But this latest budget he finds a bit cruel. It’s a contextual thing, taking from the disabled to help people selling off second homes looks, I don’t know … biased? What has been so enjoyable about this weekend is watching the effect of IDS’s (In Deep Shit his mates call him) flesh wound on George Osborne. What a bleed out.
Osborne, the arch-strategist whose dream is to lock in the Tory vote for generations, has looked more and more detached lately. This is why he is everywhere in a hard hat and hi-vis jacket. These are the signifiers of growth, a growth that is not happening. He is playing dress up. The public instinctively know this.
His “skivers” rhetoric does not work so well when applied to people with MS, just as Jeremy Hunt’s demonising of junior doctors as money-grabbing militants does not tally with people’s actual experience. We go to hospitals. We see who works hard. Hunt and IDS are loathed and they use faith bizarrely as a counter to compassion instead of its partner. Duncan Smith’s universal credit has been unworkable and unravelling for some time. His conscience has been pricked by this failure as much as anything else.
Where, I wonder, does this leave the creed of Cameronism itself? For a while it has seemed little more than an extension of Thatcherism with some gay rights thrown in. This is we are told is “compassionate conservatism”. I once followed William Hague around America (a young Osborne was there too) as he was learning compassionate conservatism from people like George Bush and Henry Kissinger. One of its key tenets is decentralisation from the state alongside the idea that only markets can generate wealth and freedom.
Yet this is not what Osborne has done at all. He is centralising power like crazy. Why is he interfering in school days, taking power away from local authorities, ending parent governors? This is a power grab and increasingly it exposes the end of any compassion that may have existed within the party leadership. Austerity no longer makes sense even in terms of his own logic. This is an ideology of callousness. And it is brazen.
Cruelty as George Eliot said requires no motive outside itself. “It only requires opportunity.” This is the legacy of Cameron.
So I don’t buy IDS as the tin man who has finally found a heart – yet somehow the curtain has been pulled back on the Wizard Oz-borne. An illusionist whose tricks are hollow. Cameronism is equally exposed as a belief system with no vision beyond keeping the show on the road. We may indeed be back in Kansas.
Last week, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released figures showing that, between 2010 and 2013, a third of the UK population experienced income poverty. During this four-year period, 19.3 million people had a disposable income of below 60% of the national median at some point. These figures illustrate how millions of people are treading water, struggling to keep afloat and afford the very basics. Crisis loans and food banks are real.
In the wake of the election of a Tory majority government, it almost feels like the thing to do is to stop banging the same drum, to stop highlighting these issues. Yet here we are. Turning our heads away from people’s current experience of poverty – and what lies ahead – just isn’t an option.
As a senior teacher and a writer for this publication, my income is such that I can afford life’s luxuries. I own my own home and car. I can afford meals out and holidays that take me further than Europe’s shores. I don’t have to face the daily humiliation of wondering if I have sent my children out into the world in clothing that reveals reduced circumstances, and with not much in their bellies. Note the agency in these sentences; I am one of the privileged few. Yet the woman I am today wouldn’t exist without the welfare state.
It’s become almost passe to write that the Tories are dismantling our society’s safety net and pushing millions further into poverty. And although, for some, this is keenly felt as an awful new normal, it remains abstract for others – a reality several steps removed. Not so for me. I grew up knowing what it is to feel stomach cramps as a result of hunger; to have a packed lunch for school that was simply bread and butter; to be so ashamed of my ill-fitting clothes that I avoided going out altogether.
As a young adult I have been homeless and only saved from experiencing life on the streets by women’s refuges. I have moved from jobseeker’s allowance to wages so low that living was only made possible through housing benefit and working tax credit. I have accessed legal aid and had a small insight into how the law can work for even the most vulnerable. And I could undertake my bachelor’s degree because, as a poor independent student, I didn’t have to pay more than £1,000 in tuition fees.
I am the product of a compassionate state, one that believes in the potential of all its citizens. For that I am supremely grateful and lucky. Yet even writing this seems brazen, as though admitting a failure on my part. Poverty is good at shaming you into silence.
