This is a very personal blog. One of the issues that has troubled me greatly in relation to this Government is that I’ve been all-too aware of the support Iain Duncan Smith’s policies have enjoyed from the evangelical wing of the church. Indeed, a leading member of a church similar to mine is (still, I believe) one of IDS’s special advisers. I’ve found that very hard to understand or accept – that a committed Christian appears to support social security policies that are causing such hardship and suffering among those who have the misfortune to be disabled, chronically sick or poor. (See note 1)
This blog is addressed to any and all of my friends and family, whose politics range from blue to red and all shades in between. The issues I explore are not inherently party political, although I have to be honest about how hard it is to support the current Government’s policies that affect those with the least resilience – including many disabled people, people who are chronically sick and those living in poverty (whether in work or not). Most of the issues are more complex and nuanced than the Government will admit.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, the issue of food banks was very much in the news – at least, until the unusually severe storms inflicted their own cruel hardships. As one of my more right-wing-leaning Christian friends admitted in an email to me on Christmas Day, the food banks issue has revealed Iain Duncan-Smith’s true heart. My friend went on to express his fear that euthanasia will increasingly be seen as the answer to save money; read in the context of this Government’s overall policy agenda in relation to disabled people and people with long term health conditions, this is a truly chilling prediction, but is a topic for another time.
I believe the huge rise in demand for assistance from food banks serves as a proxy, or broad measure, of absolute poverty in the UK – especially since access to food banks is controlled by the issuing of vouchers by respected organisations such as social services, Citizens Advice or GP surgeries. I also believe those running food banks are best placed to understand the reasons people come to them, particularly as most food banks spend time with their clients, advising them and referring them to other help, in addition to providing short term food supplies.
My views on some of the underlying difficulties of this Government’s social security policies will probably be shared by most:
- Do I believe people should work if they can? Yes, undoubtedly, but I also believe that most people want to undertake “good work” – ie work with decent pay and conditions, that provides the dignity of supporting both the employee and their dependents. Recent research has revealed that many jobs lack the security of a standard contract and pay little more than the minimum wage, which is certainly not a “living wage”.
- Do I believe disabled people and people with a long term health condition can work? Yes, most disabled people want to work and can do so if employers do not discriminate and their support needs are met. However, there are also people whose health condition has such a significant impact on their life that they should not be expected to work – a position with which IDS and his Government colleagues purport to agree. (see note 2) It is important that those who are unable to work are not demonised or marginalised, and it is counter-productive to subject them to the stress of repeated assessments if their condition is unlikely to improve. As one of the world’s richest countries, we can afford to support those who are unable to work.
- Do I believe “sanctions”, by which benefit claimants are denied their benefits for specific periods to punish them for failing to fulfill their responsibility to seek work, are effective in getting people back to work? No, I’m sorry, I don’t. I would concede there may be a minor role for sanctions, to be used sparingly and only where it is clear beyond doubt that over a significant period of time the claimant is making little or no effort to improve their situation. In reality, however, there have been reports from well-respected organisations, including Citizens Advice Bureaux and Church Action on Poverty, of people being sanctioned because their bus was late or even because they were attending a job interview instead of signing on at the Jobcentre! And even if sanctions are imposed for arguably sound reasons, I am not aware of any evidence that absolute poverty – having no money at all to buy food or pay for gas and electricity – helps people into work. Humans will naturally seek to meet their most basic needs first, so those in absolute poverty will prioritise activity that enables survival; identifying and engaging with agencies that can help those with no money and stretching minute food budgets through creative cooking are jobs in themselves. For benefit claimants to be able to concentrate on searching for a job their basic needs must be met by a “safety net”, which in the UK is becoming more and more threadbare.
