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.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses