The word is ‘cruelty’. That’s the only way to describe how people on benefits are treated, says Unite Community activist Colin Hampton.
The current benefits regime seems to operate like a sinister game of Snakes and Ladders … without the ladders.
But it is anything but a game. People have died, people have committed suicide – directly as a result of arbitrary decisions taken by officials who are under huge pressure to treat claimants like criminals and get them off benefits.
Claimants can lose their entitlements for absurd reasons, such as turning up one minute late to a Jobcentre or missing an appointment to attend a family funeral.
Freedom of information requests have revealed that the department for work and pensions (DWP) is investigating the cases of 60 claimants who died shortly after having their benefits cut or withdrawn.
It’s the first time the DWP has recognised that benefits sanctions – punishments by another word – can kill.
Take the tragic case of Stephen Lynham, 53, who suffered from anxiety and depression as well as high blood pressure, a heart condition and musculo-skeletal problems.
Colin Hampton, of the Derbyshire Unemployed Workers’ Centre, tells how Stephen was found fit for work by the DWP’s ‘work capability assessment’. Stephen challenged the decision and it went to ‘mandatory reconsideration’, an intermediate stage to try to stop cases going to tribunal appeals.
Stephen was in no condition to look for work so felt unable to sign on Jobseekers’ Allowance while he waited for a result. As a consequence he received nothing. Then the DWP lost his paperwork and nothing came of repeated phone calls and letters.
After 22 weeks the reconsideration process turned him down. He had lived on two small loans from the local discretionary fund and he used local food banks, but was not eating well. He was facing eviction and became ever more depressed.
Stephen died shortly after receiving the news that he would be allowed to appeal against the department’s decision.
His sister, Mavis Bond, was shocked at the treatment of her brother. “I find it hard to believe in this day and age that the state would leave a man penniless – but this is 21st-century Britain where a sick man can be hounded to death and denied a safety net.”
Stephen’s appeal was heard posthumously and the tribunal overturned the department’s decision. The story has one more twist. The DWP is now pursuing Mavis for the grant she received to bury her brother. “Not content with hounding him while he lived, the cruel system continues to bring misery to Mavis who is herself in poor health,” says Colin. “People’s treatment at the hands of the department is frightening.”
Recently Colin was granted a meeting with a reluctant senior DWP official responsible for Central England following pressure from local MPs.
“We told him people were dying and people were committing suicide because they had been refused benefits and he didn’t flinch. He wasn’t interested in our feedback. The whole experience was painful.”
The official had initially refused to meet him on the grounds that there was ‘no evidence’ of fatalities. “Well, there’s no evidence, if you don’t look for it,” says Colin.
The DWP man sat unmoved as Colin pointed out that the department only seemed to count the number of people coming off benefit, not the numbers going into jobs. The official refused to accept that a sanctions culture existed. “But people are being driven to despair,” says Colin.
“One man was sanctioned so many times he ended up in a mental health unit. The sanctions have the effect of sending people further and further from the labour market as they become more desperate. He is now in a secure unit.”
Another much-publicised case involved former soldier David Clapson who died after his benefits were stopped because he missed one meeting at a Jobcentre.
He was diabetic, and without the £71.70 a week from his Jobseeker’s Allowance he couldn’t afford to eat or put credit on his electricity card to keep his insulin at the correct temperature in the fridge. Three weeks later David died because of a severe lack of the medication. The coroner said that when David died he had no food in his stomach. A pile of CVs was found next to his body.
More than a million people in this country have had their benefits stopped over the past year. Sanctions against chronically ill and disabled people have risen by 580 per cent in a year.
The sanctions force them into the hundreds of food banks that now serve a quarter of a million people in this country, up from only a few thousand people before 2010.
People are also being forced to use clothing banks. Unite Community members Dawn Wilson and Catherine Ainsley have established the County Durham Socialist Clothing Bank to cater for the increasing numbers of people who cannot afford to use conventional shops. Even charity shops can be too expensive. James Wharton, Tory MP for Stockton South, said the clothing bank was a publicity stunt.
“Basic fairness and dignity, in the workplace and in the community, is fast disappearing under this government,” said Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey.
“Those in work can no longer expect secure employment on a living wage with the boom in zero-hours and bogus self-employment leaving millions unable to pay basic bills.
“For those not in work this government isn’t satisfied until the poor, vulnerable and disabled are left entirely destitute. Worse, it publicises the very benefit sanctions that are killing innocent people as political propaganda,” he added.
This evil system has a knock-on effect among the rest of the population says Colin Hampton. “What’s happening to people on benefits is important to those in work, especially for people on low wages.
“It’s a warning that if you don’t accept rock bottom pay and crap conditions, you know what’s waiting for you.”
*This feature first appeared in Unite Works, Spring 2015