Manchester, UK – “If you’re on £140 ($201) a fortnight in benefits, where do you get 220 quid [pounds] ($316) from?
“I am on pay-as-you-go metres, so they have got to get fed. Every fortnight you have to put 20 quid ($29) on your gas, 20 quid on your ‘lecky’ [electricity], so you are left with 90 quid ($129). Then you’ve got to budget for your food. You also have to factor in bus fares.”
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James Denton, an unemployed middle-aged man living in the centre of Manchester, completed a UK government-funded training course to hold an SIA (Security Industry Authority) licence, required to work in security-related jobs. But when he finished the course, he couldn’t afford the £220 ($316) fee required to gain the licence.
James was “on the dole”, living on government welfare payments while unemployed in return for actively looking for work.
These “benefit” payments, however, did not give James enough money to pay for the licence that would help him return to work. The government welfare office – the Jobcentre – would not supplement the required £220 ($316) fee.
“I just couldn’t get over it,” James says.
“I eventually got a charity to donate £100 ($144) towards my SIA badge and the Jobcentre still wouldn’t put in the other 120 quid ($172).
“Obviously, you could say that I could strap myself for a fortnight and just pay for it, but on the other hand I really didn’t fancy going without food and ‘lecky’ and gas for two weeks.”
‘It was like living in hell’
James had previously worked in many jobs, including telesales and ticket inspection on the local train services, but had found himself – like more than 1.6 million others in the UK – unemployed.
He had been on the dole for around a year when he was sanctioned, meaning that for three months his benefit payments were stopped.
Sanctioning is the punitive measure introduced by the country’s last government – a Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition – seemingly to encourage the unemployed to seriously search for work while claiming benefits.
However, as James soon found out, the practice of sanctioning can have a hugely detrimental effect on quality of life. James simply couldn’t afford to pay his bills.
“I don’t think they [the Jobcentre] realise what they do to you. It was February, it was the middle of winter. How do you survive with no lighting? How do you survive with no heating?” he says
“I am not fortunate enough to have come from a good family and my family just didn’t want to know. There was no help forthcoming there.”
His friends did help out a little, but with mortgages and childcare to pay for themselves, there wasn’t much they could do.
He says he wasn’t told about the Jobcentre’s hardship payment – a reduced amount of benefits for those who cannot afford to pay for essentials during sanctioning.
“It is shocking that they didn’t actively inform me of a thing called hardship. I think that’s terrible and I can’t be the only one that they have not done this for,” he says.
“They stopped my rent [payments] as well, which meant after three months I was over £2,000 ($2,872) in rent arrears. I’ve [since] gone to work, paid a lot of it off, but I am still in arrears.”
James was sanctioned as he couldn’t cope with the new “universal job match” online system, a website where all Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA) recipients have to log on daily to record their efforts to find a job that day.
James had never worked with a computer before and says he is computer-illiterate.
“How do they expect you to keep applying for jobs when you’ve got absolutely nothing, and I mean nothing? Even if you are on hardship [payments], it is less than half of what you were on – and half the dole ain’t a great deal,” he says.
“I used to sit in the library a lot. At least it was warm and I could read.
“Prior to the sanction I weighed 70 kilos. After three months I weighed 54. What was there to eat?
“With no food and no warmth I just descended. It was like living in hell. I used to see people begging on the streets and think they have more money than me. By the end of it, even when I did try to eat, a banana would fill me up.”
|Thousands live in social housing in the Greater Manchester area [David Shaw/Al Jazeera]
‘Anything that was of value had gone’
James would go to different supermarkets to save 10p ($0.14) on reduced items.
“When you’re that poor you’ve actually got to consider where every single penny is going,” he says.
He even considered committing crimes and begging to supplement his income.
“Anything of value that was in my house was either pawned or sold, and at the end of those three months, I looked around my house – I didn’t have a television, I didn’t have a stereo, I didn’t have a mountain bike. Anything that was of value had gone.
“At the end of those three months I had carpets, I had a sofa, I had a microwave and I had a cooker, and that was it.
“I wondered why I was going a bit doolally [crazy], but if you’re not eating properly it affects you. You’ve got all this time on your hands and all you’re thinking is how can I do this? I’ve got absolutely nothing. You can’t even read a book in the dark.”
‘When you’re unemployed, you’re unemployable’
Despite the toll poverty had taken on James’ physical and mental health, he continued to apply for “countless” jobs.
Then, one day, he received a call from a friend to say that there was a job for him at a train station in Birmingham. It was a two-hour commute away – meaning that he would have to travel for four hours a day – but he immediately accepted it and started work.
He has since been offered a job closer to home.
“Working has done me the power of good, absolutely brilliant. It’s been wonderful,” he says.
“When you are unemployed, you are unemployable. When you’ve got a job, it’s much easier to get a job. You can get a proper CV and references. Sometimes you just need a little helping hand to get you to the next step up.”
But his feelings towards the Jobcentre haven’t changed.
“The Jobcentre isn’t there to help people,” he says. “The Jobcentre is there now to trip you up into the traps they set for you.
“They say that there are all these jobs everywhere, but not everyone has got the skills.”
It’s a sentiment shared by many others who have experienced sanctions.
‘I’m choosing a better life for my children by letting them go’
Bob is from Ashton in Greater Manchester. He has been repeatedly sanctioned and suffers mental health problems.
“After being sanctioned I was seriously worried about my mental state. How can they be so relaxed while putting you through so much stress?” he asks.
He says he received a long-term sanction after the Jobcentre booked him for two compulsory appointments just minutes apart but at opposite ends of town. He cycled as hard as he could but arrived at the second Jobcentre five minutes late.
When he broke down at the Jobcentre after being told that he would be sanctioned, he was arrested.
Soon after, his two children were put into the care of the local authorities. Bob attributes that to the way the sanctions affected him and his finances.
His children are now living with foster parents who receive a government allowance for looking after them.
But Bob isn’t fighting to regain custody of them; he says they’ll have a better standard of living with somebody else.
“I am not chasing for my children,” he explains. “They go on holiday with their foster parents to Disneyland or wherever. I could never afford to do that. I’m choosing a better life for my children by letting them go.”
The reasons cited for sanctions can often seem unfair – whether it’s a disabled person being sanctioned for arriving late to an appointment because of the snow or because a letter informing somebody of a change to their appointment time got lost in the post.
At a local “Jobshop” (a free help service for those looking for work), a middle-aged man with four children sits, having just been informed that he will receive a three-month sanction.
“I was sanctioned as my Jobcentre consultant did not ‘feel’ like I was looking for a job hard enough,” he explains, asking me not to use his name.
Around 50 percent of appeals against sanctions are accepted, but it can take weeks for an appeal to be processed and that means weeks with no benefits.
The Ashton-under-Lyne-based group Tameside Against The Cuts organise a weekly demonstration outside the Jobcentre where they give advice and support to locals using the services.
Charlotte Hughes, a member of the organisation, believes that the benefits system is “a breach of human rights” and deliberately counter-productive in helping people out of poverty.
“They keep them demoralised, keep them walking on a treadmill to keep them depressed and compliant,” she says.
“It’s not about helping them, it is about power. It is humiliating being in the Jobcentre. They make you give all this personal information in front of everyone in the room.”
James remembers how he was treated at the Jobcentre.
“They speak to you like you are not even a human being, not even like you are lower than them, like you are lower than society,” he says.
“I think that’s what they are aiming for, to create an undercurrent of people who are so poor that they are never going to get out of it.”