benefits

This tag is associated with 7 posts

Workfare Slavery

Earlier this week it was seen that Tesco were (apparently mistakenly) advertising for permanent slaves. tesco logo on the side of a store to illustrate an opinion piece on workfareOops. In fact I believe the slavery contracts are supposed to be temp only. So, whatever, does anyone fancy going and working night shifts at Tesco for free? You know, learning really valuable skills that will look great on your CV? No? Well, I hope for you you’re not unemployed because you may actually not have the choice.

Anyway, there was justifiable outrage. There are calls to boycott Tesco. It’s a good reason to boycott them. Another good reason. If I lived in the UK I wouldn’t set foot in the place. For me it is the most despicable of the supermarkets, ruthlessly bullying farmers and small business owners in its quest for profit.

Other businesses are falling over each other to tell the world how they will not use Workfare. Tesco are mightily embarassed. They are working 24/7 furiously deleting critical posts on their Facebook page.

Tesco are not the only bullies outed by this furore. The world is finally opening its eyes to the government’s schemes to starve people back into work, to thieve back the benefits from those who need them most. The Department for Work and Pensions, led by Ian Duncan Smith are still churning out abhorrent policies which seem to be a deliberate attack on the most vulnerable.

What can you do? Not much actually. Write to your MPs, tell them how appalled you are at the government sponsored slavery and other initiatives aimed at stealing from the poor. Lend your support to the Boycott Workfare campaign. Boycott companies who are benefiting from the disgusting schemes.

And remember the Tories will not do anything to help you and me. It is all about helping the rich people. They may have squealed a little about the bonuses of the bankers a few weeks ago. But honestly? A few people’s bonuses aren’t going to change anything. Bonuses, despite what the press said, don’t create the recession. They may be pretty huge sums of money to you and me, but they are in fact peanuts in the whole scheme of things. Rich people are getting richer under the Tories. Which is fine. Nothing against rich people at all. It’s just when the government steals from the poor to enrich its friends that I feel very very very nauseous.

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The Right to Create

We hear a lot about rights. And rightly so, in most cases. Human rights, equal rights, the right to vote, the right to free speech, the right to work, the right to a living wage, the right to a free education, the right to bear arms, the right to party, the right to take a dump in public and such like. Much is written about these rights (well, most of them), so I’m going to write about another right, one which you may not have heard of, because I’ve just it made it up: the right to create. Right, so moving on (with no more crappy plays on the word right I promise)…

I do some creative things. I’ve hosted a few art exhibitions and displayed my stuff in public and all that kind of arty crap, so I like to consider myself an artist. (No, please don’t stop reading. It makes me feel better  to consider myself an artist when I’m at work stacking shelves in a supermarket at 3 in the morning). But because I need to earn a living I have to go to work full time, so I can only be a part time artist. And this pisses me off. And gets me thinking.Artist Studio, with paintbrushes, illustrating the right to create.  Photo: See-ming Lee

I’m faced with two choices. One, produce commercially viable art which makes me enough money as a full time artist that I don’t have to work but which compromises my art. Or two, produce art which satisfies my artistic integrity but which compromises my ability to make money and therefore means I have to work as well. (Don’t anyone dare mention three, produce art which satisfies my artistic integrity but which is also commercially viable, because rather like a relationship with Laura-Mary Carter of Blood Red Shoes, this is The Impossible Dream).

I choose the second route, because I feel that my art is something I should do to make me happy, not to make me money. Though I have even been a full time artist in the past. An actual arty artist too, doing the art I wanted to do and not the art I had to do to make money. But then I ran out of money and had to go on Jobseekers Allowance. And this meant that I had to find a real job. It didn’t matter what job I wanted to do or what job I could do well because those jobs weren’t available. I was obliged to get a job as soon as possible. Any job. I got a job in a call centre. It was very,very, shit. I was working shit hours for a shit wage in a shit job. It was a shit life.

But that’s fine, because at least I’m working huh? At least I have a job. At least I am paying my taxes. I am paying my way. I am not a burden to the working man. I am not a turd-encrusted pube on the asshole of society. I am not some scruffy arty tosser sponging off the state (I am just a scruffy arty tosser). No, I work. I am a good and useful citizen. Well if that’s all true, why was I miserable as fuck?

