Friday, January 08, 2010


In June of last year a young Frenchwoman jumped off the sixth floor balcony of her sister's flat in London holding her five-month-old baby in her arms. Both were killed.

A tragedy, but one with a reason. Let Jenni Russell take up the story.
Christelle fitted no stereotype. She was a 32-year-old Frenchwoman living in Hackney who had lived in Britain since she and her sister moved here in 1997. In May 2008 she graduated from London's Metropolitan University with a degree in philosophy. At about the same time she discovered she was pregnant. She looked for work while claiming jobseeker's allowance and housing benefit. Then in December 2008, the advisers at the jobcentre told her she no longer qualified for jobseeker's allowance. According to the Department for Work and Pensions the fact that she was within 11 weeks of giving birth disqualified her from being an active jobseeker. She was told to apply for income support instead.

What no one warned her was that European nationals who claim income support must provide more proof of residence than jobseekers have to. All a jobseeker needs do is show they are looking for work. Income support is only given if the claimant can prove that for the previous five years they have been either in work, searching for work, studying, or self-sufficient. Christelle had an eight-month period in 2003 when she said she had been working in a cafe but had no employment records to prove it. Her claim was turned down.

Once that happened, the welfare state stopped operating. Her housing benefit was automatically withdrawn. The state, having decreed she was not in a fit condition to look for work, took no further interest in how the penniless mother of a new baby was going to survive.

This is how it ends. All the endless measures aimed at tightening the rules on claimants and foreigners in an attempt to appease the supposed, and probably fictional, atavistic appetites of the electorate, all the cosying up to the the editors of the right wing press, all the creation of increasingly labyrinthine bureaucratic rules, they all result in two broken bodies lying on a Hackney pavement.

And now we turn to the 'coup' that failed - the last ditch attempt to oust the Prime Minister. I may have missed it, but I can't recall any debate about what the Labour Party should be and what would change under a new leader. Was there a discussion of alternative ideas, philosophies and policies? Was there any mention of how to create a better Britain, one forged from the best traditions of the Labour movement, one that would not lead someone to choose death over destitution? Not as far as I could see. Instead all the talk was of who would be most likely to win an election, of who is in and who is out, of factions and intrigues.

Court politics. That is what we are left with, court politics.

Jenni Russell concluded,

I don't believe this is a stance a civilised society can justify. It pitches foreign-born mothers back into a Victorian-style existence in which pregnancy may mean destitution and disgrace.

I agree. And as the ghastly prospect of a prolonged election campaign, dripping with platitudes, looms, don't expect to hear anything about the suicide of a young mother and how we should ensure that something as grotesquely tragic never happens again. It wouldn't do to disturb the formulaic answers and sloganising with the lives and deaths of real people. Would it?


Anonymous said...

"who is in and who is out"

I cannot remember the provenance of that quotation. Bagehot?

Has politics really not moved on since his day? Having paused a moment or two, I think the answer is that it has not.

Will said...

You shooD rename your 'libertarians' section of your blogroll "FUcKKiNG CUnTs who NeeD to Be killed on the scaffold and shit".

Two WerdS: KIll Them AlL.

Anonymous said...

This tragic case – No, tragedy is not to be avoided; this could have been – so it is this act of spite which will have made someone happy to think the rules have been properly applied.

The benefits system to those who do not know it is not for the honest. If you are so inclined then the gutter awaits. The only way to survive it is to dissemble and bend the truth. Use your wits to overcome a system few experience and so cannot realistically comment upon. (I was once turned down for 'not not working' enough hours per week (12). If I had 'not not worked' more hours (16) I could have claimed a benefit. When I pointed out this lacked intellectual credibility I was told this is what the House of (Law) Lords had decreed.) So be it. You should meet some of the people who are paid to grind the faces of the poor.

I am afraid the problem is larger than merely the Labour Party or Rupert Murdoch or the more unsavoury Richard Desmond or the secretive Barclay Brothers, though these have their parts to play. In reality a more materially secure society – and what we have today for one of my age is just such – has produced a truly dreadful set of self satisfied unreflective and selfish communities, most of whose members are over fed and semi-educated. And inclined to be spiteful.

I no longer believe 'the masses' can be led out of this particular slough of despond. I do not feel an appeal to their better selves will succeed – in fact, certain it would not. The managerial class (which includes journalists and broadcast media) know this. They have assured themselves a future by operating a system which pacifies a majority more concerned with the outcome of a television talent contest than they ever would be by politics. (Twenty million viewed the final of one such programme recently.) As long as the supermarket shelves are heaving all is well.

