Hydrografitti mural on Corporation street dole office

'Why do they keep sending me to look for jobs that aren't there?'

This statement and image launched the Right to Work; Right to Welfare (R2W) campaign back in 2012. It was coined by a 'job seeker' surveyed outside Corporation Street's Social Security Office in Belfast.

The message from government is that the problem of growing unemployment is one of ‘shirkers’ and ‘scroungers’ who need routed through rigorous assessment regimes to wean them off welfare dependency. The message on the wall is that the real failure lies at the door of government. Westminster and Stormont have failed resolutely to develop policies and strategies which create enough sustainable jobs and foster healthy prosperous communities.

Ken Loach’s new film, I, Daniel Blake, captures brilliantly what R2W have heard from thousands of people at every dole office in Belfast over four years of campaigning for REAL JOBS NOW! and protection from benefits sanctions. Namely, that the system is rigged - and not in their favour.

But it is operating in someone’s favour.

All too often, criticism of the Stormont Executive’s welfare and employment policies provokes a defensive mantra from our Ministers; ‘blame Westminster, blame the market, but don’t blame us’. But in effect, they have washed their hands of responsibility for the welfare of citizens by handing the administration of social security to profit driven private contractors.

Since 2012 the Stormont Assembly has handed more and more lucrative contracts to private companies to deliver publicly funded employment and social security services with minimal scrutiny or transparency - and certainly no accountability to the public they are supposedly serving.

Each company functions with very similar principles premised on the fundamental belief that people in receipt of social security  support are ‘shirkers’ and ‘scroungers’. A dragnet assessment approach is applied which results in the reduction in the total amount of benefit payments and claimants.

Some companies are paid more if they produce ‘positive results’ or put another way, people being struck off benefits. Every week different MLAs, MPs and Councillors appear in the press citing reduced benefit claimant figures as good news stories. This would be fine if people were moving into work, were less sick or found employment which was suitable for their disability. But nothing could be further from reality.

So who are these companies earning millions of pounds of public money a year administering key aspects of our work/welfare system?

Steps 2 Success is the latest incarnation of the government work programme. Under threat of financial sanction, over 30,000 unemployed people have been put on the program since October 2014.

Despite their ongoing failure to deliver on the targets agreed with the Stormont Executive, three companies (Ingeus, Reed in Partnership and People Plus NI) are set to earn £50-£80 million in public funds by 2019. In stark contrast to the sanction regime enforced on jobseekers, none of the three private companies have ever been sanctioned for their failures.

ATOS, the company which bought its way out of its £400m state contract in England following widespread public and political anger over its assessments of the sick and disabled, is still unbelievably paid millions here every year. The horror stories continue weekly and the ATOS contract is not due to expire until June 2018. The published value of their seven year contract is £82m. Again, they have never been sanctioned for their failures or the harm they have caused.

CAPITA, who Private-Eye magazine labelled ‘Crapita’ as a reflection of the quality of their service provision record, is now assessing disabled people. They initially signed a £65m contract with the Stormont Executive in November 2012 and are now expanding their base with new public contracts including with Derry/Strabane Council.

Learning from ATOS' practices, CAPITA will now apply a similar process to carry out the new Disability Living Allowance assessments, now called Personal Independence Payments. The assessments commence in December 2016 - just in time for Christmas. They are aiming to carry out 5,000 assessments per month as they work their way through 125,000 cases in total.

These assessments can completely cut out your doctor’s medical opinion, medical evidence gathered from other sources and your own personal experiences and testimonies as to the impact of your disability. All is left in the hands of an ‘assessor’ employed by the private contractor working to targets set with government. Even the head of the disability testing scheme at CAPITA has admitted that the new regime is a ‘nightmare’ for the disabled.

Last, but certainly not least, are the now notorious Concentrix – whose President was named a Belfast Ambassador in 2013 in recognition of their commitment to our people. Concentrix won a £75million contract in May 2015 to assess the tax credits entitlements of thousands of low income families – to allegedly cut both fraud and error. However, HMRC recently ended their contract with Concentrix following a public outcry when thousands of families had their financial life-line stopped completely due to this contract.

Elected representatives spoke out in condemnation about the jobs losses at Concentrix.

But who is taking responsibility for warding contracts to these firms in the first place? Who is taking responsibility for adopting the Executive strategy which removes social security support and pushes the sick and disabled into low-paid, unskilled jobs? Where is the accountability?

We all followed the welfare reform debacle enough to know that it goes beyond any one Stormont Minister or Department. These are Executive Strategies – agreed and implemented without accountability or impact assessment.

This ongoing outsourcing is an abdication of responsibility on the part of the Executive which has fundamentally undermined the human right to work and to social security.

It has cost many public service workers their jobs.

It has cost millions of pounds of public money and has absolutely failed to get people ‘into work’ or 'off benefits’.

It has made profit for companies whilst driving many families into destitution and despair.

The United Nations Covenant On Economic Social and Culrtural Rights general Comment No 19 on Right to Social Security states clearly that the Stormont Executive must 'prevent third parties from interfering in any way with the enjoyment of the right to social security' and ensure that 'private actors do not compromise equal, adequate, affordable, and accessible social security'. It concludes that 'To prevent such abuses an effective regulatory system must be established which includes framework legislation, independent monitoring, genuine public participation and imposition of penalties for non-compliance.'

Despite all of this evidence, the strategy remains unchanged from government; catching the ‘shirkers’ and ‘scroungers’ is still priority Number 1.

Every week the Department of Communities publishes fraud figures. It's a big part of the Minister’s focus for a minuscule 2% of benefits misappropriation. In fact, the investigations into fraud cost more than they recover.

The other much greater costs of course are in unclaimed benefits, owed to people like freezing pensioners or parents who can’t pay rent or afford food. Rarely, if ever, does the Minister, Department or indeeed the Executive highlight this misappropriation of funds from the public.

And with the quiet passage of the legislation enacting the benefit cap which came into force on 13 October 2016, the next wave of welfare cuts approaches with nothing but a limited short term mitigations package to protect the vulnerable and no plan for when it runs out.

The ‘shirkers’ and ‘scroungers’ approach has to end. Presumption of guilt – either through the sanctions regime or disability assessments – has to end. This can only happen when government takes responsibility for the actions of the companies it pays to provide our public services.

A good start would be the adoption by the Department for Communities of the People’s Proposal – a simple measure to ensure due process and impact assessments for people having their benefits stopped or reduced by the actions of private companies. The Scottish Government is taking steps to end the sanctions regime. There is no reason, other than a lack of political will, that the Stormont Government couldn’t do the same.