One of my first jobs as a junior reporter was covering the inquest of a man who had committed suicide at the end of a legal battle against a rise in his rent. His council house had been transferred to a housing association, and the rents were set to rise by £5 a week. Like all inquests, it was a grisly affair. It took evidence from a sobbing young relative, and included the details of how he killed himself.
This case was a terribly sad mess, and there doubtless should have been more support at hand for a man frightened about falling into arrears with his rent. But his death did not stop the housing association putting up its rents, and nor should it have done, as the rise was to fund work on the homes to bring them up to a decent standard. His death was a tragedy for his family, not a sign that his landlord was doing the wrong thing.
There’s a site doing the rounds this week called Calum’s List, which lists the names of people who have taken their own lives after their benefits were cut. The Telegraph’s Brendan O’Neill called it ‘exploitation’ and ‘politics of the most depraved variety’ to suggest welfare cuts are causing suicides. The site itself argues that it wishes to ‘provide open and frank details in the following pages on this website of how this death toll can and will be stopped if those responsible do not act in a humane manner and do their duty before legal action is taken’.
People take their own lives for all sorts of reasons. It is unlikely, though, that the suicide of a man whose girlfriend has left him, for instance, will lead to a campaign for people to never break up with one another, ever. There could be a website listing the deaths of people who have been sacked, and calls on all employers to never make staff redundant, but I doubt it would gain much currency. These are slightly facetious examples, but they follow the same line of argument of a website using suicides to campaign against the Government’s welfare reforms.
I don’t doubt the desperation that those named on Calum’s List felt, or the grief that prompted their families to set up the site. Life on benefits is not easy. If you have suffered from a mental illness, or a fluctuating condition like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for many years, and you receive a letter confirming that you are ready to return to work, you may well feel utterly bereft to the point of suicide. You might be ready to return for work, but the letter could still come as the shock of your life. It’s at this stage that the onus really is on the Government to ensure those receiving those letters are getting the right support through the work programme so their transition into the workplace is not laced with fear, but a positive one. For those unable to afford their rents when their housing benefit is cut, the onus is on their local authority to prevent hardship and homelessness using the discretionary housing payment set aside by ministers for that purpose. Whether or not that fund is big enough is a subject for another post, but it exists and must be used well. The changes in the Welfare Reform Bill are so big that it is essential claimants receive the right support.
But Calum’s list does not give force to any argument that the Government’s welfare reforms are wrong. Consider this: one in seven men develop depression after six months of losing their job. Unemployment is not good for mental health. The Coalition can’t cut benefits to make work pay without giving some people a shock. That shock needs to be managed so that claimants can cope. But it cannot be a reason to halt welfare reform.Tags: UK politics, Welfare reform