Sanctions, Starvation, and Clawbacks in England’s Universal Credit

crowd files in early as 40 plus members and friends settled in for the show

Bristol      The “beast of the east” weather front roaring from Siberia to the United Kingdom was collecting front page headlines as it dumped snow on southern England, trapping some people in stuck trains for 12 or more hours and worse.  Coming from Paris, I had hoped to escape the storm, but waking up early I found a note that my plane was cancelled, and I needed to figure out a way to hop a train to get to Bristol.  The Eurostar under the Chunnel was pretty straightforward, but getting a train to Bristol had me standing open-mouthed in Paddington station looking at one train after another cancelled to Bristol Temple Meads, only solved by the Great Western Railway people having me – and many others – jump a train that was going through to Bridgend in Wales:  standing room only!  Snow everywhere, but it seemed to be receding, until we left the station, starving and popped into a huge Weatherspoon’s, one of the conglomerate pub operations, and found that they were out of food.  In fact, so was KFC and one place after another.  The beast had brought everything to a standstill.

The show must go on, and we had another packed house, approaching fifty ACORN Bristol members and supports at the Barton Heights Settlement House with a full complement of members handling tickets (47 presold with only 8 no-shows, so beast beware!), concessions, and production, no translation necessary.

getting set at the Barton Heights Settlement House

One of the most interesting questions came later at a curry house after the show, and focused on the emerging crisis for lower income families involving England’s new welfare and benefits scheme, “universal credit,” as it is called.  This has been in the making for quite some time, but in one pilot and rollout after another, the fierceness of this war against the poor, is being implemented, and Bristol in now counting the days when it is phased in here.  Without getting too far into the weeds on the policy prescriptions, universal credit, as argued by the government, seeks to consolidate all of the benefits into one check, while at the same time lowering benefits, increasing work requirements, and making receipt and continuation of benefits more difficult.

In talking with the organizers about how to confront this program and organize beneficiaries, two of its provisions already being implemented seemed more out of a Charles Dickens novel and the horrors of Victorian poverty, than modern England.  The first is the abnormal delay in receiving benefits once qualified:  six weeks.  Of course, you ask, how would anyone make it six weeks without money?  Here the punitiveness of the program becomes predatory.  The government allows you to borrow some from your future check, so that even once you are established the recipient is “paying back” their own benefit money.  Who thinks this stuff up?  Furthermore, since ACORN is a tenants’ union in the United Kingdom as well, we have been flooded with cases where the landlords triggered the forced “loans,” because they were unwilling to wait for their rent money until the tenant received their checks in six weeks.

organized signup and books table

It gets worse though.  Organizers were telling me about families who had gotten “sanctions” for even the most minor situations, like missing a case officer meeting or a work appointment with a sick child or their own illness.  The sanctions are no hand slap.  I heard of one for 6 weeks for a missed appointment, and another who was barred for two years.  No money, no housing subsidy, no nothing.  The entire policy seems designed to create homelessness and complete destitution.

The clawbacks are also amazing down to forced refunds and potential penalties if a claimant doesn’t report money from pawning something or selling an old couch in desperation.  Getting a little work to survive, means not only clawbacks, but even worse sanctions if discovered.

On this war against the poor in Britain, there’s going to be a body count, visible on the streets, unless we – and others – can organize recipients to demand basic human rights to life itself.

Bristol ACORN even had snacks and treats just like a real cinema

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Huge Victory in Bristol as Mayor Pulls Back Council Tax Exemption Proposal

Bristol ACORN blocks an eviction

Lake Buckhorn, Ontario   ACORN members, leaders, and organizers were celebrating with the news that the mayor of Bristol, England, had folded under growing pressure from the ACORN campaign and shelved his proposal to eliminate exemptions for lower income families from the council tax. ACORN’s research and reports indicate that the victory protects the 16,000 poorest families in the city and blocks them having to pay 9 million pounds or almost $12 million dollars. This is a huge victory, as an ACORN representative told the bristolcable.org, an on-line news provider there, “This is a vindication of all the hard work that ACORN members have put in over the last few months, taking on what looked like a hopeless campaign and smashing it into the ground. We can fight and we can win.”

So, why is this so critical? The council tax is the main governmental revenue generator for local city councils in England. It is a combination of property and personal taxes, usually about 50-50. For the growing millions of private tenants, the council tax is paid by the tenant in single occupancy situations and by the landlord in multiple unit complexes though of course passed on. It is a somewhat progressive tax compared to real estate taxes in the US because there are multiple “bands” assigned by value, and there historically have been some exceptions and exemptions from full payment that “reduce the amount of council tax owed on a property depending on the occupants’ income, age, employment status, health, being a full-time student, or if the property is unoccupied,” according to Wikipedia.

And, that’s the rub. Under the British government’s austerity program and cutbacks in recent years, many councils have rolled back one exemption after another in order to replace revenue that they had lost due to the central government’s reductions. One report indicates that only 32 of the 353 various councils in England continue to offer full exemptions. It is in this economic and political climate that the battle was waged in Bristol, when the Mayor decided to remove the exemption for the poorest families, and given the rollbacks across the country, why ACORN had initially begun this fight even knowing that it was an almost “hopeless campaign.”

For months though Bristol ACORN had thrown everything they could at the Mayor. There was a petition that quickly gained 4000 signatures. ACORN issued a report in the form of briefing document to the city councilors outlining the economic arguments against the removal of the exemption, including the belief that it would end up costing the city up to 4 million pounds for various reasons if they removed the exemption. There were actions a plenty and highly visible “stalls” or tabling around the issue making the campaign hard to ignore.

Politically, endorsements for the campaign began rolling in with some Labour Party councilors indicating they would publicly bolt on the vote with others silently behind them and the Green and Liberal Democratic Parties coming on board with threats to sue because the consultation had been illegitimate offering various ways of cutting the exemptions with no option of standing pat. Other Labour Party chapters were also preparing to endorse the ACORN campaign. The weight of all of this forced the Mayor to finally retreat, handing a huge victory to the organization.

The Mayor claims he may come back again next year, but ACORN had a ready response and threw down the gauntlet for this fight and many to come saying in what could become the motto of the Bristol organization, “We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again, because we are ACORN and we refuse to lose.”

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Please enjoy A Little Pain by Margo Price.

Thanks to KABF.

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