Protesters highlight the increasing use of sanctions to get people off benefits. Photo: Steven Speed/Salford Star
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Why benefits sanctions don't work, and we need a more personalised service

Visiting a job-shop in a Salford suburb, we learn why the government's current benefits sanctions need to be reformed.

The doors of the Broughton Trust's job-shop open weekdays at 9am. The charity, in a suburb of Salford, is housed in a Seventies-built, ex-council house with barbed wire covering the windows. Inside there are eight laptops, a few local rags and a jar of instant coffee. It’s a sanctuary for those who have learning difficulties, those who are computer illiterate and those filling out their weekly Jobseekers’ Allowance claims online.

Phillip*, 46, is unshaven and looks tired, but he’s in high spirits. He’s just applied to three different vacancies on the Universal job match website: a cleaner, caretaker and kitchen porter. He has 17 more “steps” (applications) to do before he can claim his dole for the week. “I won’t get any of the jobs,” he says, “but I have to keep trying.”

Phillip grew up in a care home from the age of 12 and left secondary school before obtaining any formal qualifications. For the past 18 years he has lived in social housing in the block of flats that tower above Salford precinct – a particularly deprived shopping centre with a depressing concentration of pawnshops and payday lenders. The local MP Hazel Blears also tells me there are high levels of mental health problems around the precinct. 

Sitting at the opposite end of the room to Phillip with a cup of coffee in hand is Simon Connolly, 47, who is one of a small team of volunteers helping claimants with their online job search. He is there to give introductory IT lessons, provide advice to those who have been sanctioned, or are facing a sanction and assist as much as he can with any emergency provisions. “I spend more time with these lot than my family,” he says, with a grin on his face.  “But most of them probably won’t get a job. I don’t know anyone who has got a job from this website.”

I ask him what he thinks of the current system of benefit conditionality and he responds bluntly: “They just don’t treat people like humans”. He tells me that the job-shop exists because of the lack of personalisation and the constrained resources at the government’s job centre.

Three days before Christmas in 2013, Phillip slipped up and was late for a JSA meeting. His benefits were immediately stopped. “I had to beg on the streets, turn to family members – anyone that would help,” says Phillip, looking down at the floor. One place he did turn to during his sanction was Salford Central food bank (a Trussell Trust branch), less than 500 yards from the job-shop. According to an internal report by Salford council, 62% of the users of this food bank have had their benefits sanctioned.

But Chris Mould, the chairman of the Trussell Trust, is highly critical of the government for using his organisation and others like his as a substitute to state provisions, rather than the support network they were intended to be.

“We do not believe that addressing the vital needs of housing, clothing, food and dignity should be devolved by the state to the voluntary sector and rendered discretionary,” says Mould as he leaves the first oral evidence session of the work and pensions select committee into benefit sanctions beyond the limited Oakley review. During the session Mould – a witness on the panel – stated that 86 per cent of the food banks his organisation surveyed had seen a significant increase in those requiring emergency nutrition packages after benefit “changes”.

Following the hearing, Debbie Abrahams, MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, who instigated the select committee inquiry into sanctions said to me that the session was “damning” for the government.

Abrahams added: “The final points for me were clues on why the government is pushing sanctions so hard: it was confirmed that in 2013/14 an estimated £250m had been withheld as result of JSA sanctions following the introduction of the new sanctions regime.

One prominent issue from both the job-shop in a Salford suburb and the select committee hearing in Westminster was the need for a more personalised service from the government. A government that takes into account the complexity of the issues faced by an individual and the difficulties that are facing those trying to make ends meet. And, as Dr David Webster, an honorary senior research fellow at the University Glasgow said, a need for a system that doesn’t run a sanctions regime on the assumption that people don’t want to work.

*Phillip’s name has been changed to protect his identity.

Ashley Cowburn writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2014. He tweets @ashcowburn



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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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