Bristol joined a nationwide demonstration against benefit sanctions yesterday, as locals took to College Green to speak out about the issue.
According to Unite, which is the largest trade union organisation in the UK, 300,000 people have had their benefits cut abruptly in the last 12 months due to ‘ridiculous’ reasons, such as arriving a few minutes late to job centre meetings.
Events took place at over 50 locations across Great Britain yesterday, all organised by the trade union.
“My Christmas was ruined by benefit sanctions”
Unite community member, Andy Mitchell, who had travelled from one of the earlier London protests to be at the Bristol one, told us how benefit sanctions have affected his life.
An error in administration at his local JobCentre left him without food and electricity at Christmas, as his benefits were stopped completely.
“I was sat there with nothing, looking out the window watching families enjoy themselves. My whole world collapsed”
Leader of the Bristol Conservative Group, Mark Weston, spoke out against the move, commenting that benefits are not money that is simply handed to anyone; people have commitments in order to receive them.
He added that ‘it’s not free money – it’s taxpayers money’.
“You should have a sanction if you don’t live up to your end of the bargain – that’s the deal.”
“However, I think we can be a little gentler in the system – buses do run late. But there’s a difference between being two minutes late and two hours late. You should have a sanction if you don’t live up to your end of the bargain – that’s the deal.”
Unity community coordinator for the South West, Brett Sparkes, explained that there is currently ‘a cruel system of punishment for people who make minor misdemeanours while claiming benefits’.
He says that the general public doesn’t know what happens when benefits are suddenly taken away from claimants, and wants to make everyone aware of the difficulties those affected face every single day.
Sparkes hopes in doing so, this will help to lobby the government into changing benefit policies.
“a cruel system of punishment for people who make minor misdemeanours while claiming benefits”
He continues that the government has asked the Work and Pensions Select Committee to review the effectiveness of sanctions. In the latest attempt, released on 8 February, the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts recommended:
“The Department (of Work and Pensions) should work to better understand the relationship between sanctions and the housing-related barriers to employment that some people face. It should set out what more it will do to assure itself that Housing Benefit is not being stopped in error due to sanctions.”
Entertainment for all
The event included guest speakers from Bristol People’s Assembly, the Trades Union Congress (TUC), and the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS).
However, speeches were broken up with lighter performances from street theatre group, Cartoon Action Theatre, and Red Notes Choir, a Bristol-based socialist ensemble.
Cartoon Action Theatre performed an exaggerated satirical piece in which a ‘sanctions butcher’ “cut off the benefits” of claimants at the mirth of a ‘faceless bureaucrat’.
Rounding off the event was the Red Notes Choir, singing an impassioned version of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, changing the words to ‘solidarity forever’.
Some of the lyrics included: “All the world that’s owned by idle drones for exploit and for greed; we will change and work together, not for profit but for need. If we stand up and be counted, we are certain to succeed for the union makes us strong”