A surfeit of humiliation and guilt attaches itself to poverty. How dare I have used the state to realise a better life for myself and the children I would later go on to have? But if the state isn’t concerned with the uplift of those on the lowest rungs of society, how does it view them? Are they simply the fodder needed to realise the 1%’s wealth accumulation?
In my mid-30s, I am no longer reliant on the welfare state – and haven’t been for some time. The truth is that for the majority of those who claim benefits, it’s a short-term measure, tiding them over in their time of need. Now I am comfortably middle-class, even with all the talk of the “squeezed middle”, I am buffered from the worst the government has in store. Yet it all feels like one unfortunate calamity away, its proximity unnervingly near, made real by the daily struggles of younger family members who are trying to recover from childhoods in care, who have few or no qualifications and work on zero-hour contracts. When Iain Duncan Smith talks of “neighbourhoods blighted by worklessness” he fails to mention the poverty of opportunity in such areas, which his government’s policies will further entrench.
No one needs to remind me of the absolute necessity of our welfare state and so I happily pay into it. My wider family in Nigeria – a country where benefits are non-existent and pretty much everything has been privatised – live in the type of poverty that takes seeing to believe. And despite knowing first-hand the difference between absolute and relative poverty, I don’t believe the existence of the former cancels out the debilitating reality of the latter. Poverty in Nigeria or the UK isn’t a choice. Framing it as such is a heartless red herring, waved about to make us believe that only when people are without clothes, food or shelter should we bother to give them a passing glance.
Now more than ever, we need a chorus of voices mobilised against the draconian treatment of society’s most vulnerable. We need the millions who have at one time or other in their life accessed the welfare state to believe that they aren’t failures for doing or having done so. We need to continue the argument, which says it is decent, good and right that the state steps in when all else fails. Because to continue down the path the Tories have so gleefully outlined means society will only become more divided and unstable.
Increasingly we aren’t framing poverty as the result of political forces: the privatisation of state assets such as energy and transport; the weakening of unions; the steady erasure of the welfare state. Instead, we internalise all the guff telling us that poverty is the inevitable result of an individual’s moral decrepitude. Though the wealthy have always spun being poor as a willing choice of the selfish, dumb and lazy, now, more than ever, society seems to be buying this message.
With all Labour’s chatter about failing to recognise the value of aspiration – as if only those who want to pay less tax have it – the party is running scared and away from the most vulnerable. It is an unsightly manoeuvre, one that comes off as grasping and shortsighted. It is important that they do not become complicit in a lie that claims the poor can be shamed and punished out of poverty.
My parents didn’t receive benefits when living in England, yet our poverty was no less degrading as a result; it is not more dignified to offer oneself as cheap, easily exploitable labour. The Tories must not win an argument that is immoral to its core: that accessing the welfare state is a sign of individual failure.
By the autumn we will find out how the Tories will make welfare cuts of £12bn a year by 2018. If they go ahead – and there are difficult political choices to be made here – these cuts will amount to one of the defining social policy decisions of the next five years.
The Tories were curiously loathe to explain how they would make these cuts during the election campaign. Either they knew, but were not telling because the truth would scare voters; or they didn’t know, but it didn’t matter because this was only ever a coalition bargaining chip to trade with the Lib Dems.
Ironically, a Conservative majority government may now find itself having to take unpopular choices it perhaps never really expected to have to make.
As we know from this week’s leaked Whitehall documents, when it comes to cuts there is no longer any “low-hanging fruit”. What’s left are in large part harsh cuts hitting middle-income working families: or, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies politely puts it, the “less palatable options”.
What we do know is that the Tories will freeze the level of working-age benefits for two years from next April, disqualify most 18- to 21-year-olds from claiming housing benefit, and reduce the household benefit cap from £26,000 to £23,000. Those three policies, the IFS calculates, will find the Tories about £1.5bn a year.
So where will the remaining £10.5bn come from?
