I have a lot of time for Andy Burnham. He’s from Liverpool, I’m from Liverpool. He supports Everton, so do I. supports Everton, so do I. I feel like I know him. So I was sad and disappointed when I read his speech about getting tough on benefits – and I decided to tell him.
Below is what I wrote to Andy (I’ll let you know if he replies) but in fact I need to direct it to four of the leadership candidates – Andy, Yvette, Mary and Liz – because, on the subject of benefits, they all need to think very carefully about what they are saying.
“Dear Mr Burnham,
I’ve always thought you are a good sort. I would like nothing more for there to be a Scouse Evertonian as leader of the Labour party and perhaps, one day, as Prime Minister, too. I have huge admiration for the work you have done for the Hillsborough families. I was therefore so sad to read your speech today vowing to “get tough on benefits”.
You – and too many of your Labour colleagues – appear to have bought into the myth propagated by the media that the poor are lazy, that the disabled are shirkers and the unemployed could find work if they wanted to.
I’m not denying that there are people who scam the system, we all know of people who “get everything” without having done a day’s work in their lives. But while these are a tiny, tiny minority everybody on benefits is being tarred with that brush and this is so wrong.
If you will indulge me I will tell you why I am sad and why I fear that the most vulnerable members of our society are being criminalised and demonised. Please do read this and share with your Labour colleagues because it is very important that your party really understands what is going on in this country before they `talk tough’.
Up until March 2014 I was a civil servant working at Land Registry. I was also a PCS rep, specialising in equality. I took redundancy and since then I have been a volunteer activist with Unite Community based in Durham. I help to set up a clothing bank, which runs along similar lines to a food bank. We also give out toiletries, which are not considered to be essential by food banks.
We are visited by many people who are absolutely desperate and many are so embarrassed to be there. I have seen a young mum cry because we provided her with nappies. I have been hugged by a woman with two teenage daughters because I handed over essential feminine hygiene products. Their gratitude far outweighs the service we provide. It is heart-breaking.
We are regularly visited by a group of homeless lads. One of them died a few weeks ago, of pneumonia. He was twenty two. This is 21st Century Britain. I’ve met a young man who was run over by a car, spent twelve days in hospital and was sanctioned for missing his job centre appointment!
I wish you could meet Johnnie (not his real name) who I am helping with his benefit assessment. Johnnie has been off work sick for two years. He had cancer. He may never be able to return to work because the chemo he had has caused him to lose sensation in his hands and feet. He is a van driver. There is little his company can offer him by way of alternative employment. He had worked for them for 15 years. Johnnie got statutory sick pay for six months but then nothing, and has claimed Employment Support Allowance. His company say they have been supportive because they have kept his job open – costing them nothing but offering Johnnie no financial help either.
Still, I wish you could see the way Johnnie’s eyes lit up when he told me how he cleaned his van every Saturday, inside and out because it was his place of work and “who wants to work in a tip?”
Unfortunately Johnnie and our homeless friends are not news – who wants to read about genuinely ill man claiming benefits he is entitled to?
Please, Mr Burnham, do not fail these members of our society – they need to be helped, they need to be treated with respect and dignity. And, hand on heart, through the work I do, I have yet to meet the seventeen holidays a year, drives a Porsche, 60 inch plasma screen telly benefit claimant of myth that you seem to read so much about.
And why is so little said about tax avoidance, where is the outrage and promises to “get tough” on those people and companies who cost the UK billions of pounds a year? Why is nobody taking them on?
I fear I have taken up far too much of your time already. If you win please spare a thought for the weak and vulnerable members of our society who are not architects of their own downfall.
- This letter first appeared on LabourList