Sanctions can be incurred by things like “rescheduling your job centre appointment because you have a job interview”. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Immoral or incompetent? With the DWP, it’s no longer a choice

What do they think happens when you cut off someone’s source of food, rent and heating for three months?

Immorality or incompetence? There’s no need for the choice, anymore. It’s been a long time since the Department for Work and Pensions – lest we forget, the governmental department that is actually responsible for work and those out of it – has been anything other than a cruel joke. The joke would be funny if people weren’t starving. But no worry, there’s food banks for that. Almost £3m of public money is now being spent on them, Panorama reported this week. Need is spreading. The line between the state and charity is blurring.

“Food banks are an inadequate plaster over a gaping wound,” Professor Liz Dowler, one of the authors of a recent government report about food banks says. “They do not solve the problems. And that they should be enshrined as an inadequate solution is deeply immoral.”

We crossed immoral a long time ago. The sort of immorality that positions itself as the moral one: judging, punishing, and starving.

Around 68,000 people are having their benefits stopped unfairly, leading them to have to use food banks, a Policy Exchange report found this week. These are people who have their benefits taken away for the first time, only to later successfully appeal against the decision (that’s about a third of all those sanctioned for the first time each year).

Take a look at the Tumblr “Stupid Sanctions” if you need an insight into the decision-making that is being used to justify removing the money people need to live. Rescheduling your job centre appointment because you have a job interview. A family member dying. Not filling in your job search evidence for jobs advertised on Christmas Day. Failing to complete your assessment because you had a heart attack in the middle of it. Four weeks, thirteen weeks…  These are just numbers when humans are figures. What does anyone think happens when you cut off someone’s source of food, rent and heating for three months? That it’s often happening because of incompetence just adds a further bad taste to the mouth.

“The welfare system must have a sharp set of teeth. That is why the sanctions regime is so important,” Guy Miscampbell, the author of this week’s report says.

“Issuing first time offenders, who may or may not have been fairly sanctioned, with a ‘yellow card’ in the form of a benefits card would be a more compassionate way of trying to help people back into work.”

This is what compassion looks like now. “A sharp set of teeth?” I wouldn’t trust this system to know where to bite.  

It was only last week that Personal Independence Payments (PIP) was found to be causing “distress and financial difficulties” due to mismanagement and outsourcing. The National Audit Office found PIP, the new disability benefit for people with extra care or mobility needs, will cost almost three and a half times more to administer than Disability Living Allowance – the benefit the government deemed it necessary to replace – and take double the amount of time to process (even after early failings had forced the DWP to stagger its national roll-out). Employment and Support Allowance, meanwhile, prized with the title of the DWP’s original disaster, has had all repeat assessments paused indefinitely due to Atos’s backlog. A temporary reprieve. This, for many, is something to be grateful for at this point.

There is rarely a reprieve from life and the effects are starting to show. More than three-quarters of mental health social workers say mental health is worsening in the communities they work in, according to a survey by Mind and The College of Social Work released today. Benefit cuts and unemployment are seeing people become “overwhelmed by life circumstances” at the same time as cuts in care budgets mean there’s often nowhere for them to go. Almost three-quarters of those affected are people needing help for the first time, the survey found. It can happen to anyone and nowadays it is.

Mark Wood, another face and another figure, struggled with complex mental health needs but was found fit for work. The 44 year old’s doctor had written to the job centre telling them that he was “extremely unwell and absolutely unfit for any work whatsoever” but he was left, as people are, to try and survive on £40 a week. Mark died a few months later, weighing 5st 8lbs. His family spoke out last week, calling for the system to treat people better. Treating claimants as people – desperate, scared, hungry – would be a start.

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn sitting down with President Bernie Sanders no longer sounds so outlandish

Both men have a certain authenticity and unpretentiousness that their rivals lack.

Unlike many of us, Bernie Sanders never doubted Jeremy Corbyn. The week before the general election, the independent US senator from Vermont was addressing a crowd of progressive voters in Brighton during a whirlwind tour of the UK. An audience member asked him what advice he might have for the leader of the Labour Party. “I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn needs my advice,” Sanders replied. “I think he’s doing quite well.”

