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A Magazine for Sheffield

Welfare State of Collapse.

This month I write about someone you may have met. Clearly intelligent, his first career was in management and later he had a lucrative small business. But things got complicated, his partner decided to quit and the business was wound up last year. That's how it happened that I regularly bought The Big Issue from him. We often chatted, until one week when he smilingly told me that things were looking up. There was a flat available. He'd soon have that longed-for accommodation. I was surprised to see him back there a few weeks later. What happened? Was he homeless again? Not quite, but 'vulnerably housed' thanks to the new, 'tougher' welfare system. Unemployed people are now ordered on compulsory work programmes ('workfare') with no consultation on availability or suitability, let alone preference. Refuse and your benefits are stopped. Harsh but rigorous? If only. The instruction to attend one of these programmes came while he was already on a so-called training course with guaranteed employment. It took two hours in the benefits office to sort out the confusion. Then it happened again. He describes the 30-hour course as a box-ticking exercise. It was actually less than 17 hours. An 'icebreaker' discussion on sexuality got out of hand and had to be stopped. Modules included designing a poster for or against cannabis. The only written work was the trainer writing on a whiteboard and ordering students to copy it. 'Evidence' of health and safety training was photographing students disposing of plasters in bins. The accreditation didn't arrive. After making a complaint about the poor quality he was criticised. The promised employment vanished, described as a 'misunderstanding'. If you're not unemployed, you may not realise what's happened to our benefits system in the past two years. The Work Programme conjured a new Big Society approach to supporting people back into work. A mystical blending of charity and business, sprinkled with government cash, the Welfare to Work market is now contracted and subcontracted out to dubious companies. Target-driven to herd people into full-time job searching, they have the power to interrogate and enforce behaviour with the threat of sanctions, often cutting benefits for petty, seemingly imaginary reasons like slight mistakes on forms. The Department for Work and Pensions pays lip service to its responsibility to understand and tackle the root causes of poverty rather than its symptoms, but the new regime is one which works by shaming those on benefits. This reflects the fever-pitch name-calling in newspapers like The Sun, and the views of Work and Pensions head Iain Duncan Smith. Anti-Workfare blogger Yamazaki Agamben points out that the DWP uses shame as a form of psychological violence. Such coercive discipline is used in schools, prisons and at work. It was used to justify the eugenic fantasies of the early 20th century and the Victorian poor houses before that. Not being in employment is nothing to be ashamed of. It's like blaming the tyres because the economic road hits a bad patch. 'Dependency culture', if it has any meaning, only describes a small proportion of those on benefits. The bigger picture is that there are few jobs and many jobseekers. The reality is food banks, low incomes, homelessness and rising living costs. Cutting off people's only income for months won't help. Some have died or committed suicide as a result. On the same day disabled campaigners celebrated a small victory against the unjust decision to close the Independent Living Fund, figures revealed there have been 1.3 million sanctions placed on jobseekers since late October 2012. It's only a matter of time until there's a legal challenge – or a violent one. Handing huge contracts to corporations already bloated on taxpayers money does create employment, but not necessarily in the stated way. Advisors are loaded with superhuman targets and countless caseloads. Alan White, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Bristol, recently called it a “toxic mixture of policy by soundbite, twisted statistics and a spurious belief in the efficacy of the private sector ... a programme that is going to fail a whole generation”. My friend selling The Big Issue, sick of fighting petty bureaucracy, has signed off to try self-employment. His weekly earnings are variable and small – double figures at best. He speaks of surviving for four days on £2.50. He lives in one room of his flat, counting every penny, timing the heater at 15 minutes, just long enough to heat the room. It's going to be a cold, hard winter for many. If you are affected by these issues you are not alone. Get in touch with Sheffield Anti Cuts Alliance or Sheffield Disabled People Against the Cuts and read blogs like Refuted, AntiWorkfare and WeAreSpartacus. Report your experiences before 10th January to the DWP consultation linked below. Something's wrong here. They need to be told what it's like. Independent review into Jobseeker’s Allowance sanctions – )

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