Twice in the last two days I have come across incidents of people having their benefits stopped for what appears to be petty reasons, but with consequences that are anything but petty. Ever since welfare reforms have come into place, introduced by the current coalition government, there have been many instances pointed out to me or I have come across myself, in the past two years or so, of benefits sanctions: people who were receiving benefits having their benefits stopped, often for some minor misdemeanor. Food banks, which I reflected in an earlier post, is one of the consequences and there are others, not least the rise of a disaffected underclass.
Before I get back on topic, let me give some background and context. I have written about benefits in my writings, as strangely enough it has been a reoccurring issue throughout my time as a community activist. However imperfect the welfare system that pays out benefits is, it provides a safety net, not available in many countries, to many. When I helped begin the Growing Together project around 2001, we were regularly helping anything up to fifty people a week, many with mental health issues. Most were on benefits. Sometimes I reflected that some who weren’t in a fit state to work were on Job Seekers Allowance and some who could work were on Incapacity Benefits. There has been some rationalization since but the irony was that many were on the wrong benefit (in my opinion) and the system often failed because there was often a lack of support for our clients / volunteers (especially when they wanted to work) and it appeared to pay people merely to be idle or do things that weren’t productive in order to satisfy the requirements of the system. Yet the notion of supporting those who truly can’t work as well as those who can, who should make every effort to find employment, by training, looking for work and related volunteering, is a worthy one.
Soon after the last General Election, the present government announced its welfare reform program, partly as a result of having to reduce the size of the benefits cake due to the financial crisis that arose a little prior to the Election, in order to, as the saying goes, “cut your coat according to the cloth”. If the government is to be believed, it was also to make the system fairer and more efficient. I agreed then with both those aims. After all, there are scroungers (there always have been) and the “system” should be geared up so those who can work (or at least get in a position to work) are helped to do so, and in such a way it always pays to work, and allowance should be made for those who can’t work, with both groups helped by a benefit system that is just and fair. The point of this posting is not to judge how well the government has done with its welfare reforms (I have no doubt there will be others that will be pronouncing eloquently on the matter and some have already done so). Rather, I want to reflect on the phenomena of benefits sanctions that effect some of the homeless and others I try to help.
Two days ago, I was helping at St.Andrews Church Open House. Each week some who are homeless, or living in impoverished circumstances, come to us and we give them among other things a hot meal. One conversation I had was with a guest who told me he had accommodation but his benefits had been stopped because he had missed an appointment he didn’t realize he had and as a result he had no money to buy food. He was understandably concerned but also appreciated the help people like us gave. What we do, along with a number of other voluntary organizations, is help those falling through the gaps. Shortly after, a friend invited me to sign an online petition that had the title “Hold an inquiry into benefit sanctions that killed my brother” that began: “My brother, David Clapson, a diabetic ex-soldier, died starving and destitute because he was penalised by the Job Centre for missing a meeting”.
I am conscious there is another side to most stories, but I have heard too many like the man I spoke to Sunday and that of David Clapson to know there is more than a little substance in the claim that people are being sanctioned needlessly or at least having to suffer significantly as a result of being sanctioned. Meeting such people remains a regular occurrence. It often seems that too many those who do get sanctioned for what appears spurious reasons are not only those who suffer significantly as a result but are also dis-empowered to the extent they don’t know best how to respond.
While the system appears rigid and harsh, I still encourage people who rely on benefits to sort out any issues and get good advice but, having spoken to so many, I understand the frustration and anxiety of being reliant on the benefits system. But as the saying goes, we are where we are and we do what we do to make a difference.