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?  


Edward Spalton said...

Having been an employer for most of my working life, firstly on behalf of an established small firm and then in my own business, I have seen the lot I think.

Back in the mid Sixties when there was full employment, the Labour a Exchange would send us its hard cases. Some seemed quite reasonable and plausible, some were obvious drunks and some had been badly shaken up in the war. Being young and foolish, I would ask the more presentable what work they had done etc until one old stager put me right. "Just sign the bloody card, mister" he said. That way, he could claim his benefit, the Labour Exchange could prove that he was "genuinely seeking work" and the only thing lost was my time. I soon stopped the Labour Exchange from sending men to us.

Later, in the mid Eighties I was trying to recruit a small, stable production team and found that the first great problems were illiteracy and innumeracy. Then there was instability. Most came from single parent homes and were not used to the idea of routine and regular attendance, so timekeeping could not be taken as a "given". The state education/child minding system had been highly successful in giving them a sense of self-esteem so that some thought it beneath themselves to sweep a floor. This type were rather like impoverished aristocrats in some ways - touchy on matters of this sort and with a great sense of entitlement - for underneath were always the everlasting arms of " The Social".

We later saw from the first wave of immigration from Eastern Europe that there were then plenty of jobs which , we were told, the British didn't want to do. Well, if I had a choice between staying in bed on "The Social" with occasional cash-in-hand work as a bonus - rather than, say, picking strawberries in a sweltering poly tunnel or Brussels sprouts in the freezing cold, I would incline to stay at home.
When the early Church formed its own mutual support system ( a mini welfare state) it quickly attracted people of this sort. The direction to the deacons( the welfare workers of that day) was "He that will not work, neither shall he eat". That is a Christian principle.

The trouble is that we have a vast, expensive, unmanageable system which cannot distinguish between the skivers and the genuine hardship cases.
In Switzerland, I believe, there is a national insurance scheme but the length of time for which quite generous benefits are paid depends on length of previous employment. After that, the unemployed are literally " on the parish" , the commune, where the relieving officers will have personal knowledge of the claimants and be able to distinguish between deserving and undeserving cases. That, of course, is anathema to the cast of thought in the poverty/welfare industry here, where such "discrimination" has been outlawed since the days of Roy Jenkins and his "civilised society"

Jim Greenhalf said...

Aw, c'mon now, Mr S, 44 years and at least seven prime ministers have passed under Westminster Bridge since Roy Jenkins was Chancellor of the Exchequer. A lot has happened since 1967-70.

She Who Must Be Obeyed screwed the lid down on the Permissive Society, though I'm willing to believe that the 'Loadasmoney' alternative that replaced it was, in part, inadvertent. She thought she was creating the virtuous society. The Law of Unforeseen Consequences put paid to that, helped just a little by Big Bang and the City of London free-for-all that followed.

If, as David Byrne suggested in The Guardian a couple of years ago, that the subsidization of low wages and welfare payments through taxation is the consolidation of the Speenhamland System (of outdoor relief for agricultural workers in the 18th and early 19th centuries). then it looks as though we are going backwards.

Habitual welfarism is not a good thing. Neither is yanking support away from somebody, who is trying to make a go of it, by zealous and paranoid authoritarianism. If you approve of scaring people off of welfare, you should also approve of scaring tax-scammers into paying their dues, especially at a time when Vince Cable is advising corporations and banks to knock off giving out bonuses that make Waybne Rooney's weekly wage look peanuts.

However, I can quite accept that morality went out of post-war politics long before MPs fiddled their expenses or lied about Britain's sovereignty within the EEC - neither of which poor old Roy Jenkins was responsible for, Europhile though he certainly was; long before, even, the Lady Chatterley thing and The Beatles first LP. 1956 perhaps?

Edward Spalton said...

I have the sort of mind in which things stick - not everything but some. One of those things is Roy Jenkins' praise for the great contribution which "the voluntary unemployed" were making to society. That a senior politician could make such a statement and still remain a senior politician for a long time says it all.

I knew an idealistic young social worker at the time and so got to read "New Society" and recall a serious proposal that the work shy should not be put through the indignity of going through the motions of "genuinely seeking work. They should be able to become "state registered ergophobiacs" on a benefit of £500 per annum which was then around the basic rate for an agricultural labourer ( on which he would pay national insurance and some small amount of tax).

There had been a long campaign to remove all distinction between deserving and undeserving cases of benefit recipients and Woy Boy crowned it with political sanction from the top. It is a bit like comprehensive education. We have been stuck with it ever since . Bureaucratic inertia combined with the "long march through the institutions" of the cultural Marxists has kept things so.

Incidentally, quite by chance through being executor to a retired clergyman, I have the full "civilised society" article in the Sunday Mirror. It's the same edition which covers the first moon landing and Senator Ted Kennedy's little embarrassment at Chappaquiddick ( May have spelling wrong there). The articles are generally well written and it drove home to me the extreme dumbing down which has taken place in the popular newspapers - mostly ( I suspect) because of comprehensive education . I don,t have a scanner myself but will get someone to send you a scan if you like.