Saturday, 29 March 2014

End Hunger Fast - Week 4.

This week was my fourth fast for End Hunger Fast, which, felt in some ways easier than others. I had hunger pangs in the morning, and for the last hour, but for most of the day found myself not thinking too much about food. I did, however, feel quite mentally weak; particularly because my day began with a pretty stressful work issue that almost had me in tears before I reached the office. All of which leads me to conclude that most people can get used to anything - if you go hungry often, your body is likely to adjust- but in the long term it's never going to be good for your physical and emotional well being.

For yesterday's fast I chose to remember a man who is only known to campaigners as George from Chesterfield due to this article in 2011. I remembered George, because it is his story that brought Atos and the Work Capability Assessment to my attention, kick-starting the Atos Stories project.  Despite having a heart condition, angina and regular chest pain, Atos found him fit to work, requiring him to be placed on Job Seeker's Allowance and look for a job. Eight months later he won his appeal and was placed in the work related activity group, enabling him to claim Employment Support Allowance.  But due to the constant reassessment required by the DWP, he was soon called in for another medical. He died of a heart attack the day before he was due to attend, his widow convinced the stress killed him.

George did not die of hunger; unlike some of the people I have been remembering in my fasts, his cupboards weren't totally bare.  But, even on £90/week and whatever income his wife brought in, it is likely that food was a struggle. And the fear of that benefit being reduced by £30/week - a  significant reduction for a low income family that would surely have added pressure to their budget - must have contributed to the stress that was a factor in his death.

Since I read George's story, I've lost count of the amount of people who have died from Atos-induced stress, hunger, or fear. Not surprisingly really, the DWP's own figures (before they stopped producing them) suggested that 32 people were dying each week after being placed in work related activity group. It's a national scandal, which is now firmly in the public eye thanks to the brilliant campaigning of Black Triangle, Disabled People Against Cuts, Kaliya Franklin, Sue Marsh and others. In fact the WCA has become so toxic that Atos finally pulled out of the contract this week. Of course that won't stop the cruelty and chaos of the scheme, but it is a start.

And a start is what we need; because despite the progress we've made in campaigning on welfare issues, we've a long way to go. This week, for the first time ever the House of Commons, voted to cap welfare. A move initiated by the government, and disgracefully supported by Labour. By their own admission, this was less about  ideology and more about playing politics. According to my MP's response to my request he rebel,  Labour seems prouder of not falling into the Daily Mail trap they believe Osborne had set up for them, then their lack of positive alternatives to welfare austerity. Sadly, the party that set up the welfare state is still too scared to articulate the strong moral argument for a social security system that takes care of those in need. I can see that they believe appealing to the middle is the only way they're going to win the next election, but we aren't going to end hunger that way. And judging from the latest opinion polls pandering to the right isn't doing them much good either.

For too many years politicians on all sides, have continued to promote the lie that the welfare system is a burden on the taxpayer. A lie that has led to a situation of such dire food poverty that 500,000 people sought the help of food banks last year, whilst 5,500 people were admitted to hospital for malnutrition. If we are to make a change from the toxic politics of WCA, workfare, sanctions, bedroom tax that have caused this mass hunger, it is time we had a changed narrative. One that restores a belief in social security for everyone who loses their job, becomes sick, or ends up a single parent. One that says that in a rich nation, no child should starve, no disabled or sick person should live in fear of medical assessment, no adult  should be anxious about how to pay their bills. Labour, as the main opposition party, is in the perfect position to shape this narrative, yet it cowers in the corner too afraid to speak out. If we want real change in this country it is high time that Labour stops playing politics, ditches its neoliberal shadow chancellor and develops some real balls.

I happened to be in London on Thursday morning, in time to see Tony Benn's funeral cortege. It was moving to see how much he meant to so many, how his commitment to social justice had such an impact. Among the many banners on display, one jumped out at me. It said something to the effect that Benn stood up for the poor, the discriminated against; he was on the side of the people. I hope Ed Miliband and his team saw that sign when he went into church. I hope they recognised that the affection felt for Benn was due to his moral stance on so many issues, and his willingness to speak the truth even when it made him unpopular. And I hope they can begin to see that the only way out of the mess this country is in, is if they stop being scared, and become a party of the people once more. A party that places justice before politics, principle before media sound-bites, and acts on behalf of those most in need.

This week Keith Hebden, Scott Albrecht and Simon Cross passed the halfway point of their 40 day fast for End Hunger Fast. On Friday they are inviting us all to join them as part of a national day of fasting. I'll be fasting for the fifth time, remembering another welfare victim as I do. If it's at all possible, please consider joining us if you can.

#Fast4thApril #EndHungerFast

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