Nobody has a closer view of the effects of benefit sanctions than advice workers. Helping people with benefit issues has always been a daily feature of our job, but in addition to pestering the job centre for answers and submitting appeals and preparing evidence for the appeal hearings, we nowadays have to do more to make sure the claimants don't starve or become suicidal before we get the problem solved. It is impossible not to be disturbed by the brutality of official actions and attitudes, and so three of us in Rochdale decided to take part in the Week of Action Against Sanctions.
We did nothing spectacular. We simply got into town early in the morning to hand out sanctions busting leaflets to the people queueing to get into Rochdale job centre of a morning, and then hung round outside during our lunch break to hand out more leaflets to people coming out. We didn't give them to people on the way in, in case they were running late for an appointment; people can get their benefits sanctioned for being two minutes late. The sanctions 'regime' in Rochdale has been particularly vicious in the recent past: John Longden, the whistleblower who complained to his bosses about illegal sanctions, and subsequently gave evidence to the parliamentary committee on sanctions, worked at our local job centre.
It's impossible to tell if anything has changed in the two years since he resigned, and we only met four people during the week who had been sanctioned and wanted help. But I got the impression that most people just wanted to get to hell away from the job centre, they took leaflets from us but kept walking on and didn't look at them straight away.
We intend to keep leafletting at least once every week from now on, to get the message across to people that they can appeal sanctions successfully and they can resist being bullied and prevented from finding work by job centre officials. Many of the sanctions are illegal, as are people's jobseekers agreements and 'claimant commitments' and once challenged, the job centre quickly changes the decision. They really don't want their stupidity to be presented to a judge at a social security tribunal. I wish more claimants could find the confidence to oppose them. If there was an increase in appeals in proportion to the increase in sanctions, before long the entire policy would crash. The job centres would not be able ti sustain the extra work.
Find out more from the Boycott Workfare website.