Action against benefit sanctions must increase

by Jack Ferguson • The release of Ken Loach’s new film I, Daniel Blake marks a cultural landmark, and is destined to be the defining way in which the injustice of modern so-called “welfare reform” will be remembered.

The film, which has won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes film festival, depicts the struggles of people for whom the welfare state was originally created, but now fall victim to its transformation under successive governments into a regime of surveillance and punishment.

This has been marked by reductions and freezes in the levels of benefits, the introduction of arbitrary mechanisms of testing and assessment designed to trick claimants into depriving themselves of income, and the removal of income from those who fall foul of the incredibly harsh regime of sanctions.

At the time of writing, tens of thousands of the poorest households are set to lose up £150 a week as a new harsher benefit cap comes into force.

Perhaps the defining image of Cameron-era Britain will always be the food bank. Prior to the re-election of the Conservatives in 2010, the need for emergency food relief from those without any resources or anywhere else to turn was minimal. The benefit system, despite decades of erosion, still provided enough of a safety net that this most visceral form of poverty, hunger, was not present on a mass scale.

But in a political climate which saw people unable to work, or unable to secure it in a situation of global economic crisis, derided and abused as “shirkers”, “skivers” and “scroungers”, violence against people who needed the support of the welfare state, both physical and structural, was about to be ramped up.

The ugly rhetoric has seen the reduction of people formerly entitled to survival to the ultimate destitution of being unable to afford food. As this reality became rapidly apparent to communities throughout the UK, the number of formal and informal charities giving away food for free has been forced to skyrocket.

While the growth in food bank provision is a demonstration of the basic humanity and solidarity of ordinary people determined not to see their neighbours starve, the efforts of voluntary groups simply cannot replace the reach provided by a truly working welfare state.

For many, the stigma of using a food bank keeps them away, and police have noted increases in “survival crime”—people shoplifting not for financial gain, but to keep themselves alive.

The current figures for how many people this has affected most brutally are deeply shocking: 391 people died of malnutrition in 2015 according to the Office of National Statistics, and there 746 new hospital admissions.

One Manchester NHS Trust has established a food bank within the hospital as a means of treatment, and trained staff to spot health problems caused by lack of food.

One of the defining scenes of Loach’s masterpiece depicts the inherent indignity for those forced to use food banks of being wholly dependent for survival on the charity of others.

Given that the government continues to wilfully ignore and obfuscate on the issue of growing hunger among its citizens, it is hard to avoid a conclusion drawn by the characters themselves: that increasing poverty and hunger are not merely unfortunate by-products of government policy, but its intended outcome, aimed at eliminating those least useful to employers, and disciplining through fear those lucky enough to still be able to secure an income.

The film, like Loach’s earlier work exposing the lived experience of poverty in the UK, galvanised political action in response to the government’s attacks.

On Tyneside, in the area where the film is set, local women chained themselves to the railings of the JobCentre to mark its release and protest benefit sanctions.

Claimants organisations such as the Scottish Unemployed Workers Network and Dundee Against Austerity have been present at cinemas while free screenings for claimants and PCS members have been arranged.

The Scottish Parliament meanwhile was greeted with a lobby of anti-austerity and claimants’ groups on 27 October, demanding the Scottish Government use the full extent of its powers in designing a new Scottish social security system under newly devolved powers.

Although the direct power over sanctions are reserved to Westminster, many groups, such as the Common Weal in its submission to the consultation on the new system, have pointed to legal measures and creative steps possible if Holyrood is determined to take a stand against the deliberate impoverishment of Scots via Westminster policies.

While the announcement by the Scottish Government that it will not co-operate in making referrals for sanctions from the devolved Work Programme is very welcome, it is clear that renewed and increased pressure from all such groups will be necessary to tackle the hunger crisis affecting Scottish communities.

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