Not long now.

The Plump said...

There is one reason why won't Will.

First, it irritates you. Second, I need to overhaul my blog roll completely, it is wildly out of date. Thirdly, some libertarians do not fall into the 'abolish welfare' category but support the idea of a citizens' income. They argue that economic security by collective means is necessary for liberty. That means that they are not full CUnTs, merely LaBIa.

Will said...

here is something you shOOd Read peTer

DorsetDipper said...

1. Yes - so much to discuss on the experience of government for Labour, so few in Labour who are interested in discussing it.

2. It is wrong to draw conclusions of the sort presented in the article from one person's suicide. People (sadly) kill themselves on a regular basis for all sorts of reasons.

3. Why does every interaction between people now have to be mediated by the state, complete with attendent form filling, inspections, management oversight etc. Surely one of the lessons of the Blair/Brown years is that the state cannot micromanage the lives of individuals. Where was the church? Her family? Friends?

3 ctd. and how is this to be accomplished without spending more money? And where is the money coming from? Brown is taxing as hard as he can, he's printing money as fast as he can, and still its not enough. We need a fundamental rethink of what we can reasonably expect the state to do.

The Plump said...


That is a blOOdY fine article. I will post on it when I have read again and considered it.


The Plump said...


In this particular case it isn't about the total amount of money available in the budget - but the rules about its distribution. Those rules have been complicated and biased by what were seen as electoral expediencies underpinned by political ideologies.

Arguably, something more comprehensive, less dependent on conditionality would actually be cheaper than the expensively administered mess we have now. And it would bloody well work. Without security there can be no liberty. It is the bloody micromanagement that is so costly. I grieve at the amount of time I had to waste in my job writing reports about what I have done instead of actually doing it - and as for quality assessment, anything more likely to lower quality could not have been devised. That is the attraction of citizens' basic income and why it attracts support across the spectrum.

On the rest, we disagree in some respects and almost completely on political economy - and so we should. But where is the debate at large? Why is there not an electoral struggle over what we expect from the state, how much we should be taxed, what the state would provide? In itself such a debate would be hardly visionary or involve reconstructing society, it isn't asking for much.

Instead we are presented with a pseudo competition for 'the middle ground' based on who can tax least, deliver more and be nastiest to foreigners, young people, and the lower orders. I find it bloody depressing.

(PS Benefit rules CAUSED this suicide so it is an example of what CAN and almost certainly WILL happen if you make people desperate enough.)

Anonymous said...

Anon again, the shorter one. There is a Christian issue here, that of whether you walk by and leave someone in distress. This poor woman was left in distress.

Never mind the state etc.Dare I say it,there is no such thing as society. Where are we, as individuals, when someone needs help?

Personal distress is not something to be subcontracted. The scandal here is that there was noone there for this woman, and that the state cared nought because the boxes were ticked.

No one will devise a state which is a safe default for human failing. The state should work better, but where were we for her?

The Plump said...

Anon the Short

The scandal here is that there was noone there for this woman

She was taken in by her sister. There was someone there to help within her capacity to do so.

The failure of the state was that having provided when needed it took everything away, purely because she was a) pregnant and b) foreign.

This is not about state passivity. It was very active. It actively stripped away her means of subsistence and plunged her into a bureaucratic nightmare of claim, refusal, appeal, refusal and re-appeal at a time of mental and physical vulnerability.

The human kindness was there, but it was undermined by the cruelty of the system.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous the Greater writes: Bang on Peter. Keep it simple. What did the founders of the Welfare State intend?

This case is not merely 'exceptional' and 'people do not kill themselves for all sorts of reasons' in a vacuum. This insouciance in the face of self harm I find extraordinary.

The sums of money spent ('misspent' if you are John 'Soon to be back behind a Minister's desk' Redwood supporter) on benefits is re-cycled in vital expenditure, not booze and cigarettes of tabloid headlines. Much is spent on children. As an overall government expense benefits rank lower down than most believe, particularly if they are broken down into categories. Many benefits are paid to counter grinding poverty in old age and some benefits (as Brown pointed out recently in a reference to Cold Weather Payments) are not fully claimed evenso. A deterrent is the perception among the 'old and proud' that they are 'scroungers' (The Sun) if they apply.

