Val Graham, chair of Chesterfield Unite Community and Chesterfield TUC EC, reports:
DAVID CLAPSON, A DIABETIC EX-SOLDIER, died starving and destitute because he was penalised by the Job Centre for missing a meeting. A parliamentary enquiry into benefit sanctions (stoppages of benefits to claimants for a period of time by Job Centre staff as a punishment), campaigned for by David’s sister, elicited the information that the DWP has conducted almost 50 internal reviews on claimants who have been subject to withdrawal of benefit and have died. The deaths and suicides are only the most extreme consequences of the sanctions policy which, despite denials from the DWP, has been ratcheted up by targets. About a quarter of JSA claimants receive a sanction. In 2010 sanctions (before appeals) numbered 564,000 – now they are at over one million. Claimants who win appeals may have lost benefit for months. Sanctions have also become more severe and can last for three years. There is no consideration of the claimants’ circumstances or the knock-on effects.
The litany of cruelty, with no legal protection, faced by unemployed and disabled people at our Job Centres is being challenged. Unite Community has made campaigning against sanctions a priority, with a national day of action on 19 March. In Chesterfield we are staging a die-in outside the local Job Centre. And on 27 February, the TUC hosted a conference of over 100 activists to plan long term goals. The participants represented an alliance among the TUC, Unemployed Workers Centres, Unite Community, PCS and Disabled People against Cuts (DPAC).
Sanctions are a trade union issue because the draconian regime is not about saving money or getting people into work. In fact getting a sanction makes your chances of finding work even slimmer. Sanctions function as a warning to workers of what they can expect if they refuse to accept poverty pay and zero-hours contracts. The Tories are now moving towards sanctioning in-work benefits.
The aims of the conference were not only to campaign against sanctions but to promote an alternative Claimants’ Charter. Helen Flanagan of PCS spoke about the way in which Job Centre staff were being bullied and deskilled. Eleanor Firmin of DPAC described the wider attacks on disabled people and, in particular, the impact of Work Capability Assessments (WCA). The meeting agreed to support the DPAC day of action against WCA and one of the workshops was devoted to planning direct action. The workshops also looked at sanctions, contributory or rights based benefit systems, unpaid work and the impact of sanctions on women, BAME, LGBT and disabled people. The impact of sanctions weighs heavily on claimants with mental ill health or learning difficulties. The bloggers were there too, leading a discussion on how to use social media to get the message across.
The next steps are further meetings to develop a Claimants’ Charter and discuss wider union involvement in organising unemployed people and backing up the Charter’s demands. Recognition by the TUC that the fate of claimants and workers is linked must spread to all its member unions.