Unite Community members took to the streets outside job centres across Britain in droves today (March 30) as part of Unite Community’s third annual national demo against benefits sanctions.
Sanctions – in which claimants have their benefits cut for the smallest perceived infraction – have physically and emotionally damaged untold numbers of the most vulnerable in society.
A sanction can last anywhere from between a month up to as long as three years, and in many cases, the consequences have been fatal.
Unite community member Andy Mitchell was sanctioned three years ago but the experience still haunts him – he developed severe depression and anxiety after having his benefits cut, which he still receives treatment for.
“It was the worst experience of my life,” he told UNITElive.
After being made redundant from a job at a university, he started claiming job seeker’s allowance. The job centre asked him to take on a full-time training course to receive his benefits.
“They told me I didn’t have to look for work during the course,” he said. “It was a pretty full on course – I was leaving home at seven in the morning and not returning till about seven in the evening.”
After two weeks, Andy went to the job centre to sign on. But this time, a different adviser told him that the course he was on wasn’t approved by the DWP so he should have been searching for work on top of doing the course. Andy was then sanctioned.
“I was sanctioned during Christmas so it felt like was being sanctioned twice – I lost my electricity, I ran out of food. I had terrible diarrhoea. People don’t tell you that you when you don’t eat, when you’re starving, you get diarrhoea.”
At some point Andy didn’t have enough money to buy toilet roll.
“I just couldn’t cope with it. I was living in my own dirt for weeks. The worst was on Christmas Day. I was just sitting at home alone with no food, no heat, nothing, just waiting to for it to get dark so I could go to sleep. And I saw through the window all these families enjoying their Christmas. I had a total breakdown.”
Andy’s harrowing experience precipitated not only severe depression and anxiety but it’s also caused him to develop an eating disorder.
“That fear of not having anything to eat means I can’t stop myself from eating now. I’ve gained loads of weight which has also created issues for my physical health.”
Later, after being forced by the Job Centre to work for free for a charity – the Centre told him he must have a bad work ethic if he’d been previously sanctioned – Andy tried committing suicide.
“To be treated like this after I’ve worked two full decades – my entire adult life – I just couldn’t cope. I went home one day and emptied all my pill bottles. I spent a few days in hospital. It took me a couple years to admit to myself that I had actually tried to kill myself.”
If you think Andy’s story is an isolated incident, you’re wrong. Just last month, a group of leading mental health practitioners warned the government that if benefits sanctions don’t end, the UK faces a mental health crisis of unimaginable proportions.
Today, at Unite Community’s demo in London, members gathered outside the Department of Work Pensions and read out the names of people who’ve died after being found ‘fit to work’, which means they lose their disability benefit, or have been sanctioned – many of them have committed suicide.
Unite national Community coordinator Liane Groves called for an immediate end to benefits sanctions and a complete overhaul of the punitive benefits system.
“The government makes claims that benefits sanctions help get people back into work but we utterly refute that,” she said. “We believe that when you put people in crisis the last thing they can do is actively seek work.
People are angry
“People are really angry at a government which will give corporations massive tax breaks while at the same time cutting benefits for the poorest people in the country. The government needs to do a complete U-turn.
“Benefits claimants need help – they shouldn’t be punished for being unemployed.”
Beyond taking political action against benefits sanctions, Unite Community offers practical help, Liane noted.
“We train up members to provide welfare advice. This peer-to-peer advice and support has been very empowering for our members who often feel totally alone when they’re navigating the benefits system after losing a job and falling through the cracks.
“We also help support food banks; we’ve started clothing banks and toy banks. Basically we provide practical support for people who are their lowest point.”
According to Andy, Unite Community certainly helped him.
“These last three years have been the worst in my life yes, but in a sense they’ve also been good because I found Unite community,” he said. “It’s been incredibly empowering. I found a family that supports me.”
You can follow Andy on Twitter @IAmaJSAClaimant
Find out more about Unite Community and how you can join here.