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.
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.
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.