Because I was just existing.  I wasn’t creating.  I was a walking National Insurance Number. And I’m not the only one. I know countless artists, musicians, actors and actresses, dancers, writers, photographers, film makers, designers, performers and poets who work not in artistic fields but in call centres, shops, garages, offices, care homes etc etc. I don’t mean to demean those jobs and the people who do them, but my point is on the issue of choice . Many people want to work in those jobs, but many need to because they don’t have a choice. Shouldn’t a person be free to try and pursue the career they want? How many thousands of creative and talented people across the country are stuck in their non-creative jobs, compelled to waste their creativity and talent and ultimately their life by the conventions of society and the pressure to earn money? How many people are compelled to go through their life miserable as fuck, just so they can work and contribute and pay their rent and pay their taxes and therefore be a good and useful citizen?

Too many, I say. There is however, a solution to this sad state of affairs. It is based upon the idea that a person’s value to society is not based upon their monetary value. It’s not about the amount of taxes they contribute weighed against the amount of benefits they receive. It’s about the non-monetary value they can provide to society. Imagine if a person had the right to do the kind of work they enjoy and are good at. Imagine if they had the right not have to work in any shit job just because they have to. Imagine if  a person was allowed to use their skills, their personality, their talent and their passion to benefit others. Imagine being helped by that person. Imagine being that person. Imagine there’s no countries. It isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for. And no religion too. Man, wouldn’t everyone be much happier?

And to help create that happiness? I propose that artistic and creative people are given the right to create.

I propose an Artists Allowance. This would allow an artist to pursue their artistic activities without the need to work and without the resulting financial worries. Instead of being forced to work in shit jobs they are allowed to do what they want to do and do what they are good at doing. They are given the right to create.

What is this idealistic tosh? How could this possibly work? Naive? Ridiculous? Do-gooder lefty hippy bollocks? In these times of austerity, a whole load of people are going to get paid by the state to sit around on their arses so long as they call themselves an artist? I have got to be kidding, right?

No, because it’s not as simple as that. Firstly, the allowance should only be the equivalent of what the artist would receive if they were not an artist – i.e on Jobseekers Allowance or Employment Support Allowance or Housing Benefit – no more. A person would clearly be better off financially if they were working, thus ensuring that the Artists Allowance was not pursued just for the money. Who would give up a full time well paid job to receive a subsistence poverty income? Certainly not everyone. Those whose heart isn’t in it, wouldn’t. But I would, if I could do my art.

Secondly, the artist would have to prove they are an artist. They would have to attend the Jobcentre regularly to prove that they are pursuing artistic activities. Rather like filling in the oh-so-impervious-to fraudsters little Jobseekers Diary. Except the artist could prove they are pursuing artistic activities. A film maker would have to show their films. A painter would have to show their paintings. You couldn’t make it up.

Thirdly, and this for me is at the heart of the point I am driving at, the artist would have to contribute to society with their art. This is where we see the value of a person not just in monetary terms. Isn’t it right that a person is judged for what they can do for others rather than for how much money they earn? Yes, the state pays this person, but this person pays back society. There are many, many ways an artist can use their skills and create art to benefit their community. If the artist can’t think of a way, they won’t get the Artists Allowance and they can sell their shite and their soul to Ikea instead. This is a mutually beneficial allowance. Give and take. Not something for nothing.

And here we also have the state creating work. Not taking it away. We all know there are not enough jobs to go round at the moment. So let’s enable people to create their own. Let’s give people the work of their choice. Working for the state, for themselves, and for the community. Give an artist some money to spend on art materials and arts activities and arts events and their increased spending stimulates the economy. We would move away from the perception of art as a luxury for those who can afford it, but towards art as a more accessible, more local, more essential, part of the community. Furthermore, thousands of community or state artists who would now be working within the arts would mean that thousands of other people would be able to do the other jobs the artist would otherwise have been pushed into. Damn, we could even get the good old private sector involved too so they quit their tedious whinging about the bloated public sector and privileged public servants. Companies could sponsor an artist on the Artists Allowance. The artist could work for them on joint projects. The company could even get a tax break in return for their support (that should get them onside)…

So will there ever be a right to create? Will there shite. Our esteemed politicians go on about “progressive government”  and “Big Society” but they’re about as progressive as a brown Ford Cortina with a flat tyre stuck in reverse gear and as for the Big Society, well something else with the initials BS springs to mind instead. Should we have this right though? Bring on the debate…

The Government Didn’t Inhale DLA … And Other Lies

When the government proposed to change the benefit system, from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to Personal Independence Payment, a consultation period was begun.

