Archive for January, 2014

Diary of a Benefit Striver #1: New Claim


This is the first of what I’m thinking of making an occasional series.

With the end of my Christmas job at Royal Mail, I had to reclaim JSA. After completing the online process, I was summoned to Hanley Job Centre to complete the claim, and that had to return the following day to sign on. Why this could not have been done at the same time is beyond me, but it meant I had to pay out two lots of bus fares.

Unusually, a bus pulled up within seconds of my reaching the stop.

Potteries Day Ticket Please, I said. The machine flashed £5.00 and spat out a FirstDay.

No, the four quid one, I said

That’s the Potteries Day Ticket, said the driver.

Er yeah, that is kind of what I asked for… I know I sometimes speak quickly, but “Potteries Day Ticket” and “FirstDay” don’t sound remotely similar.

But I digress. After negotiating the building site that the city centre has become, a ten minute walk brought me to the Job Centre. I had previously signed at Longton, which seemed a much more efficient place. The same cannot be said of Hanley. First, you have to run the gauntlet of more security guards than you’d find in a dodgy nightclub, then you queue for the so-called “Welcome Desk”. They sent me upstairs, to another welcome desk, this one empty. After several minutes, someone ambled over, and I got a terse “wait over there”. “There” was a small area with only about five chairs, the last of which I took. The signing time was 10:10 and I had arrived a few minutes early – “you must not be late,” the officer yesterday had said. That stricture seems only to apply to me: I wasn’t seen until after 10:30, with no apology. By the time I was called, there were at least fifteen people waiting to sign, most having to stand. Is this inefficiency deliberate, I wondered, part of the government’s plan to make us all feel like undeserving scroungers? Well, fuck that, it won’t work with me. I have worked and paid into the system for years, so I intend to get whatever I can back out of it. And I won’t apologise for it.

I was glad to escape. I wonder how long it will take before I get the first payment this time. It took them four weeks first time round. I wonder if they can beat that?


The Atlantic at Tazacorte


I never got to walk on the beach,
Never got to shake black sand
From my shoes for weeks after:
It was closed, red flags hoisted,
You had only to lean towards the fence
For the policia local to shout you back.
Windless, yet the waves crashed sand
All over the road, rolled the sea wall
As if it wasn’t there, Hawaiian tubes
Lonely for surfers, Old Spice
And a blast of O Fortuna.
Waves that back home
Would generate severe weather warnings
Through the calm voice
Of the Shipping Forecast.
I couldn’t touch, but looked more
Than my fill until I was high
On salt and ozone, stoned
On spray and volcanic sand, drunk
On the sun diamonds
Scattered by each breaker.
I couldn’t pocket them, but
Was still rich in that air,
That spray, that sand, that sea, that sun.
Oh I was rich alright,
And I still am.




Lies, Damned Lies and Benefit Tourism


There really is an awful lot of crap being spouted by politicians over so-called “benefit tourism” at the moment. If you believe the propaganda, tens of thousands of foreigners are flocking to our shores to take advantage of the world-renowned generosity of our welfare system. People with no intention of getting a job and living at the expense of hard pressed British taxpayers. We’re going to put a stop to this, they scream. How very easy: whip up hysteria over a problem that doesn’t exist. Make widespread ignorance and stupidity allies in your ignoble cause.

Let’s bust this myth. As most of the comments have concerned eastern Europeans, I will confine myself to the rules for EU migrants. All EU citizens have the right to live and work in any other EU country, but there are some qualifications to that right. Any national from another EU state who comes here without a job (an “economically inactive person” to use the official jargon) cannot claim benefits straight away. They are automatically barred from doing so for the first three months of their stay. And if they are not working at that point, they would fail a test as to self-sufficiency and would remain barred from claiming. (Of course, there are exceptions contained in the detail of these rules, but these are beyond the scope of this post). The only EU national who could claim immediately would be someone who has an offer of a job and needs to claim tax credits, housing benefit etc to top up low wages. And in that, they would be joining tens of thousands of UK citizens in the same boat. These rules were brought in about ten years ago. Hardly new then. I would also point out that a UK national returning home after a long absence would also be barred from claiming for at least the first month.

