This afternoon I will be leading a debate on the treatment – or more accurately the demonisation – of benefits claimants.
On my website I publish monthly pie charts of the issues constituents raise with me. Benefits is consistently in the top three.
Benefits claimants are by definition going through a tough time; they may have lost a job, have an illness or disability or are in low-paid or part time work, or they are caring for young children or relatives, making it harder to work.
They need our support, our care, concern for and understanding of the challenges they face. As our Shadow Secretary of State Rachel Reeves has said: “Jobcentres, and the HMRC offices that currently administer tax credits, are vital public services that British citizens pay for with their taxes. People who use them have as much right to expect fair and respectful treatment as patients in an NHS hospital, parents dealing with their child’s school, or victims reporting a crime at a police station.”
But it has become increasingly clear to me that that is not what is happening.
I have dealt with casework where the only explanation for the inhumane way in which my constituents were being treated is that the employees of the Department and its agencies had forgotten – or had been told to forget – that benefits claimants were people, human beings with lives, loved ones and feelings.
In the debate I give three examples. I could have given three hundred.
The first a vulnerable constituent on Employment Support Allowance and incapacity allowance. He was being helped by Newcastle Welfare Rights, who told the DWP that after suddenly being found fit to work:
“..he was acutely distressed; he struggled to talk, he was having thoughts of suicide, he had also started drinking alcohol to cope and had struggled to leave the house”
Despite supporting psychological assessments, other evidence, and an attempted suicide, the decision was not reversed and in January 2014 he was found hanged by his neighbour.
The second case an IT worker made unemployed, earnestly applying for every possible vacancy.
But he was sanctioned by the Jobcentre because his work search record was judged inadequate – in the week his father died.
Now think about that for a moment. Is there anyone in this country of whatever political persuasion who does not believe that a son should be given the opportunity to grieve for and bury his father?
Whether or not he is claiming benefits.
Yet the culture that this Government has put in place is such that this is what happens. And whilst Esther McVey may claim it is nothing to do with them, organisational culture is determined by those at the top.
My third example is a constituent sanctioned at the beginning of December for not returning a review form he never received which asked him the same questions he answered when he first signed on. Despite trying to complete the form over the phone, going to the Job Centre, asking for and being promised an emergency payment he spent the whole month including the festive period dependent on handouts from friends and family, unable to afford heating or even to go and see his young daughter at Christmas.
And all the while the Government is paying for adverts on buses saying “Think you know a Newcastle upon Tyne Benefits Cheat? Report them anonymously.”
There are people on benefits who are abusing the system – who take what they can get and consider benefits both a lifestyle and a right.
But that is a very small proportion. It is estimated that 0.7% of welfare spending is lost to fraud in comparison with 1.3% lost to overpayment because of mistakes.
I have yet to see adverts encouraging people to turn in tax evaders, despite the Treasury itself estimating the ‘tax gap’ at £34 bn and others putting it much higher.
The sense that they are being treated as second class citizens, scroungers, cheats, has a terrible impact on the wellbeing and particularly the mental health of claimants.
I have some experience of that.
I was brought up largely on benefits. We were a one parent family. It was very hard for my mother who was crippled with rheumatoid arthritis and also suffered breast cancer, not only because of our poverty but also because of her shame at taking hand outs.
I am very glad she did not have to face the sort of vilification and abuse experienced now, abuse caused in part by a sustained campaign from some politicians on the right.
Contrary to what many of them would imagine, I was brought up with a strong work ethic, and also to believe that the state would provide a robust safety net for those that needed it.
I am not proud that I grew up on benefits. But I am not ashamed either. A Labour Government must and will put an end to this Government’s demonisation of those claiming benefits today.
Author: Chi Onwurah, Member of Parliament for Newcastle Central.
The full debate may be read here on Hansard, 2.30pm, 7 Jan 2015: from Column 112WH.
Labour MPs have persistently raised the issue of the government and media demonisation of those claiming benefits in Parliamentry debate, challenging serial offenders such as Iain Duncan Smith. Other MPs included are Glenda Jackson, Dame Anne Begg, Anne McGuire, Liam Byrne, John McDonnell and Sheila Gilmore, amongst others.
Rachel Reeves has also pledged to end the benefit sanction targets.
I am pleased that Labour have also pledged to legislate to protect disabled people from hate crime . We need to see an end to the stigmatisation of people who have to rely on lifeline benefits. After all, most people needing support have worked and paid taxes, they ought to be able to claim the support that they have paid for without being punished and scapegoated by the government and media. KSJ
Thanks to Robert Livingstone