The government itself has a code of practice for consultations, that it has quite clearly broken. It was two weeks shorter than recommended and took place over the Christmas holidays of 2010/2011. It was also not completed by the time the Welfare Bill was presented to Parliament, so it is clear that it was not taken fully into account.

This was not simply asking a bunch of people, this was a consultation based on the answers from 523 groups – local authorities, national charities, legal groups, user led organisations, health care professionals and businesses.

The government claims that the proposed changes to DLA to PIP has the support of a wide range of the public, and that they have consulted disability campaigners and charities.

It is a bit reminiscent of the old, “I did not inhale” excuse.

We consulted, but we did not listen.Raised hands, voting

Since the government was not willing to use the responses gathered during the consultation period, a group of campaigners decided to do so. They raised the funding through donations and requested the documents needed through the Freedom of Information Act.

What a surprise it was for them to read the statement from  London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson:

The Mayor would call for the Government to retain the (current) three-month qualifying period, as the increase to six months will mean that people with fluctuating conditions have increased difficulty meeting the qualifying period.

People with fluctuating conditions face the same barriers that all disabled face in relation to higher costs of living, and DLA is essential to maintain a decent quality of life.
The Government proposes imposing penalties if disabled people do not inform the Government of changes in their circumstances.
 ‘However, the overall fraud rate for DLA is less than 0.5 per cent. For those with fluctuating conditions, asking them to report every change to their condition would prove very stressful.

Further, the campaigners found that the other respondents were almost unanimous in their response to some points, and that

  • 74% of respondents were against the proposals but open to discussion
  • 19% had mixed views, agreeing with parts of the proposal
  •  Only 7% supported them fully.

Several points were raised by many respondents, including that the government’s motivation in proposing these reforms were perceived to be a saving 20% of disability benefits. When the overall fraud rate of DLA being estimated at 0,5%, surely it is clear that this will cut benefits from those who need it.

So why was the bill allowed to go ahead, with the government asserting that the proposals were supported by disabled groups?

Please read the Spartacus Report and pass it on to your friends and family (although I expect they will read about it in the newspapers).

I would like to point out several issues  that are often misunderstood by the general public.

1. DLA is an in work benefit. It aims to assist the disabled person in his or her daily life and often provides the means for them to be able to work

2. DLA is a highly efficient benefit, in that it saves the tax payer money. For every disabled person who is able to work because of the support, the country “earn” taxes.

3. DLA is not given out easily. It is a long and difficult process, and even someone as ill as Sue Marsh can fail to be awarded DLA

4. DLA does not automatically mean that the recipient gets a “free car”. Those on DLA who are awarded the higher mobility component of DLA. No matter what the Daily Mail tells you.

5. DLA recipients “pay” for their car using their benefit payments. So a person who has the highest possible award would pay half their DLA benefit toward a leased car. Only 30% of those eligible for a car take one.

If the government were more honest, both about the recipients of benefits not being lazy scroungers, and the response of those who replied to the consultation, I very much doubt that they would have been able to bring the Welfare Bill as far as they have.

And where the hell is our opposition party in all of this?

Why is it left to campaigners who struggle with their own disabilities and have to raise money on social networking websites to fund and produce this report?

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The Truth About DLA

A new report has been released today that shows that the government has been hiding the full scale of the opposition to the reforms of Disability Living Allowance.  I’m not surprised. There are an awful lot of myths about DLA that make it easier to persuade people that it should be replaced, but anyone who has claimed the benefit or has helped someone who has, knows what a lifeline it can be.

