Benefit sanctions mean starvation

At the close of 2014 a number of reports on the extent of malnutrition and the staggering rise in the use of food banks were released showing the brutal reality of 21st-century Britain. Already by April 2014 the numbers using Trussell Trust food banks had risen by 163% since April 2013. Ruling class parties – Tory, Liberal and Labour alike – pass sentences of starvation and death on the poor and vulnerable through benefit and service cuts and low wages. Charity is encouraged as eligibility for state welfare is reduced and levels cut. Prime Minister Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is no more than a return to Victorian values. Dominic Mulgrew reports.

In response to a Church of England report published in December 2014 on food banks, which linked their increasing use to state benefit delays and sanctions, government ministers repeated the claim that this was down to greater publicity and not benefit cuts. Both Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith and Employment Minister Esther McVey have repeatedly refused to give evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s welfare reform committee on the damaging effect of benefit sanctions and McVey stated in a letter to the committee: ‘It is widely accepted they play an important role in the benefit system. They are effective in encouraging compliance and we continue to manage the process so they are only imposed as a last resort.’ (Daily Record, 7 January 2015).

Figures released at the end of August 2014 show there has been a 19% increase in the number of English and Welsh citizens hospitalised for malnutrition over the past year – from 5,469 to 6,520 people. The vice president of the Faculty of Public Health, John Middleton, stated that ‘extreme poverty and the use of food banks’ were to blame for the increase in hospital admissions and the reason was ‘because people can’t afford good quality food. Malnutrition, rickets and other manifestations of extreme poor diet are becoming apparent.’ Playing a game of smoke and mirrors, the Health Minister Dan Poulter told the BBC that the increase in malnutrition was down ‘to better diagnosis’. Durham Police and Crime Commissioner Ron Hogg stated that some people were resorting to committing crime ‘simply to live’.

Increasing malnutrition

The British government’s own ‘Family Food’ report found that the poorest 10% of the population in Britain covering all age groups – some 6.4 million people – did not get the recommended daily calorie intake of 2,080 in an average day last year (The Independent, 28 December 2014). 10,500 people were given aid at the 48 Trussell Trust foodbanks across Scotland in the run-up to Christmas. The Trussell Trust has described these figures as the ‘tip of an iceberg’. They are now running 423 food banks throughout the UK with two opening every week during 2013-14 to meet demand (The Sunday Herald, 28 December).

Benefit sanctions kill

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) latest figures show that benefit sanctions to punish disabled Employment Support Allowance (ESA) claimants had risen by 470% in 18 months, from 1,096 in December 2012 to 5,132 in June 2014. According to DWP figures released as the result of a Freedom of Information request, 62% of ESA sanction decisions in the first three months of 2014 were made against people with mental or behavioural problems – 9,851 out of 15,955. The DWP has been forced to carry out 60 internal investigations into the suicides of claimants since February 2012 which were directly connected with the benefit system. The death of David Clapson, 59, in July 2014 illustrates this. A former soldier and type-1 diabetic, he died after his benefit was cut; he was found to have no food in his stomach, £3.44 in the bank and no money on his electricity card, leaving him unable to operate his fridge where he kept his insulin.

Food For Thought report

Clapson’s is only one example of brutal hardship imposed by a system whose inhumanity has been exposed in a recent YMCA report ‘Food for thought’. 700,000 people in England are currently going through the lengthy process of waiting for assessment to claim ESA. In the meantime they have to depend on an inadequate basic allowance which does not suitably meet their greater support needs. (YMCA, p5). It is no accident the sick and disabled have been hammered. The ruling class is consciously attacking the weakest. The lack of solidarity with these groups so far demonstrated by the wider working class and in particular the trade unions merely encourages the ruling class to broaden its attack on the working class. Young people have also been hit hard by the sanctions regime. Despite making up only 26% of Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) claimants, young people are bearing 41% of sanctions issued. This equates to nearly 1,000 young people having their benefits taken away from them every day since October 2012 (YMCA, p8). Receiving lower rates of wages and benefits but faced with the same rising cost of living young people are being hit harder than most groups.

