Archive for April, 2014

Diary of a Benefit Striver #7: Contribution Exhaustion


So my 26 weeks are up. My JSAC has expired. JSAC is the contributory part of the benefit where entitlement is based solely on National Insurance Contributions. This is time limited to 26 weeks (it used to be 52 weeks) and is paid at the same rate as someone who has never paid any NICs. This has long struck me as unfair.

Politicians are very fond of talking up the contributory principle. This is one reason for exempting pensioners from all the attacks on the benefits, because they have “paid in” to the system. (A more honest reason is that pensioners are more likely to vote). But I have “paid in” too. Why are my contributions worth less than those of a pensioner? When I worked in housing benefits, I lost count of the number of people I met who were shocked at just how little benefit they got, despite “paying in” for years. Time limit it by all means, but benefits based on contributions should be more generous. This is long overdue for reform.

JSA letter 10001


Council Spends Even More of Our Money on Consultants


It’s not often I agree with The Sentinel when it comes to their coverage of Stoke City Council: last week’s coverage of the Council’s current sickness levels was an especially lazy piece of journalism. However, today it reports that the Council is to spend £35,000 on consultants to report on the city centre’s parking. Given the scale of the cuts the Council is having to implement, the paper not unreasonably asks is this is an appropriate use of resources. Surely there must be someone in the Council’s parking department who could do the work?

This comes on the heels of the millions wasted on Vanguard whose main remit seems to have been to take successful services and ruin them. I worked in one so I know whereof I speak. To add insult to this injury, the councillors then voted themselves a massive increase in allowances: this when their staff have had a four year pay freeze. They really need to get their priorities straight. They are there to serve us, the people of this city, not to enrich themselves or private companies at our expense. What services will have to be cut to pay for this latest waste of money?

Given the scale of the cuts, the Council must stop the use of consultants; senior management should take a pay cut of at least 20%; the councillors should get no further increases in allowances, and the leader’s pay should also be cut. This will at least demonstrate some leadership and set an example. It is patently unfair to expect city residents to stump up the costs of the cuts through significant increases in rents and other charges and the loss of services, and for the Council to waste money in this way.

There’s No Shame in Depression


I have always been hesitant in applying the word “depression” to myself. We all have periods of low mood sometimes, and I’ve long known that I have – if you’ll excuse the pretension – a melancholic temperament. I had seen former colleagues made seriously ill with depression: normally happy, jokey people turned into a frightened shell. To me, that is what depression was (I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness). Even when, a few years ago, the periods of low mood seemed to be lasting longer, I was hesitant. I could still function, could still get up, go to work and churn out the numbers. To apply the word to myself seemed self-indulgent.

However, I came to reassess that view. Some colleagues had noticed changes in my behaviour and were kind enough to ask how I was. This was a surprise as I hadn’t noticed any such changes, but I was touched that they asked. Talking with them made me realise that “depression” covers many signs and symptoms of varying severity: increased irritability, appetite disturbance, sleep disruption, difficulty taking pleasure in anything, hopelessness. I experienced all of these to some degree, and the more I thought about it, I realised I’d been feeling like that for a long time. So I went to the doctor and was duly diagnosed. He put me on anti-depressants, a prospect I’d previously found appalling.

But they helped. It was a slow process, and after 18 months I was able to come off them. Unfortunately, the deteriorating situation at work meant I had to go back on them a few months later, this time for over two years. The pills enabled me to function, to carry on, to continue working, and ultimately, to get better. And I regarded that as one in the eye for the bullying, uncaring management.

If there’s a moral to this story, it’s to not be in denial if you think you’re ill. Talk to people, go and see the doctor. Above all, don’t be ashamed. It is an illness, and there’s no shame in being ill. You’re not alone.

Late Night Wakefulness


Late on a Friday, that day that once meant so much now faded to the same pointlessness of all the others. After a few drinks at the pub, I’m back home but am too alert to go to bed despite the modernist symphony of yawns punctuated by pauses perhaps too long even for Pinter. Yet I long for the warm temporary forgetting of bed, but I know I have to forgo it awhile. Know I have to wait for the tiredness to overcome my brain’s unwelcome alertness before I can yield to the warm embrace of my duvet.

So in the waiting, I seek the tranquillising effect of music. Arvo Part tonight, a composer I can usually rely on in such times. It brings to mind that brief, amazing moment in 2010 when after a concert, I met him very briefly as he was signing CDs. A softly spoken man with a neat beard and blue velvet jacket, looking considerably less than his 75 years. Wow, I thought, not really believing it. And I still don’t, I have to look at his signature on the CD sleeve to convince myself.

The temporary oblivion of sleep and its blessed forgetting. A consummation devoutly to be wished indeed, though I don’t know dreams I’ll be thrown into. They have lately been disturbing, dystopic. Not nightmares where I’m pursued by great slobbering monsters with dripping fangs, but unpleasant enough to be glad to wake from. Not that I can remember any of them, they seem to vanish from memory before I’ve had time to get out of bed and draw the curtains. Sometimes an impression, a hint of a suggestion is left, but usually not. Perhaps that’s just as well, even though they can soften the edge of the reality.

So, the CD ends. Time to take my pills, swigged down with milk, and then bed. There are worse things to be drifting through the mind than Arvo Part. If I could but turn that into pill form.