Disability Living Allowance, or DLA, is paid to anyone who has significant care or mobility needs. Care is split into three levels, and mobility into two, and a person can be receiving either care or mobility, or both, but only one rate of each.

For the care component, the lowest rate is only paid to people who have significant care needs at various points in the day – for example they may be unable to cook their own meals or deal with medication.

The middle rate is for people who have frequent and significant care needs, or need supervision either during the day or at night – they may need help going to the toilet, or could be a danger to themselves or others if left alone for more than short periods.

The high rate is for people who have significant care needs throughout the day and night – they could be unable to be left alone at all, or completely unable to perform even basic personal care without a lot of help.

The mobility component is paid to people who have significant problems with mobility and getting out of the house.  The lower rate is for people who regularly need help or experience severe discomfort or pain.  Person using a wheelchair in shadow

The higher level is for people who are completely unable to move around or be outdoors without assistance and/or long term risk to their health.  They may need a specially adapted car or specially made equipment to get around, and they have the option of using a portion of their benefit to pay into a car scheme called Motability so they can use an adapted car.

  • DLA is not an out of work benefit.  In fact, receiving DLA can be the thing that allows someone to work, as it is there to cover the costs of disability, which could include the equipment and support that someone needs to get a job.
  • DLA is not means tested – it acknowledges that anyone can be disabled, and that it is not fair for them to have to deal with extra costs because of it (of course, it doesn’t cover all the costs of disability, but it is an enormous help to many disabled people)
  • DLA is not for short term illness – it is for long lasting disability and/or life limiting conditions.  We are talking about people with missing limbs, downs syndrome, cancer.  People who need wheelchairs to get around.  Children who will never be able to live independently and who have the care needs of a toddler when they are school age.  People who have to deal with hallucinations, fits or blackouts.
  • DLA is not easily defrauded.  Current government estimates put the fraud level at around 0.5% – around 1 in 200 claimants get DLA when they shouldn’t, or a higher level than they are entitled to.  This is much higher than the amount of people who don’t claim when they should, or who are entitled but have given up when faced with appealing.
  • The criteria and claiming process for DLA is so strict that receiving it can mean you are eligible for other benefits and adjustments.  Different levels of DLA and circumstances can make someone be eligible for an extra part of working tax credit, a bus pass, carer’s allowance for a carer, help with the cost of an adapted car, disability railcard, a cinema discount card and so on.  All of these things are designed not to replace income but to try to minimise the cost of disability – they go some way to cover the costs that non disabled people just don’t have.

To support the report, please tweet “I support the #spartacusreport” and link to the report, press release or relevant articles and blog posts.  Send the report and press release to your MP and any media outlets that you have contact with.  Spread the word.  Add your story.  Keep an eye on twitter throughout today for more news and stories.

My Taxpayer Funded Brew

I’ve been thinking today – why am I so scared to tell people I’ve had a good day?  Essentially, it boils down to one thing.  I’m scared they will judge me for being on benefits.

Every time I want to, for example, post on Facebook about going to a cafe for a lovely brew, I get a wave of self doubt.  What if somebody reads it and thinks I have too much money?  What if they read it and think I am too happy and so can’t possibly be mentally ill?

Teacup full of british copper coins 1p 2pEven if I look at my bank account and it isn’t at exactly zero, I start feeling guilty, as if me having that £250 savings for a rainy day means that I must somehow have money that I shouldn’t.  So that is guilt if I spend the money, and guilt if I don’t.

Being on benefits seems to make you into public property.  Suddenly, people feel that they are personally funding your every hot beverage and newspaper, and so resent you for having it. Every good day is marked down in thier heads as evidence that you must be swinging the lead.  Every time they see you do anything productive, even leaving the house, they think you could be working.

Of course, I know it isn’t everyone (before this gets filed under “Alicia being mental again” 🙂 ) but I know that a significant amount of people feel like this.  I have had so called friends tell me to my face that, if they were claiming benefits, they would be too ashmed to admit it.  I have heard people slagging off thier aquaintances.  I have even had direct abuse, from people who know me and my husband personally, about us having two children before we had some kind of magical guarantee that neither of us would ever get ill.  This is all without the general background rumbling of various newspapers, websites and so on, and thier paranoia about scroungers on every corner.

