs from all parties either come from or are, upper class, middle class, working poor or poor. Shame. For then the real truth would be uncovered. Back in the 1970s many Labour MPs, male of course, came from working class skilled backgrounds such as Dennis Skinner (miner). In 1979 40 % of Labour MPs had come from manual or clerical work previously. In 2010 this figure had drastically reduced to 9%. Currently a staggering 60% of coalition government ministers attended fee paying schools compared to the 7% of  the population they claim to represent.

Miliband seems very keen to change the faces of the Labour Party to at least half being female. But my question is how many of those faces will come from poor or working poor backgrounds? The Labour Party needs to house a broad church of MPs from all backgrounds to be truly representative of the people they make policies for. However, if you glance over the current crop of Labour female MPs most will have a few designer labels in their wardrobes, pick up their weekly shop online at Waitrose, and don a Barbour coat to walk the dog in at weekends. Dinner parties will be the order of the day over a few bottles of red. There are great role model exceptions like  Washington and Sunderland West MP Sharon Hodgson, but she is in a minority.

I receive many emails and communications from people lamenting the fact that Labour does not speak for them any longer. The reason being quite simply: " Labour does not walk in my shoes or live my life. It does not understand my struggle. Its MPs cannot begin to know what it's like to need a Foodbank." Does the Labour Party want more poor and working poor MPs?  Would it want, for example, a 40+ mum of four, like myself, who has experienced life as a full time carer for a disabled child, had a home reposessed in the early 1990s and lived in a 1 room B+B for 3 years, can talk about seeing your son forced into working in a factory as agency staff on a zero hours contract in a coastal seaside town where even seasonal work is considered " a good job", window shops at M+S but shops in Matalan and Poundland?  I am completely ordinary in my circle of life, but would stand out like a sore thumb in Westminster, with not even a high street power suit to my name.

Aside from the young female MPs with their glossy hair and  designer labels, is there an actual need for  MPs who may perhaps live in a council house, be a full time carer, work shifts in an old peoples home, or struggle as a single parent to make ends meet? From my experience, yes, yes and yes again! The electorate are fed up of not being represented by people who "know what it's like". Talking to their MP at the local constituency office, simply reinforces their belief that many MPs have no idea of circumstances people are suffering, when they are confronted by middle class socialists with sloany vowels. Perhaps I am being too general here, but for every committed, local, down-to-earth MP like the Grahame Morris' Ian Mearns and Sharon Hodgsons, there are far more MPs coming from a background of PR/ Marketing/Banking than is representative of the electorate who vote for them.

I and many others would love to see Labour Female MPs who know the cost of a value loaf, can cook for a large family on a budget and wouldn't know a bottle of house red from a claret! An MP who knows the problems facing people forced to visit Foodbanks, and speaks out to stop the outrage. An MP who doesn't just visit their local school, but KNOW the problems facing both children, teachers and parents under Gove's tyrannical reign, as her children are experiencing it too. An MP who can actively seek radical change for disabled people suffering under ATOS and campaign for more specialised childcare for disabled children, because she is either disabled herself or is bringing up a disabled child. There needs to be as many of this type of MP, as there are those with more priveledged backgrounds.

Then and only then, will the Labour Party become representative of the population. Radical idea perhaps for Ed Miliband. But a vote winner as women are second class citizens in the Tory party. Make it happen Ed and election victories are yours.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Food? Just the tip of the iceberg for Independent Foodbanks

My local Foodbank, Prestatyn and Meliden on the N Wales Coast, is not the first place you would think is even in need of a Foodbank. A pretty booming seaside town, with brand new retail park and flourishing house prices, hides a facade of dire need. My local councillor invited me to a steering group meeting to discuss the Foodbank recently, as the volunteers are overwhelmed with sheer volumes of people and work, and need constructive help on where to go next, how to plan and cope and how to get the message over that the town has a hidden depth of need.

I volunteered to spend a day with the Foodbank to see the work they do, and the people they help. I did not go with any pre- conceived ideas, but an open mind: but even so, what I heard and saw has left me with a deep impression on the scale of need volunteers are trying to deal with. My Foodbank is independently run by a church in the town. They are not part of the Trussell Trust Group. One of their reasons to stay independent, was to be able to provide some flexibility, and not have their volunteers dependent on the TT computerised system. Many volunteers are retired and may not have the necessary skills needed to operate this system.  Something that obviously has to be taken into consideration.

As with all Foodbanks, referrals are made by professionals like social workers, school liaison officers, support workers. But walking through the church door is just the start of what can become a lengthy journey of life change for many clients. The Senior Administrator explained.

"As soon as a client comes through our doors, they can expect to be treated with dignity and compassion. There are no judgements made here. No place for media rhetoric of "spongers and scroungers". Many people are taking a giant step coming in and asking for help as they feel humiliated their lives have come to asking for a food parcel, their pride has taken a tremendous knock, and they are at their most vulnerable. Compassion is needed first and foremost, then practical help and advice."

In my head I am comparing this to the media images in the Daily Mail of people swaggering into Foodbanks on the "scrounge", looking for free food or as Edwina Currie has said recently "There is no need for Foodbanks at all". How wrong she is.

There is a huge downstairs room with lots of toys for children, while clients are helped by the caring voluntary staff. One volunteer shows me the foodstuffs in a couple of cupboards he is busy date labelling and putting on an inventory. I am also shown outside to the car park where there is a huge metal container, which holds more foodstuffs. Obviously the need is great, but the facility is not ideal
for the amount of people who are now arriving. As an independent Foodbank grants are not
forthcoming, and the community steering group is looking at how this can be rectified.

One thing that literally gladdened my heart was the fact that several other churches of denominations such as Catholic, Anglican, Church of Wales, collect foodstuffs from their churches and then turn it over to the central Prestatyn Foodbank for distribution. Churches working and uniting together, filling the gap of governmental services is welcome, but has arisen through need due to the slashing of the welfare state and other support networks.

The Senior Pastor invited me into his office and I was immediately surprised.There were four huge whiteboards, each with different counselling style work upon them. He proceeded to explain his role to me.

"Food is an immediate emergency and in fact quite an easy part of the work we undertake when a client steps through the door. A Foodbank parcel because someone has no money for food is a first response. My role is to uncover why that person has arrived here and what help they may require. Just to let you know the scale of need, I used to do counselling sessions on 2 mornings a week: I now counsel Monday - Thursday; four whole days. There is a myriad of reasons why people arrive at our
Foodbank. Benefit delays, money mismanagement,  lack of education, lack of life skills, debt, life
events, are all in the mix. I try to sort out why each individual is here and then proceed to help them
get their life onto a more even keel. This can take weeks or even months of ongoing counselling sessions. I need to know their circumstances, perhaps liaise with other organisations or signpost people to places that can help, where debt is concerned act as an appointed nominee to negotiate debt repayments, and sometimes just educate people to enhance their life skills and their life choices."

"I'm astounded." I replied. "Surely you are shouldering the burden that was once the domain of social services for example?

"We are indeed finding that. Once we have handed over a Food Parcel, we then unravel the persons human needs. Sometimes that involves total education on how to handle personal finances and budget. Many young people for example, have never had parental support  to know how to budget. How can someone manage their finances if they have never been shown how? Some people have no cooking skills or been taught how to make a healthy meal. Gently, we try to show them how this can be done.  We see many single mothers struggling to bring up children with no positive male role model in their children's lives. Mum is doing all she can, but sometimes it simply is not enough. What may start as Mum having trouble with a cheeky five year old son, often escalates with her having an out of control teenage lad on her hands. Absent fathers are a huge problem. However with
the numbers of people needing help, there is a ceiling to how many can receive counselling. My fear is that there are people slipping through the net who cannot access professionals to get a Foodbank referral perhaps because they are elderly or disabled and housebound. But the more numbers arrive, the more pressure on the volunteers, and then we are unable to cope. It is a vicious circle really."

The scrapping of Crisis loans and the use of council discretionary payments to those in need is also adding to the Foodbanks burden. People used to apply to the DWP for a crisis loan form and then repay the loan from their benefit. Now people have no idea where to turn to and if they will receive a crisis loan at all, as the money is not ring fenced by councils. Foodbanks and their volunteers are then being forced to fill that void. All very well if the need is small scale,
but not when TT Foodbanks report statistics in excess of half a million clients and no stats are available as to how many people Independent Foodbanks are helping on top.

Our Foodbank takes into account the needs of children and life's essentials on its Foodbank list. This is where it differs slightly to the TT run Foodbanks. Bottles of orange squash, toothbrushes, shampoo, sanitary towels are also considered to be of utmost importance alongside the traditional foodstuffs of soups, tinned meats, pasta etc. One innovation to come is the use of fresh vegetables says the Senior Administrator.

"We have asked a local town council advisor to team us up with a food co-op. Rather than stock fresh produce at the church, we have had some recent cash donations so we would purchase fresh veg and
put a £3 voucher into each Foodbank parcel for the client to visit the food co-op and obtain the fresh items themselves. This will be a great supplement to the parcel."

Asking local supermarkets for collection days for the Foodbank are also under consideration. But as volunteers become more innovative, more work is being placed upon them. The Foodbank is obviously non-political and non partisan, but I can't help feeling both angry and humble as I see the work they are being asked to do. This work used to be carried out by local government services with paid and trained staff. Although the Senior pastor is a trained counsellor everyone else at the
Foodbank is a volunteer. They all have considerable life experience, but are being asked to fill roles that would previously have entailed a university education and years of on job training and a salary commensurate with their job title.

I came away in awe of the work going on here, knowing it is a tiny ripple in the pond of all the other Independent Foodbanks helping their townspeople in crisis throughout the UK.  My feeling is that increasing numbers of young people are not being equipped with the life skills they need while at
home or in local authority care. Schools are focussing on taking exams not teaching life skills. As a mother of four sons I would love to see Home Economics classes compulsory from Year 4 in primary school, teaching children how to cook on a budget, how to manage pocket money, how to decorate a room, how to wash and mend clothes. More male teachers and male community mentors in sports and other activities for disillusioned boys and young adults who have no male role model.

The Independent Foodbanks deserve more support full stop. If Foodbanks are here to stay for the foreseeable future or long term then stats should be collected on how many people Inde's are helping. Grants both for training volunteers and for premises should be available to both TT and Independent Foodbanks - now. Acknowledgement and liaison by local councils looking at all the roles Foodbanks are providing need collating -now. Independent Foodbanks need help now, not when poverty is so prevalent that Foodbanks cannot meet the needs of the numbers of people involved and buckle or close under the strain.

Nothing less will do. It is down to people like myself to bang the drum and get this message heard.