Cleansing the UK’s Mentally Ill, Sanction by Murderous Sanction

‘The Match Seller’ by Otto Dix: as the UK’s disabled are sanctioned into beggary, to the apparent unconcern of the wider populace, a painting that resonates beyond Weimar Germany


He who does not work, neither shall he eat.

II Thessalonians 3:10


On his blog, A Day in the Life, the Pathways group’s Dave Sweetsur has written recently about the issue of benefit sanctions, one of the morbid symptoms of the senescence of capitalism. A sanction is a penalty levied on unemployed persons, whether ones claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) or the main type of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), for what Iain Duncan Smith’s Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) moralistically terms “transgressions” against the rules pertaining to their benefit claims. Where they are not pure inventions of target-driven jobcentre staff, these “transgressions” are generally of an utterly trivial nature, as a glance at the several websites documenting them will show. They can consist of nothing more heinous than spelling mistakes on a form or marginal lateness for an appointment. The consequences of being subject to a sanction, however, are anything but minor. All financial support, or a hefty portion of it in the case of ESA recipients, ceases for a period ranging from a week to a scandalous three years, plunging those affected into an existential battle for bare survival. Theoretically, hardship payments are claimable to counter a slide into abject destitution, but in practice these are scarce, and in any event are to be disbursed as loans when current benefits undergo the transition to Universal Credit. Sanctions are now handed out by the thousands, outstripping in number the fines imposed by magistrates’ courts. As a sanction also serves to remove a person from official unemployment statistics, they go a considerable distance toward accounting for ostensible falls in those totals. The topic is of such grave import that the present author, Mark Conlon, felt that it warranted a second look here.

Dave drew connections between the manifest iniquity of sanctions and Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” thesis, positing the DWP as an Eichmannesque “bureaucratic framework of oppression” implacably grinding expendable lives into dust. He articulated the shock and disbelief experienced by many when they realize what is going on in purportedly civilized twenty-first century Britain. Is it conceivable that human beings are being cast adrift without access to money, the sine qua non of existence in a capitalist society? That, to quote Aneurin Bevan’s famous Bellevue Hotel speech of July 1948, the condemnation of “millions of first-class people to semi-starvation” is once again the method by which Tories prefer to deal with economic slump? Unfortunately, from the standpoint of neoliberal ideology the answer is an unabashed yes. More, state-mandated penury is to be celebrated as both condign punishment and tough love: a just retribution against the incorrigibly workshy, and a stern exhortation to the rest to buckle down to a life of wage slavery, the strait gate which alone offers redemption from the mortal sin of profaning bourgeois relations of production. The apodictic pronouncements of the DWP make explicit what in effect is a species of Augustinian theology, whereby the supplicant “jobseeker” is expected to embrace servitude with masochistic elation, or else suffer damnation to a very real hell. Take, for example, a typical piece of sanctimony from the detestable Esther McVey, Minister of State for Employment. Speaking of the department’s plans, via psychometric testing, to “segment” the unemployed into subsets of deserving and undeserving poor, she explained that the former are those exhibiting “get up and go, the right attitude, the right teamplay.” Arbeit macht frei, indeed.

Since June 2011, stricter “conditionality” (i.e., the obligation to jump through an ever proliferating myriad of bureaucratic hoops) has reduced the sanctioning apparatus to a Kafkaesque circus of cruelty and absurdity. Campaigning body 38 Degrees characterizes as “economic terrorism” the clear intent to inflict an annihilating precarity on an already vulnerable demographic, while Professor David Webster, of Glasgow University, talks of a “parallel secret penal system” having been assembled around sanctioning legislation. The maliciousness of sanctions is so glaring that a Conservative minister, Nick Boles, was struck by unaccustomed, if transitory, pangs of conscience over what he called an “inhuman inflexibility” in their operation. All this, it is pitiful to recall, is to prevent payment of derisory sums of money, which when added up annually would scarcely fund the upkeep of an MP’s moat, much less foot the bill for the $70,000 desks favoured by bailed-out bankers. JSA is a parsimonious £72.40 per week, and accounts for a mere 0.7% of government spending; ESA rates are only nominally higher. Any rational observer can see that inevitably the policy must issue in calamity. Personal indebtedness will rise to unserviceable levels, indigent people will be driven in desperation to crime, homelessness will ensue, and families will have to assume the financial burden of supporting those who are sanctioned, whose health is likely to deteriorate to the point where medical crises place great strain on the NHS. The Medical Research Council has warned, ominously, of “a public health emergency that could go unrecognised until it is too late to take preventative action.”

What of the fate within this draconian setup of the mentally ill? Clare Bambra and Kayleigh Garthwaite of Durham University have conducted research in Stockton-on-Tees into the impact of sanctions on those with mental health conditions. Their findings were horrifying. They discovered that Karen, a single mother on Jobseeker’s Allowance with children aged nine and eleven, had been sanctioned for failure to apply for a stipulated minimum of jobs – no fewer than seventeen – over the Christmas period of 2013. All three were left penniless, without the means to heat their home in the depths of winter. Jessica, a heavily pregnant woman of 23 previously in receipt of Employment and Support Allowance, but guilty of the unforgivable offence of being too ill to attend a jobcentre interview, told them that she had barely eaten for two weeks following a withdrawal of benefit. Her access to nutrition was restricted to the charitable donations of a Trussell Trust food bank, augmented by leftovers supplied by her sister; no money was available to power her fridge or cooker. Evidently, for those who administer this mockery of anything that might properly be termed a “social security” system, there exists no season of goodwill, nor duty of concern for the wellbeing of unborn babies. In light of the case studies presented, one must view the following statement by the Durham academics as an illustration of scholarly understatement: “The sanctioning of people with mental health problems is a particular problem – with the stress and anxiety of income loss adding to their underlying condition.”