Back to the workhouse

The YMCA report details a significant increase in the number of young people it had to refer to food banks in 2014 compared with the previous year. 88% of its 114 branches in England – most were participating in the report – are making food bank referrals. This amounted to between 4,400-5,200 young people in 2014. Just under four out of five branches (79%) reported having to make these referrals as a direct result of benefit delays and punitive sanctions (YMCA, p3). Across the whole of the UK over 955,000 people aged 16-24 are currently not in education, employment or training (NEET) (The Guardian, 21 August). Combined with homelessness, which will increase with proposed restrictions on housing benefit for people under 21, this NEET category may soon face the 21st century workhouse. A charity in Blackburn is to set a precedent in opening a recycling centre with accommodation for ten unemployed homeless people who will work for their keep (Lancashire Telegraph, 13 November). Just like food banks, how long will it be before this becomes the norm across Britain?

Fighting benefit sanctions

In spite of the difficulties they face, young people are leading by example in challenging the benefit sanctions regime. Nearly half of the young people sanctioned since October 2012 who challenged their sanction by asking for a mandatory reconsideration or making an appeal had them overturned. This amounts to 52,800 young people in England (YMCA, p8). This shows the importance of knowing our rights and fighting for them. This is especially the case as the majority of claimants facing benefit delays and sanctions are not being told by DWP staff what support they are entitled to. For example Short-Term Benefit Advance, Alternative Payment Arrangements and Hardship Payments are available. Local welfare assistance schemes from local councils in England have so far been massively underused. Resistance to benefit cuts must happen inside and outside job and assessment centres. The government’s system must be made unworkable.

There can be no doubt that austerity Britain will get worse and will become the norm for increasing numbers of people. The ruling class is united in its attack on welfare. We are not even half way through the £90bn proposed cuts to be implemented by 2019. Chancellor Osborne has promised to cut a further £12bn a year from the welfare bill if the Conservatives win the General Election. He also proposed a freezing of working-age benefits for two years, reducing the overall benefit cap from £26,000 to £23,000, and limiting access to housing benefit for people under 21.

Labour punishing benefit claimants

Beyond the empty rhetoric the Labour Party is just as determined to make the poor and oppressed pay for the crisis of the bankers. Shadow Secretary for Work and Pensions Rachel Reeves – a former Bank of England economist – has consistently promised that Labour would be tougher than the Tories on cutting welfare and attacking migrants’ rights in the UK if it is elected and supported the principle of the benefits cap. She will not rule out continuing with the appalling Universal Credit system of benefits, saying in an open letter to Iain Duncan Smith on 14 October 2014 that ‘the principle of Universal Credit is a good one that could bring real benefits to claimants, communities and taxpayers’. Universal Credit will merge all benefits into one monthly payment with the consequence that sanctioned claimants can lose all their benefit. Under the present system, sanctioned claimants remain eligible for housing benefit although they have to submit a fresh claim for it. In February, new regulations will allow personal data of Universal Credit recipients – medical as well as financial – to be shared with landlords, councils and charities.

Reeves has promised to deny European migrants to Britain welfare benefits for up to two years – which goes far beyond the current delay of three months – and has drawn up a ‘jobs guarantee scheme’ which will force under-25s who have been out of work for a year into a minimum wage job or they will lose all benefits. The same will be true for over-25s after two years on Jobseeker’s Allowance.

No vote for Labour

Launching Labour’s election campaign on 5 January in Salford, Ed Miliband made plenty of promises – protecting the NHS, raising the minimum wage to £8 an hour, ‘dealing’ with the scandal of zero-hours contracts, criticising university tuition fees and advocating ‘fair’ treatment of migrant workers. He has described Britain as a country of ‘food banks and bankers’ bonuses’ but reassured the business community of his commitment to austerity, stating that none of the changes he would bring would be ‘easy or instant.’ 60% of the 3,500 individuals the Salford Central food bank fed by the end of 2014 had been subject to benefit sanctions. A report from the food bank stated that ‘sanctioning could lead to extreme hardship, reliance on loan sharks, shoplifting and depression’ (The Guardian, 3 January 2015). In reality the Labour Party will do nothing to change this: it is first and foremost a ruling class party. Instead we must rely on ourselves to organise resistance to capitalism and overcome ruling class efforts to divide and rule us by skin colour, nationality, gender and age. Now is the time to take direct action to disrupt the operation of workfare and the benefit reforms.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 243 February/March 2015