A job seeker sets himself on fire: how will Cameron respond?

An unemployed man set himself alight outside a job centre in Birmingham this morning, allegedly over a claim. This, days after the Prime Minister prepared Britain for more welfare cuts with a speech denouncing our 'something for nothing' culture. So what is the job seeker owed, if anything? What would Cameron say?  

Niki Seth-Smith
29 June 2012

This morning, a job seeker set himself alight outside a Birmingham job centre, allegedly after a row over his benefit payments. He tied himself to the railings of the Selly Oak JobCentre Plus, doused himself with flammable liquid, and set himself on fire. He is forty-eight years old. He survived, after suffering burns to his lower legs.  

Had the man been refused benefits? An onlooker said it was over a payment not received.  It is hard to think what other scenario could have resulted in such desperation. If this is the case, what will our Prime Minister say (if anything)? Will he speak of a "culture of entitlement", as he did in his speech on Monday preparing the country for even further welfare cuts? Perhaps this man did feel he was "owed something" by the state. Self-immolation is as clear a shout out to the world as you can get. This is the pain I am suffering. Watch as I suffer. In public. On the street outside a job centre. 

But the purpose of Cameron's speech this week was to lower the bar still further of how much it is felt that people in Britain are "owed". Not reasonable hours at work ("Tough, that's just life", says Cameron). Not a home of their own ("Tough, live with your parents"). Not the ability to choose when to start a family ("Tough, save up"). The Prime Minister's definition of giving appears to be "in work", and so those shut out of the beleaguered job market cannot expect a basic level of dignity and security from the state.  

His speech this week, while meatless in terms of policy, is significant in signalling the Coalition's future direction on welfare reform. If the government goes ahead as planned, there is no doubt that will see a rise in extreme acts of desperation from benefit-seekers up and down the country. (See here for a comparison of the rise in suicide rates in austerity Greece to the situation in Britain, responding to the suicide pact of two British benefit-seekers in 2011).  The Coalition are aware of this, and are making preparations: guidelines have already been sent out by the DWP to jobcentre staff on how to deal with suicide threats from claimants, instructing them in particular on how to discern between a customer who genuinely "intends to self-harm or kill themselves" and a 'fake' (see here for more on the 'six-point plan' sent out in April of last year). 

OurKingdom has published three pieces in response to Cameron's welfare speech and its implications, from policy expert Nick Pearce (see here), democracy campaigner and author of Unequal Britain Stuart Weir (here) and Deborah Padfield, a Citizens Advice Bureau worker who deals directly with claimants (see here). We have also re-published Mark Serwotka's powerful piece on the institutional humilitations facing claimants.  

The full story of this morning's saddening incident is yet to come out, but Selly Oak MP Steve McCabe was right to say that whatever the details of the individual case, "the bigger thing is that we need to try to understand what is happening with unemployment at the moment". I would add to that: this should be a wake-up call on where we are heading as a country, and how much we now believe the people of Britain "deserve". 

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