Esther McVey was asked to attend the Scottish parliament’s welfare committee late last month. She declined but instead sent Neil Couling, work services director of the DWP. It really made no difference that the minister wasn’t in attendance as the mandarin spoke with his master’s voice. Using cold statistics as his weapon of choice,he attempted to explain that benefit sanctions were good for those who received them and food bank use was not demand but supply led. He attributed the growth in their usage as people “maximising their economic choices.”
Try telling this to the million plus Scots who have been forced to depend on food banks to survive this year. Couling blamed the increase on the Trussell trust and their “evangelical mission” to have a foodbank in every town. He claimed poor people just act the same as rich people in seeking personal gain. Try telling this to a young man who I spoke to yesterday who due to sanctioning has had no electricity in his home for the past four days. No light, heating or access to a hot meal. Is his having to access a food bank an optional extra?
Couling had obviously been briefed to deny the link between benefit reforms and sanctions and foodbank usage. He dismissed academic research as purely anecdotal. He said benefit sanctions were not meant to be punitive but a “wake up call.” People “welcome the jolt”. Rather than describe the stories of individuals shared by the welfare committee he preferred to call them cases. After all when you dehumanize someone there is no need to think about the impact the benefit cuts and sanctions are having on them.
Benefit sanctions have increased 209% since 2006. They silently target people causing misery in everyday lives throughout Scotland. People become more isolated and know no other way to get advice and solidarity. They may be applied by job centres for trivial reasons including not applying for enough jobs on universal job match sites to being late for appointments. Those affected are given no benefit unless they apply for hardship allowance. Some claim that there may be targets for individual advisers. Coulsing claimed that job centres had acted in error and were no longer applying this. It is of interest though that when the Citizen’s Advice Bureau in West Dumbartonshire published a damning report into the number of sanctions in their area, the number of sanctions applied decreased significantly.
Like his Tory masters Couling refused to admit the link between food bank use and benefit reforms it had nothing to do with the DWP. Just an example of people “maximising their economic choices”. Since when did poverty and hardship become an economic choice? Like the much maligned “Toom Tabard” his word are empty and without meaning. If you convert real lives to case studies it is much easier to implement policies that will impact on so many peoples’ lives. The reforms are part of a campaign to transform the benefit system. It will no longer be a safety net but will provide less than the basics people will need to survive. Couling was quick to compare the amount of people being fed in food banks in Canada to that of the UK. The trussell trust estimated 60,000 people use food banks in the UK while 700,000 people are fed by them in Canada. In Canada and America they are an essential part of the welfare system not an extra support. Rapidly we are moving towards the position that food banks become an integral part of our community. This is not acceptable in an Independent Scotland.
The language used by Couling shows how the thoughts of Ian Duncan Smith are being translated into the every day lives of people who are on work related benefits. They are accused of lying and using food bank not out of necessity but to get extra. He compares the poor to the rich who can manipulate the tax system for their own greed but we know there is a vast chasm between their behaviour and the very basic human need of having enough to need and having enough to feed your family and yourself. After yesterday’s results we are at a crossroads, we may end up with a Westminster with a tory/UKIP coalition. UKIP have been shady about their other views but for libertarian read every man for himself with cuts to services guaranteed as well as the continuing diatribe of hatred towards the poor. We also have the promise of an Independent Scotland with the opportunity for change. A place where no one is left behind no matter their needs. In the next few crucial months let’s campaign for a YES vote with all our strength. It is a prize worth winning. The alternative looms in the shadows. Let’s keep it there.