Tuesday, 25 May 2010

MPs and Expenses

I sat bolt upright in bed the other morning when I heard on Radio 4 that the new intake of Westminster MPs were complaining they were being "treated like benefit claimants " under the new expenses regime.

This complaint is wrong on so many counts. The first thing this implies is that it is fine to treat the poorest in our society, ie benefit claimants, like benefit claimants.

Perhaps I'm being naive, but I'd assumed that the unemployed, the elderly, the sick and the disabled are entitled to the benefits that they claim. I tend to be of the opinion that how a society looks after its poor and its disadvantaged is some kind of barometer of how civilized it is. Surely it's a measure of its national attitude, of how much it cares about its own.

So why then is it deemed fine to treat people who are in need of support from the state so poorly? To understand this I suppose we have to fall back on the vernacular of Radio 5 or the tabloids.

I'm certain we've all read those stories of Mr So-and-So, the scrounging benefit cheat. The man who runs his son's football team two or three times a week whilst claiming untold thousands from the state. He is able to claim this money due to his crippling arthritis which patently renders him unable to work. Now I'm not for a moment suggesting these people don't exist, but I feel they are very few and far between.

They run these adverts on the telly to phone this number and grass up your neighbour as a benefit cheat. I've yet to see an ad where you can ring up the taxman and tell him you suspect your neighbour of fiddling his tax returns.

Don't get me wrong, fiddling the social is wrong. It's shabby, cheap behaviour and the state should do what it reasonably can to prevent it. But that shouldn't give the state carte blanche to treat ALL benefit claimants as badly as it does. We do hatred so well in this country and benefit scroungers are up there in our national consciousness with illegal immigrants (if you listen to Radio 5, that is).

We should be glad of our Welfare State and we should have a drastically different attitude to paying taxes. I want to live in a society that looks after its citizens. Does my attitude sound too simplistic?

Another thing I learnt this week, courtesy of Miranda Sawyer in the Mirror, is that 18 out of 23 members of the cabinet are millionaires (23 people doesn't strike me as many people to be responsible for running the country but there you go). I just hope that none of those millionaires were whingeing about being treated like benefit claimants!

Rather than MPs complaining about expenses, somebody should be complaining about the abysmal way benefit claimants are treated.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Hamster on a wheel

I'd forgotten what it was like to be in the dole office. You see, for the last 13 weeks I've been doing something which is laughably called training (from time to time, the government sends the unemployed on training to improve their work skills).

One thing this involves is not signing on every two weeks, which is a good thing. Signing on is the ritual humiliation of queuing up and handing over a little pamphlet that has a record of one's efforts to find work. The state seems to take the view that we are all a bunch of freeloaders who are living the life of Riley and making no effort to gain employment because the state keeps us in such a luxurious lifestyle that there is no incentive to work.

I would take the view that the vast majority of us are happier people when we are working. Not doing any old job, but doing something where we feel we are useful, something that we might be quite good at and that would enable us to pay our way in the world. This would make us feel that we are part of wider society where we can buy our weekly shop, buy our children things they want or pop down the pub once or twice a week to bitch on to our friends about how crap the world is.

When you're unemployed the money that the state gives you means that doing the things I've mentioned is much harder to achieve. In fact, some of the things are out of reach. Your horizons shrink; when you are working you've always got petrol in your car or you've always got a travel pass. This means you can go places besides work. When you are on benefit you are constantly fussing about money. You don't always have a travel pass or petrol in the car so you can't just go places, see your friends, pop to the cinema, check out a shop or visit a gallery on the other side of town. Like I said your horizons shrink.

I was reminded the other day of what it's like to be in the dole office. Because of my "training" I had to do a rapid reclaim. My 15 minute appointment started 20 minutes late and took 25 minutes. No matter, well I say no matter, that's if the money comes through OK. The unemployment people have an unlimited number of ways to stuff up paying you your money.