The Tory line throughout the campaign has been: trust us on our track record. We made the cuts before, and we’ll make them again. The coalition did indeed make about £18bn of welfare cuts over the last parliament – but importantly, in view of what they need to achieve over the next five years, very little in the way of savings.
The bulk of the cuts – roughly two thirds – came from below-inflation uprating of benefits; the rest from restricting child benefit for wealthier families and some cuts to child tax credit. The cuts made here were more or less cancelled out by massive overspending on disability benefits and housing benefit.
According to social researcher Declan Gaffney, the net savings from five years of supposed welfare “revolution”, measured against the savings expected in 2010, were about £2bn. Contrary to Tory rhetoric, the coalition track record on finding welfare savings was dismal.
To reach £12bn by 2018, the Tories will not only have to massively increase the pace of welfare cuts made over the past five years, but achieve net savings. They will have to focus on the five big ticket items: tax credits (currently about £30bn a year); housing benefit (£21bn); disability living allowance and personal independence payments (£15bn); incapacity benefits (£14bn); and child benefit (£12bn).
One key area will be incapacity benefit spending. Previous attempts to cut this failed (spending rose at least £3bn above anticipated levels under the coalition): the high number of successful appeals against the notoriously unpopular fit-for-work tests revealed that there were simply not, as the coalition passionately believed, millions of people fraudulently claiming the benefit.
The Department for Work and Pensions believes there is scope for reform, however, and we can expect more drastic measures to try to reduce the numbers claiming employment and support allowance, by moving as many as possible on to the less-well remunerated jobseeker’s allowance.
This will be controversial, and Whitehall has concerns over the ability of the outsourced service (formerly run by Atos, now Maximus) to do this. Savings here will be painful, in human terms, and are far from guaranteed.
Housing benefit will be another target area, but the anticipated increase in spending (up £3bn a year from 2020) will be difficult to reverse given the growth in working households on low or static incomes forced to draw on housing support to meet high rents, particularly in London and the south.
Tax credits and child benefit cuts would appear to be necessary but they will take hundreds if not thousands of pounds a year out of the pockets of many of the middle-England voters that delivered David Cameron the premiership. Cuts to smaller budget items, such as carer’s allowance and statutory maternity pay may deliver marginal savings but at the cost of alienating the same demographic.
The Conservatives will look to a relatively buoyant employment market to reduce spending on unemployment benefit. But this relatively small budget line will do nothing to get them close to the £12bn target. Universal credit will be heralded as a technological fix to benefits spending by increasing the incentives for people on a range of in- and out-of-work benefits to come off the dole or work more hours. But the troubled programme is way off schedule (it may not be working fully until 2017 at the earliest) and there is no hard evidence it will deliver savings.
There will be much emphasis on so-called behavioural change policies, even though they will deliver barely any savings (and may not work even on their own terms). The benefit cap will continue, and there will be the threat of benefit sanctions for alcohol or drug addicted, mentally ill, or obese claimants who refuse treatment programmes.
The decision for the Tories is how many of these cuts they want to deliver and what the political costs of this will be. There is no coalition partner to blame if they don’t offer up £12bn; but if they take their foot off the welfare cuts pedal the imperatives of deficit reduction mean savings will have to be found from other departmental budgets.
Cameron spoke this morning of a “one nation” Toryism but he will know his £12bn of cuts will disproportionately hit the poor, young sick and disabled. The cuts will deliver more pain, fear and instability to those they affect. We can expect a rise in child poverty, a further decline in living standards for all but the most well-off, and more stupendous rises in productivity in the food bank sector.
A majority gives the Tories a mandate to begin seriously dismantling the welfare state, but Cameron – if not all of his party – will know this carries a political cost. Deliver social security cuts on this scale and many of those who voted for him yesterday may be surprised to find that it is they, and not the mythical scroungers and shirkers of Tory demagoguery, who will lose out.
