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

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser