Tameside Against The Cuts has been protesting outside Ashton-under-Lyne jobcentre every Thursday for nearly two years.
As the first area in the country to pilot Universal Credit – which unites six benefits into one – back in 2013, the Greater Manchester market town has seen a fair few harrowing tales: claimants with autism having their benefits stopped multiple times despite not comprehending why; an ex-soldier who'd served in Afghanistan going on a crime spree so that he'd have a roof over his head after his housing benefit was docked. Then, last year, a man walked into the centre, doused himself in petrol and threatened to set himself ablaze. Are claimants around these parts right when they nickname Iain Duncan Smith's flagship reform "Universal Cruelty"?
Ashton-under-Lyne is a trial area for in-work conditionality, where claimants who are working up to 35 hours a week – and claiming low-wage top ups and other benefits – are forced to attend jobcentre interviews and apply for second jobs or face penalties. When I visit, I discover a system so harsh that even the jobcentre workers could be hit by the same sanctions they impose.
It's 10AM when I join the nine-person-strong picket, with ages today ranging from 32 to 72. Charlotte Hughes – whose campaigning was recently praised by Ken Loach – is distributing sanctions advice and tips leaflets. "Here you go love," she tells one person entering the building. "This will help you with…" – she crinkles her nose disdainfully – "…that lot in there." A siege mentality has developed between the protesters and jobcentre staff, with the former alleging to have faced intimidation from security guards.
I had barely been there for 15 minutes when a man marches out of the centre. "FUCKING ARSEHOLES!" he rages. "They're all FUCKING ARSEHOLES! They don't LISTEN! They're looking at me like I have SCROUNGER tattooed on my forehead."
Charlotte – who started the weekly demonstrations after her then-six-months-pregnant daughter was sanctioned – approaches him to assist. "They've told me not to talk to you lot outside," he says, warily.
He's the first of many "happy" customers over the next two hours. Christine, a septuagenarian veteran of Greenham Common, has seen quite a few of these in her time. "A man told me last week how he was called in for a work review and for every question he answered 'yes', the adviser ticked 'no'. It's about getting people off benefits by any means – we know they have targets."
The DWP have denied this accusation. It would sound like paranoia, were it not for the increasing number of whistleblowers who claim jobseeker advisers are performance managed by the number of people they manage to get off the statistics, on pain of an internal disciplinary assessment.
The word "sanction" is like "Candyman" among the people here; it elicits shivers. Whisper it, or you might tempt fate – unsurprising when they affect one in six claimants and are often applied for bizarre, arbitrary reasons.
Struggling with a pram, a 20-something woman enters the centre, before emerging minutes later. Her face looks desperate. "See, they've messed me around again," she says, bursting into tears. "They've given me the wrong time again – and sent me away again. It's intimidation all the time. It never stops. It's constant."
Two jobcentre workers come out of the entrance. This is rare, apparently – they usually favour the back door to avoid a walk of shame through protesters. "Are those leaflets for us as well?" enquires one. "Because we're on low wages. I work 16 hours a week. They're coming for us next. We're the next to be sanctioned, when we're all moved onto Universal Credit."
"At least we're going to be allowed to go to another jobcentre [from the one they work at] to be sanctioned," she adds. "Isn't that lovely?"
In a statement, a spokesperson for the DWP said: "For the first time ever we are helping people on in-work benefits to progress in their careers and make the most of the flexibilities and increased childcare support that Universal Credit brings. This is a revolutionary approach and we are currently running trials across the country to ensure we get it right. UC claimants who work at the DWP will get the same support as everyone else." It seems that's precisely what's worrying them.
Every Christmas, Tameside Against the Cuts hold a memorial service outside, and lay a wreath for those who have died – as they see it, as a result of the benefit system. They read out names, such as Linda Wootton, who died just nine days after being told she was fit for work, with her death attributed to lung and heart problems, hypertension and chronic renal failure. Or Stephanie Bottril, who, after paying £80 per month for bedroom tax, could no longer afford heating and lived off tinned custard. She walked in front of a lorry. Figures from the government last year revealed that 80 people per month are dying after being declared "fit for work", therefore losing their sickness benefit, known as Employment Support Allowance (ESA).
A 59-year-old woman gingerly approaches Charlotte. She speaks quietly. She's embarrassed. Disabled yet decreed fit to work, she has lost her right to ESA. She is challenging the decision – half of all ESA appeals are successful. Until then, her only recourse is to claim jobseeker's allowance. "She [the adviser] asked, 'what work can you do?' I said I wasn't sure as I have arthritis in both arms, and agoraphobia. I'm having to lie and say I'm capable of doing 16 hours of work and I'm clearly not. I haven't got anything to live on. If I apply for jobseeker's, it's like I'm admitting I'm fit for work. But if I don't, I can't eat. It's catch 22."
"She [the adviser] spoke to me like a piece of dirt. I've been physically sick all morning at the thought of coming here. It's humiliating enough with everything they put you through with the medicals, then you're treated like a fraud."
It's easy to dismiss benefit claimants as "shirkers". It's more difficult when you meet them and hear their stories. Over two hours, I witnessed people reduced to emotional rubble and impotent rage; disabled people unable to even open the door to the jobcentre, and the overwhelming view that – under its benign green insignia and blacked-out windows, Jobcentre Plus isn't a pathway to work – it's a cul-de-sac of cruelty. "People say I'm obsessed with this," says Charlotte. "But I can't walk away – because if I do, I know vulnerable people will suffer."
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