Lesley Riddoch: Why we need a Dickens for today

The middle class looks the other way as the UK's sanctions against the poor risk starving families, writes Lesley Riddoch

The BBCs Dickensian looks back to a time when the better off could not easily ignore the plight of the poor. Picture: BBC/Red Planet Productions

So the UK Government is following up the “success” of its sanctions for the unemployed with a brand new wheeze – extending that punitive regime to folk in part-time work. The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) says that before being rolled out across Britain, the pilot schemes – including one in Inverness – will “help workers on low earnings take on more hours and increase their income”. Or in plain English, benefits will be stopped if claimants miss JobCentre appointments or can’t show evidence they’ve been looking for more work on top of their usual job. The euphemistic doublespeak is classically Orwellian, but the mindset behind this miserly move is positively Dickensian.

Indeed, some days it seems all that’s needed for a perfect parallel between modern Britain and the harsh, judgmental conditions portrayed in the BBC’s Dickensian series is a formal return to the workhouse. Yet this latest turning of the screw will probably not cause revolt amongst the bulk of comfortable Britons. After all, David Cameron has a very recent mandate – delivered by a clear majority of English voters – to do what he likes with the welfare state. Meanwhile, public sympathy, shaped by tabloid priorities, is generally suspicious of those who need help and society has become so segregated that those in full-time work know little about the reality of life in low-paid, zero-hours, part-time Britain and less still about scraping by on the dole. That, of course, was the genius of Dickens. He brought the squalor endured by Britain’s underclass to life. He spelled out the crushing unfairness of those born into poverty and made their plight and grace both vivid and real. He didn’t shrink from placing men wealthy enough to squander cash at the card table beside children risking jail to steal watches for food. Dickens didn’t give lectures about morality, he gave us characters, names, situations and backstories. Perhaps that’s what we need now, because voters are easily numbed by statistics – no matter how damning their conclusions about the failure of the government’s mission against the “undeserving poor”.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

And they are damning. A report by Church Action on Poverty (CPAG)last year found almost 100 thousand children were going hungry after government sanctions against their parents. Could we say they were starting to starve? Few official sources will go that far. But what else does “going hungry” mean? A Channel 4 Dispatches programme revealed two JobCentre whistleblowers who said they had been forced to “hammer” claimants with sanctions to meet Government targets. Niall Cooper of CPAG said: “If you commit a crime, no court is allowed to make you go hungry as a punishment. But if you’re late for an appointment at the JobCentre they can remove all your income and leave you unable to feed you or your family for weeks. If a similar system operated in a workplace, and pay was removed for a month for being late for a meeting, we might reasonably expect action to be taken against the employer.”

He’s right – but even though Britain now has the most severe sanctions regime in the world, polite middle class society is resolutely looking the other way as surely as it did in the days of Dickens.

Last August, for example, the government’s own statistics showed 2,380 people died shortly after being deemed fit for work – many of them (including folk with terminal diseases) within a fortnight of their work capability assessment (WCA). Soon after, experts from Liverpool and Oxford Universities published research estimating 590 additional suicides, 279,000 cases of mental ill health and 725,000 more prescriptions for antidepressants were associated with the stringent WCA regime. The DWP disputed the findings but then revealed it had issued guidance to “frontline staff” suspecting “suicidal intention” amongst “customers” to find out what the person had planned, when it was planned for, and whether “the customer had the means to hand”.

One such resourceful “customer” was 44-year-old Richard Sanderson, who drew up meticulous suicide plans after a £30 cut in housing benefit meant he could no longer afford the flat he shared with his wife and nine-year-old son. The unemployed dad from south-west London stabbed himself twice through the heart, hoping they would benefit from his life insurance policy. This was not a man who had easily given up. When he first became unemployed in 2007, Richard tried to train as an electrician, but had to quit because the JobCentre required him to be available for interviews at all times. Our benefits system is stappit fu’ with such self-defeating, perverse and cruel ordinances. Yet despite this and the fact almost half of all appeals by sick and disabled claimants eventually succeed, the fit-for-work system rumbles on.

And for what? The Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee found that although the number of sanctioned claimants almost doubled between 2008 and 2014, only 20 per cent went on to find work. So despite its very low success rate and the pain and uncertainty it unquestionably causes, the UK Government is intent on extending the sanctions regime to part-time workers whose chances of hitting a work versus JobCentre dilemma are infinitely higher. Research by Glasgow University published this weekend gives the example of one man “fined” £70 after missing a JobCentre appointment because he had been called into work by his employer, and a woman struggling with debt and finally eviction after a series of sanctions as she tried to juggle JobCentre appointments with part-time work and caring responsibilities. And then, of course, there’s the bedroom tax. ruled illegal last week in the case of disabled children and victims of domestic violence, but still on the statute books. In many ways, Cameron and work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith have already created the 21st-century poorhouse – it’s a virtual institution where clients save the state money by being poor in their own homes, thus helpfully minimising bad publicity and the potential for mobilisation. Meanwhile, taxpayers take their minds off the whole sorry mess by watching lavishly produced BBC costume dramas about the chronically unfair society of yesteryear.

Last month, Tony Blair suggested a vote to pull out of Europe might provoke an independence vote. He might be right. But long before that, the vindictive nature of Britain’s “welfare system” will have convinced many more that the UK is simply unfit for purpose.