Unite activist and former Teeside charity boss, Jessie Jacobs speaks out against benefits sanctions
Today at 12.30pm I was stood outside Middlesbrough job centre, speaking to a crowd of people about the benefit sanctions regime. I have been taking part in Unite’s national day of action #no2sanctions.
Up until recently I was leading an organisation called A Way OUT that worked with some of the North East’s most vulnerable people. We supported people to find a way out of poverty, sexual exploitation or addiction.
I have always tried to be a voice for our service users, influencing policy and decision making. I first spoke out about benefits reform a few years ago. I was concerned because the new policy being developed looked like it was going to create a system that punishes those who can’t work, making life much harder for them. I wasn’t wrong!
As the reforms developed, we saw correlating increases in poverty, depression, destitution and prostitution. We were told of families going without food, elderly people having to choose between heating or eating, a woman using a neighbour’s bath to wash as she had no gas for hot water, people turning to begging and in some cases, prostitution to just get by. We have always had poverty in Teesside but this was something else.
One of the specific problems was the amount of people who were being sanctioned. A sanction is where the job centre stops your benefits for anywhere up to three years, if you have failed to meet their requirements of “seeking employment”. People were reporting being sanctioned for really simple things like being 10 minutes late or being ill, unable to attend their job seeker appointment and not getting through to anyone on the phone.
With nowhere else to turn, they began turning to charities and churches to find food, warmth and support.
When Louise turned up at our door, I knew enough was enough. She was 20 years old and was selling her body on the streets. It wasn’t the first time she had turned to prostitution, but this time she was working to eat and pay for somewhere to stay. She too had been sanctioned.
Her life was chaotic, but being forced into this type of destitution was simply cruel. What she needed was support, someone to walk alongside her and help her make better life decisions. She had already experienced a difficult childhood and everything the government was doing, was only compounding her hardship and distress.
I couldn’t believe this was the world we were living in. I grew angry at the system. Shows like ‘Benefits Street’ and ‘Benefits Britain’ didn’t help. They added to the public feeling that there was somehow a “deserving poor”. No-one deserves to be poor, and they definitely don’t deserve to go without food, heating or electricity; particularly when they live in one of the world’s wealthiest nations. It is not right.
Not long after my conversation with Louise, I left my position as CEO of the charity because I knew I needed to fight these issues politically. Charities could only pick of the pieces of a failed society for so long. We were already becoming overwhelmed with the need and something needed to change.
Protests like today are important in bringing about this change. The voices of those this government is failing need to be heard. We need to shame the government and challenge them on their treatment of the most vulnerable.
Yesterday George Osborne set out his budget reminding us all that the economy is recovering, well what I want to say to him and his Tory party is this: “Your so called so called recovery isn’t working.”
It isn’t working for the woman using her neighbour’s bath. It isn’t working for Louise who is selling her body on the streets. It isn’t working for the ex-lorry driver who has been finding food from a skip. It isn’t working because our society is deteriorating quicker than our economy is recovering.
We need action and we need it fast. We must keep saying #no2sanctions and no to cruel welfare reform, most importantly we must keep using out voice. We can change the system but it needs all of our voices to do it.