21/07/2013

Evan Davis was shocked to hear, during a Today feature on the perils of the current heatwave, that care homes for the elderly don’t have air conditioning. He must have led a sheltered life. Or rather, an air-conditioned life, a life programmed and mediated by career journalism, acted out in conference rooms, studios, airport lounges and hospitality suites, the frictionless non-places of global capitalism. Obviously this sticky issue never came up in those Oxford PPE seminars (although hothousing humans for profit must have been on the curriculum in some form, surely). But he didn’t let the revelation put him off his stride, and anyway the schedule had already moved on to some other pressing topic, such as the royal carcass or the Olympic legacy.
 
Later, reflecting on this exchange in the seething oven of a warehouse where we, the elderly-in-waiting, carried on our monotonous manual work while upstairs the air-con irrigated the cool and spacious offices of the mouse-clicking bosses (not so much a Dragon’s Den as a Vampire’s Attic), I realised this summed up my impression of the interchangeable cast of politicians, media professionals and business leaders who preside over our overheated lives: an air-conditioned existence. They are cushioned by a mental, physical and financial zephyr which is taken for granted even as it is denied both to those who most need it, and those whose labour funds the refined atmosphere to which they have become accustomed.
The heat at the core of the economic meltdown is purely symbolic; unlike the markets, the actual temperature is carefully regulated. I couldn’t imagine the CEO of RBS sweltering and glugging warm tap water as he fixed the figures for his company’s privatisation dossier, any more than I could picture the Today team propping open a fire exit as they got to grips with the latest episode in the Euro debt saga. The so-called crisis has now reached such a plateau of air-conditioned normality that every default or bailout seems only to constitute an administrative adjustment which ensures that the presenters, politicians and business leaders can carry on living in high-level comfort, while those below them search ever more desperately for rest and shade. Unless those media professionals work for a Greek state broadcaster, that is, in which case the ideological air-conditioning unit is broken beyond repair.
 
                          But such tensions seem far away from the smoothly ventilated discourse of the BBC media-industrial complex, even when it touches on those locations where its correspondents might conceivably feel the heat. I recently watched an edition of Davis's business show The Bottom Line on the BBC News channel [radio version available here], in which he hosted a breezy round table discussion with a group of travel and tourism executives. The recorded show was overlaid with a live news ticker at the foot of the screen which looped updates from sites of geopolitical upheaval - Syria, Turkey, Egypt - while above the scrollbar these people traded club-class corporate clich├ęs, as if their entire shared worldview was air-conditioned, mediated to the point of virtual reality.
                           The participants in these shows, however,  are aware that in order to justify their indulgences they must as least appear to take account of those economic factors which affect the rest of us. Whether dehydrating in a residential home or taking on fluids in Costa Coffee, the ‘bottom line’ is no longer just a matter for entrepreneurs but the Plimsoll line of the cruise liner Big Society on which we are all supposedly sailing together. “People are re-prioritising their discretionary spend”, one of the show’s guests euphemistically observed; but the annual package holiday was not deemed to be under threat. On the contrary, the consensus in the studio was that even for those facing insecurity or redundancy, it was as inevitable and affordable as television or toothpaste. Another guest was a director of a Greek holiday resort, and while he admitted that his domestic business had taken a hit, his sales pitch betrayed not the slightest ripple of anxiety. Indeed, he painted Greece as a popular destination offering exceptional value for money due to the very crisis from which, he insisted, it was now recovering.
                          The real and virtual occasionally overlapped: the execs acknowledged that travel operators had to watch out for episodes of national unrest, as if protests or coups were unexpected weather events, matters for insurance and contingency planning. Whether it’s the Arab Spring or the ash cloud, the panel agreed, people want peace of mind. They weren’t alluding to the minds of those occupying Tahrir Square, although no doubt this has already been written into the brochures as a tourist spectacle. The same cities whose mass protests and violent suppressions  bruised the news feeds were viewed here purely as products to be sold. An easyJet executive reported, “We were barely affected by what’s going on.” UK travellers apparently keep on flying regardless of political turbulence, protected by the sunscreen of capital.
These passing references between the lines of upbeat PR were uncanny, as if some background disturbance had become momentarily audible before the mechanism corrected itself and the glitch was forgotten again. As the credits rolled, guests and host stood up and left the air-conditioned studio together, no doubt adjourning to an air-conditioned bar where they would congratulate each other on their performances, before each returned to their air-conditioned apartments for a night of guilt-free, air-conditioned dreams.

