Friday, December 05, 2008

My own encounter with the benefit system

Why the new crackdown on benefits will put off thousands of genuine applicants.

And so Gordon Brown's government has decided unemployment and incapacity benefits are draining the country's wealth. In spite of successive crackdowns, 2009 will see even more restrictions and conditions attached to the country's social security. Lie detectors and rabid dogs against 'cheats' is James Purnell's idea of helping people find a job.

Harpymarx recently made the point that the new measures will simply put off more people from seeking help. What the tabloids don't tell you is the thousands of people who already refrain from applying because they find the system too hostile and/or complicated (the official figures of underpaid benefits are £1.8bn for the Council tax and £1bn of total benefit expenditure from the DWP).

Now, I've never signed on myself. But the one time I needed urgent help (after having paid tax for years) is enough to convince me that Harpymarx is bang on. In 2005 my council tax situation was becoming untenable. I was literally cutting down on everything in order to meet the payments. I found out that in such circumstances you can apply for a discount or Government help and I was probably entitled to some discount.

I don't know if you're familiar with those Birmingham City Council green forms, the size of a thick magazine- as many as fifty pages of complex papers to cope with, and they are nothing short of intimidating and the means tests unbelievably humiliating and invasive. There is no chance that even a literate or articulate person can sit through them and fill them out on their own. Granted, you can head to your local neighbourhood office and queue for a day hoping for help, and I guess it's an interesting observational experience too, but it's something more akin to Dante's 7th circle of hell. That is what I did.

I remember trotting there, 'Council Tax Benefit' form in tow, in a hopeful frame of mind, "don’t they tell you that those who are entitled to benefits shouldn't shy away from applying?" But, as I walked in, I realised how understaffed our local neighbourhood office in Ladywood was. Packed to the smithereens. The mere sight of it made me wonder whatever possessed me to even think that I could give it a go (perhaps the hallucinating prospect of a yearly bill of £1357.72- that is £113 a month, 15% of my monthly wage), filled as it was with kids running around bored, while their mothers were patiently killing time in a queue that in no way was going to be dealt with the same day.
That aside, there's the issue of having every penny of your income and your bank account scrutinised by your local authority. The queues, the complexity, the printed threats ("if you provide inaccurate information you can be prosecuted", just reading that makes you feel shifty) and the intrusiveness. Most people simply find it unapproachable, let alone OAPs. It's no coincidence a third of families entitled to Council tax benefits don’t claim and wrestle with their bills instead.

And, of course, even if you put up with the whole process it doesn’t mean the discount is granted. The previous year despite the tax going up way further than my salary, the Council rejected my offer of payment and demanded the full whack instead. Which is how my arrear payments started piling up.

That day, at the Ladywood office, I decided to give up. They told me they wouldn’t have been able to deal with that queue on the same day and asked me to come back another time. Which for me, meant booking a day off work, which was out of the question. You don’t want to lose your job. You won't be entitled to any dole for months if they sack you and anyway you don’t want James Purnell and his rottweiler telling you to get your arse into gear.

I was left wondering if the government expects all workers to demand an annual pay rise in line with the Council tax, but you already know the answer. It's no coincidence that the total number of those living below the poverty line in Britain has doubled in the last twenty years. But in Britain there are more pressing matters, such as Gordon Brown's crackdown on the culture of "life on benefits".


harpymarx said...

"the size of a thick magazine- as many as fifty pages of complex papers to cope with, and they are nothing short of intimidating and the means tests unbelievably humiliating and invasive."

Thanks for the link btw. I agree with your post wholeheartedly. And these bloody forms are utterly bureaucratic and so long. They can be simplified but hey, that may actually encourage as opposed to discourage people to claim benefits they have a right to.

Anonymous said...

The ritual humiliation that I suffered at the hands of the Job Centre staff was enough for me to sign off before I had found a job. The pittance that I wa given was not forth the humiliation and denegration.

You seem to be treated as the enemy and not as someone in need of help.

thepatriot said...

I'm sorry but what are you people ranting about? Are you saying the state shouldn't even vet benefit applications? Is a free-for-all better (it's already a grab for all)? Because this is what the article implies and the comments from harpymarx and Anonymous too.

Benefits should be a last resort. A safety net. Some countries don't even have them. Because too many a bone idle are too tempted to queue at the local council get the benefits and watch daytime telly while we pay our tax.

Stan Moss said...

According to James Purnell, all single mothers with babies over the age of 1 (one) will have to do something in return for their benefits". This was said by BBC online this morning.

But I don't understand. They say that families are falling apart and feral kids aren't lookd after properly, but then with your kid as young as 12 months and 1 day you are expected to leave him alone for a few hours to go and flip burgers somewhere...?

This is Labour, ladies and gentlemen. Think, people, think when you fear that your vote may win a Tory government.

Now, I'm the most anti-Tory voter you could possibly meet. But I dont think anyone in David Cameron's government would be as blunt as Purnell, Flint, Johnson and this brigade of bureaucrats that never did an hour's work in their life (unless it was for a think tank or political research body)

marksany said...

"The real point is that welfare claimants' have no strong motivation to find a job because they lose more in benefits than they can earn in net wages. Until the Powers That Be grasp this simple fact, all this tinkering achieves nothing."MW
also read chris dillow today