In evidence submitted to the Commons Work and Pensions Committee, Bambra and Garthwaite urged that sanctions be scrapped or mitigated for those with psychological ailments. The most recent data, from 2014,  indicates that the opposite course is being pursued. Mentally unwell ESA claimants allocated to the Work Related Activity Group – a category for those deemed capable, often on the basis of bogus or inept assessments, of working at some future point – are being sanctioned at the rate of over a hundred per day. There can little doubt, in fact, that the mentally ill are being specifically targeted. They not infrequently ignore or delay opening mail, something the DWP seemingly regards as all the more reason to send out letters and impose penalties when the instructions therein are not obeyed punctiliously. They simply may not understand the workings of a Byzantine system, but this renders them easy prey for jobcentre “hit squads” (the description of whistleblower John Longden) tasked with tripping them up at every turn. Overall, a staggering six out of ten of those sanctioned have mental health diagnoses. There have been a number of victims whose maltreatment has been so egregious as to breach the carapace of media indifference. Ken Holt, for instance, has spoken to the press about his conviction that his bipolar daughter, Sheila, “cracked” under the pressure of endless threats that she would be sanctioned for not measuring up to the demands of the Work Programme, the government’s corporate welfare scheme designed to shovel public cash into the coffers of “training providers” such as Seetec and A4E. Sheila was sectioned, suffered a heart attack and subsequently fell into a coma. Even when she was comatose, the hectoring from the DWP did not relent. She has since died.

It hardly requires saying that a government capable of this degree of callousness  – as George Monbiot puts it, one with a parliamentary frontbench that “can rock with laughter as it truncates the livelihoods of the poorest people of this country” – is catastrophically lacking in empathy. Its leader, David Cameron, while presiding over mass hunger and an upsurge in food banks, can announce without irony that his eleven-year-old daughter will be going on “hunger strike” in opposition to the sacking of a brawling right-wing celebrity from the BBC. It would not baulk for a moment at the liquidation of all social security provision. Since the Labour Party introduced sanctions with its Clintonesque “New Deal” retrogressions, a detail of history to which Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves is unembarrassed to advert, it would be naïve to hope that a Labour administration might fundamentally alter things. With much of the population benumbed by propaganda scapegoating “scroungers” and the supposedly numberless hordes of benefit fraudsters, or at such a nadir of political consciousness as to look to poujadiste racists for solutions to an unfolding crisis of capitalism, the outlook for mentally ill people without jobs (that is to say, the majority) is exceptionally bleak.

Hannah Arendt, in a 1951 letter to Karl Jaspers, suggested that evil resides in “making human beings as human beings superfluous.” That is exactly the principle on which the sanctioning regime operates: it declares the frail and the fallible, those not able to conform to the dictates of an apparatchik machine – those who fall, as one might phrase it, outwith the Volksgemeinschaft of self-reliant citizens – to be unfit to live. It’s one reason I don’t consider as gratuitous the parallels drawn by Dave Sweetsur between the fascist nightmare and what’s occurring today (a worry that Dave, ever the scrupulously fair-minded liberal, has expressed to me). Certainly Dave is not alone in making the comparison. Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), in vigils held outside Downing Street and Parliament, has combined antiausterity protest with commemoration of the Holocaust. Disabled rights activists Black Triangle borrow their name from the badge that denoted “asocial” prisoners (including the mentally ill) in Nazi concentration camps. In 2012, The Guardian newspaper revealed the Coalition’s predilection for eugenics in a report on the £166 million in foreign aid given to India to expedite forced sterilization of the poor in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. Whatever the present differences in scale and overt savagery, when a government broadcasts its contempt for human rights, and its intent to abolish the Human Rights Act after the 2015 general election, one can only fear a descent into worse forms of barbarism. One begins to glimpse what the much trumpeted “longterm economic plan” might have as its endgame: elimination of uneconomic Untermenschen.

To conclude on a personal note. Today I’ve turned 50 years of age. It’s dispiriting, to choose a mild adjective, to have spent 36 of those years – longer, if one dates the birth of neoliberal governance to the Callaghan administration of 1976 – under a darkening shadow of political reaction. It was obvious from the start that the neoliberal project (Thatcherism, monetarism, supply-side economics, call it what you will) was a bid to conduct an extirpative long march through the institutions of social democracy. It was impossible, however, to predict how far it would go. I am the last person to wax nostalgic about the era of my youth, the 1980s; we were still, as Marx would have it, in prehistory, and a pretty coarse and nasty one at that. Nonetheless, it was at least a prehistory in which workers, after a century of struggle, had won a modicum of dignity. Disqualification from unemployment benefits was rare, denial of all state assistance beyond the parameters even of Thatcherite immoderation. The “enemy within” was the National Union of Mineworkers. Thirty years on, with organized labour vanquished, and under the cloak of fiscal discipline, the enemy is the unemployed and the disabled, and by extension everyone in the country not insulated by wealth against the potential misfortune of unemployment or disability. If I were to indulge in a middle-aged cri de coeur, it would be the hope that, in the time left to me, the tide finally turns against a capitalist triumphalism that is dragging nearly all of us down to perdition. The victims of sanctions, together with all the other victims of neoliberalism, surely deserve no less.