Many would not pay for the police or fire brigade if they could get away with it and the instinct at work here is simply mean and selfish. The tabloid press has much to answer for but it can legitimately claim it 'reflects' public sentiment, a sentiment boosted since Murdoch set foot here in the 1970s.

badnewswade said...

This is never going to change, and in fact will get much, much worse. People will be dropping out of tower blocks like flies by the time the Tories and Labour have finished with their new clampdown / dragnet on the sick and mentally ill.

This is purely and simply because nobody will stop them. The Left are too busy supporting terrorists and dictators, the liberals are too busy excoriating the Left for the above, and nobody gives a toss about ordinary people, particularly the poor and vulnerable. We're not on the radar politically and eveery means to get on the radar has been co-opted by power-hungry scum and middle class hippy-dippy twerps.

As we said in the 90s, there's no justice, there's just us.

DorsetDipper said...

So you want a benefits system that will ensure any EU citizen has their basic needs met, isn't very bureacratic, and is going to cost less than the current one?

Surely if we have learnt one thing from the Blair/Brown years, it is that if you detach the people paying the money from those getting it, whether it be in banks or in government, then everyone, no really absolutely everyone, claimants, workers, regulators, suppliers, the lot, will conspire to syphon the money out of the system faster than you can blink, and hide the fact from you until every penny has gone.

Anonymous said...

Anon Minor retorts thus: Someone was around, what did they or could they do? This week we hear that two elderly people recently died from cold after state neglect.

The state is culpable for its neglect. Someone should lose their well padded job. But what does it take for us to do something more. We should not have to, but is that a reason?

I'm not being truculent here, but there is a sense of utter despair infecting this whole debate. A priest of my acqaintance is a mug for every sponger going, but does it matter if he picks up someone in real distress?

The Plump said...

Anon minor

Whatever system we have, whether it is based on the state, voluntary associations, mutualist organisations or whatever, there will be failures. There will be callous bastards and cruel people posing as carers. Human institutions will fail in part, even though they can be overwhelmingly successful in whole.

We need to be careful about how we use the instances of failure, as they have been used to denigrate the entire system by people who are opposed to it on either ideological grounds or on the basis of self-interest (private health care is circling like vultures over the NHS).

What I am concerned about with this post is that the Government is constructing its system to fail, because it has tried to make it more difficult to use for categories it sees as the undeserving poor. That it has done so has nothing to do with research, expertise or even ideology (though they have to convince themselves that what they are doing is for the best - like Clinton and 'tough love') but to pander to prejudices in order to win elections.

That labels people - asylum seeker; single parent; workshy; scrounger; immigrant; and on and on - as social evils, to be dealt with, 'encouraged back to work', etc. They way they are being dealt with is fundamentally punitive. Tragedies must and will happen.

So we are left with two things, a proper discussion of the role of collective welfare provision - and I favour comprehensive welfare states - and rebuilding of systems in such a way that we minimise the damage to people who should be helped.

My starting point would be to stop being negative about dependency. We are all dependent at different times of our lives - childhood, old age, sickness, injury, disability. It is a mark of a civilised people that we ensure security and dignity at times of dependency.

For the Labour party and the mainstream left across the developed world, it means junking New Labour bollocks and starting a process of the renewal and reinvention of social democracy.

There is much more to say and elaborate on, but this is a comment and not a book!

And Dorset Dipper

If you want to explore the idea of the citizen's basic income go here:

Unknown said...

I dealt with a case like this one, Lithuanian woman with baby, couldn't prove her work history in Britain and so was turned down for income support. Left her utterly pennliess with a new born baby.

Really shocked me because if she was an asylum seeker rather than a eu national, she and her baby would have been protected by the Childrens Act and she would not have been left to starve.

Had long converasation with a lawyer who specialised in eu law and there are apparently lots of "snags" in the eu system like this that will be thrashed out in the law courts as and when they arise.

The general idea as I udnerstand it though is that an eu national could return to their home country (where they would presumably be entitled to certain benefits or at least have the help of family) unlike asylum seekers who cannot, for obvious reasons, return home.

Added complication with my lithuanian women was that the father of her baby was an asylum seeker, not british citizen, and he refused her permission to take her baby back home, so she was stuck. That was also a "snag" being looked at as I recall and I remember communicating with embassies of both countries about it.

Problem eventually resolved because lady mananaged to find work and affordable childcare.

It was charities and her local church who helped her through. Social Services told me that they could only help by taking the baby into care.