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Several months back Helen and Mark Mullins appeared on a documentary about the impact of benefits cuts – where they described their struggle to subsist on just £57 pounds. Yesterday it emerged that they had committed suicide. According to friends, they were unable to face another cold winter.
To talk of “poverty in the midst of plenty” hardly does justice to this man-made tragedy. In the documentary, Mark had explained that his wife, who had severe learning difficulties, had been unable to claim unemployment benefits because she was deemed unfit to work, while her ability to claim incapacity benefit was subject to protracted bureaucratic delay, as they sought to establish her entitlement. He described how they walked 10 miles every week to pick up vegetables from a soup kitchen, how they stored the food outside because they lacked a fridge, and how they had been reduced to living in one room, unable to afford to heat the house.
Undoubtedly, they did not receive all of the benefits to which they were entitled. Yet their fate was not simply a random bureaucratic accident. It has been clear for sometime that our Social Security system is far more oriented to telling people what they are NOT entitled to, than ensuring they have the support they need. A little over a year ago a whistle blower at the DWP revealed that staff were expected to meet stiff targets for chucking people off benefits, and had resorted to tricking the most vulnerable in order to meet them.
Yet this is not simply a story about “capitalism in crisis” or a callous Tory government. Much more than that, it is a story about the brutal nature of business as usual. These people appear to have been square pegs trying to fit into the round holes of Britain’s labour market. Helen’s learning difficulties had left her illiterate and innumerate. Mark, according to friends, was utterly devoted to his wife. Yet after leaving the army he had struggled to adjust to civilian life, and, having been abused as a child, he too had mental health problems.
Such people exist, just as such people have always existed. Helen and Mark’s misfortune was to be born into a world in which the the right to live a decent life depends upon what one can sell to a dispassionate and profit-oriented labour market. It is not just the likes of Helen and Mark who have struggled to fit in, but the millions who, down the decades, have discovered that their skills and abilities were no longer needed, who in the chaos of our global system, have suddenly discovered that the work they are able to do has been shipped elsewhere. The radical folk singer Leon Rosselson brilliantly captured the callous logic of our market based society when he wrote:
What shall we do with the ugly ones
The ones who have nothing to sell
The failures, the fumbling muddly ones
Who never do anything well
Who never remember their name or number
And lose their place in the queue?
And what can you do for the ugly ones
When they can’t do a thing for you?
Britain has been shamed by its failure to offer these good people, and many like them, a decent life. Only by struggling to build a nation worthy of all of its citizens, might we redeem our failed society.
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