Saving Our Safety Net Fact of the Week: cruelty to people who are weak and poor is the most important fact of all
This is my last Fact of the Week until the New Year, and I want finish 2014 by thinking about the human costs of benefit cuts. The other facts have been the sort you can put a £ sign in front of or a % sign after, or which you measure in millions. Here I want to concentrate on the facts that you measure one at a time: the people whose lives are devastated by cuts and ‘reforms’.
I’ve been keeping track of some of these stories over the past few weeks and the hyperlinks take you to the place where I saw them originally. I won’t try to dress up these stories; I think they speak for themselves.
- Fergus Wilson, a buy-to-let landlord, sent eviction notices to 200 tenants because they were benefit claimants.
- Linda Wootton, who had had a heart and lung transplant, scored zero points on the test for Employment and Support Allowance. Nine days later, she died. Her husband said “I’m not blaming Atos for her death. She died because of a collapsed lung and blood clots after a medical procedure. But I pitied the way Linda was made to feel and I still feel very, very frustrated at the way she was treated.”
- Jim Pritchard had to sell his medals from serving in the Falklands War after the Bedroom Tax cut his income by £23 a week.
- Ex-soldier David Clapson was unemployed and had diabetes. When he missed a meeting at the Jobcentre his JSA was stopped. With no money, he couldn’t pay for electricity for the fridge where he kept his insulin. He died of diabetic ketoacidosis, which can be caused by not taking your insulin. According to the Mirror, the coroner found he had no food in his stomach; he had just £3.44 in his account plus “six tea bags, a tin of soup and an out-of-date can of sardines.”
- Annette Francis had waited for six months for her Personal Independence Payment – and was probably owed hundreds of pounds – when she committed suicide. According to the Mirror, she had repeatedly asked the Jobcentre for help and the coroner described her suicide as a “cry for help”. The DWP, however, “said it was the applicant’s responsibility to make a claim and money could not be backdated.”
- Zulfiqar Shah has severe diabetes, mental health problems and is nearly blind. He scored zero points on the test for Employment and Support Allowance and when his benefits were stopped he could no longer afford to eat. Afraid he might have a hypoglycaemic attack, he stopped taking his insulin and his eyesight got worse. Only his family saved him.
- Roy Langridge has lung disease and arthritis. According to the Disability News Service, he needs a machine to help him breathe, has to sleep upright, and is often sick in his sleep. Plainly his wife couldn’t sleep in the same bedroom and when the couple had to be re-housed the local authority moved them from a 1-bedroom to a 2-bedroom flat. And then a few weeks later they found that they had been hit by the Bedroom Tax, costing them £70 a month.
- Natasha Pogson, who was born blind, failed the Work Capability Assessment for ESA after she was humiliated by an assessor waving his hand in front of her face and asking questions like “how many fingers am I holding up?”
- In December, Hastings Garden Centre’s Facebook recruitment advert for a cook said “If you are in receipt of benefits your application is going in the bin”.
This is far from being the end of the story; Black Triangle has published a list of seventy Welfare Reform Deaths and it has emerged that the Department for Work and Pensions has carried out sixty internal investigations into suicides linked to benefit decisions (but the Department has refused to publish them).
What strikes me about these stories is the lack of respect for claimants they show. When the Chancellor talks about unemployed people “sleeping off a life on benefits” and the Minister for Welfare Reform thinks some disabled people are “not worth” the minimum wage it isn’t all that surprising that their attitudes get passed down the chain.
What drives people to claim benefits is the fact that they can’t get work, or enough work for their families. In the latest figures, there were 848,000 people getting Jobseekeer’s Allowance. Five years ago there were 1,569,000 and five years before that 803,000. These numbers haven’t gone up and down because the number of lazy or dishonest people has changed. And it wasn’t because the Labour government in 2004 was tough on welfare, the Labour government in 2009 was easy-going and the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition is tough again.
These numbers change because of economic forces that the vast majority of claimants can do little to influence. They aren’t responsible for the economic and business decisions that have forced thousands out of jobs they loved or that make other jobs inaccessible to many disabled people.
They are the victims in this story, not the villains and most are doing what they can to look after themselves and their families. They’re doing their best, just like the millions of workers coping with falling real incomes, zero hours contract workers with no regular amount to take home and people in precarious work facing worsening pay and conditions. There are lots of reasons why those workers can be treated like this, but one is the stigmatisation of people on benefits, which makes it harder and harder for any worker to tell an exploitative boss “stuff your job!”
And the rest of us are weaker because the treatment of precarious workers undermines our security, just as the threat of unemployment weakens them.
The person humiliated at the WCA, the person whose job application was “binned” because they are unemployed, the person kept waiting for months for benefits they’re entitled to. They’re at one end of a chain and at the other end there’s you and me.