The public conversation about the impact of welfare reform has been oddly one-sided over the last five years. Pressure groups such as 38 Degrees and Change.org, charities like Oxfam, food bank organisations like the Trussell Trust and religious groups including, most recently, the Church of England, have all had a great deal to say about the harsher effects of the changes the Coalition has made.
In response, the #Government persists in making assertions that bear no reality to the lives of an ever-increasing number of people. Whether deliberate or otherwise, the culture of benefits administration formed in the wake of the Welfare Reform Act 2012 has resulted in benefits, sanctions or delays in benefits payments, being the normal experience of many claimants.
Jobseeker's Allowance claimants are subjected to sanctions (i.e. suspension of payments) if they do not appear to be co-operating with their Jobcentre in seeking employment. However there is mounting evidence of inappropriate pressure on Jobcentre staff to recommend sanctions. The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), revealed in a survey that 61% of its memberswho are advisers have felt that pressure.
Social media is rife with stories of claimants being sanctioned unfairly: from the ridiculous, where claimants are sanctioned for missing a Jobcentre appointment because of a job interview, to the harrowing, in which sanctions are imposed because the death of a loved one has disrupted a claimant's usual routine. With the minimum sanction period now four weeks, and a two week wait until a claimant can apply for the Hardship Fund, people are forced to turn to food banks and expensive debt to survive. Of course there are those who will still cheat the system, but is catching those few worth the expense of pressing such a heavy burden onto the lives of those who actually want to find work?
People with disabilities or long term illness are particularly exposed in this welfare shake-up. From transferring existing Incapacity Benefit claimants to the Employment and Support Allowance via the now notorious Work Capability Assessments, to the long delays of those making new claims for the Personal Independence Payment, these extended periods of uncertainty and stress are likely to have serious effects on claimants' health. In the worst cases, claimants do not live to receive any support: Macmillan Cancer Support reports that in a survey of their benefits advisers, 30% knew of a claimant who had died whilst waiting for a decision on their PIP application.
And yet the Coalition impassively continues to insist that there is no connection between its welfare reform and the difficulties faced by so many benefits recipients. Whether this is out of ideological certainty or self-protection is unclear. However, what remains true, is that thousands of people are experiencing injustice from the system that is supposed to protect them at their most vulnerable. In order to shore up its austerity agenda our government has fostered the assumption that anyone claiming benefits is a shirker. Yet all we have accomplished is to dehumanise those in our #Society that need the most support and care, at the expense of a tiny minority of benefit fraudsters.
This is no fictional dystopian future, but a real and cruel present, that ought to shame Britain's conscience. Perhaps now, on the cusp of a general election, it's time to ask ourselves: where do we want to be in five years' time?