A Ukip parliamentary candidate named Lynton Yates this week suggested banning benefit claimants from driving: “Why do they have the privilege to spend the tax payers [sic] hard earned money on a car, when those in work are struggling to keep their own car on the road?” Ukip’s communications people said that Yates’s suggestions were “not Ukip policies and they will not form part of the Ukip manifesto”, and the media rejoiced in the week’s example of the party’s supposed fruitcakery – though at the time of writing, Mr Yates was still Ukip’s choice for the East Midlands seat of Charnwood.
But the problem isn’t his, or Ukip’s, alone. After all, in the sense that he proposed stripping “benefit claimants” of something most people take for granted, Yates’s plans merely sat on the outer edge of what now passes for mainstream thinking. When the state makes it clear that the poor and unfortunate are not to have spare bedrooms, and embraces the idea of stopping them buying booze and fags and shredding their entitlements if they have more than two kids, is it really such a leap to deny them non-public transport too? For all its inanity, there is a sadism at the heart of the Yates idea that is not a million miles away from the cruelties increasingly built into the benefits system: cruelties most of us would not put up with for a minute, but which are visited on thousands of people every week.
Which brings us to some of this week’s most sobering revelations, in material just published by the House of Commons work and pensions committee relating to the government’s use of so-called sanctions: the punishments that take the form of a sudden withdrawal of benefits for at least four weeks. Echoing Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory employment minister Esther McVey explains the practice in terms of “ending the something-for-nothing culture”. Whatever their department is trying to do has resulted in an explosion of sanctioning – up from a rate of about 1,000 cases a month 10 years ago to a recent peak of 12,000 – and incontrovertible evidence of nastiness and abuse.
Everyone should read the wealth of written evidence submitted to the committee, which ranges from material put together by charities and NGOs, through accounts of maltreatment offered by people at the sharp end of the benefits system, and on in turn to testimony from a small handful of people who have administered the machine from the inside. What is described is recurrently nightmarish but increasingly common: in any town where you can find the benign-looking green insignia of Jobcentre Plus, there is a good chance that people are routinely being bullied, hounded, and worse.
The Trussell Trust, whch provides a huge share of the UK’s food banks, says “over 50% of referrals to food banks in 2013-2014 were a result of benefit delays or changes, including sanctions”. The Preston Learning Disabilities Forum points out that “those with an ‘invisible disability’ [that is, those with a learning disability, who are on the autistic spectrum, or have mental ill health) are disproportionately at risk of being sanctioned”, and the Epilepsy Society says the effects of seizures “make it more difficult for people with epilepsy to comply with jobcentre requests”. An anti-poverty official from Portsmouth city council answers a question about the wider implications of sanctions in blunt terms: “not having enough food to eat and relying on charities or family … and escalating problems for the household”. The fantasy that a good thwack will get people back on the straight and narrow, in other words, is just that: once destitution comes into view, problems tend only to worsen.
Accounts of the experiences of individuals – most of whom will have dutifully paid their share of national insurance, and always abided by the rules – extend into the distance. A woman called Theresa Curtis tells the story of how her 57-year-old brother, suffering from clinical depression after losing a child to cot death and a close friend to suicide, was sanctioned for 16 weeks after he could not cover the cost of the four bus trips needed to get him to a work capability assessment. The Derbyshire unemployed workers’ centre offers the Kafkaesque tale of a man from Bolsover who was instructed by his jobcentre adviser to apply for a job in horticulture that involved “four weeks’ classroom-type training” before he would even be considered for an interview. Two weeks in, “the man’s benefit was suspended, and then [he was] sanctioned for four weeks because he was not actively seeking work whilst undertaking the training”.
Ian Wright, who worked in Leicester’s main jobcentre between 2013 and 2014, says this: “I know of a case in which a person who could neither read nor write was given a JSD [“jobseeker’s direction”] by a “signer” to put their CV on the Universal Jobmatch website. Unsurprisingly they did not manage this task, and were sanctioned.” I am not sure I have ever read an account of official cruelty in Britain as heinous as that, but when an entire system is apparently geared towards tripping people up, such horrors – which now include the infamous sanctions-related death which triggered the committee’s inquiry, that of a former soldier and diabetic called David Clapson – probably become inevitable.
Despite evidence to the contrary, the Department for Work and Pensions continues to deny the existence of any system of sanctions targets. But a drive to maximise the stopping of benefits, and thereby the poverty, stress, and the precariousness that now defines millions of lives, is clearly embedded into a system my Guardian colleague Patrick Butler recently described as “bureaucratic, capricious and crude”. For the government, there is one obvious benefit: research presented this week to the work and pensions committee, authored by academics from London and Oxford, found that in the three years to March 2014, 43% of people who were sanctioned stopped trying to claim jobseeker’s allowance (JSA), but only 20% of them said they had found work. “It appears that the punitive use of sanctions is driving people away from social support,” said one of the researchers. It also seems to be driving down unemployment statistics. Funny, that.
Beyond questions of the sometimes difficult relationship between disability and paid work, three-quarters of JSA claimants sign off within six months, and our insecure job market means people bounce in and out of unemployment. But a public encouraged to think of “the unemployed” and “welfare claimants” as some separate, degenerate Other seems barely to notice what is happening. In other words, there are millions of Lynton Yateses, happily complicit in the cruelties for which their taxes pay and presumably ready to cheer for more.
- The Guardian, Friday 23 January 2015