The February General Synod debate on the sanctioning of benefit claimants for non-compliance with complex bureaucratic procedures might have become monotonous. Everyone who was called was against them, though one or two made a low key defence of the principle that there must be some control over public expenditure.
What saved the day, was the almost farcical litany of crazy decisions which might have been amusing were they not to result in serious difficulty for ordinary people, in real cases of hardship. One became almost transfixed as one outrageous decision vied with another for the accolade of worst decision to illustrate the point.
Two examples fixed themselves in Brother Ivo’s recollection.
There was the claimant who had suffered a burglary overnight, and telephoned the Work and Pensions Department to explain she would be late because the police were at the home undertaking forensic examination and needed her presence. For that non-attendance on time, her benefit was suspended for some weeks. She could appeal, but that did not help in the immediate future. She needed the help immediately but this was being ignored.
Even worse was the woman with disability who set off in good time to catch the bus. When it arrived, the mechanism to lower the bus platform was faulty, so she was cheerfully invited to wait for the next one: that was no problem, she had given herself time …except the later bus was cancelled, she arrived late, and she suffered benefit sanction for weeks. She could appeal etc etc.
One response is to ” blame the Government” and many will, although as indicated, there is a legitimate point in initially requiring claimant compliance when public money is disbursed. That argument slips when it is put to those defining the policy, none of whom is likely to defend such decisions.
Former MP and Synod member Tony Baldry urged members to take the problems to their MP’s surgery, yet surely they are hardly likely to defend the indefensible and one can be sure that the Ministers in charge will blame operational malfeasance.
Nobody invited us to consider the role of the local offices and their staff.
It is at that banal level that such evil is perpetrated. Somebody hears the facts, and decides to sanction the woman who has just been burgled. Somebody goes home to cook the supper having devastated the lady who couldn’t get on the bus.
What is this about?
Are they stupid, cruel, undertrained, bullied by superiors or simply callous?
Do they ever think “I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt” or are they like workers on a slaughter line, blotting out the sensitivity, on the basis that “its a job” or even that “I was just following orders”.
It it is maybe here that the Church should apply itself.
Instead of joining the queue at our MP surgeries, maybe we should be talking to centre staff, their superiors and their trades union representatives. If our faceless bureaucrats are having their humanity checked in at the staff entrance door, we need to know why. If they are having to meet refusal quotas, we need them to tell us.
At present, those making these bad decisions have no “skin in the game”. They suffer no consequencesfor crass decisions made. Nobody is engaging with them, getting alongside them to ask how such bad calls happen and asking what can be done to put an end to a public scandal. We cannot help them if we don’t hear them. Only when we understand what discretions – if any – exist , and how we can restore the exercise of common sense will we see these examples disappear from our public authorities.
What is happening in our public administration is partly the responsibility of individuals, and it is at that level that humanising it must begin.