Fighting for Our Social Fabric

This election is an opportunity to stop the steady brutality of a welfare system that has left so many people in destitution.

David Bevan’s body was found slumped in a JobCentre chair. The 62 year old, who had diabetes, was waiting for an appointment to discuss his Jobseeker’s Allowance in South Wales when he had a suspected heart attack this month. Witnesses said he was heard to give out what sounded like a loud snore before his last breath.

When news of Bevan‘s death broke, it went viral, in part because of rumours that he was only at the JobCentre because he’d been found ‘fit for work’ and forced to sign on. These reports have since been discredited (Bevan’s brother says he holds no ill will to the Department of Work and Pensions).

You could say this case is a lesson in the downsides of the modern era’s quick online reporting – and that’s certainly a part – whilst it is still deeply upsetting that Bevan felt desperate enough to keep his benefits that he attended the JobCentre when so ill, even without the added detail of the ‘fit for work’ scandal.

But it also surely says something about where we are as a country that such a horror story was quite so easy for many to believe. Put it another way: an ill man dropping dead in a JobCentre queue after supposedly being denied disability benefits didn’t seem outlandish to much of the public. It seemed all too likely.

It is well known that the last decade in the U.K. has seen unprecedented austerity measures. Social security has been frozen and cut, all at the same time as wages have been squeezed and rents soared. Disability benefits have been overhauled, as private companies and faulty assessments have overseen a pernicious system. Meanwhile, local authorities – who might previously have provided emergency welfare funds for those in crisis – have been gutted.

It is within this context that a disabled person dying in a JobCentre did not seem an aberration of austerity but rather, simply a particularly graphic example of what has actually been happening for years. Back in 2015, official government figures showed nearly 90 people a month were dying after being declared fit for work.

Time after time, we have seen severely ill people chucked off benefits and forced to look for employment. Too many times, we have seen people needlessly die after losing their social security – sometimes even by taking their own life.

The case of Stephen Smith earlier this year – who had to release himself from hospital to get to his benefit appeal, despite being so ill he was skeletal, and died months later – summed up all too clearly the obscenity of having to spend the last days of your life fighting the very system meant to help you. 

‘Welfare’ funding has played a major part in recent elections. Just as the Tory-Lib Dem Coalition used the so-called bloated benefits bill as an excuse to launch austerity in 2010, the Conservative’s gained a majority in 2015 with a promise of further mass cuts to ‘welfare.’ But what’s different about this election is that, rather than damage being caused by active rhetoric against the poor and disabled, harm is more likely to come from silence.

Boris Johnson will do everything he can to solely make this election about Brexit, whilst making token spending announcements to distract from the devastation a decade of Conservative cuts have made. The first television debate this week was noticeable for its almost total absence of many of the key issues plaguing the country.

Whether it is mass food bank use, Universal Credit destitution, or growing homelessness, the task in the final weeks of the campaign will be pushing what really matters onto the agenda. When Jeremy Corbyn launched Labour’s manifesto on Thursday urging people to ‘vote for hope’, it was a pledge that something better is out there. Contrary to what years of Tory-Lib Dem power has suggested, perpetual poverty, insecurity, and individualism are not inevitable. It is more than possible to build a country where human suffering is not the accepted default. The stakes of this election couldn’t be higher: to fight for Britain’s social fabric.