Here’s my message to them all.  Listen up world.

“SOME of your taxes go towards a safety net, so that the weakest in society can still have some quality of life.  Tomorrow, any number of things could happen to you, and you will be glad that the welfare state is there.”

The majority of families who receive benefits have at least one member in paid work, it just happens that that person isn’t deemed “valuable” enough to an employer.  Sometimes there either isn’t the work, or isn’t the work that the person could do, or they are just too ill for any work.  Sometimes, the person needs friends, family and the wider world to just see them as a person, not as faceless “dole scum” and give them a chance.

Yes, there are fraudsters.  But, you know what, there are many more people who cheat taxes.  Just think of them next time you see your payslip – take off the cost of all those millions not paid in tax that you are taking the strain of.  Leave me, and my brew, alone.

The Shirking Classes Don’t Count

The unemployment statistics show a rise of 80,000 in the months leading up to July this year, meaning a total of 2.51 million people are officially unemployed in the country.  That is 7.9 percent, with dramatically bigger rises in London and the North East.  But do people know what the statistics actually mean?  And how about those workshy ESA claimants, swinging the lead and pretending to be ill, that we heard so much about recently in some papers?

Employment and Support Allowance is the controversial replacement for Incapacity benefit, brought in by the Labour government in 2008 for new claimants, and gradually extended to all Incapacity Benefit claimants.  After the first 13 weeks of the claim, the claimant is reassessed, usually involving a medical administered by an employee of ATOS, a private company that has won the government contract but is dogged by accusations of corruption and lack of care.  The claimant is then put in one of three categories – fit for work (at which point they must find a job or migrate to jobseekers allowance), work related activity group (or WRA) and support group.  Only 7% of claims are awarded support group status – ie judged completely incapable of work.  This is an issue for another post, but all of these claimants started off with a sicknote from their own GP, yet an unfamiliar doctor or nurse has deemed the GPs opinion invalid.  36% of claims are abandoned before the 13 week point, mostly due to recovery from a short term illness, and 39% are judged fit for work.  There is a high level of successful appeals to these decisions, but for now, let’s take the word of ATOS.

17% of ESA claimants are placed in the WRA group.  This amounts to over 400,000 people who are judged to be fit for work if appropriate adjustments are made or in the near future.  These people are required to attend work focused interviews where they will discuss how they will get back into work, and can have their benefits docked if they fail to attend.  These are the people who were described as “workshy Calculator on top of jobcentre plus benefits letterscroungers” in certain papers when the latest set of ESA claimant data was released.  Yet they are not included in the latest unemployment statistics.

“Unemployed” people are jobless, have been actively seeking work in the past four weeks and are available to start work in the next two weeks; or they are out of work, have found a job, and are waiting to start it in the next two weeks.  As ESA claimants in the work related activity group are not required to actively seek work, only prepare to seek work, they are not counted.  Yet they are legally required to prepare for work.  So, which are they?  Are they incapable of work, and so not included in unemployment statistics, just the“economically inactive” group (more on which later), or are they able to prepare for work, as they are legally required to do?  This may sound like a dry statistical question, but those 400,000 people in the WRA group are facing uncertainty about their lives – the status is causing confusion and anger amongst some of the most vulnerable sectors of society.

Economically inactive group is, by the most up to date statistics, 23% of the population.  These are people who are without paid work, but are not classed as unemployed.  They may be sick or disabled, carers or not seeking work for some other reason.  This does not mean that they don’t wish to work, only that they are not counted as seeking work.  They may in fact be looking for a job, but unable to start in the next two weeks due to other responsibilities.  They may wish to work, but are prevented by disability or high costs of childcare.  Or they may be stay at home parents or carers.  Of course, some will be rich kids living off trust finds, but somehow I doubt that counts for 23% of the population.