The campaign is nearly over and it is time to choose. We believe Britain needs a new direction. At home, the economic recovery is only fragile, while social cohesion is threatened by the unequal impact of the financial crisis and the continuing attempt to shrink the postwar state. Abroad, Britain remains traumatised by its wars, and, like our neighbours, is spooked by Vladimir Putin, the rise of jihadist terrorism and by mounting migratory pressures. In parts of Britain, nationalist and religious identities are threatening older solidarities, while privacy and freedom sometimes feel under siege, even as we mark 800 years since Magna Carta. More people in Britain are leading longer, healthier and more satisfying lives than ever before – yet too many of those lives feel stressed in ways to which politics struggles to respond, much less to shape.
This is the context in which we must judge the record of the outgoing coalition and the choices on offer to voters on 7 May. Five years ago, Labour was exhausted and conflicted, amid disenchantment over war, recession and Gordon Brown’s leadership. The country was ready for a change, one we hoped would see a greatly strengthened Liberal Democrat presence in parliament combine with the core Labour tradition to reform politics after the expenses scandal. That did not happen. Instead the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have governed together for five difficult years.
David Cameron has been an increasingly weak prime minister. On issues such as Europe, the integrity of the United Kingdom, climate change, human rights and the spread of the low-wage economy, he has been content to lead the Tories back towards their nastiest and most Thatcherite comfort zones. All this is particularly disappointing after the promise of change that Mr Cameron once embodied.
The union at risk
The Conservative campaign has redoubled all this. Economically, the party offers more of the same, prioritising public-sector austerity which will worsen life for the most needy – imposing £12bn of largely unspecified welfare cuts – while doing little to ensure the rich and comfortable pay a fair share. Internationally, the party is set on a referendum over Europe which many of its activists hope will end in UK withdrawal. It’s also set on an isolationist abandonment of British commitment to international human rights conventions and norms, outcomes which this newspaper – unlike most others – will always do all in its power to oppose. At the same time, the Tories go out of their way to alienate Scotland and put the UK at risk. The two are related: if a 2017 referendum did result in a British exit from the EU, it could trigger a fresh and powerful demand for a Scottish exit from the UK. The Conservative campaign has been one of the tawdriest in decades.
The overriding priority on 7 May is therefore, first, to stop the Conservatives from returning to government and, second, to put a viable alternative in their place. For many decades, this newspaper’s guiding star has been the formulation offered by John Maynard Keynes in a speech in Manchester in 1926: “The political problem of mankind is to combine three things: economic efficiency, social justice and individual liberty.” The task on 7 May is to elect the parliament and government that will come closest to passing Keynes’s triple test.
Some despair of the whole system, believing a model created for two-party politics is now exhausted, failing to give adequate expression to the diverse society we have become. We are hardly newcomers to that view: we have demanded electoral reform for a century and believe that demand will find new vigour on 8 May. But for now, this is the voting system we’ve got. How should we use it?
To the charge that they enabled a government whose record we reject, the Liberal Democrats would plead that they made a difference, mitigating and blocking on issues such as Europe, the environment, child benefit and human rights, without which things would have been worse. That adds weight to the view that the next Commons would be enhanced by the presence of Lib Dem MPs to insist on the political reform and civil liberties agendas – as they did, almost alone, over Edward Snowden’s revelations. Similarly, it would be good to hear Green voices in Westminster to press further on climate change and sustainability. Where the real constituency choice is between these parties and the Conservatives, as it is between the Lib Dems and the Tories in the south-west, we support a vote for them. But they are not the answer.
In Scotland, politics is going through a cultural revolution. The energy and engagement on show are formidable – and welcome. The level of registration is an example to the rest of Britain. If the polls are right, and the SNP is returned as Scotland’s majority party, we must respect that choice – and would expect all parties that believe in the union, and the equal legitimacy of all its citizens, to do the same. We do that even as we maintain our view that, whatever myriad problems the peoples of these islands face, the solution is not nationalism. Breaking apart is not the answer: not in Europe and not in the UK. We still believe that the union rests on something precious – the social and economic solidarity of four distinct nations – and that is to be nurtured and strengthened, not turned against itself.