There are other issues as well, that have arisen out of claimants’ experiences of the way in which social security policy is delivered in practice:
- Forcing claimants to apply for any job, regardless of suitability. Common sense suggests that such a simplistic, mechanistic way of seeking work is unlikely to be effective, or a good use of time. However, it seems clear that claimants are given targets for the number of job applications they must make, to be evidenced by their activity on Universal Jobmatch, the Government’s somewhat inept recruitment tool. I would hate to be an employer advertising jobs on the site; it is a ridiculous waste of time to wade through CV’s from those who are clearly unsuitable for the advertised role, so any sensible employer will simply decide not to use Universal Jobmatch when they have a vacancy. Unsurprisingly, the indiscriminate approach claimants are encouraged to take in their job search has stimulated the enterprising creation of a software application that automates the task of applying for jobs through Universal Jobmatch.
- Assessing a claimant as being fit for work and then denying them Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) because they’re clearly too ill to work. This is obviously pointless and cruel, but it is happening to an alarming number of claimants due to the failure of the widely-criticised Work Capability Assessment (WCA) (brought in, incidentally, by the last Labour Government). Whilst it is legitimate to assess the type and amount of support a claimant needs according to their degree of impairment or ill-health, it is vital that such assessments are accurate; unfortunately, a considerable amount of taxpayers’ money is spent paying for incorrect assessments as well as for a huge number of appeals to the tribunal. Claimants who are declared “fit for work” following a WCA do not receive any money while the decision is reconsidered by DWP, a mandatory stage before an appeal can be lodged; payment only recommences when the reconsideration is completed and an appeal can be lodged with the tribunal service. When the claimant is clearly not fit for work, there are significant obstacles to claiming JSA so they effectively have no income at all. This represents a major gap in the safety net, which could be closed fairly easily if the Government was minded to do so.
The above list of issues is by no means comprehensive; there are also major implications of recent changes to housing benefit and the imposition of the benefit cap, as well as the devolution of council tax benefit and the social fund to local authorities and reform of Disability Living Allowance and other benefits. To cover all the social security issues that are causing significant hardship would take a number of blogs; this focuses on just a few of the issues behind absolute poverty and the increasing need for food aid in the UK today. To quote Archbishop Desmond Tutu:
“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”
This is where I believe there is cause for hope, in relation to the church’s response. Many food banks and night shelters are run out of or by local churches, and I now see churches across the theological spectrum waking up to the reality of poverty and its causes -whether they be low paid, insecure work, inept social security policies, an overly consumerist society, irresponsible lending or other factors in our increasingly complex society. Church Action on Poverty has started to give a very clear message that the social security policies of this Government are to blame for a significant amount of the poverty we are seeing in the UK today; in May 2013, in partnership with Oxfam, they published their report Walking the Breadline, on food poverty. In recent sermons and messages, current and recent Archbishops of Canterbury, as well as the Archbishop of York and the Archbishop of Wales have spoken out about the problem of poverty in the UK today, although current office-holders have to be somewhat circumspect in their comments.
Food banks run by evangelical or charismatic churches are a great manifestation of Christian love in action, but they can only ever be a sticking plaster. We need to be honest about the reasons why food aid is needed – whether those reasons are related to in-work poverty, the Government’s economic and/or social security policies, the Department for Work and Pension’s inept processes or other factors. Churches need to speak out about the reasons people come for help, however uncomfortable the truth might be, and not be afraid to step into the political arena.
I guess what I’m really being presumptuous enough to ask is: What would Jesus have us do?
(1) More than a year ago I tried to have a conversation with this individual but I was not permitted to do so. I’m thinking about how I might try again…
(2) In reality, a key determinant of whether disabled people and people with a long term health condition can work is the nature of work itself. The greater the changes that can be made to the nature of work, the more likely it is that people with significant impairment or health-related difficulties can work; for example, there are many people who have severe, chronic health conditions who would love to work but know this would only be possible if they could get a job that, for example, allows them to use their laptop in bed but only at those times when they are well enough to do so. Similarly, for other disabled people the practical ability to work is often dependent on the availability of paid personal assistance, to enable them to get up, washed, dressed etc as well as the availability of suitable transport to enable them to get to work. However, neither employers nor disabled people can, or should be expected, to address these issues; they need considerable help to do so. And of course, certain impairments will preclude certain types of work; this is just common sense.