My wee girl is 7. Last weekend her homework was to make an advent calendar. I buy chocolate ones every year and they cost about £2.50 each. You can get them for less I know, but just now it’s okay for me to be extravagant and pick up themed ones at Tesco for convenience. It hasn’t always been like that. In fact there have been one or two Christmases where I wanted to buy the kids advent calendars but I needed to buy bread and I wasn’t sure I could afford both.
So, we talked about the homework, cos you are supposed to do that. We looked online for ideas – I am not good at crafts and I was beginning to think that this was a bit of a step too far, when we came across a “reverse advent calendar”. Reverse advent calendars are boxes which you fill with an item each day for the food bank. Fi understands about food banks. The children often collect donations at school but this reverse advent calendar was a new idea to her. Fi knows that some people don’t have enough money – hell, she knows that sometimes WE don’t have enough money. She is used to being told we can’t stretch to a comic/ new gym shoes/ a trip to MacDonald’s or the pictures this week but maybe when mummy gets paid. I don’t think that the collections of food bank donations had translated in her wee head to people – real people – boys and girls, mummies and daddies, grannies and grandpas – not having enough to eat and particularly, to not being able to have food at Christmas. She was shocked.
And so we made the reverse Advent Calendar and one of the questions she asked me was “Why doesn’t someone help them?” See, if her wee friend doesn’t have a play piece then Fi will share hers. She knows that if someone needs something – feeding, flitting, cheering on, a shoulder to cry on – in our circle of crazy, history loving, bike loving, politics talking, Burns night partying friends then they they usually get it. We are very lucky. But she is right. Why doesn’t someone help them?
The biggest reason people use food banks is because of problems with their benefits. Late payments, delayed assessments, and of course, sanctions. I have written about sanctions before and some of you will know that I worked in a Jobcentre in what now seem like the halcyon, generous days of the 80s and 90s. Sanctions are one of the biggest reasons people on benefits have to resort to using the foodbank.
You can have your benefit stopped for being a few minutes late for your appointment at a Jobcentreplus office (even if the road is closed and there is a diversion and your bus is late) for writing down your job search incorrectly or for not having enough credit on your mobile phone. You can receive a sanction for being ill, for being with your dying parent, your labouring partner or bizarrely, at a job interview. You can have your tax credits stopped for living in the same building as Mr RS McColl – for my English friends that’s the same as having it stopped because you live in the same building as a Mr WH Smith!
You can turn up at the bank on the day you are due to receive your benefit and put your card in the hole in the wall and find nothing there. No warning, no letter, no opportunity to correct the issues with your job search or the insinuations about your relationship with Mr RS McColl – just an empty bank account, and empty purse, empty cupboards and an electricity meter with no credit. Standing there with nothing – even at Christmas.
You can appeal of course and more than half of appeals are successful. So some people do get their money – eventually – when they have had to borrow, beg, sell or steal something and often after the shame anguish and desperation that has driven them to the foodbank, to loan sharks and sometimes – to suicide.
Sanctions are a part of our benefit system, they have been for years. But as a Jobcentre manager from 1997 to 2002 I saw targets for sanctions (Stricter Benefit Regime Targets) from the Thatcher years, relegated to being of little importance almost as soon as a Labour Government was elected. Even before that, when JSA was first introduced to replace Unemployment Benefit and I worked on the front line in Jobcentres and Benefit offices, the rules were designed to ensure that people were warned that they were in danger of losing their benefit and given an opportunity to put right what was wrong. Warning letters had to be issued before a person lost their money for not actively seeking work. Refusing employment or availability doubts were only dealt with by advisers during interviews where people were given a clear warning about the risks to their benefit and given an opportunity to rethink. They were helped to apply for another more appropriate benefit if they were truly not available due to caring responsibilities or illness, and the implications of not applying for a job were explained to them clearly and unambiguously. Even then, if people still refused to take the action they were obliged to take, their benefit wasn’t stopped until after the decision was made by an adjudication officer. The officer gathered evidence and the person claiming benefits had an opportunity to put their side of the story forward. The policies were, we were told, to be delivered using “common sense”.
Today that would seem like a left wing, namby pamby, hard left socialist pile of nonsense to some sitting on the Tory benches in the House of Commons, and yet these policies, those rules andprocesses were Thatcher’s polices – considered strict and harsh in their time. It says something about today’s Tory Party that even Thatcher didn’t leave people standing in the rain at a cash point with with nothing, relying on food banks and loan sharks.
Yesterday Theresa May answered a question in Parliament about benefits. She sneered at Jeremy Corbyn as wanting people to be able to “live” on benefits. Those of us that care see the results of Conservative Government policies which don’t care whether people can live on benefits or not every day. Theresa May stated that the Government has put in place policies which are designed to move people into work. She completely ignored the National Audit Office (NAO) report and other research that shows there is little evidence that sanctions move people into jobs. I have said on many occasions that you can’t sanction people into work, you can only sanction them into poverty and desperation.
In Scotland we are getting control of some benefits and there has recently been a huge consultation on how these will be delivered, managed, assessed. There was a visit by the Scottish Parliament’s Social Security Committee to a Jobcentreplus office this week as part of their fact finding activities. Tory MSP Adam Tomkins did not attend this due to “childcare responsibilities”. He has been quick to say that he will not be paid for doing these responsibilities, which I would hope is the case, given that he already has two jobs. I’d would like to point out to Professor Tomkins that he will not be penalised either. There will however, be several other people who were supposed to have attended a Jobcentreplus office yesterday but couldn’t because of their childcare responsibilities. The difference is that some of them are likely to find their next payment missing as they face a sanction. I don’t expect his salary will be docked a days wage, or a weeks wage, or four weeks wages if this is the second or subsequent time he has used that “excuse” but that is exactly what people on benefits experience.
Tomorrow, (Friday 2nd December 2016) Mhairi Black will present her Private Members Bill. This puts in place safeguards which will reduce the postcode lottery of sanctions reflected in the NAO report and it will require that Jobcentreplus consider just cause, risk of homelessness, and the effect on someone’s physical and mental health when taking action which may result in sanctions being applied. It also will require that where a sanction is applied people are supported to access hardship payments – incredibly that is something that does not happen now.
In order for this bill to be passed it requires more than SNP support. Unions are asking members to email their MPs to ask that they attend and it is imperative that we all do that. The Labour Party has an opportunity to work with the SNP to deliver the chance of real change for some of the most vulnerable people in society. They can help to reduce the number of people facing poverty, homelessness and hunger, the number of people using food banks, the number of people left with nothing. They can stand up for ordinary people, challenging the very real stigma of claiming benefits encouraged by the media and facilitated by Tory government policies.
Fi asked me “Why doesn’t someone help them?” Well, I was pleased to tell her that Mhairi Black is trying to do just that. I hope that the Labour Party are prepared to try to help too.