Compassion is at dispiritingly low levels here. (Photo: Getty)
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People looking for work need support, not sanctions

The DWP's sanctions regime puts the most vulnerable at risk. The next government - of whatever hue - must do better.

Imagine getting to work and being told by your boss that you’ve been sanctioned - he’s not going to pay you for the next four weeks because you went to hospital and missed your meeting. He also sanctioned you last year after you refused to take a job doing night shifts because you couldn’t find anyone to look after your daughter. If you know to ask, he’ll start giving you ‘hardship’ payments in two weeks, which are about half your pay. But until then you and your daughter will get nothing.

Shocking, isn’t it? Surely that could never happen today? While perhaps the exception, this does happen and these examples are real - the only difference here is that the ‘boss’ is actually a Jobcentre advisor, there to help people find work. For many unemployed people, desperate to find a job, the fear of their Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) being sanctioned is their daily life.

Today the Work and Pensions Committee released their report into benefit sanctions, calling for a 'full independent review’. The committee's chair, Anne Begg stated that the system should 'avoid causing severe financial hardship', but that it 'does not always achieve this'.

If you or I were on JSA and unfairly sanctioned, we'd simply have to wait and hope that the sanction eventually got removed on appeal, giving back our £72.40 per week. If we had to take out a payday loan to pay for essentials like children's clothes, we'd be saddled with the interest. Perhaps we wouldn't be able to afford to top up the electricity meter to heat our homes. We'd go cold, be in debt and have to rely on food banks to feed our families. This isn't 'what if' - it's real life for many. 

'It is not reasonable to expect people to live without and source of income for 2 weeks', Begg stated. Unfortunately, this is simply the reality for many of the three million people who claimed JSA in 2013-14. Over half a million people were sanctioned during that time – 18% of people claiming. 35,170 were sanctioned three times. In 2008-9, just 10% of claimants were sanctioned.

"The system must also be capable of identifying and protecting vulnerable people, including those with mental health problems and learning disabilities”, Begg said. For the system to truly protect vulnerable people, it must be redesigned, and sanctions must be a genuine last resort. Just as important is ensuring that staff understand how to support people.

Nothing shows this need better than the unbelievable - yet true - story of a man who was on JSA, wanted a job, and went to the Jobcentre for help. He couldn’t use a computer because of his learning disability, which he told his advisor. He applied for jobs by post and showed his advisor the list of jobs he'd applied for. His advisor sanctioned him because he hadn't applied for the jobs on a computer. 

The advisor didn't understand his needs or how to support him, instead falling back on all too familiar sanctions. A charity advisor helped him have this sanction removed and secured fairer goals, including applying for some jobs on paper and others on a computer.  He still gets questioned as to why he hasn’t applied for more jobs on a computer and has to explain, time and again, that he can only use a computer when the charity supports him. The Jobcentre won't provide this support.

Living on £72.40 per week JSA (or just £57.35 if you're under 25) is difficult enough. Forcing people to survive with no money for two weeks and then on £43.44 per week hardship payments, sometimes for up to three years, is a symptom of a broken system that needs to be redesigned. The first step is Begg's full independent review. I hope that the next government commits to it. 

With the rhetoric that constantly gets thrown around - skivers vs strivers springs to mind - it's easy to lose sight of the fact that most people just want support to get a job. Put simply, people looking for work need support, not sanctions. 

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue