Iain Duncan Smith’s mass use of benefit sanctions is driving people to their deaths. But it began under Labour, and was not opposed by most trade unions or charities established to support people living in poverty.
In 2008 the Labour government published a green paper entitled ‘No one written off: reforming welfare to reward responsibility’ (PDF). Gordon Brown himself wrote the forward to the document pledging “tough responsibilities that respect tax payers” for all of those on some form of out of work benefit.
Even for a Government which had already introduced workfare and the despised Work Capability Assessment, some of the measures proposed were shocking. These included mandatory work related activity – a vague term that often means workfare – for both sick and disabled claimants and lone parents with children over 5. Other proposals included a policy that long term unemployed people should be sent on workfare for “as long as needed”. Those with a drug problem would be required to undertake mandatory treatment regimes and possibly even drug testing. Benefit sanctions would be strengthened. A new and privatised ‘Fit For Work’ service would be introduced to encourage people to go back to work quickly if they became ill. And all those currently claiming sickness or disability benefits would be ‘frequently’ re-assessed at the notorious Work Capability Assessments which were being run by French IT company Atos.
Atos were far from the only private company set to rake in huge sums from Labour’s savage attack on the poor. The green paper proposed that private providers would be able to bid for any welfare-to-work service. This was based on a recommendation from David Freud, now better known as Lord Fraud, the current Tory Minister for Welfare Reform.
Except for mandatory treatment for drug users, all of these measure were eventually introduced, some by Labour and some by the Tories. Many of Iain Duncan Smith’s most vicious policies were actually first proposed by Labour.
The consequences of Labour’s welfare reforms were devastating. 52,399 benefit sanctions were inflicted on Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants in March 2010. This was twice the number from just two years earlier and more than the 51,142 sanctions handed out by the Tories in September 2014, the most recent month for which figures are available.
In March 2010 the number of people on sickness benefits who had their benefits stopped for failure to carry out ‘work related activity’ hit a high of 3,673. This is just slightly below the 3,828 sanctions handed out to this group in September 2014.
To hear the current rhetoric from the TUC, you would think that mass benefit sanctions were a Tory invention. TUC General Secretary Frances O-Grady recently released a statement saying “Under this government the sanctions system has become a cruel maze in which it is all too easy for claimants to lose cash for minor breaches of rules and random decisions.” This was in response to a report showing the desperate toll that sanctions were taking on lone parents and most importantly their children, As far back as 2008 the government’s own experts, the Social Security Advisory Committee, recommended that lone parents should not face sanctions. The Labour government rejected this advice (PDF).
The TUC’s position is that some sanctions are acceptable. Most charities share the same view. The Labour Party have merely said there will be no targets for sanctions should they win the election. Iain Duncan Smith already claims there are no benefit sanction targets.
Yet again this week coroners found that benefit stoppages had been a factor in two tragic suicides. Leaving someone with no income at all, in one of the richest countries in the world, is inexcusable and inhumane. To do this to people who can’t find a job, when we know there are not enough jobs to go round, is dystopian. In the UK today, if you are poor, then you live under a regime of state inflicted terror.
Jobcentres have no idea what is going on in people’s lives when these sanctions are handed out. They often do not know if someone has a mental health condition, or if they are homeless, a victim of domestic violence, or even just in the midst of a personal crisis. Perhaps they are already desperately trying to avoid eviction by paying off rent arrears out of meagre benefits. Perhaps they are about to have their gas or electricity disconnected. Benefit claimants are already desperately poor. No matter how ‘fair’ or ‘proportionate’ sanctions are claimed to be, no matter how many so-called safeguards are introduced (and ignored), benefit sanctions will always destroy lives. For a small few they will be the tipping point that turns this so-called ‘help’ from the Jobcentre into a potential death sentence.
This is what the TUC and some charities support and it is fucking vile. Benefit sanctions need to be stopped without exceptions. It is way beyond time that those leading the trade union movement, and those in charities that claim to care about people in poverty, were brave enough to take a meaningful stand against the horrifying regime inflicted on those unable to find work. Their current whining from the sidelines is both incoherent and ineffective. Their cowardice makes them complicit in killing people.
On the 19th March the community section of UNITE Union will be holding a day of action against sanctions. This will include protests outside Jobcentres across the UK. Many have been organised by unemployed people themselves and they deserve support. But even UNITE have doggedly refused to answer the question of whether they are opposed to all sanctions.
The PCS Union, who represent Jobcentre workers, have commited to this position, although they refuse to do anything much about it. Both UNITE and the PCS should be ferociously lobbying the TUC leadership to take an urgent stand against all benefit sanctions. It is the very least they can do after all. Now these sanctions can also be inflicted on low paid part time workers. A trade union movement that doesn’t just tolerate this cruelty, but endorses it in some circumstances is worse than negligent. It is a trade union movement that is actively attacking the very poorest working class people. And for that the TUC leadership should hang their fucking heads in shame.
For a list of the protests called so far as part of UNITE’s day of action against sanctions visit their website. Please help spread the word.
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