Unite members will come together across Britain tomorrow (March 29) in a national day of action to stop benefits sanctions, with demonstrations in cities and towns up and down the country at over 80 job centres.
At the main demonstration, protestors will gather in London outside the Houses of Parliament and march onwards to the Treasury and then to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to reiterate their call for the government to stop its ‘cruel and ineffective’ benefit sanctions regime.
Unite wants to highlight the shocking impact the government’s benefit sanctions are having on individuals, driving people further into poverty, misery and even death.
Since the Tories first came into power in May 2010 over 3m individuals have been referred for a sanction 8m times.
Punitive sanctions have resulted in over 318,000 people having their welfare payments cut or stopped without warning in the last year, affecting thousands of children and dependant adults. Sanctions are given for reasons such as missing or being late for appointments with the job centre, or being too sick to ‘actively seek work’.
According to the Trussell Trust, one of the main providers of food banks, more than 500,000 three day emergency food parcels have been distributed to people in crisis in the first half of 2016/17 – over 188,500 to children. The most common reason given for people turning to the food bank charity is problems and delays with their benefits.
Unite is also concerned that if people do not appeal against their first sanction, if they are sanctioned again, they will be sanctioned for longer – leaving people without money for three months or up to three years depending on the level of ‘offence’.
Figures released by DWP in December 2016 show that of people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) for between 1 and 2 years during 2010 to 2015, 37 per cent were sanctioned, after challenges; of those claiming between 2 and 3 years, half (49 per cent) were sanctioned; and of those claiming between 3 and 4 years, 85 per cent were sanctioned.
“The government really needs to stop the cruel use of benefit sanctions which are destroying lives,” said head of Unite community Liane Groves.
“The stress they are putting on people, and the effect on their children and wider families, is unacceptable. We should all be shocked.
“The government has shown no evidence that benefit sanctions are working. The opposite is true, when people are in survival mode, fighting to put food on their family’s table or stressing how they will pay their bills means their mental and physical heath suffers and finding work is so much harder.
“Rather than punishing the unemployed for not having a job the government should be helping people get jobs. People need a hand up – not a slap down,” Groves added.
“Unite Community members will be campaigning up and down the country tomorrow calling for an urgent end to sanctions.”
Unite Scotland Community co-ordinator Jamie Caldwell highlighted the dire situation facing claimants in Scotland.
“Last year an estimated total of 25,000 benefit claimants were sanctioned across Scotland – many of whom were left with nothing,” he said.
“What kind of a country are we living in, where a government can deliberately set out to leave children without enough to eat? It’s heart-breaking for that to happen in developing countries, but it’s a source of national scandal and shame in a rich country like the UK.
Caldwell urged Unite members in Scotland to attend the various demonstrations there, outside job centres in Irvine, Dundee, Edinburgh and Dunfermline.
Unite in the Community co-ordinator Albert Hewitt explained that Northern Ireland’s working class has to date largely escaped the full brunt of the Tory government’s so-called welfare reforms, including benefits sanctions.
“But with the Fresh Start agreement, this situation has changed,” he said. “Despite the mitigation measures agreed as part of that agreement, the most vulnerable are being hard-hit by the range of punishing changes.
“Unfortunately as a result of the Fresh Start Agreement, benefits sanctions are becoming an increasing reality for many of the most vulnerable in working-class communities across Northern Ireland.”
Hewitt added that Unite in the Community will be fully participating in tomorrow national demonstration, with protests organised outside benefits offices in Belfast, Derry/Londonderry among other towns.
You can find out exactly where a local protest is being held near you here.