The week after the election, a delighted Sanders invoked Corbyn’s election performance in a New York Times op-ed. “The British elections should be a lesson for the Democratic Party,” he wrote, urging the Democrats to stop holding on to an “overly cautious, centrist ideology” and explaining how “momentum shifted to Labour after it released a very progressive manifesto that generated much enthusiasm among young people and workers”.

Sanders and his growing movement in the United States offered more than mere rhetorical support for Corbyn.

With the help of former members of the senator’s presidential campaign team, Momentum – the grass-roots organisation set up to support and defend Corbyn in 2015 – ran 33 training sessions across the UK, preparing thousands of Labour activists.

Momentum’s national organiser Emma Rees says that the Sanders people made a “significant contribution” to the Labour campaign with their emphasis “on having empathetic conversations that focused on the issues the voter cared about, and actually trying to persuade voters on the doorstep rather than just collecting data”.

“In the final stage, I recruited a bunch of former Bernie volunteers from around [the United States] to . . . help get out a last [get out the vote] texting assignment,” recalls Claire Sandberg, who was the digital organising director for Sanders and spent the 2017 election campaign working with Momentum in the UK. “It was an amazing thing to see them volunteering . . . while we were all asleep the night before election day.”

Is it really surprising that Sanders supporters, thousands of miles away, would want to volunteer for Corbyn? Both men are mavericks; both have a certain authenticity and unpretentiousness that their rivals lack; both, in the words of Emma Rees, “have inspired tens of thousands of people to participate in the political process and to realise their collective power” and they want “to transform society in the interests of ordinary people”. Perhaps above all else, both men have proved that left populism can win millions of votes.

According to the latest polls, if another election were held in the UK tomorrow, Corbyn would be the winner. Sanders, however, has a much higher mountain to climb in the US and faces at least three obstacles that the “British Bernie” does not.

First, Sanders leads a growing grass-roots movement but does not have the support of a party machine and infrastructure.

Corbyn may have been a backbench rebel who voted against his party whip more than 500 times before becoming party leader, but he is a lifelong Labour member.

Sanders, on the other hand, is the longest-serving independent politician in US congressional history. He declared himself a Democrat in 2015 only in order to seek the party’s presidential nomination and promptly declared himself an independent again after he was defeated by Hillary Clinton last summer.

Such behaviour has allowed establishment Democrats to portray him (wrongly) as an opportunist, an interloper who is using the Democratic Party as a vehicle for his own benefit in a country where third-party candidacies cannot succeed.

Second, Sanders has to confront an even more hostile and sceptical media than Corbyn must. Under US law, Fox News is under no obligation to be “fair and balanced” towards Sanders – nor is CNN, for that matter.

Thanks to the UK rules on broadcaster impartiality, however, Corbyn was “able to speak directly to the voters who still get their news from TV instead of the internet”, Sandberg notes. “In contrast, Bernie was completely and totally shut out by broadcast media in the US, which considered his campaign totally irrelevant.”

Third, Sanders failed to connect with minority groups, and especially with African Americans, whereas black and Asian British voters flocked to Corbyn – a veteran campaigner for the anti-racism movement.

Two out of every three ethnic-minority voters voted Labour on 8 June. “Bernie would’ve won [the Democratic nomination] if he’d had a message that resonated with 50 per cent – just 50 per cent – of black voters, because Hillary got upwards of 90 per cent in many states,” the activist and journalist Naomi Klein, who is a supporter of both Sanders and Corbyn, told me in a recent interview for my al-Jazeera English show, UpFront, which will air later this month.

Nevertheless, she is confident that Sanders can learn lessons from his own campaign for the 2016 Democratic nomination, and “build a winning coalition” next time which ties together the narratives of financial, racial and gender inequality.

Just as it was a mistake to write off Jeremy Corbyn, it would be wrong to dismiss Bernie Sanders.

Despite media bias, and even though he doesn’t have a party machine behind him, Sanders today is still the most popular politician in the United States. And so this may be only the beginning of a new, transatlantic partnership between the two self-declared socialists. Those of us on the left who grew up watching Reagan and Thatcher, then Clinton and Blair, then Bush and Blair, may wish to pinch ourselves to check we’re not dreaming.

“I think by 2021,” Sandberg says, “we may see Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn sitting down with President Bernie Sanders.”

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496