Thursday, 17 April 2014

Sanctioning Food Banks

More than 900,000 food parcels were handed out to just over 37,000 people in Yorkshire and Humberside in the past year by the Trussell Trust alone. Welfare reforms or cuts combined with the rising cost of living is the reason food banks are so busy even though the rate of inflation has gone down to 1.6 per cent and more people than ever are in work.

David Ward, Liberal-Democrat MP for Bradford East, whose constituency has seen a drop in Job Seeker’s Allowance claimants of about 900 over the past year, said he wondered if scaring people into jobs was part of the overall strategy. 

“Maybe the aim is to make it a hostile environment for people who are unemployed. The trouble is, the background to all this, is that the public at large believe the welfare system is dysfunctional and needs sorting out. They are pretty unsympathetic to people who are claiming benefits - the skivers, the scroungers, as they see it.

“But the system from the Department of Work and Pensions that comes through Job Centres is inefficient. There are delays, letters get sent to the wrong address, or people try to ring up and can’t get through. One man who I saw was given 14 job inquiries to follow up in two weeks. He had been to 11. But because he had not been to all 14 his Job Seeker’s Allowance was stopped - ‘sanctioned’ it’s called. It could take you seven months before you’re back on Job Seeker’s. What are you supposed to do if you haven’t got any money?” 

Sanctioning has always been a feature of the benefits system. In Bradford, between 2009 and 2010 sanctions handed out to job seekers totalled 4,370. Two years later the figure was 9,320, implying a tightening up of the regime. The people who make the most referrals to Trussell Trust food banks, I was told, are Job Centre staff, the same people who, under pressure to meet targets, issue these sanctions. There is an appeals system, but you have to be canny or assisted to negotiate it. You have to be patient too because the backlog of pending cases is so great you can be waiting for 12 months - without money. Commonsense and discretion are not encouraged among Job Centre staff, I was told. If you are one of the lucky ones whom this part of the changing world has passed by, be grateful without feeling too self-satisfied. Being down on your luck may not have changed, but the manner of the help available has. 

Never having been in the benefits’ system I have no experience of its methods and means. I don’t know how it feels to be summarily sanctioned for contravening strict rules for the unemployed, to be told that state help will be withdrawn for four, seven, thirteen or even twenty-six weeks. 

Suppose I am not a feckless mumper acclimatised to living off the state. Suppose what little self-esteem I had vanished when I lost my job or had to stop working. Suppose being caught up in the welfare benefits command and control web with its system of sanctions and punishments and the sense of humiliation that goes with obeying Jobsworths proves unsupportable. Suppose what money I had saved up against ruin and despair had gone – there are so many ways to get financially wiped out these days.  When you ain’t got nuthin’ you got nuthin’ to lose might be a stimulating idea to those in transit from one interesting cultural experience to another, but the naked reality is, I suspect, more heart-gripping and desperate. But David Ward is right. Public sympathy is in short supply if the following online newspaper comment made recently in Bradford is anything to go by:- 

Charities should not undermine Government policy, which is to use starvation to force the lazy to get a job. It’s the only weapon left to use on benefit scroungers who think the state is just there to keep them in idleness. Poverty is a choice by the thick and the do-nothings. They have to be taught to live with the consequences. The next Conservative Government will do away with the freebies like health and education. The poor will then have to shape up or bear the consequences. (pcmanners)

In one supermarket we go to they’ve taken to security coding bacon, cheese and better cuts of meat because people have been stealing them. Two or three years ago a manager in another store told us that thieves nicking electrical goods was costing the store about £3,000 a week. I assumed this form of daylight robbery was connected to drugs. I don’t think people nick rashers to buy heroin, besides most of it has already been smoked. People are stealing food because they’re hungry.West Yorkshire Police, I was told, were after the addresses of food banks in Bradford so they could refer petty felons to them; evidently they saw no point in charging hungry people with stealing food. 

If ever there was a suitable time to revive Edward Bond’s play Bingo, this is it. In this play a mumbling, stumbling Shakespeare, retired to his New Place mansion in Stratford-upon-Avon, wondering if his writing career really amounted to much. “Was anything done?” he keeps asking rhetorically.  Bond draws a telling parallel between the insights into social injustice and cruelty uttered by King Lear and Shakespeare’s personal implication in Stratford land enclosures and the consequent poverty and hardship that came from it.

The old monstrous King gives his kingdom away to two of his three daughters and they, after proscribing his followers and blinding his ally the Earl of Gloucester, abandon Lear to the elements. In the midst of a terrible storm Lear is struck by a lightning bolt of insight which reveals the true state of his kingdom to his shattered but reorganised wits:-

Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O I have ta'en
Too little care of this...Unaccomodated man is no
More but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.  

Bingo was first published by Methuen in 1974. My battered 1976 edition contains, just about, a seven-and-a-half page introduction by Bond. In it he says this:- I wrote Bingo because I think the contradictions in Shakespeare’s are similar to the contradictions in us. He was a ‘corrupt seer’ and we are a ‘barbarous civilisation’.  Because  of that our society could destroy itself. We believe in certain values but our society only works by destroying them, so that our daily lives are a denial of our hopes. That makes our world absurd and often it makes our own species hateful to us. Morality is reduced to surface details and trivialities. Is it so easy to live like that? Or are we surrounded by frustration and bitterness, cynicism and inefficiency, and an inner feeling of weakness that comes from knowing we waste our energy on things that finally can’t satisfy us?

It might explain why in a welfare state democracy, when people are stealing food to survive and others are being denied the means of survival by the state, painting pictures, writing books, listening to music and going to the theatre, feel self-indulgent activities. Socially we have come a long way from the England of Elizabeth 1, where terrible things occurred every day. The England of Elizabeth II in which I grew up encouraged the belief that the state would always offer a safety net to those who fell on hard times; that in spite of those who selfishly exploited it, having it there was a better idea than not having it there. I never had to use it, wouldn’t have had the first idea how to exploit it; but just knowing that a safety net existed allowed my generation to live a bit more courageously, to charge off all over the world or take up ventures that didn’t necessarily lead to a retirement pension and a silver cigarette case after fifty years. In short, old buggers like me have no experience of this brave new world of welfare sanctions, food banks and people nicking bacon and cheese to keep themselves going.

The likes of cpmanners  can’t wait for the day when the mumpers, the skivers, the scroungers – the poor – are dealt with once and for all. But even Hitler’s final solution backfired. His attempt to turn European Jewry into smoke resulted in the creation of state of Israel: the leader of the Third Reich was Israel’s true founding father. The mistake that pcmanners and all those like-minded make is that they will never be poor, that they have enough of the right stuff, the moxie, the will, to triumph over the worst that adversity can throw at them. Am I alone in hearing in that stentorian voice of malice – They have to be taught to live with the consequences – the angry, self-justifying, note of fear?