A sense of what is just
Which brings us to Labour. There have been times when a Labour vote has been, at best, a pragmatic choice – something to be undertaken without enthusiasm. This is not such a time. Of course there are misgivings. The party has some bad instincts – on civil liberties, penal policy and on Trident, about which it is too inflexible. Questions linger over Ed Miliband’s leadership, and whether he has that elusive quality that inspires others to follow.
But Mr Miliband has grown in this campaign. He may not have stardust or TV-ready charisma, but those are qualities that can be overvalued. He has resilience and, above all, a strong sense of what is just. Mr Miliband understood early one of the central questions of the age: inequality. While most Tories shrug at that yawning gap between rich and poor, Labour will at least strive to slow and even reverse the three-decade march towards an obscenely unequal society. It is Labour that speaks with more urgency than its rivals on social justice, standing up to predatory capitalism, on investment for growth, on reforming and strengthening the public realm, Britain’s place in Europe and international development – and which has a record in government that it can be more proud of than it sometimes lets on.
In each area, Labour could go further and be bolder. But the contrast between them and the Conservatives is sharp. While Labour would repeal the bedroom tax, the Tories are set on those £12bn of cuts to social security, cuts that will have a concrete and painful impact on real lives. Even if they don’t affect you, they will affect your disabled neighbour, reliant on a vital service that suddenly gets slashed, or the woman down the street, already working an exhausting double shift and still not able to feed her children without the help of benefits that are about to be squeezed yet further. For those people, and for many others, a Labour government can make a very big difference.
This newspaper has never been a cheerleader for the Labour party. We are not now. But our view is clear. Labour provides the best hope for starting to tackle the turbulent issues facing us. On 7 May, as this country makes a profound decision about its future, we hope Britain turns to Labour.
I think we have been desensitised as a nation or is it perhaps just good old fashioned brain washing? Whilst we continue to demonise people for what is often essentially bad luck like illness infirmity, sudden redundancy’s that leave people long term unemployed.
Why also is there so much stress on work above everything else? We work to live rather than live to work unless we are lucky enough to have a vocation of course. The fallacy that can all work our way out of any hardships is simply not the case. the universe doesn’t do equal opportunities, but we as human beings can control some aspects and even things up.
It was the raw early days of the coalition, and one of David Cameron’s lieutenants was giving a frank answer to my blunt question: what would it take for the government to pull back on its planned cuts? You didn’t need a Mensa membership to see that this topic would define the next five years.
On that sunny autumn afternoon, the newspapers were full of students besieging Conservative central office, but Cameron’s aide coolly judged that they’d blown it by picking the wrong target. Had they swarmed on Lib Dem HQ “that would really have put Clegg under pressure”. So what would change Tory minds? “The crunch will come when the Mail puts on its front page pictures of some Iraq war veteran in a wheelchair who’s lost his disability benefits.”
What my contact foresaw back in 2010 was that if this political link were ever broken, and money seen to be taken from the plainly deserving, the central plank of austerity would snap in two. However, that Mail front page has never appeared, and yesterday Cameron was able to warn of Labour “chaos … higher taxes for every working family to pay for more welfare”. Even so, the Law of Welfare Cuts has just taken two shattering blows.
The first was delivered by the Conservatives themselves, in the form of a leaked paper discussing options to make more benefit cuts. Commissioned by the Tories, written up by senior civil servants and already under discussion by ministers, the proposals include taking allowances from about 40% of carers for the sick; the scrapping of government compensation for those who’ve suffered industrial injuries; and the taxing of disability benefits.
The Conservatives have tried to stamp all over this story, and with excellent reason. Where’s the justice in taking cash off someone who’s mangled an arm on a construction site, or who’s had to cut back on work to look after a sick child? These savings manifestly break the coalition law of welfare cuts: that they must be seen to be fair.
And they don’t even save that much money. As with so many “reforms” since 2010, these reductions would turn people’s lives upside down, plunge some into debt and tear families apart – and in some cases raise little more than loose change. It may be that we have passed the high tide of public support for cuts in social security – and it would be for exactly the reason predicted by that Conservative aide in 2010. The Tories have set a goal of cutting another £12bn a year from welfare by April 2017. This target is so stupidly implausible that it will force any future government led by Cameron into ever more manifestly unjust benefit cuts. That fictional divide between deserving and undeserving poor may be on the verge of collapse.