Even when everything is in order, you've kept all your appointments, you've done all your paperwork and kept up your end of the bargain, things can always go wrong. And because you exist on so little money in the first place, when your money goes wrong it really does scupper your plans in a big way. You live your life to this two-week cycle. Things like keeping the electricity key charged, having food in the cupboard, the basics. At the end of the cycle these things run low.

In short, life for people claiming can seem like the hamster on a wheel. Run, run, running on that wheel and going nowhere, or at least where you've been before.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Post-election musings

This is my take on the last six days, it's not definitive, just my impressions.

Election night
They shouldn't start these election programmes so early. They should put a couple of films on and start at 2am. Instead we get the problem of political journos queuing up to flounder about on the telly trying to make some kind of informed comment. They have such little information, that whatever phrases they manage to utter sound merely fatuous.

Waste of live TV. So-called heavyweight political journalists, all over-excited and twitchy, words tumbling from their mouths, desperately searching for something pertinent to say. They are entirely missing the point that most folk watching at home don't share their anticipation and are thinking: sod this I've got to get up in the morning.

Posturing on two sides, each making tempting proposals of what appears, to my eye, some kind of phony union. Being loved-up only seemed to last half the day. By the evening, as far as I could tell political pundits were thinking it too problematic to bring off. Financial pundits were talking of political fantasies with dire, ie more dire than widely held already, consequences. So what is to be done?

For Joe Public as an uninformed outsider looking on, witnessing these protracted negotiations unfold before our eyes is tortuous and tiresome. The political class seems to be as distanced from its electorate as ever.

Let's face it, we've been hearing for three weeks or more how this election was going to be so important, perhaps even change the face of British politics, yet 24 hours later who can safely suggest who's to be our next PM?

Saturday night update
70 minutes of one-to-one talks between two of the protagonists. So that must be alright then, sounds like the makings of a new government to me!

Then you've got all these other folk, who most of us have never heard of, sticking their oar in and it's startlingly obvious they're nobodies with an axe to grind who see their chance to get their face on the evening news for 20 seconds.

And every single one of them, from Cameron, Clegg and Brown downwards, without exception, fall over themselves to tell you that they're doing ALL of this for the good of the country. The thing that leaves a nasty taste in my mouth is that they, all of them, are just nowhere near being entirely honest with the British public, their electorate. We all realise it's a delicate situation but this disingenousness is repellent. It brings to mind the phrase "economical with the truth", most recently heard during the Thatcher years.

Three and a half days in

After we've had the numbers and we seem no nearer having a new government and I'm wondering what the rest of the world must think? They and we are used to rapid change after an election. In fact they probably aren't that concerned. To me it smacks of indecision and lack of leadership. The only noises I've heard today are bear with us and we'll get there. This is hardly sufficient given the pickle we're in. Perhaps we're so unfamiliar with it we don't know how to do coalition politics.

Gordon Brown speaks
I've been waiting four days for something to actually happen. Clearly I am not aware of the behind-the-scenes machinations that led to it, but then a dignified, honourable, principled and rather awkward man made a short statement outside number 10. To my mind, Gordon Brown ignited this whole election business, thank heavens.

For someone who has been around public life for so long he just never quite got the hang of it. For that he seems to be reviled by so many. Gordon Brown strikes me as a tragic figure. Somehow I can't see him greedily hoovering up the cash on the lecture circuit - don't get me wrong' I'm sure he won't go short. A man out of his time perhaps?

I realise none of this has much to do with unemployment but I feel you would all agree events since last Thursday have been on such a grand scale so I'm hoping you'll forgive me such a digression.

Now there seems a faint air of panic. Goodness knows why anyone would want to run this country, we're mired in debt, swingeing cuts are on the cards, this year or next. So any government is guaranteed to be as popular as a national outbreak of the pox.

As soon as the dust settles on this saga I assure you I shall return to the plight of the unemployed, I like to think there's plenty I've not even touched on.

As regards the election there has been plenty to make me chuckle. Too much to mention here but I'll make a special mention of Lord Mandleson popping up all over the place dispensing his brand of wisdom to all and sundry like some sinister pantomime dame - priceless.

