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Scotland on the breadline

ZOE HENNESSY examines the devastating impact of the austerity agenda in Scotland

During the last three decades neoliberalism has triumphed across Scotland and the rest of Britain.

Our trade unions have been repeatedly undermined and humiliated by anti-union legislation and workers have been forced into increasingly low-paid and casual jobs or unemployment.

In the absence of state investment and long-term strategy, Scotland's manufacturing economy has plummeted to less than 12 per cent of GDP.

We have seen the wholesale privatisation of our utilities and our economy has become increasingly externally owned by unaccountable multinational companies.

Against this backdrop, the coalition government wages its ruling-class offensive. It is undeniable that austerity is falling disproportionately on young people, and nowhere is this starker than among the unemployed.

The Scottish government continues to swing the axe at local authorities across Scotland and its historically large public sector, and consequently there are fewer and fewer jobs for graduates and school leavers to apply for.

It was recently reported in the Evening Times that a Tesco Express opening in Govanhill, a working-class area of Glasgow, received 500 applications for 11 posts.

The result of long-term unemployment on young people is predictable, but no less shocking.

According to research conducted by the Prince's Trust, 40 per cent of jobless young people have experienced symptoms of mental illness due to being out of work. Its research has shown that one in three long-term unemployed people have contemplated suicide.

Yet despite this the government continues to dismantle the welfare state.

A record number of benefit claimants have been sanctioned over the last 12 months due to harsh new changes. West Dunbartonshire Citizen's Advice Bureau recently produced a damning report on this trend. Jobseeker's allowance claimants are referred for sanctions by their advisers if their adviser believes they are not meeting the correct job-seeking criteria.

As soon as they are referred for a sanction all payments are stopped with immediate effect, before a decision on their case has been made.

The immediate consequence of this is that claimants do not have money to buy food. They do not have money to pay utility bills. Yet they are still expected to meet the essential criteria in order to receive payments once the sanction is lifted.

It is unreasonable that claimants are expected to maintain a high standard of appearance for job hunting and send their children to school once their electricity and hot water have been cut off.

More worryingly, the increase in more severe and long-lasting sanctions has added to the huge rise in demand for food banks.

In Scotland, their use has almost tripled in two years. According to the Trussell Trust, 29.7 per cent of referrals are due to sanctions, 14.7 per cent are due to welfare changes and 18.5 per cent of referrals are those on low incomes.

West Dunbartonshire CAB's evidence shows that during the sanctioning process claimants receive inconsistent and arbitrary treatment.

Claimants often are not given adequate explanations as to why they have been sanctioned and often have dutifully completed all the requirements of claiming JSA and are then sanctioned for some technicality.

For example, one claimant had completed their work diary, but wrote the wrong digit when writing the date and was sanctioned.

Advisers often do not consider the circumstances and abilities of individuals when making their assessments. For example, the day-to-day care of children is often not taken into consideration.

To underpin their evidence from clients and volunteers, West Dunbartonshire CAB produced a breakdown of sanctions from the period of October 2012 to June 2013.

Of the 3,070 referrals for sanctions, 760 were rejected, meaning that those claimants were withheld money for several weeks with no good reason. Some 780 of the 3,070 referrals were either cancelled or reserved, meaning that these people stopped claiming JSA after their referral.

This shows a worrying pattern of vulnerable people being forced out of the welfare system altogether.

According to West Dunbartonshire CAB, there is evidence to back this theory too.

Data suggests that the number of unemployed people claiming unemployment benefit has fallen from 98.3 per cent 20 years ago to just 53 per cent currently.

It is evident that the aim of the reforms to the benefit system is not to help people find work but to stop them from accessing state support.

West Dunbartonshire CAB concludes that "sanctions provide little long-term benefit to help people find employment. What they do provide is a drop in claimant numbers as well as destitution, ill-health and financial hardship that affects spouses, partners, children and wider family."

It is clear that although getting rid of the bedroom tax is a top priority for any progressive movement in Scotland, it will not be enough to stave off poverty for most claimants and their dependents.

We must not let the Scottish government away with saying that it will scrap the bedroom tax and leave it at that.

While legislative powers regarding sanctions lie with the Westminster government, the decision to implement sanctions are made at a local level, therefore the labour movement needs to be able to challenge them at both a local and national level.

The coalition government wants to strip us of every gain our movement has won since the post-war period and take us back to the 1930s.

It wants to guarantee the profits of the capitalist class by dismantling the welfare state and forcing people to rely on charity.

It is using high unemployment to drive down wages and undermine trade union rights, as is the project across the whole of the EU.

However, during the 1930s unemployed workers were able to mobilise and organise themselves across the length of Britain to fight back against this project.

Their demand was "work or full maintenance," and they won those first welfare concessions from the government which would go on to form the post-war welfare state.

They saw their situation in class terms and were able to effectively link up with the unions, strengthening the whole trade union movement.

Workers took strike action in defence of the unemployed, and the unemployed played an important role in defending picket lines and winning the argument against scabbing.

Attempts have been made to strengthen this link, such as Unite's community membership, but there is still work to be done.

It is vital that we take it seriously. As founding member of the National Unemployed Workers Movement Wal Hannington said in 1936, "If unity can be achieved and the struggle developed with all the strength that the present situation demands we can not only again compel the government to retreat ... but we can turn that retreat into a complete rout of the national government, and open the way for a mighty advance for the working class against the forces of reaction towards a new era in which unemployment shall be only an evil memory of the past."


Zoe Hennessy is general secretary of the Young Communist League


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