In my years writing on this subject, I have read scores of reports and books on welfare reform – but I’ve never seen anything like this. Here are hundreds of people, all living at the sharp end of austerity. Every interviewee is a social-housing tenant of working age, which makes them the number one target of this government. Last September Iain Duncan Smith, in an interview with the Express headlined “We are breaking up Shameless housing estates”, boasted: “We’re making real progress into that stubborn part of the out-of-work group who are in housing estates …” The work and pensions secretary was talking about exactly the LSE interviewees – and this report allows them the right of reply: the LSE authors let their subjects do the talking.
The first thing to come screaming out of the report is how many of the interviewees didn’t plan to be out of work. They’ve got a disability, or they were caring for children or a sick parent, or they were just laid off. You meet Mrs Spencer, who spent seven years out of the jobs market to nurse her daughter through cancer. The daughter died two months ago and the last of their savings went on her funeral. Now her husband has been made redundant after 27 years of work. He’s 59 and has only one eye.
Well over half the respondents claim to be coping. This sounds like good news – until you discover what they mean by that. Getting by means falling behind on rent or into debt; managing means eating less or going without heat. “I’ve got a dog and I’ve got to make sure he’s OK,” one says cheerfully. “If need be I’ll eat his biscuits.”
Re-read that sentence, remembering that you and he live in one of the richest societies on the planet.
How has the government helped? The bedroom tax “is a tax on my disability”, according to one interviewee who used his second bedroom to take oxygen. Respondents hate the jobcentre, which just holds up ever higher hoops to jump through – or else it sanctions them. Another interviewee tells of how his sanction meant that he lost his home, and now sleeps on a sister’s couch.
These people represent a society that has been cut adrift by politicians of all parties: a society that will go unaddressed by the election campaign, and uncourted by any major party. And yet these people talk just like you and me; they just have worse stories to tell.
In that same Express interview, Duncan Smith claimed that he had moved the Shameless estate-dwellers from a “dependency culture” to independence. Here is a different version of events from one of the LSE interviewees: “My best friend committed suicide in March – she went through … relentless reassessments, and found the forms very confusing. She was disabled but they were questioning her over and over again. DWP hounded her for information. It’s a horrible feeling, knowing that your friend was pushed over the edge like that. I’m pretty certain that if these welfare reform changes weren’t going on, I’d still have her with me.”
I must admit I live in absolute terror of being in a situation where I might ever have deal with the tender mercy’s of the DWP. So far I have been fortunate enough to avoid any involvement but it is a case of there but for the grace of …
A lot of this is positively kafkaesque. I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone sitting behind a desk at the DWP would behave in some of the examples shown below.
Is it because they are in fear of losing their own jobs? In some cases it would seem that is the case. Have the simply been brainwashed by the sensationalist stories fed to the press?
Perhaps I really am getting out of touch with how the world is now.
The coalition’s benefit sanctions regime, under which more than 1 million jobseekers had their unemployment benefits stopped last year, has spawned hundreds of documentary accounts of claimants being penalised for capricious, cruel and often absurd reasons.
The recent MPs’ inquiry into sanctions heard copious evidence of claimants being docked hundreds of pounds and pitched into financial crisis for often absurdly trivial breaches of benefit conditions, or for administrative errors beyond their control.
Man who missed appointment due to being at hospital with his partner, who had just had a stillborn child.
Man sanctioned for missing an appointment at the jobcentre on the day of his brother’s unexpected death. He had tried to phone Jobcentre Plus to explain, but could not get through and left a message which was consequently not relayed to the appropriate person.
Man who carried out 60 job searches but missed one which matched his profile.
Man had an appointment at the jobcentre on the Tuesday, was taken to hospital with a suspected heart attack that day, missed the appointment and was sanctioned for nine weeks.
Man who secured employment and was due to start in three weeks. He was sanctioned in the interim period because JCP told him he was still duty bound to send his CV to other companies.
