Ideological austerity is making Britain a crueller place. In order to justify cutting social safety nets and civil liberties, the government must create a culture that makes such actions acceptable. This culture turns poor people into scroungers, elderly and disabled people into burdens and protesters into domestic extremists. Today, we look at three lives which ended too soon, and too cruelly, as a result.
The Man Who Received a Death Sentence for Stealing a Gingerbread Man
James Best (pictured above) died aged just 37, as a prisoner of maximum security Wandsworth Prison, after stealing a gingerbread man biscuit from an already looted bakery during the London Riots of 2011.
James had been in and out of foster care throughout his life. He suffered from high blood pressure, arthritis, Crohns disease and asthma. He had been arrested and sectioned under the Mental Health Act in July 2011 after self harming in a London street.
Just a month after his sectioning, he wandered into a bakery after it had been looted by rioters, picked up a gingerbread man biscuit, and walked off. He was arrested by police who spotted him eating the biscuit a little further down the road. Despite his medical history, James was remanded in custody in Wandsworth Prison while awaiting trial.
On 8th August 2011, he went to the prison gym where fellow inmates carried out an induction. Despite ticking three separate boxes which should have prohibited him from strenuous workout, he was sent into the gym regardless. On returning to his cell at around 5pm, he suffered a massive heart attack.
What followed was a tragedy of errors. The prison officer making the call to the emergency services could not tell the 999 operator James’ name, the reason why he needed medical help, or even the post code of the prison. The ambulance service then deprioritised the call. All the while James was expiring in a prison cell.
An inquest, while criticizing all parties who had a duty of care for James Best, also raised the question of why a man which such a history had been placed in a maximum security prison in the first place.
James had been placed in prison as part of the cynical and hysterical crack down after the riots, where judges were instructed under political pressure to hand out ‘example making’ sentences. This saw a college student receive a six month jail sentence for stealing a bottle of water worth £3.50, and people like James Best ending up behind bars too.
Instead of engaging in a reasonable analysis of what sent our young people into such a flying rage that they burned down buildings and looted shops, we were told that they were all feral, mindless thugs that needed to be punished severely. In fact, any attempt to suggest that punishment alone was a flawed approach was shouted down as airy fair liberal nonsense.
This is the culture that made is acceptable for a man with serious mental and physical health issues to be held as a Category B prisoner in a maximum security prison, for stealing a ginger bread man.
The Man Who Froze To Death on a Porch
Thirty five year old Daniel Guantlett froze to death in February this year on the porch of this (pictured above) empty bungalow in Aylesford, Kent. He was on the porch because if he had entered the bungalow he would have been in breach of new ‘anti squatting’ laws.
Six months ago, the UK Parliament passed legislation which made it possible for the police to immediately evict anyone found squatting. Since then, there have been thirty three arrests, leading to ten convictions and three prison sentences. None of these court cases involved squatters displacing existing tenants, all of the properties involved were completely empty.
Daniel Guantlett had been one of those arrested, for sleeping in the disused bungalow on a previous occasion. This bungalow was empty, and was due to be bulldozed. On this particular night, Daniel chose to obey the law and settle on the porch for the night, whilst temperatures dropped to minus 2 degrees.
This decision to comply with the law cost him his life.
His frigid body was found by a passer by the following day and an inquest later confirmed he had died of hypothermia. To add to the tragedy, Daniel was the second homeless man found dead in the town that weekend.
People finding themselves without shelter should be supported by social workers and housing officers, not bullied by bailiffs and police officers. We have permitted our parliament and our police force to criminalise homelessness.
This led directly to a young and destitute man freezing to death in the street, while a property lay empty behind him.
The Blind, Half Paralysed Man Who Died After Being Deemed ‘Fit to Work’
Brian McArdle, 57 died of a heart attack the day after his benefit payments were stopped as ATOS and the Department for Work and Pensions had deemed him ‘fit for work’.
Mr McArdle had been left paralysed down one side, blind in one eye, unable to speak properly and barely able to eat and dress himself after a stroke on Boxing Day 2011. Despite this, along with everyone else claiming disability related benefits, Mr McArdle was hauled in for a Work Capability Assessment, to make doubly sure he was actually disabled.
The stress of the impending review provoked another small stroke in the days ahead of the assessment. A month later he received a letter informing his that he’d been assessed as ‘Fit for Work’ and the benefits sustaining him and his thirteen year old son Kieran were to be cut off on September 26th 2012. On September 27th, Brian suffered a massive heart attack and died.
Speaking to the Daily Record, his son Kieran said:
“Even though my dad had another stroke just days before his assessment, he was determined to go.
“He tried his best to walk and talk because he was a very proud man, but even an idiot could have seen my dad wasn’t fit for work.
“He was under a great deal of stress the moment he was told about his assessment, and then after he got the letter telling him his benefits were being stopped he completely changed and he was very down.
“In the three weeks leading up to his death his fighting spirit was gone. I feel Atos caused my dad stress and unnecessary suffering which brought all this on and didn’t help.
“So them and David Cameron need to see the bigger picture and know their changes are killing genuine people like my dad. It has to stop before more people lose their lives.”
Brian is just one of 1,100 people who died last year (that is more than three people every single day) after being deemed fit to work by Atos.
Meanwhile, Atos were awarded sponsorship of the Paralympic Games and received £3bn in government contracts.
It is Time to Stop the Madness
I could have told the story of Mark and Helen Mullins; this couple were found lying side by side in bed, having committed suicide after lack of access to benefits saw them entirely dependent on charity hand outs to survive.
I could have told you about Christopher Harness; he hanged himself after finding out the funding for his place at a mental health treatment centre was to be cut.
I could have told you about the unimaginably horrific death of 81 year old Gloria Foster; the bed ridden pensioner was left to die an excruciating and lonely death by thirst and starvation after her care firm was raided by the Border Agency and no one picked up her care needs. She simply sat, trapped and unable to call for help, waiting to die.
I could have told you any number of these stories.
When we take a moment to look past the headlines and the statistics and let ourselves absorb the full tragedy of real lives lost, it is harder to shrug away and ignore. It should be a source of national outrage that these stories are just a drop in the ocean of the overwhelming suffering being meted out to the UK’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens.
My purpose for telling you is to overcome the myths; the myth that poverty doesn’t really exist in the UK; the myth that these cuts are just some ‘tough decisions’ and are aimed at those people who are playing the system. There are hundreds of thousands of real people, in real pain as a result of these changes in public spending, They didn’t cause the crisis. Meanwhile, the people who did cause the crisis – the bankers, the tax evading corporations, the politicians who made it all possible – become richer and more powerful.
The nation is being manipulated into fighting one against the other so we don’t take collective action against the real source of our struggles. A climate of suspicion must be stoked and fostered. Simple human compassion must be eroded. Only in this way can they have us support our own annihilation. Worse, this cultural shift does more long term damage than any individual budget cut. The funding can be turned back on tomorrow, but the attitudes being hardened will take far longer to soften again.
The single greatest protest of this cruel ideology of austerity for the poor is to refuse to harden our own attitudes. Compassion, concern and cooperation are heretical ideas in Austerity Britain. So indulge in them, as often as you can with as many as you can. One day, this era will be over. That day will come sooner, the more of us that keep our heads and our hearts.
Squash Campaign – join the campaign to reverse laws which criminalise squatting.
Atos Monologues – an intrepid group have collected the stories of those who have suffered and died and turned them into monologues to be performed.
WoW Petition – sign the War on Welfare petition to stop the war on the welfare state which has led to the painful stories you have read herein.
Callum’s List – a list of further victims of the welfare cuts.