Another group to consider is those who are in part time work, but are looking for full time work.  This figure increased by 70,000 in three months to reach 1.28 million, the highest figure since comparable records began in 1992.  Here are more people who are looking for work, but unable to find it, and are not included on the unemployment statistics.  Workers on low wages are still entitled to many income related benefits, and can even sometimes receive more in welfare benefits than someone out of work.  Many part time jobs are unreliable and low paid, yet the workers are not counted in the unemployment statistics.  In many ways, these can be the most exposed to the twists and turns of the economy, as they face placing new or changed claims if they lose the jobs they do have, but are without the small security that having an established claim can provide.  They find themselves without enough work, but not “unemployed enough” to become a target for the limited amount of work finding schemes that are available.

The unemployment statistics may be awful, but they hide an even more shocking truth.  There are simply not enough jobs in this country, and the statistics show more than we are being led to believe.

Work Capability Box Ticking

I was recently required to attend a work capability assessment (WCA), administered by the controversial ATOS healthcare.  The assessment is meant to decide if somebody is eligible for employment and support allowance – the main benefit for people unable to work due to illness or disability – and, if so, whether they should have to undertake “work related activity” such as training and careers advice.

WCAs have been causing worry to many people, especially as stories spread of unfair decisions, inexpert assessments and simple bad treatment from ATOS employees.  Disability message boards and support groups are full of people terrified of losing their benefits due to what is literally a box-ticking exercise – the medical professional simply selects the option on a computer screen that best meets the answer given, with no room for flexibility.  Some of the most worried are people with severe mental illness.
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Mental illness is hard to see, and especially hard to judge in a meeting of less than an hour.  Most sufferers from severe illness – usually defined as including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other conditions where psychosis can be present – have spent years in the system, taking strong medication, being treated by specialist teams and often with periods of inpatient care.  Despite this, they are still being called in for the WCA, often itself leading to deterioration in their conditions.  When I had my assessment, I was only a few weeks out of hospital after a relapse.
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My case highlights many of the contradictions in the WCA system.  My husband works, so our income is too high for me to receive ESA payments; the only benefit I get from claiming is that basic national insurance contributions are made on my behalf.  The total value of these contributions are around £13 a year. Even if I had managed to fool all the doctors, nurses and other professionals all these years, and the WCA exposed me as that modern folk-devil, the benefit fraudster, it would save the taxpayer very little.  ATOS and the DWP have repeatedly refused to reveal how much each assessment costs, but it seems passing unlikely that it is less than £13.
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The nurse who performed my assessment was not trained in mental health – ATOS does not employ any mental health nurses, despite “mental and behavioral disorders” being far and away the most claimed for group of illnesses, at around 35% of all claims.  This has implications both for the amount of people wrongly deemed able to work, and the amount of people able to fool an untrained assessor into declaring them incapable.
.Work Capability Assessments are based on a computer tick list
As I also claim other benefits, I have faced many long and often irrelevant questions about my condition, repeatedly provided the same evidence and contact details for my specialist team who confirm details of my illness, and spent many hours researching the correct forms, claims and procedures.  Not only is this upsetting and bad for my mental state,I am also constantly worried that I have made a mistake and that my income will be taken away or reclaimed, or that I could face criminal proceedings through an administrative mistake.  I am lucky enough to be relatively educated, and to have a variable condition, meaning some days I am able to coherently put my case across.  Many sufferers of severe mental illness are not so lucky.
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Benefit claimants are routinely portrayed as “scroungers” and those of us reliant on the state for much of our income find ourselves stigmatised and afraid.  Often these are some of the most vulnerable in society, and unable to stand up for themselves when faced with discrimination.  Sufferers of severe mental illness often have to deal with the double jeopardy of being told on one side that they are malingering and should snap out of it and get back to work, and on the other that they are dangerous and need locking up.  If they try to object to negative treatment, they can find their opinions and testimony discounted on the grounds of their mental illness, especially if they suffer from psychosis or other such severe symptoms.
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Sufferers of severe mental illness are much more likely to be vulnerable and need extra support, and although there are many excellent services and charities working with and for them, the benefits system is not currently set up for their needs.   It sometimes feels as if the government are working towards the ultimate Catch-22; if you can qualify for benefits by handling the hundreds of pages of form-filling, negotiating the maze of departments, offices and units, and convincing the GPs, psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, civil servants and ATOS box-tickers, you’re not just fit for work.  You’re good enough to be Minister for Social Security.

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