Young couple who had not received any letters regarding an appointment that was thus subsequently missed. Their address at the Department for Work and Pensions was wrongly recorded. They were left with no money for over a month.
One case where the claimant’s wife went into premature labour and had to go to hospital. This caused the claimant to miss an appointment. No leeway given.
One man sanctioned for attending a job interview instead of Jobcentre Plus – he got the job so did not pursue grievance against the JCP.
Man who requested permission to attend the funeral of his best friend; permission declined; sanctioned when he went anyway.
A diabetic sanctioned and unable to buy food was sent to hospital by GP as a consequence.
We had a number of customers who had been sanctioned including one guy who had been sanctioned for being late for his appointment at the jobcentre because the queue was so long it took him to past his appointment time to be seen. He was sanctioned even though he had arrived at the jobcentre in plenty of time.
You apply for three jobs one week and three jobs the following Sunday and Monday. Because the jobcentre week starts on a Tuesday it treats this as applying for six jobs in one week and none the following week. You are sanctioned for 13 weeks for failing to apply for three jobs each week.
The consequences, however can be severe. One claimant, Glenn McDougall, recalled his experience of being sanctioned three times in written evidence to the work and pensions committee inquiry:
On the first occasion I cancelled a jobcentre appointment to go to a job interview. It was short notice however I phoned the jobcentre to inform them and was assured on the phone that it was ok. I was sanctioned two weeks JSA. I appealed this and was found to be in the right and the money was paid to me, which was great, but in the interim I had to go two weeks without a penny to my name. I missed other job interviews because I had no money for transport and went without food, electric and heating for some of that time. It was a cruel punishment issued arbitrarily, had a negative impact on my jobseeking and diminished my respect for the benefit system massively.
The committee heard that claimants with learning difficulties, were especially vulnerable to sanctioning. Here’s an example provided by the charity Mencap:
AP has a learning disability and was given 30 job searching actions every week after he applied for JSA. These actions included accessing UJM [universal job match] every week. However, he did not have the IT skills necessary to do this and was not given support by JCP [Jobcentre Plus] to do this. He had, however, still been pro-active in applying for jobs. He showed the JCP several pages of handwritten job notes. They would not accept these as they were handwritten and not using UJM. He was then sanctioned. Given his lack of IT skills and the lack of IT support by JCP, Mencap argues that handwritten notes are a reasonable adjustment. He had already been sanctioned by JCP several times.
Claimants with mental illness are also at high risk of being sanctioned, with serious health consequences. Here’s Jessica’s story, cited in research by Durham University academics Kayleigh Garthwaite and Claire Bambra:
Jessica is a 23-year-old woman, who was 22 weeks pregnant when she came to the foodbank. She had walked over two miles to get here as she cannot afford the bus fare from her flat. Jessica explained that she was receiving ESA [employment support allowance] for mental health problems following the stillborn birth of her first child eight months ago. Jessica was sanctioned for not attending a work-focused interview appointment – her mental health problems prevented her from leaving the house on that particular day. She received a foodbank referral from the Citizens Advice Bureau after seeking help for her mounting debts following her sanction. Jessica had not eaten a proper cooked meal for two weeks, and was instead relying on her sister’s children’s leftovers. Jessica explained: “I haven’t had my fridge or cooker switched on for three weeks, I can’t afford the electric. I sold the telly last week – there was no point in keeping it ‘cos I couldn’t afford to use it anyway.” As Jessica is 22 weeks pregnant, she knows she needs to eat healthily for herself and her unborn child, but currently cannot afford to adequately heat her home or feed herself.
The cross-party group of MPs on the committee has called for an independent review of sanctions. According to committee chair Anne Begg:
We agree that benefit conditionality is necessary but it is essential that policy is based on clear evidence of what works in terms of encouraging people to take up the support which is available to help them get back into work. The policy must then be applied fairly and proportionately. The system must also be capable of identifying and protecting vulnerable people, including those with mental health problems and learning disabilities. And it should avoid causing severe financial hardship. The system as currently applied does not always achieve this.