Last week, a woman’s sanction letter from the Department for Work and Pensions went viral on Twitter. Danielle John, from Cardiff, simply wrote: “Was told to put this up on Twitter… this was because I had a miscarriage and missed appointment.”
These stories are fairly common now. We are used to seeing reports about people being sanctioned because of attending a funeral/cancer treatment/their child being in hospital. But this one struck me in particular because the language was so coldly efficient. Brief to the point of cruelty. I didn’t know it was possible, even in a business letter, to say: “We’re about to ruin your whole life” without a shred of empathy.
The letter, written in February 2017, starts in large font: “You’ll lose some of your payment… This reduction will last 229 days.” Two hundred and 29 days for a single missed appointment. That’s almost 32 weeks of punishment. Or, if you prefer, February until August, with no money at all. When you consider that the harsher punishments for domestic violence introduced in 2018 suggest a sentence towards the upper limit of “a fine to up to 26 weeks’ custody” for common assault, you have to wonder what fantastical, sadistic metric the DWP has used to calculate sanctions.
The letter goes on to say that for her missed appointment – I just want to pause to remind you here that Danielle John was having a miscarriage at the time of missing this appointment – she would be sanctioned £10.40 for each of those days. So, a total of £2,381.60.
For two years, I have been writing solely about exclusion based on my experiences of homelessness and poverty and the consequences of austerity in the deprived towns I grew up in. I’ll admit to feeling a little jaded. Like many, I’m tired and, with the rest of the nation, I’m sitting with my popcorn watching the Brexit Shit Show in fascinated, terrified, distracted horror. As a consequence, part self-protection, part general fatigue, I’ve stopped feeling as much as I should about the many stories of human hardship, pain and deprivation that austerity has inflicted on so many of the most vulnerable.
But when Danielle posted her letter on Twitter, I took the time to read a little further. Yes, as usual, the letter was shocking, callous and entirely devoid of compassion. But then I discovered that Danielle had not been able to address the missed appointment – thus incurring 229 days of punishment – because, according to a doctor’s letter she also posted, she was suffering “recurrent miscarriages from August 2015 until October 2016” and that “she probably would not have been able to work at that time”.
Danielle says she had attempted suicide by slashing her wrists a few months before her sanction meeting and they still sanctioned her. After she was left with no money from February to August in 2017, she says the stress and debt sent her back to drug use after being clean for 15 years and she is still repaying the debt she incurred during those months.
Danielle John represents only one of these – I was going to say cases but of course she is a person. A human being who went through an undeniably human experience where she had no choice but to depend on a system hardwired to disregard humanity.
I was born into a single-parent family in receipt of benefits for my entire childhood. For much of that time, we lived in temporary homeless accommodation and hostels. I left school at 15 with no qualifications and with severe depression and anxiety as a result of growing up in poverty. I’m writing in this newspaper now because, no matter where we lived or how poor my education, I had access to libraries. I was able to get dependable benefits at 16 that allowed me to access housing benefit and offered me the stability to go to college, which was also free. Back then, I was just about able to afford university and once I was there I could access mental health treatment on the NHS and live in council housing.
Decades into the future, when we look back and wonder how things have ended up as they are, I hope we don’t have to say it’s because we were distracted or jaded. That we were listening to certain narratives about poor communities and forgetting to really think about the human repercussions of the frequent austerity horror stories.
Indeed, even Amber Rudd, secretary of state for the DWP, has backed down from three-year sanctions, which were deployed if claimants made three or more serious breaches, realising that forcing people to live below the poverty line for three years is unlikely to help raise them up or act as any form of incentive. Though, of course, if in the first place she’d asked anyone with any expertise in, or experience of, poverty, – if she’d even met me at a bus stop for five minutes – any of us could have told her that and saved a lot of time, expense and hardship.
That we currently have a benefits system that so arbitrarily brutalises and fails our most vulnerable should be a national scandal. But it is the dismantling of all the other essential, social mobility-enabling services that makes this such a scary story. Not just for today or next year but for consequences that will be seen in decades to come.
• Kerry Hudson is the author of Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns