No less than two stories floated across the Vox Political desktop this morning to ensure that the big story of the day would not be the EU’s attempt to extort money from David Cameron*.
Both these stories concerned unfortunate UK citizens who had been forced to steal food after the Job Centre had sanctioned their benefits for missing appointments – not for job interviews, but with Job Centre staff.
Recovering drug addict Ian Mulholland, 47, is facing the prospect of leg amputation and was unable to attend his Job Centre because his ulcerated legs left him unable to get there. Sanctioned for nine weeks and unable to get to a food bank for the same reason he could not attend the Job Centre, hunger drove him to steal from his local supermarket. He was sentenced to 14 weeks at Her Majesty’s convenience, a lengthier stay than would be expected normally due to previous convictions. The practical upshot is that the taxpayer is now spending more on his upkeep than if he had not been sanctioned.
And Lucy Hill, who is in the work-related activity group of Employment and Support Allowance claimants, had no alternative other than to steal food for herself and her family after she missed an appointment with a Job Centre advisor who was supposed to be helping her with the training and skills necessary to get back into work when her health improved enough for her to take a job again. Her benefit was sanctioned as a result.
These stories are appalling indictments against our Tory-led government and its policies, which are intended to hurt people, simply for being poor. It makes no financial sense at all for the authorities to impose conditions on a person’s benefit that are impossible for them to meet (due, in both the cases mentioned, to obvious health problems) and then remove their benefit when they fail to comply, when this only forces them to commit a crime in order to survive, prompting police investigation, prosecution and possibly imprisonment, all at the taxpayers’ expense.
The Coalition’s ministers are supposed to be finding ways of saving money, yet they are clearly prepared to spend it like water if it means they have an opportunity to humiliate the poor.
Fortunately, it seems likely that this attitude has had its day.
Look at this article on the Mulholland case. As far as the author is concerned, Ian Mulholland was not the perpetrator of a crime but the victim – and the government, via its various benefit-withdrawing and law-enforcing arms, was the villain.
Commenters on the Lucy Hill article made it perfectly clear that they supported the defenceless single mum and not the faceless bureaucracy.
People are coming together to oppose these unreasonable, draconian decisions.
And this is good – because it’s how we’re going to beat them.
Remember the JSA claimant mentioned in this blog a few weeks ago? He interviewed for a job lasting 22.5 hours per week and then had to turn it down when managers tried to increase the hours to 40; the hotel told the Job Centre and he was left facing sanctions.
Well, on Wednesday he came to VP Towers in a state of some distress, with a letter from the Job Centre sanctioning his benefit for no less than three months. Fortunately, having seen your responses to the previous article, a course of action was available.
Before he left that afternoon, he had reported the hotel to HM Revenue and Customs for possible tax evasion (declaring tax and NI for only 22.5 hours instead of 40) and had written to the Job Centre decision-makers, explaining that he was innocent of wrong-doing, that he had reported the hotel for breaking the law, and that he wanted his sanction reconsidered.
We won’t identify the person who provided the advice (to save that person’s blushes) but our mutual friend is indebted to that person because he received a telephone call from the Job Centre this morning, apologising for what had happened and assuring him that his benefit would be reinstated.
It is possible to beat the bureaucrats, if we pool our knowledge and resources.
That is why it is important for cases like these to be brought to public attention – to make it possible for people with the necessary knowledge and skills to come forward and provide the help that is needed. In this case, it came from an individual with specialist knowledge; there are also Facebook groups such as Fightback and 4UP (and others, no doubt – Job Seeker Sanction Advice has been flagged up as another good one).
The help these people and groups provide is only a temporary, stop-gap solution. In the end, we must decide – as a society – to reject the small-minded, despotic attitude that induces governments to impose impossible conditions on benefit claimants, and we must demand a fairer deal for those who are least able to negotiate it for themselves.
That has to happen through pressure on political parties, and then at the ballot box.
But this – this is a start.
* Or was the EU just calling Call-Me-Dave’s bluff? Cameron has been crowing that the economy is purring along wonderfully but tax takings are down, meaning the State is not benefiting at all – and that is the only measure of success that the European Union will accept. What we’re being told is that the UK economy is not succeeding because the UK Treasury has nothing to show for it.
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