Today at 12.30pm I am going to be outside Middlesbrough job centre, speaking out about the benefit sanctions regime. It is part of a national day of campaigning called #no2sanctions. I thought I’d share with you why I am speaking out.
I used to run an organisation that worked with some of our communities 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. I first spoke out about benefits reform quite 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 questioned how this would help people into employment.
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 neighbours 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 if you have failed to meet their requirements of “seeking employment”. People were reporting being sanctioned for really simple things like being ten minutes late, being ill and unable to attend their job seeker appointment and not getting through to anyone on the phone. People were giving up and dropping out of the system. This is what would bring them to our door. With nowhere else to turn, they began turning to charities and churches to find food, warmth and support.
I couldn’t believe this was the world we were living in. I grew angry at what I was seeing. Shows like ‘Benefits street’ and ‘Benefits Britain’ didn’t help. They added to the public feeling that there was somehow a “deserving poor”
Let’s just say this up front. 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 just not right. People are now catching on to how cruel our system has become and have begun speaking out. Churches, charities, political parties and trade unions have all being making a noise about what is happening in our communities and with our welfare system. Citizens advice produced the ‘Punishing poverty’ report which highlighted how people being sanctioned were driven to suicide attempts, scavenging out of skips and begging. The Church produced a similar report, calling on decision makers to urgently review the current sanctions system, stating one million benefit claimants had been sanctioned in 2014.
Today many of us will gather to say enough is enough. We are saying “No to Sanctions” whilst calling on the government to urgently review it’s welfare processes. We want people supported into employment, what we don’t want is them being punished when they can’t work. Follow the debate using #no2sanctions today!