Destitution: is it government policy?

By Bernadette Meaden
January 24, 2015

There is a new kind of poverty in Britain. It is made by politicians, and could easily be ended by politicians. The people enduring this government-enforced poverty are not on low incomes: they have no income whatsoever. They sit in dark cold homes with no money and no food. For them, budgeting and belt-tightening would be the luxury option.

These people have been sanctioned by the Department for Work and Pensions, and their benefits stopped. They may be mentally or physically ill, or just unable to find work. With 1.9 million people officially unemployed, and 0.7 million job vacancies, it is simply impossible for everyone to get a job, no matter how hard they try. But they can still have their incomes removed if somebody at the Jobcentre, under pressure from above, alleges that they are not trying hard enough.

Some sanctioned people are so destitute they are almost beyond the help of foodbanks. With no money for fuel, the staple foods often donated, like rice and pasta, are virtually useless to them. Foodbanks are now seeing people return these, so that somebody else, who is lucky enough to have the means to cook them, can benefit.

In 21st century Britain, it is shocking and sickening to have a man, who is not homeless (yet) beg you for food and fuel. This is the type of destitution I used to associate with homelessness, but now know is there, behind closed doors, across the land. There may be somebody like this in your street.

The Methodist Church recently submitted a Freedom of Information request to the DWP about benefit sanctions and people with mental health problems -- what is usually termed mental illness. What they found was shocking.

Paul Morrison, the Church’s Public Issues Policy Adviser, said: “We believe that the number of people with mental health problems who have their benefit stopped due to being sanctioned is in fact a great deal higher than 100 a day. Not included in these figures are people who receive ESA due to a physical illness, but who have a higher risk of mental health difficulties.”

“Sanctioning someone with a mental health problem for being late for a meeting is like sanctioning someone with a broken leg for limping. The fact that this system punishes people for the symptoms of their illness is a clear and worrying sign that it is fundamentally flawed,” I would go further than Mr. Morrison, I would say it is malevolent.

On Wednesday 21 January, Alison Garnham, Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee on benefit sanctions. Reading from the official DWP Decision Maker’s Guide (which you can see on video here at 10.36) she explained that within the "culture of sanctions", "It’s assumed that your health will be damaged by a sanction…a deterioration in health is part of the result of the sanctioning regime." To see the relevant part of the document, see here from 35098 onwards.

So: hunger and damaging people’s health is not a by-product of the sanctions regime, it is an integral and acknowledged part of it, so much so that it is written into the official manual for Decision Makers. Deliberately, knowingly, and routinely damaging the health of the poorest and most disadvantaged of our fellow citizens is now part of life in 21st century Britain. This makes me feel physically sick. Not in my name. It ought to be a major cross-party concern in the 2015 election.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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