Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, tells the story of how he went from spike to spike and from town to town. The hungry and downtrodden were given a few slices of bread and some sweet tea. A bed for the night. Moved onto to anther town. They were not allowed to settle. Moved on to another town, a circuit of homeless, hungry men and women moving in an ever-expanding circuit of misery. This was the nineteen thirties. The Beveridge Report and full employment meant the citizens of Britain would be taken care of from ‘cradle to grave’.
Fast-forward to the seventies of high unemployment and stagflation. This is my era. I was on the buroo. Can’t say it bothered me much. I’d a home and family. One of my mates who got a diagnosis that suggested he might want to start looking at funeral plans gave me one of those: ‘I’ve worked all my day’s’ speeches beloved of Jeremy Kyle.
I had to stop him. ‘No, you didnae. You were there when Hamish (R.I.P.) scored a screamer when we the Unemployed club played another club at Milngavie.’
I had to remind him that I’d also been on the Job Creation scheme and I loved it, meeting good people, doing a wee bit and getting paid a wee bit extra.
I knew how the buroo worked and didn’t work. It was part of our non-working life. When I hitchhiked down to London, summer 1984, and moped about for a few days, and slept outside, I remember an advice worker walking across the road near Euston station and talking the DSS into giving me an emergency payment for accommodation. The DSS system was a patchwork quilt of different benefits.
Read Kerry Hudson’s books but, in particular Lowborn, to see how the system didn’t work very well, but at least was a safety net for women and children. Read Sue Townsend’s article in The Guardian to give you a feel of how things were before the safety net was torn away.
Every time I hear the figures for unemployment are continually dropping I listen to a lie. If you’ve read Sue Townsend or Kerry Hudson’s books, you’ll know that mothers suffer most from any changes to the benefit system. Townsend had to wait a week to get paid. Those were the good old days. Nowadays we can be talking three months. We didn’t used to have foodbanks. Now we do. For those that begin the day in debt and end the day in even greater debt to be told their claim will be sorted in three months is beyond rational belief.
250 000 officially homeless in England, 130 000 of them children. By 2023 an estimated seven million people will, according to government reports, rely on Universal Credits.
Universal Credit (UC) is based on the American model of deterrence. Welfare is a dirty word. People claiming are held at arm’s length by overworked staff. Universal Credit gave us the Windrush scandal. In order to qualify for benefits people have to prove who they are. Claimants have to have the right bits of paper, or else not only will they not receive any delayed benefits. They may also be deported.
Universal Credit also has a housing benefit element. Often the largest part of the payment to the claimant. Bureaucratic delay can often lead to landlords not being paid on time, or at all. Because the housing benefit is paid directly to the ‘customer’ to pay to his/her landlords such as housing associations also lose income, because people simply spend the money allocated (their benefits) and don’t pay their rent. The old system of paying the landlord directly helped those that couldn’t handle money, but it also helped agencies such as housing associations to continue with their work.
If we look at Declan, for example, who has been made homeless and is sleeping in a park—nobody cares. Or Ernie, who lives in the flats in Dalmuir without electricity and is reliant on foodbanks, but is expected to go online and jobsearch for 40 hours a week. The chances of that happening are zilch. He has no phone. No mobile. One sanction follows another. His money is stopped. He appeals and during the appeal process is given a little money. Nobody cares. It’s top-down government policy based on stripping away any rights the poorest of the poor have to a life. This is us now.
The Social Security Staff that used to sit behind screens no longer exist. It’s an open-plan office and they are now just as poorly paid as Townsend’s time but are now called job coaches. Most of the misery lifting is done before their clients of customers come in the door. Job coach’s job is to sell a lie. Their job is to sanction customers. Their job is to make sure those that can’t work are made so miserable they no longer attend their office or they find work—of any kind. Their job is to make sure they have a job, because they know the alternative. The down on their luck story is no longer an option.
We used to have a system of carrot and stick. Neil Couling, director general of Universal Credit the person responsible for keeping the reforms to benefits on course will give us the usual party line. Now it’s no carrot and works by using the stick. Let me paraphrase Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk, who when duty called walked in circles and agreed to everything and having no idea, had a fair idea how the system was supposed to work for the patriot and little person.
There’s no doubting that a good officer had the perfect moral duty to beat his batman to death to enforce discipline and doing so twice was to be commended. And military doctors had a perfect moral duty to root out malingerers that feigned blindness and deafness and having only one leg by starving and beating and forced purging which killed many and cured others. Recent estimates suggest 5000 people die while awaiting their appeal for sickness benefit, which is rolled into the umbrella term, UC.
Universal Credit gives beating of a different kind, but no less harmful. No one with oodles of cash was hurt in the making of this policy. George Orwell would have recognised it at once. Class war.