No one seems to be concerned that hugely profitable private firms are forcing thousands into borderline destitution
If you want a sobering flavour of where Britain is heading, set aside banking, the Leveson inquiry, our relationship with Europe and whatever else – and consider a Guardian story by Patrick Butler that appeared last week. It was about food banks, the charitable set-ups that supply emergency parcels to people who have fallen between society’s cracks. FareShare, a charity that sits at the heart of all this, says it is experiencing “ridiculous growth” in demand, and expects that trend to continue for at least five years; over the last 12 months, it claims to have sent out 8.6m meals.
Spend any time around a food bank – and I have, in Inverness and Liverpool – and it quickly becomes clear that their core constituency is based around two groups of people: refugees who have either recently arrived in the UK or opted to go underground; and people who have suddenly had their benefits stopped.
Thanks to the increasingly cruel regime that now applies to benefits – which, we now know, David Cameron wants to make yet crueller – the latter seem to be increasing in number by the week, pushed into their predicament by a system that can summarily ruin lives, but offer only the most sluggish remedies by way of appeal. By and large, they remain invisible, but their fate is starting to intrude on the news media: last week, a man set himself alight outside a Birmingham jobcentre, reportedly thanks to a “dispute over benefit payments”, an episode that occurred just as the Guardian was revealing rising concerns about suicides among people faced with so-called benefits “sanctions”. For an intimate picture of the misery and anxiety that lies behind all this, have a look at this film by my colleague John Domokos, partly centred on a family reduced to fretting over their last dregs of electricity, and apparently surviving on a diet founded on budget baked beans. The benefits system refuses to understand that one of them is a carer, whose obligations to his ill wife mean that he cannot always make his appointments at the jobcentre.
Which brings us to revelations that appeared over the weekend, and the latest news about the government’s increasingly brutal welfare-to-work drive. Thanks to research by Corporate Watch and an article in the Observer, we know that the private companies involved in the government’s Work Programme have been pushing for unbelievable numbers of people to have their benefits cut, aiming at figures that even the ever-more stringent Jobcentre Plus regime has refused to sign off. Meanwhile, there’s a clear sense that in the context of a flatlining economy, the Work Programme’s targets – indeed, its entire logic – are proving impossible: the scheme’s core presumptions were based on economic growth of over 2%, and a revived job market. Given their non-appearance, the companies involved look they’re getting desperate, and in the absence of any convincing carrot, frantically reaching for the stick.
In the context of the firms’ returns, all this leaves an impossibly nasty taste. The best example is the welfare-to-work outfit A4e. This year, it has been blitzed with all those allegations of fraud; I’ve also reported on allegations of a “champagne culture”, company events held in upscale foreign locations, and the dizzying lifestyle led by its former chair and public face, Emma Harrison, who last year paid herself a dividend of £8.6m. And what apparently lies at the heart of all this opulence, and the activities of a firm that claims to be “social purpose company” with “one sole aim, to improve people’s lives around the world”? Over six months, 10,000 requests were made for its “customers” to have their benefits cut, of which only 3,000 were granted by Jobcentre Plus. Similar statistics for other companies abound: Working Links referred nearly 12,000 cases for sanctions, Serco managed just over 9,000, and G4s came in at 7,780. Such is the upshot of the stock warning that appears on most of the correspondence sent to Work Programme participants: “If you do not attend this appointment, your benefits could be affected.” And how.
This is yet another one of those stories that come with a head-spinning sense of how much Britain has changed, under this government and its predecessor. Rewind 15 years, and imagine the spectacle of hugely profitable private firms pushing for thousands of people to be propelled into borderline destitution: the result would have been acres of coverage, and molten anger. And now? Even backbench Lib Dems are predictably silent, and Labour restricts its criticisms of a system it invented to technocratic hand-wringing, focused not on any kind of moral outrage, but whether everything’s working, and how much it all might cost (“Chaos at DWP is stalling the government’s reforms … the welfare bill is going through the roof” was the response to Cameron’s welfare proposals of Liam Byrne, a man for whom the adjective “blank” might have been invented). Even the trade unions are bizarrely quiet. The reality is something to which mainstream politics cannot admit, and which bumps up against a cross-party accent on welfare being the last resort of malingerers: that people are living in fear and going hungry, and a cold state machine seems to have been designed to put them there.
Now, incidentally, we hear word that plenty of police officers are of the opinion that last year’s riots could easily be repeated. One hesitates, of course, to be alarmist. But as more and more people feel the cruelties of a policy that makes no sense – that people must be kicked into work, even if jobs don’t exist – has anyone considered that the two things might be connected?