Dying unnoticed in Britain
News of a 35 year old man found dead on Thursday outside a boarded up, unoccupied bungalow in Aylesford, Kent should come as no surprise. He was the second homeless man to die in the town that week. However, the location of Daniel Gauntlett’s death gave an extra poignancy. Inevitably, life will throw up this kind of crass symbolism too unsubtle for art. He had previously tried to break into this bungalow, the police had been called, and so, after whatever threats and treatment that they had given him, he slept outside this unused home and froze to death. The symbolism is unsubtle perhaps, but his death is no coincidence. Rough sleeping is a dangerous thing to do, and numbers doing so are on the up – according to different figures, by 20, 30 or 40% in only a couple of years (see Crisis Website)– housing is an ever increasing problem, empty houses remain unfilled, eventually someone is going to die within sight of what could have saved her/him.
Yet the undercurrent of distress goes unnoticed. Atos, the company charged with ‘assessing’ disability benefit claims, regularly cut vulnerable people’s precarious financial support and people kill themselves. My mate told me that 85% of appeals against benefit reductions are overturned. I checked this out with my welfare lawyer friend and she said she was not surprised. In fact, she said, the figure could be higher: “None of the appeals we have worked on have been turned down.” So, it seems, the principle is: get people off disability benefit, regardless of how legal that is. Some will appeal and, after a lengthy legal process, have their money refunded. Like Cait Reilly and Jamie Wilson did (in the ‘Poundland case’) when they were taken off their JSA for refusing to take part in unpaid labour scheme which The Court of Appeal eventually ruled “did not comply with the requirements of section 17A of the Jobseekers Act 1995 and was unlawful.”
Of course, some people will not appeal. You have to know the right people, you’ve got to be mentally tough enough to hold it down through the process. And people are committing suicide. All of which is largely unnoticed, or unreported in the media. Remember, in June last year, a man who had lost his right to sickness benefit when he was declared fit for work, tied himself to the railings outside Selly Oak job centre, poured petrol over himself and set himself on fire? In Birmingham. Not Spain, not Greece, not Tunisia. Here, in the U.K.
In April, legal aid for benefit cases will be cut. What then? The issue here is why are we ignoring it. Reilly and Wilson’s case was an interesting one, and notable that they managed to make the news. Ian Duncan Smith’s response about “a group of people out there who think they are too good for this kind of stuff” is outrageously hypocritical, given that among his houses is a £2million 16th century Buckinghamshire mansion and that he sent all of his four children to private school – the classic example of thinking you “are too good for this kind of stuff”. The case was a joint appeal lodged by two claimants and yet the media debate seemed to ignore 40 year old, out-of-work lorry driver Jamie Wilson and the story became all about 24 year old geology graduate, Cait Reilly. Why is this? Maybe there’s something I missed but it seems that in order to keep up this appalling right wing attack on the welfare state, we have to keep up the discourse of the lazy, the foreign or the undeserving.
Some anti-Atos people talk about a “genocide”. This is obviously an over-affected use of the word. It is not on a par with Auschwitz, Cambodia or Rwanda. Yet, it is disturbingly true that people are pushed to desperation and suicide by unfair benefit assessments. I see it more as a faux-Darwinian eugenics. Survival of the fittest. Stretch the inequality, bolster the military hardware and push us ever closer to a society of indebted and indentured labour, where intense privilege is matched by widespread poverty. For Duncan-Smith to pull out the anti-elitist rhetoric to condemn Reilly, who, let it be remembered was already volunteering at a local museum when she was told to take up an unpaid job stacking shelves at Poundland, is outrageous.
As the Tory financial programme loses the UK its precious triple A credit rating and makes little effect on the deficit which apparently was the whole point of this ‘austerity’ bullshit in the first place, let us not forget those who are dying in order to protect privilege and achieve a deeply inhumane vision of the world.