LONG READ

Word Salad and War on the Poor

Word Salad – Source: New Yorker October 2020

The recent Conservative conference was a real feast of word salad, ‘a confused or unintelligible mixture of seemingly random words and phrases’, culminating in an appalling speech from the PM that ignored a series of crises of historical proportions.  This word salad disguises a deliberate war on the poor. Let us walk through some implications of what came out from a couple of key messages.

Social Care

Sajid Javid – Source: gov.uk

“People need to take responsibility for looking after their elderly relatives and stop looking to the state to provide”

Sajid Javid

Implication: Working class families need to quit work and become unpaid carers.

This is a very interesting statement as he may be alluding the cost of social care and that many people who are in the social care system have families like a mum in a care home.

Essentially this statement from Sajid Javid appears to be a preparation step to demonize another group of people known as the working class. In many cultures, families do take on responsibility up to the end of life for their elders and this was the case in the UK prior to welfare and the NHS.

The social care system, introduced after WWII, allowed people freedom from care-induced poverty. By having the ability for families to work and get care provision where needed, our workforce was stronger and grew the economy, which in turn helped pay for the welfare system itself. Those that do elect to look after their loved ones directly lose the benefit of a paid job and get very little support from the welfare system, which often they have paid into for many years, although this home-based care reduces the load on the system as a whole.  We should all be concerned as we already have a care worker shortage. If social funding is cut, forcing people to quit work to look after the sick and the elderly, things are hardly likely to get better.

Haulage

It was also interesting to hear the haulage industry coming under attack by the government from many angles: it was not training enough drivers, it was paying low wages and it provided poor facilities for drivers.

Boris Johnson – Source: Gov.uk

“Stop relying on cheap foreign drivers.”

Boris Johnson

Implication: £30,000 average salary for drivers before the crisis is the average salary for the UK and roughly the same as a nurse. But we are not willing to pay nurses more!

Well that from Boris Johnson is interesting. It is true that scarcity will drive up salaries. However there was already a chronic shortage of drivers before we lost thousands who returned to the EU. In fact the UK has had a general shortage of workers for some years. Those workers that returned to the EU clearly were not those taking jobs and simultaneously taking benefits that many currently in Government seemed to suggest.

Very roughly, since 2014 roughly 2,000 extra drivers have been needed per year. The Corporate Finance Network report on the Road Haulage Industry in 2019 predicted an increase in road freight of a further 8% by 2025.  The average salary for an HGV driver was around £30k before Covid-19, with some drivers making £10-20k more. This is about the same average salary as a nurse.

It is a shortage of drivers that is driving up pay, not a history of paying less to ‘proper British drivers’. There is also a shortage of drivers in Europe, as the government has been quick to point out, without realizing it destroys their argument.  Surely if the government thinks that an average salary of 40K is fair for an HGV driver, then this is also a fair salary for a nurse who will also have to pay higher food costs due to the increase in haulage costs?

Another attack on the haulage industry was the government blaming the entirety of the problems of haulage infrastructure on the industry itself. It makes you wonder why we need a transport secretary if they are not actually working to achieve a world class transport infrastructure.  Is there a study and plan to improve facilities for truck drivers across the UK? Undoubtedly this is a planning and a policy issue, yes much of the funding may come from industry but as one industry source said last week “we cannot get planning approval to build better facilities”. The problem is that the responsibility for such facilities on highways moved to local councils which makes it difficult for the haulage industry to provide these services.

As far back as 2009, Chrys Rampley, securities manager at the Road Haulage Association at the time, said the situation changed in the early 1990s when the Highways Agency, which is responsible for the motorway and trunk road network, relinquished its responsibility for the development of truckstops. 

In July this year eviction notices were served to the leaseholders at the Orwell Truckstop at Nacton on the A14. The land curiously is to become warehousing which obviously needs trucks.

Surely we need this dealt with at a national level with a proper network of facilities rather than this ad-hoc system?

Education

Another cracking word salad was from Boris Johnson himself. He talked up UK having a high-skilled, high-paid workforce. So why did he end the proper apprenticeships and call training courses lasting only a few weeks “apprenticeships”. Many private companies were set up to provide this very dubious low quality product, which is in no way a replacement for the thousands of quality apprenticeships that were lost. We also made it very expensive to get a university education, putting us in a poorer competitive position than many of our European ‘competitors’.

We appear to continue to starve schools of funding and instead putting an emphasis on oddities like re-introducing Latin and hints that we will return to pounds and ounces. If an education system was needed to dumb down the UK, we have been fairly successful.

What are skilled and essential workers?

The government confuses skilled with essential workers. All jobs are “skilled” depending on the amount of training required. Whether a job is “essential” or not depends on the availability of people willing to do that job and the impact of it not being done. With complex supply chains many jobs can suddenly become essential. A doctor, a truck driver and a fruit picker are all skilled and can be essential.

In the private sector pay is determined by market forces but the government still has a responsibility to regulate that market to ensure that enough skilled and essential workers are available. In the public sector pay should reflect the skill and how essential a job is and here the government has a responsibility to budget accordingly.

Instead the government refuses to regulate (or help) the private sector and refuses to pay some public servants a fair wage, particularly nurses.

Gaslighting on Steroids

The shortage of workers is destroying companies and keeping food off the table, we are now slaughtering thousands of pigs as a shortage of abattoir workers means they cannot be butchered, packed or transported, yet we are importing record numbers of sides of beef and pork from the EU to compensate.

Boris Johnson often uses statements like “we cannot continue to allow uncontrolled immigration”. However we never had uncontrolled immigration. Whilst free movement is a part of being in the EU, people could not stay here if they did not find a job, and frankly the majority of people coming here were actually working, driving trucks, stacking shelves, being vets etc. Our current crisis can be tied to the loss of those EU workers who helped UK become one of the top of the economic performers in Europe.

But let’s move on, the government also made it clear that nurses are heroes but we cannot afford to pay them for more for their skills. The government also pretends to fix worker shortages by magically ‘creating’ workers. Demographics shows that these workers do not exist. Job vacancies in UK are at an all-time high of over one million and unemployment is low so where are these workers going to come from?

It gets worse. The government is not acting to protect the working poor from escalating costs, and taking an even more draconian line on those who are on benefits. Many of these people are also important but might not rise to be doctors or not be comfortable behind the wheel of an HGV. Does the government think that the bulk of those on benefits want to be there and are perfectly able to do these jobs? Whilst there are undoubtedly some scroungers out there, the bulk of people really do want a better life but are not able to do a broader range of jobs or have varying levels of ability challenges.  The fact that so many people, even those in work, have to rely on food banks is a tragedy. We now have more food banks than branches of McDonalds and more than most European countries.

“Some companies rely on the state and charity to indirectly subsidize staff salaries for their otherwise unprofitable businesses.”

Until recently the UK was an economic powerhouse with low unemployment and solid growth.  Yet we have some of the lowest pensions and benefits in developed Europe. We also have some of the lowest corporate taxes. This is shocking but it appears taxes on the poor (like National Insurance) can be raised ad infinitum but hell would freeze over long before we start taxing companies or billionaires.

If you are able write to your MP about stopping the war on the poor, and ask about some or all of these topics:

  • Tax company profits
  • A realistic minimum wage
  • Make it easier for anyone to work in the UK or abroad
  • Protect welfare and provide better support to carers
  • Put infrastructure planning back into central government

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