Have been thinking about the much-discussed end to austerity and public sector cuts ever since the politically-resuscitated (regurgitated?) Michael Gove floated the concept: “we…. need to take account of legitimate public concerns about ensuring that we properly fund public services,” blah, blah, etc.
An end to austerity would be tremendous, of course. Can’t wait, etc. I only hope that EVERYONE gets to share in the largesse. The time has come to throw out poisonous notions of Deserving and Undeserving poor. God knows that’s achieved nothing apart from division. Everyone is deserving and must be seen as such. When I say “everyone,” I mean even people who successive governments have made very sure are unpopular with taxpayers. “Everyone” must include the people that the Daily Mail et al like to dismiss as dead weight – the single mums, the people with drug and alcohol problems and people who don’t, for whatever reason, work (or vote). I tend to feel that when the political class talks about righting austerity’s wrongs, the recurring themes are stagnant pay, and funding the NHS, the police, social care, education and housing. Fair enough. Those services are vital.
There are other people, though. There are people whose lives have been wrecked by public sector cuts – particularly because the DWP and council frontline services they must use have been outsourced, reorganised, and/or cut past function – but who are less electorally pertinent than, say, nurses and the police. These are the people who have been abandoned to our era’s most spectacularly callous and defective bureaucracies. These are people who are judged harshly for their circumstances and often left with nothing to live on as a result. I trust our new wave of Tory austerity-relaxers will throw them a lifeline as well. Bit more carrot and less stick, and all that.
It is with this in mind that I take you towards Oldham now, to the South Chadderton foodbank where I spent several hours last week. I talked there with people who’d come in for food parcels because they’d run out of money.
I spoke with two women at length. One woman had lost income through benefit sanctions. The other had no income, because she’d failed a sickness benefit assessment, was mired in appeals and had no idea what to do next. Both women were having a hell of a time trying to make sense of the endless letters, cut income and confusing instructions that people are given by the DWP in our punitive and unhelpful austerity age. These people could have been anyone, really, in the sense that I see this confusion and incomprehension all the time.
The first woman was a young mum called Emma.
Emma was 31. She had three kids aged 13, five and six months. She told me a story I’ve heard variations on before. Emma said that her Income Support payments had been reduced, because she’d missed two work-related interviews at her jobcentre. I found out later that these interviews may not even have been mandatory. This sort of thing happens, though. People are told by jobcentre staff that they have to attend work activities or courses when they don’t. I’ve seen that more than once over the years, as I say. It’s the sort of thing I mean when I say that DWP systems are a shambles.
Emma said she’d missed the workforce interviews because she didn’t realise they were taking place.
“They’re every three months now (the work-related interviews at the jobcentre). They used to be every 12 months. It’s if you miss the appointments, that was why…
“I thought they were going to sanction me. I thought they were going to stop all my money, but they haven’t. They’ve just reducted [sic] so much money off of my benefits.”
Emma said that she hadn’t appealed the decision to cut her benefits, because she didn’t know that she could appeal.
“They said when I went to the jobcentre, when you’ve attended your workforce interview, they [the payments] will go back to normal.”
Emma doubted these workforce interviews would lead to work. I’ve attended enough of these work-related meetings to doubt the point of them myself. At best, work-related interviews are box-ticking exercises: proof by jobcentres for the DWP that people who sign on have been encouraged to look for jobs. At worst, they’re a means of keeping benefit recipients on a short leash – of making people return repeatedly to their jobcentres where they know they’re being watched. Here’s a story I did about such pointless demands being put on people who signed on at the North Kensington jobcentre: a place that was harsh on benefit recipients in my experience and that is in the mainstream news re: signon demands at the moment after the Grenfell disaster.
“[At the workforce interviews], they just ask you questions like, “are you planning on finding work in the future, [going to] college any kind?”
Emma said she’d had a job earlier this year, but that she’d stopped working because the work coincided with a cut to her benefits, for reasons she didn’t understand. Her benefits should not have reduced with the work (I think), but, as I say, we’re not talking about things that should or shouldn’t happen here. We’re talking about the things that do happen when a wrecked bureaucracy can’t function for the people who need it to function. Mistakes are made. Problems are found where there are none. Or they’re made. They seem impossible to sort out.
“I had a job and because my money went down… I thought it was because of the job… It was a cleaning job. I were doing two hours a day – eight to nine hours a week. It wasn’t 16 hours. They [the DWP] knew I was working…. and childcare. Nobody wants to look after your kids for free. The wages I was paying I was paying for childcare pretty much [took my wages]. When you’re working and everybody in your family is working, it’s hard to get childcare.”
To finish things off: the DWP was deducting money for a social fund loan repayment from Emma’s benefits. The upshot was that every fortnight, with her reduced benefit, Emma lost about £50 out of about £150. She said she’d tried to ring the DWP and get the loan repayment rate reduced. The DWP told her she must put her request in writing.
A bloke who turned up at the foodbank later on said the same thing had happened to him. This was a new twist. In the past, I’ve managed to get loan repayment rates reduced for people over the phone – you rang the DWP up, waited on hold, argued the toss when you finally got through to someone and agreed a lowered repayment rate then and there. Now, it seems that the DWP is not open for phone conversations on the subject. People must write in. God knows how long it takes to get a response.
The second woman, Theresa, 50, said she had nothing. She’d been to an Employment and Support benefits assessment and was found fit for work. She was trying to make her way through the torturous appeals process: a mandatory reconsideration and then, when that failed (it just had, as they usually do), a tribunal appeal. In the meantime, she was getting by at foodbanks and trying to avoid bank charges for failed withdrawals and insufficient funds:
“I’ve been for an [ESA fit-for-work] assessment. Already done it. I had it refused.
“My probationist had me done… I didn’t get my answer…now, since that all happened, it’s ridiculous. I had to stop me water rates and the set things coming out of my bank, because if my money wasn’t in there on a certain date, I get charged £8 for a [bank] transaction that’s not paid on that date. So if I missed two payments, that’s £16… that’s without me gas and electric…”
“… because I go to meetings, because of the alcohol and all, because I was an alcoholic and anyway, that’s the least of my worries, but I go to the meetings and a man there knew [about the failed application for Employment and Support Allowance], because I was upset last week, seeing me and he said, “I know a person who writes really good letters,” and he said “I’m shocked that you were refused this, because of all your medical history.”
You get the picture.
Hopefully, you get the point as well. These situations are going nowhere. A great deal of political and press energy has been spent telling the world that anyone in these sorts of situations is taking the piss and needs to learn responsibility by definition. The fact is that we’ve reached a point in austerity where it doesn’t matter how people get into *these* situations, What matters is that they can never get out, because they’re at the mercy of a shattered bureaucracy which leaves people scrabbling for basics, rather than in a position to create. Which is why I started out by saying that we need to throw out this Deserving and Undeserving Poor stuff. We’re not getting anywhere with that. Let’s think instead about immediate need.