There are people are considering voting Tory, even people who live in working class communities blighted by poverty and the searing destruction of the soul that deprivation engenders. They’re considering voting Tory because they don’t want another independence referendum, because they don’t want to think about the calamitous consequences of even a supposedly successful Brexit, because they wish that all this politics business would just go away and leave them alone. They’re people who’re reacting against a gun being placed against their temples by voting to pull the trigger. They’re voting Tory to make uncertainty go away, when all that voting Tory will achieve is to destable our society even more. They’re voting for the symptoms because they’re afraid of the cure.
Two reports published this week lay bare the social chasms caused by Conservative rule. This is the party which preaches against division but which causes the greatest divisions of all. This is the party which claims that differences of political opinion in a democracy are a bad thing, while creating differences of life chances and opportunities which define and distort entire lives. This is the party of careerist cant that seeks stability on the back of lies, but what else do you expect from comfortable people who blame poverty on the poor. The poor are to be punished for their poverty because the poor must be castigated in order to do better. The rich must be rewarded and cossetted. And all the while the gulf between the haves and the have nots grows wider, social mobility ossifies, equality becomes a distant dream, and the Tories preach against the supposed divisions of wanting to do something to remedy the shameful state of affairs that they’ve created.
A report from Glasgow University this week lays bare the catastrophic effect of benefits sanctions on people who are already struggling to make ends meet. Dr David Webster of Glasgow University has calculated that benefits sanctions now exceed the number of fines imposed by courts of law. Court fines come about after criminal prosecutions, after the accused has had a chance to state their case before a court in which their interests are represented by lawyers and advocates. There is a clear standard of evidence, and a high bar of proof that must be established. Then, and only then, can the court take the decision to deprive a convicted person of a part of their income in restitution for their crime and when that decision is made it must take into account the person’s income and their ability to pay.
None of these checks and balances apply to those who are deprived of part or all of their incomes when they are subject to benefits sanctions. There is no legal representation, there is no balance of evidence, no standard of proof. All that is required is the opinion of a DWP case worker. Those sanctioned by the DWP lose a greater proportion of their income than people subject to court fines. Unlike a court, the DWP doesn’t consider whether their sanctions will leave a person destitute and without any income at all. Worst of all, back in 2011 a whistleblower claimed that DWP staff were given targets and had to sanction at least three claimants a week. The DWP strongly denied there are national targets, but evidence continues to mount that staff in individual offices are indeed pressurised by management to impose more sanctions.
According to a report from the National Audit Office in 2016, in 2015 alone benefits sanctions led to around £132 million being withheld from the poorest people in the country. Between 2010 and 2015 24% of Jobseekers Allowance claimants were sanctioned. The report found that despite the claims of government ministers that sanctions work by encouraging people to find work, the truth is that the sanction regime actually makes it harder for claimants to find work. It also found that some job centres were twice as likely as others to refer clients for sanctions although the DWP had no information on the causes of the variance, leading to the supposition that some staff members were more likely than others to impose sanctions for the same “offences”. When justice is capricious, there is no justice at all.
Those who have been sanctioned and left destitute have no other options but to seek assistance from foodbanks. As the sanctions regime has grown, so have foodbanks spread. A report released this week from the Trussel Trust, the largest provider of foodbanks, says that there are now over 2000 foodbanks in the country, providing over 1.2 million food parcels annually. According to the report this figure is a minimum figure, as it doesn’t include food parcels distributed by informal networks such as churches, housing associations, and community groups.
Theresa May claims that the reasons people have to resort to foodbanks are “complex”. But they’re not complex at all. People have to seek assistance from foodbanks because they don’t have anything to eat and no money with which to buy food. That’s not complex. That’s quite simple to understand. And it’s not just people who have been unfairly penalised by the benefits system who have to seek help from foodbanks, increasingly it’s people who are actually working, but who are reliant on zero-hours contracts, so-called gig economy jobs, or whose wages simply can’t support their families – a problem that is increasing as the Conservatives take an axe to housing benefit, tax credits for the low paid, and other benefits which once helped support those in low paid employment. More and more in the UK the much touted Tory line that work is the route out of poverty has become a cruel joke.
Yet the demonisation of the poor continues. According to figures from the Dept of Works and Pensions, benefit fraud costs the taxpayer £1.3 billion annually. This figure is less than the £1.8 billion annually representing payments made in error – in other words the DWP would save the taxpayer more more if it concentrated on dealing with its own mistakes rather than chasing those defrauding the system. The amount underpaid in error was £1.3 billion in 2012 (the most recent year for which I could find figures) – the same as the amount lost to fraud. But all these figures are dwarfed by the estimated £16 billion annually lost to tax fraud, and the even bigger figure lost to tax avoidance schemes. Yet this Tory government has slashed jobs in tax offices, and continues to prioritise penalising benefits claimants. This is not unrelated to the fact that benefits are claimed by the poor, whereas tax fraud and tax avoidance are predominantly practised by middle class people who are more likely to vote Tory.
We live in a society which has lost all sense of proportion because that is what suits the wealthy and the powerful. A vote for the Conservatives is a vote to ignore the kind of society that Britain is becoming. Vote Tory, vote to put the bullet in your temple. Vote to destroy your community. Vote for private greed. Vote to close your eyes.
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