I got back from holiday yesterday to discover a good friend of mine who is busy learning English and looking for work had been sanctioned for a month because she had not actually applied for any jobs. There were two reasons for this: firstly because she had been ill with flu’ for a good fortnight and secondly because she had not seen anything that she felt she was qualified for. When I chatted to her today she told me her head was very heavy.
Sanctions are my absolute pet hate. I do not understand how they are legal or considered humane. They trigger a spiral of events that leaves someone penniless and hopeless and they send anxiety levels shooting through the roof. They must cost far, far more than they save in healthcare and in criminal processes as they leave people with very few options other than begging, borrowing or stealing.
A sanction means that your ‘benefits’ – the money with which you can just about buy food and pay bills is stopped. This triggers automatically a stopping of your housing benefit so you are left unable to pay your rent. And just to cap it, your council tax benefits stop too so suddenly you face a large tax bill. In our Hunger Journals in which we collected stories from people facing food poverty, sanctions were often the thing that tipped people people into crisis. (You can read stories from the Hunger Journals here)
So imagine for a moment that English is not your first language. You receive endless, long complicated letters which basically say you will have nothing to live on. In order to appeal you need to ring premium rate phone numbers and hold for a very long time and work your way through extremely complicated documents. Your options are limited. You are left bewildered, angry, and punished for something you did not know you had even done. (My friend was following the advice given to her at college). You fear that you will be evicted from your house and you have no way of buying food or any essentials. (People surviving on benefits do not usually have savings) I am ashamed to live in a country that does this to people.
As a Church we can offer some support to people like my friend but not enough. What I really want is to be able to offer her a job and I, for the first time in my life, wish I were a successful businesswoman. I wish we could run social enterprises that offer my friend decent contracts of work and an environment that would build her confidence.
My daughter keeps telling me to launch my pet business idea – called Pants by Post. I (for some strange reason) think there is a market for personalised pants as presents – Happy Birthday pants, Good Luck pants, Get Well Soon pants etc etc. I mean who would not like to receive cheerful underwear through the post. How much more useful is a pair of knickers than some twee hallmark card. I think Pants by Post could be Interflora for our generation – but that’s just me. If anyone wants to invest in my pants idea I would be thrilled! In fact if anyone knows anyway of finding employment for my talented, reliable, honest, kind and generous friend I would be thrilled.
In the meantime I take courage from this poem by Dorothee Soelle
I believe in Jesus Christ
who was right when he
like each of us
just another individual who couldn’t beat city hall
worked to change the status quo
and was destroyed
looking at him I see
how our intelligence is crippled
our imagination stifled
our efforts wasted
because we do not live as he did
every day I am afraid
that he died in vain
because he is buried in our churches
because we have betrayed his revolution
in our obedience to authority
and our fear of it
From Credo by Dorothee Soelle – you can read the whole poem here