11/07/2013

Humiliation sessions and intensive surveillance will ‘empower’ jobseekers to find work, says DWP

The latest phase of the government’s tough-but-fair approach to welfare reform has been unveiled, with two new schemes encouraging jobseekers to get off benefits and into work.
 
As part of a pilot project, unemployed people in Brougham are being handed over to private consultants Head First for ‘Empowerment Training’. The 1:1 courses, which are compulsory for all claimants referred by a Jobcentre advisor, consist of the jobseeker enduring 20 minutes of derisory laughter from an ‘Empowerment Coach’, then being made to literally grovel to qualify for their next benefit payment. 
 
A spokesman for Brougham Jobcentre explained: “This is a service run by skilled professionals and is designed to empower customers and motivate them to step up their efforts to find work.”
 
The DWP also confirmed that claimants who refuse to attend the sessions or walk out would risk having their benefits stopped.
 
The spokesman added that the “innovative” and “personalised” scheme was already showing positive results, as the number of claims in Brougham had dropped by 10% since it was introduced.
 
However the scheme is not so popular with claimants, who have dubbed it “humiliation therapy”. One person, who did not want to be named, said: “I lost my job and I was already in debt, and then I was referred here, they said for ‘advice’. I was called into a room and I asked: ‘How am I going to pay my gas bill?’ The guy just pointed to his shoes and said: ‘You can start by licking these.’”
 
When challenged on the controversial methods of the programme, government minister Liam Hoban said, “We are facing an epidemic of worklessness which demands bold new solutions. Rather than complaining, jobseekers should be grateful that we’re giving them an opportunity to boost their employability skills. If they can’t find work on their own and are taking money from hard-working taxpayers, then they obviously need help to change their attitudes and be more resilient if they’re going to be of value to employers again in the future. If they won’t do the right thing and accept that help then I think it’s perfectly reasonable to show them that a life on benefits won't be worth living.”
 
Alongside this new approach, the DWP is trialling a new nationwide online scheme, run in partnership with private firm Virtua, which it says has been set up in response to concerns from taxpayers about how benefit money is being spent. 200 people claiming Universal Credit are being identified and tracked on a database which can be viewed by the public at the website www.benefittracker.gov.uk. Subscribers can also follow the movements of particular jobseekers via Twitter. It is expected that within a year registration on the site will be mandatory for anyone claiming out of work benefits.
The site, which is automatically updated in response to community interactions or when jobseekers make purchases with Universal Credit funds, is now active and is being updated daily. Tweets which have appeared so far include the following: 
 
#UC1295383 9.03am: Neighbour reports curtains drawn, music heard last night, no answer to mobile - To monitor further
#UC0539355 11.35am: Jobseeker spent £1.50 on takeaway coffee - Adviser to give counselling re:  savings of home consumption
 
#UC0839258 15.47pm: Feedback from agency: jobseeker declined offer of 4 hours work 5-9pm Reason: “not enough notice” - Sanction applied
 
#UC0459382 10.30am: Jobseeker failed to attend Positive Thinking session, no reason given - Sanction applied
 
#UC0922521 9.45pm: Message received from Police Community Liaison Unit - This claim is no longer active
Defending the scheme against accusations of intrusiveness and bullying, a government spokesman said it was “in the public’s interest to see how their money was being spent,” and “those who were making genuine efforts to find work and not hiding a luxury lifestyle should have no reason to object.”