I find the idea that thousands of foreigners come here just to claim benefits completely laughable. This is the sort of rubbish you hear from the opinionated pub bore after they’ve had a few: bloody foreigners, coming over ‘ere, taking our benefits. At first glance, someone from Eastern Europe might find the amounts generous, based on the cost of living in their own country. But even if they could claim, they can’t claim them at home, they have to be claimed here, with our high cost of living. Not so generous then is it?

It’s quite clear why all this fuss is being made. Foreign migrants join the poor and welfare claimants as scapegoats for economic failure, while those really responsible for the mess are shielded from blame and carry on enriching themselves at our expense. All with the connivance of the government. Yet there are no protests, merely acceptance of the propaganda. How very depressing. The government must be rubbing their hands with glee.

A poem about love


A recent Facebook conversation brought this poem to mind. I wrote it in 2003, and reading it again, I decided to change the final couplet as I felt the original didn’t work. I used Larkin’s This Be The Verse as the template

We build them up the ones we love
We can’t help doing so,
We turn them into things they’re not,
Plant a seed, hope it grows

Into something just for us,
Perfect it in our own sight,
Build higher and higher walls
So we can no longer see the light

That first drew us. Are they the same,
Ignoring all uncomfortable things?
Narrowing their vision
So nothing remains but imaginings?

We all live in our own worlds
It’s hard to grant others admittance,
So take off your rosy glasses
And embrace the difference.

The Tax Payer Myth


Written just before Christmas

One common element in all the anti-welfare propaganda being spread about is how “tax payers” are subsidising the feckless. The term “tax payer” is clearly being used in the narrowest possible way, to include only income tax. There are numerous other taxes, and Income Tax is less than half of the government’s overall tax take. (Source

As I write, I have a Christmas job at Royal Mail. As it only pays minimum wage for the 20 weekly hours, I pay no income tax on it. However, I’m still a tax payer. Every time I put petrol in my car, every time it’s serviced, every time I renew the tax disc, I pay tax. I pay all my Council Tax. Every time I turn the heating on or want hot water, I pay tax. On those occasions when I drink alcohol, I pay tax. And I will continue to pay these taxes after my job ends and I’m unemployed again.

Because all these taxes are regressive (i.e. not based on the payer’s income), they hit those on low incomes much harder, so a much higher proportion of your overall spend goes on them. This affects not just welfare claimants, but the many thousands of people trapped in poorly paid jobs. I’m not often given to Biblical quotations, but this seems apposite, the story of the Poor Widow (Mark 12: 43-44)

This poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury; for they all put in out of their surplus, but she, out of poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on.

It would be nice if those that put in out of their surplus actually did so, rather than evading or at best avoiding tax. Yet they get away with it, and all the ordure is dumped on the poor.

They are tax payers too.

They’re All The Same, Aren’t They?


I thought my anger about anti-welfare propaganda might have cooled by now. Just when I think it is, I read or see some tosser politician mouthing off and it’s reignited. What really fans the flames however, (throws kerosene on them more like) is seeing the responses to it on social media. Responses that show just how uncritically this nonsense is swallowed, (or to quote Kryten from Red Dwarf: “hook, line, sinker, rod and copy of Angling Times”). And swallowed by people who should know better: colleagues from when I worked in housing benefits.

The recent Channel 4 programme Benefit Street is a good example. I must point out that I didn’t see the programme, but it sounds like yet another piece edited to paint claimants in the worst way possible. One of my friends on Facebook (a former colleague) posted a rather nasty rant about claimants (basically: they’re all the same, lazy bastards living it up while I have to work; so what if there’s a bedroom tax etc.). When I pointed out that that hardly represents claimants, the person was quick to qualify by saying that they had nothing against “genuine” people. Oh really? So why did you accept the programme at face value? Perhaps you should pick your words more carefully.

If anyone was to make such sweeping generalisations about gay or black people (let alone make documentaries on the same lines) they would be rightly criticised and condemned for doing so. So why is it OK to make equally offensive generalisations about welfare claimants? Is it some collective need to have someone to bully, someone to blame? Or a need to feel superior to someone? Or is it simply stupidity, as I’ve long thought? It is strange that many people are contemptuous about politicians, holding them all to be liars (generalising again), yet it’s the same politicians who are leading the way with the anti-claimant propaganda. And that gets believed. Funny that.

Nick Cohen: Writing from London

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