As part of a national day of action against benefit sanctions (March 19) Unite Community members in Southampton paraded ‘Iain Duncan Smith’ through the streets of the city before ‘jailing’ the work and pensions secretary for ‘crimes against humanity.’
Pretty strong stuff and with good reason. Unite believes the sanctions – which have seen more than two million people have their benefits cut or stopped over the last two years – are nothing less than ‘grotesque cruelty’.
Southampton and surrounding Hampshire has one of the highest rates of sanctioning in the entire country, so the colourful street theatre ‘trial’ was held in an appropriate location.
Helen Field played the police officer who arrested ‘Duncan Smith’. She said the aim was “to get media attention so people know more about what benefit sanctions are.”
Field feels the day of action was required as the wider public had not been fully aware of benefit sanctions and their pernicious effects.
“I think the people who it actually hits, those who are getting sanctioned, do not have much of a voice because they are struggling to get by,” she said. “The last thing on their minds is to make a fuss – which is what we want to do on their behalf.”
Anger that lies beneath
Despite the hilarity at the plight of ‘Duncan Smith’ behind bars, Field was quick to acknowledge that real anger lies beneath. “The government are blaming the wrong people” she said “people who have got no resources at all – the weakest in society.
“Conservative Party ideology is to blame the poor and to demolish the welfare state. That is their philosophy and it just causes untold hardship and misery. It’s hateful.”
The claim is hard to ignore, related as it is to the troubling way that sanctions are applied.
Intended as a means of encouraging people back into work they have been linked not only to increased levels of hardship and anxiety for those losing they benefits, but hundreds of deaths.
That was a point underscored by the activists in Southampton who staged a mass ‘die-in’ outside the Bernard St Job Centre, renamed the ‘Sanctions Centre’ for the occasion.
Barbara Lupton, an 82 year-old Unite member, said she had been determined to attend the event because in her eyes benefit sanctions are a “terrible injustice”.
She said “I’m so pleased that Unite organised this day because sanctions have got to be brought to wider attention – these are crimes against people.”
“What I would like to see now is families who have lost people through benefit sanctions forming a group so they can get legal aid and take their cases to the Court of Human Rights. I really think they have got a strong case.”
Lupton blames the Conservative government for the rise in sanctions over the most trivial of offences – such as arriving late a job centre, missing an appointment to go to a funeral, or failing to apply for a job while waiting to start a new job. She thinks ministers would “bring back workhouses if they could.”
Sanctions simply have to be stopped according to Mike Dukes, Unite Community chair in Southampton. “Help people to find jobs yes, but they don’t need to be using these sanctions. They are too harsh, they are unnecessary and inhumane” he said.
“The majority of people penalised with sanctions have mental health problems” he added. “They find it exceedingly difficult to meet the commitments of going to regular meetings and so forth. We have got case studies of sadly hundreds of people, the most vulnerable people, who have been in the position of losing their lives prematurely as a result.
If somebody has fallen on hard times, if they have lost their job through no fault of their own, or they have become unwell then the stronger need to look after the weak. That’s what society is.”
Kelly Tomlinson – Unite Community co-ordinator for the South-East – described the pillorying of ‘Duncan Smith’ as “brilliant”.
“I think the street theatre was fantastic, it was such a fun way of highlighting something in a light-hearted way that is actually a really important subject” she said. “I think people engaged very well with it.
“However we at Unite need to continue to use our voice so everybody understand how cruel sanctions are.”