Wednesday morning, another country
So here we are, New Politics so we are told. That clearly remains to be seen.

It's new in as much as all three parties need to seriously re-evaluate where they are now and how they are going to put themselves across to their voters and the folk whose votes they didn't get. Boy do they need to reassess!

Everyone has adjustments to make, us as well, and how it all pans out has no doubt got to be worth watching.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The election and the unemployed

I have a simplistic, prosaic attitude to politics. Some things are right and just and sensible, some things are unfair and wrong - or just plain wrong. Most of what's suggested is muddled and fudged.

The reason my outlook is simple is I believe in things. You so rarely hear a politician telling you what they believe in.

So is any of this going to make very much difference to me? Quite probably not. Other than in general; in difficult times it's the poor and the old and the young and those who are unwell who tend to suffer the most. Plus ca change, plus la meme chose.

You hear things said over and over again, the same topics, the same sentiments. Maybe it's my age, I've been hearing the same platitudes and soundbites for thirty years.

I don't think any of us like politicians. In part it's their hubris, the suspicion that they are all freeloaders and don't do a proper job. My local MP is hardly hard up and keeps the extra-curricular earnings well topped up. Quangos and TV, as far as I know. Always ready for a quote.

It's the snide, moralistic tone of voice that grates the most and they all do it; look at me: I'm the big I am.

It's a broken society, so we're told. This is cleary tosh, it's no more broken than it was thirty years ago. It's stating the bleeding obvious to tell us that shitty things happen and people do bad things. Let's face it, we're all struggling to be good people, but boy oh boy do we try? I believe that mostly we all do.

So you end up with this huge contradiction: I believe in voting, I don't like politicians. My local MP is a hypocrite and nailed on to get in, yet belongs to a party I historically believe in. It will stick in my craw but I will take up a pencil and mark my cross.

I like local politics even less.

I don't expect it'll make a huge difference to my situation whichever of the three parties get in, if indeed it is a three horse race. At times I do get excited at the prospect of a change in the way this country does politics, other times I'm filled with the faint feeling of dread.

Early experiences of being on the dole

I'd become disenchanted, but after over ten years of solid work in the social care field I naively thought I'd have no problem finding work. I signed on in the meantime.

When the first money came through it took a full five minutes for me to realize the money was supposed to last TWO weeks, not one, as I had first assumed when I saw the giro. I did find work, although what followed was five years of sporadic employment, hardly any of which I liked especially. This was interspersed with periods of enforced idleness and being constantly broke.

I was a cycle courier, I ran a second hand shop, I worked for the local bus company. What was really happening was a gradual slide into full-time continuous unemployment, and when you're unemployed people just don't want to know.

You can bang in as many applications as you like, however the minute the prospective employer sees THAT gap on your CV that runs up to the present day you go onto the "not interested" pile. Maybe folk just assume you're sat at home watching daytime TV?

Then there's the rigmarole of signing on: endless form filling repeating information the system already has and blank-faced job centre staff who are trained to suspect you of trying to defraud the state. As if one would go to such extraordinary lengths, given the amount of time one has to spend in the job centre and the housing benefit office in order to obtain benefit. Benefit one is entitled to, benefit that will only cover your most basic spends, only if you are fastidious in your budgeting; writing detailed lists of all your necessities.

You give all the pertinent information to the first member of staff, you repeat it all to the person they pass you on to, they send you away so you can write all this information down on the relevant forms, you go back to the office a few days later and repeat it all over again and a member of the job centre staff will enter certain pieces of information into the computer. If all goes well you will get your money.

What this process does is, it takes up an inordinate amount of time to achieve a very simple outcome and is multiplied many hundreds of times all over the land. This generally leaves the customer - we're all customers now - feeling rubbish; left out, skint and on their own. The whole business is demoralising and dispiriting. It's not all bad, there are places out there: church groups, unemployed workers groups, places for the homeless, that very much give you the feeling that you're not on your own. I must say, there are not that many, but it's got to be worth looking.