Wednesday 7 December 2016

The Tory postcode lottery of destitution

A scathing National Audit Office investigation into the brutal Tory sanctions regime found an alarming number of failings. One of the most serious was the fact that benefits sanctions are inconsistently applied which creates a lottery of destitution. People in some areas of the welfare system are relatively safe from the threat of being thrust into absolute poverty for the most trivial of offences, while people in other situations are subjected to significantly harsher and more draconian standards.

One of the findings of the National Audit Office investigation was that sanctions applied by profiteering private sector welfare contractors were more than twice as likely to be overturned on appeal as sanctions applied by Jobcentre staff. This evidence shows that staff working for private contractors are on average more than twice as trigger-happy in using absolute destitution as a punishment as proper Jobcentre staff are.

Another of the glaring inconsistencies identified by the National Audit Office is that the Tories are operating a postcode lottery of destitution. Unemployed people in some parts of the north east of England are three times as likely to suffer benefits sanctions as unemployed people in the south west.

There are only two ways to explain such huge discrepancies. Either people in the north east are inherently more lazy and feckless than people in the south west (the kind of explanation only a bigot would accept), or the welfare system treats people in the north east much more harshly than it treats people from more affluent regions.

There is an awful lot of evidence that many welfare providers in the north east operate a culture of bullying and humiliation, and that they're extraordinarily trigger happy when it comes to imposing staggeringly harsh benefits sanctions.

MPs representing constituencies in the north east have been complaining about the harsh benefits sanctions regime and the dehumanising culture of humiliation for years. In a January 2015 House of Commons debate MPs from the north east listed one example after another of the appalling suffering inflicted on their constituents, but the NAO investigation has revealed that the sanctions regime in the north east is still far harsher than other parts of the country.

The House of Commons debate included examples of people being sanctioned for missing an appointment due to an emergency hospitalisation; sanctioned for being late for an appointment because of severe traffic congestion; sanctioned for missing an appointment on the day a parent died; sanctioned failing to provide evidence of looking for work on the day after a parent died; sanctioned because the Jobcentre sent an appointment letter to an old address; sanctioned for failing to attend a Work Capacity Assessment that had been cancelled by the provider; sanctioned for attending a grandfather's funeral; sanctioned for failing to complete a form properly; and sanctioned for missing an appointment to collect an ill child from school (Jobcentre staff then falsely accused the parent of inventing a fictional child).

All of these people were thrust into weeks of absolute destitution for utterly trivial offences, but perhaps the most galling testimony came from the 
MP for Newcastle Central Chi Onwurah who raised the tragic case of one of his constituents who committed suicide as a result of his appalling treatment by the private sector contractor that kept finding him "fit for work" despite all of the expert opinion that he wasn't.

Unfortunately the serious concerns of the north east MPs were ignored by the Tory government, and now it's too late for 18 year old David Brown of Eston in North Yorkshire who committed suicide on October 3rd 2016 after being "belittled" jobcentre staff.

Shortly before he took his own life he told his mother "the way the Jobcentre treat people, it's no wonder people commit suicide".

It's not just a matter of opinion that David Brown took his own life because of the demeaning bullying attitude of Jobcentre staff in the north east, it's the official finding of the inquest into his death.

The problems of bullying and punishment with brutal benefits sanctions exist all over the country, but the evidence suggests that they're significantly worse in the north east. So the question has to be asked why?

Why is the poorest region in England also the place with the harshest sanctions regime and an ingrained culture of bullying and humiliation against unemployed people?

Is it simply because it's an economically deprived area and people working in the north east welfare system see it as their duty to punish poverty with more poverty? Is it because it's largely a loyal Labour Party voting area while the Tories are in charge of the DWP? Has this culture of bullying come about because it's being pushed from above by particularly vindictive regional managers in the north east? Is there some other explanation?

Why does this culture of bullying and abuse in the welfare system exist? Why is it particularly bad in the north east? And what can be done to resolve these problems?

This situation can no longer be ignored. It's almost two years since north east MPs told parliament about the problems of the culture of bullying and humiliation and the unfair sanctions regime in their region, and now an 18 year old lad is dead because nothing was done..

It's beyond obvious that if nothing continues to be done then more humiliation, suffering and death is inevitable.

What could you do?

If you live in the north east you could write to your MP to ask what is being done.

If you don't live in the north east you could write to your MP anyway. It might not be quite as bad as the north east where you live, but the scathing National Audit Office investigation into benefits sanctions found that the benefits sanctions regime costs the taxpayer far more to administer than it will ever save in reduced benefits (which is obviously an outrageous waste of taxpayers' money).

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