We’re On An Uncomfortable Bus To Nowhere


On First’s Proposed Service Changes in North Staffs

I read in The Sentinel recently that First are proposing numerous changes to their Potteries network. As I read through the list, my interest turned to disappointment. They have tried to put a positive spin on the proposals, but many are retrograde in my opinion.

For example:

Re-reouting the 25/X25 via the hospitals sounds good in theory, but will add 10-15 minutes to journey times. It sounds more like a response to Arriva/Wardle’s increased services via the hospitals.

This re-routing will mean the withdrawal of the 24/24A so the southern end of Leek Road will have no service at all, and First will have abandoned Penkhull.

Linking the 25/X25 into the 20 (Hanley-Alsager-Crewe) also sounds good in theory. While it’s good to have another cross Hanley service, there is a potentially negative impact: it will mean the end of double-deck operation out of Keele university, thanks to low bridges near Kidsgrove. Double deckers were introduced onto the 25 to combat persistent overcrowding. The only solution would be to re-route the 20 via Butt Lane, avoiding the bridges, but removing buses from Liverpool Road, past Tescos. This will also lead to longer journey times.

Keele-Crewe via Hanley and Kidsgrove is not a natural route, given that it will probably take over 1 1/2 hours to complete, almost double the time of D&G’s 85 which runs direct. Lengthy routes like this are also more at risk of delays en route.

The diversion of 23/23A away from Stoke town centre removes 6 buses an hour from there to Hanley.

First’s abandonment of Longton bus station will turn it into a little used white elephant.

The plan to divert several services away from Hanley bus station makes a mockery of the recent multi-million pound investment in building it. To say the bus station is remote from the shopping area is disingenuous as it’s no further than the old bus station.

The new service 21B to Trentham Gardens is welcome. However, the core frequency between Hanley and Hanford remains every 10 minutes so this means Pacific Road and Longton Road will see a reduction from three to two buses every hour (every 20 minutes to every 30).

Improvements to services are always welcome, but these proposals need a rethink. I would rather the current service was more reliable, and more importantly, I’d like to see newer and better buses with better seating. Most of First’s buses in the Potteries are well over ten years old and far too many of them are fitted with hard, uncomfortable seats with poor legroom, even the newer ones. The last time First Potteries got new buses was in 2006. Contrast this with the Council owned vehicles used on tendered services, especially the Plumline. This is something that should be addressed as a matter of urgency. I’m tired of paying high fares for uncomfortable journeys. This is not the way to attract people from their cars.

My Kingdom For A Tomb


Stop Arguing And Bury Richard III

Richard III has had a bad press from history. This is in no small measure down to his portrayal in Shakespeare’s eponymous play, the hunch-backed devious murderer:

…since I cannot prove a lover…
I am determined to prove a villain,
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:
And if King Edward be true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous…

(Act 1 scene 1)

It’s a great play, but it’s not history. Given that Shakespeare lived during the reign of Elizabeth I, it’s perhaps not surprising to portray Richard in this way: it was the Queen’s grandfather (later Henry VII) who defeated Richard in battle at Bosworth in 1485.

Richard only reigned for two years, so it’s hard to get much of an account of him as king. I have read descriptions of him as an able ruler and experienced military commander. He is, however, tainted by his alleged murder of Edward IV’s sons, the so-called Princes in The Tower, though it’s fair to add that this is also a charge levelled at Henry VII.

The recent discovery of bones under a Leicester car park and their confirmation as those of Richard was little short of amazing after five hundred years. The bones told a tale of violent death, with serious damage to the skull that would have been fatal. However, the discovery has been undermined by the unseemly row that has broken out over where Richard should be buried. I’m glad that he is to be buried – I’ve always found bones or bodies being displayed in museums distasteful. The team that discovered the King’s bones want him to be buried in Leicester cathedral, but there is also an argument in favour of York Minster: Richard apparently expressed a wish to be buried there.

Whatever they decide, I wish they would make their minds up. All this arguing is rather undignified. My own view is that as he wanted to be buried in York, his wishes should be respected. And soon.

Diary of a Benefit Striver #6: Running True To Form


Hanley Job Centre were there usual efficient selves today. Queue for the first “Welcome Desk”, queue for the second, a surly “sit over there” where there were no seats, then a 20 minute wait with no apology.

My Arrival time: 13:49
Apppointment Time: 14:00
Time Seen: 14:15
Minutes late: 15

Maria Miller Must Resign


I was disgusted, but in no way surprised, that Maria Miller has kept her ministerial job despite effectively fiddling expenses. She misclaimed several thousand pounds and obstructed the enquiry, yet has got away with a slapped wrist: an insincere “apology” (that lasted all of 30 seconds) and repaying some of the money.

Once again, it’s clear a different rule applies to MPs. If Joe Public had done anything similar – especially if it involved a benefit claim – they would almost certainly have been prosecuted and probably sent to prison. Am I naive for expecting high standards of our elected rulers? The fact that she remains both minister and MP shows you can lie and fiddle, and it’s perfectly OK, as long as you’re a politician. She should not only lose her ministerial post, but her parliamentary seat as well. And politicians wonder why they are held in such low esteem. It’s time to wake up and smell the sleaze.

Nick Cohen: Writing from London

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A Political News and Debating Website for Stoke-on-Trent


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