Now working part-time, volunteers part-time. Cares what happens to UK society full-time
A report from the National Audit Office shows that benefit sanctions are randomly applied, while the knock-on impact of sanctions costs the taxpayer more than it saves. The NAO also say that there is no evidence that the regime actually works. It is a quietly damning report showing the ineffectiveness of Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare project.
I was sanctioned for not looking for work. Fair punishment you might think, but the reason I was unable to job search was because I was doing a 2 week training course in a neighbouring town, leaving home at 7am and returning home at 7pm. I had been instructed by the job centre that I did not need to jobsearch or sign-on during that time. But another adviser disagreed so I lost my £71 a week jobseekers allowance for 4 weeks. I went without electricity, heating and food for most of the sanction.
It climaxed on Christmas day when I sat at home with absolutely nothing, watching happy families walking past my window, while I sat silently, dealing with diarrhoea and waiting for it to get dark so I could try and sleep. It wasn’t until I received a Christmas card from a relative with £20 in it that I was able to eat and buy electric for the meter.
Less than two weeks later I was told by the same jobcentre adviser that I needed to learn a work ethic – clearly, 20 years of work history wasn’t enough – so she put me on mandatory work activity, also known as workfare. It meant working full time for 4 weeks for free in order to get my benefits. Effectively, I was being punished for being sanctioned. I didn’t argue with her, instead I went straight home, emptied the bathroom cabinet of the various pills I had stored away and tried to end my life. Less than a year earlier I had been earning £35k at a university in London.
In the run-up to the Autumn Statement the papers were filled with news about so-called JAMs. These 6 million families who are ‘just about managing’ will no doubt be hoping that the PM will fulfil her promise to make their lives better. But there is another group of families who have lost that hope. They are the ones who have been on the receiving end of harsh cuts to their income, through austere welfare cuts and sanctions. Most of them also work but live in fear that the Government will make their lives even harder.
I am not alone in receiving a sanction, since the Conservatives were elected in 2010 until June this year around 3 million individuals have received 8 million sanctions. Some may have been able to overturn the decision, but more wouldn’t. The 3m figure doesn’t include family members – mostly children – who are also affected by sanctions. For children living in sanctioned households, schools and foodbanks have become a lifeline, with teachers reportedly using money meant for education to buy food and clothing.
Some people whose benefit entitlement has been cut turn to social media for support. When Lauren got a letter from the council to inform her that housing benefit was being cut by £103.99 a week because of changes to the benefit cap, she went online to seek help. However, what she got was hate from people who are themselves ‘just about managing’. Too many people now see single mums who rely on benefits as unworthy of respect and are instead treated as ‘breeders’ who are responsible for their own misery. Disabled people also face this welfare backlash.
There is now a common idea that if you are on disability benefits you must be faking it or are too lazy to work. The Government puts across a message that work is the best way to improve their health and wellbeing but they ignore the research which shows that employment only helps certain people in certain situations. It is not a miracle cure.
For me the road back to work and full health has been long. Following my sanction I started over-eating, put on weight and have struggled with depression and agoraphobia brought about by anxiety. I now work casually part-time but my income is not always enough to pay my bills. Bit by bit, week by week I have slid into debt, until last week I reached a crisis point.
A delayed benefit payment due to a computer error led to bank charges which put me overdrawn and left me unable to buy food. With no opportunity to get help from family I sought help from my housing association and was given a voucher for the local food bank, but it didn’t open for a few days so I had to wait. That afternoon, my electric ran out so I sat there in the dark, feeling very alone, with no food to eat, and memories of my sanction filling my mind.
I was lucky to receive a more positive response when I turned to social media for help. After a period of feeling sorry for myself, I wrote a blog post using my phone and Wi-Fi from a neighbour and was able to get enough support to overcome my immediate problem. But there are many people out there who don’t have this luxury. Over Christmas last year 23,901 jobseekers and a further 3,031 sick or disabled people were sanctioned, with many of those potentially spending that time living without food and heating. Many others will not have a home at all and will be sleeping rough.
While many families will be concerned about IFS research warning of the biggest squeeze to their pay in 70 years, another group will be concerned about not having any income at all. The National Audit office report that 24% of all people who claim jobseekers allowance will receive a sanction penalty at some point during their claim. That’s 1 in 4 families who are likely to suffer undue stress and who are more likely to need the food bank and use unethical payday loan services.
The National Audit Office found that benefit sanctions drive some vulnerable and disabled people into precarious, low paid work, while others stop claiming altogether. PCS general secretary Mark Sewotka said, “We have said time and again that benefit sanctions are cruel and counterproductive, so it is shocking that, years on, the government still has no real clue about the effects of its policy. Ministers turned jobcentres from places to go for help into places of suspicion and conflict, and it is about time the regime was scrapped in favour of proper investment in staff to provide genuine support to those who need it.”
Recently, during a debate on cuts to Employment and Support Allowance, MP Ian Mearns highlighted a constituent who had been forced to heat soup tins with a tea light following redundancy. Simon was failed by the welfare system that was supposed to help him. Benefit sanctions and austerity have forced many households into undignified situations in order to feed themselves and their loved ones. To these families they are not just about managing – it is much worse than that.
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