If you’ve never had any experience with the benefits system before, you may have certain misconceptions about it. If you’re from a leftist middle-class background, you might think it is a safety net, there to offer care and assistance to those citizens who find themselves in difficult circumstances. If you came from a more right-wing middle-class background, you might think it is a free handout to skivers, who barely have to extend their unwashed mitts to have them filled with taxpayers money and the keys to a council flat. If you come from a working-class background, even if you have been in work your entire adult life you probably already know more than you would wish to about the system. (If you are from an upper-class background, jolly well done you for figuring out how to use one of these newfangled computer systems – remember not to tell your butler to iron it like your copy of The Times, laptops are less hard-wearing than newsprint or tweed.)
The truth is, the benefits system is a war. Or at least, it is a theatre in the ongoing conflict, between the Haves and the Have-Nots. Put out of your mind the idea that the people who work in your local “Job Centre Plus” are there to help you: instead you must see them as the enemy soldiers they are. They aren’t bad people, and if you met them in another context you’d probably get on quite well. But fate has put you on opposite sides of a conflict, and your survival depends on their defeat.
The fact is, the benefits system is not benevolent at all, it is decidedly adversarial. As soon as you put in a claim, you are assumed to be guilty of benefit fraud until you provide sufficient proof to the contrary. It is vital you realise that your goal is to be awarded benefits, and the goal of the “advisers” is to deny you those benefits. They represent a government system with limited resources, and they must preserve those scare resources as best they can. They, and the bureaucratic system they are part of, will be seeking to trip you up, to find reasons why you do not qualify to receive their assistance.
I don’t wish to demonise these people behind their desks. They are ordinary workers too, many of them recruited (or perhaps press-ganged) out of the ranks of jobseekers. They may not be unsympathetic – I have even encountered some who willingly gave aid and comfort to the enemy, risking their own position by whispering state secrets to me so that I could avoid the mines laid by their own side – but they are trapped within the same system you are. Even if they wish to help you, they can only do so within the strict rules laid out for their conduct. If you don’t have your papers in order, if you don’t fit the narrow criteria of neediness, if you have foolishly told too much of the truth in your written evidence, then they are simply powerless to assist you. Any powers of discretion they may once have had have been abolished, or given to private companies who can exercise them more impartially, due to being motivated solely by profit, rather than unreliable human notions like “empathy.”
This is the most important thing I can tell you if you are forced to rely on the state for aid. No matter how deserving your case, how upstanding and law-abiding you have been until this day: do not make the mistake of thinking the State is on your side. You cannot simply tell the truth and ask for help. You will be forced to lie outright and by omission, because honesty carries the risk of being labelled a fraud. You cannot expect to be offered the aid which is yours by right, you must demand it, and you must know your own rights, since you have no advocate but yourself.
In later articles, I hope to explain and clarify my position by chronicling events in my own fight with various government agencies and employees. I’ll tell you about how only people with a home are eligible for homelessness assistance, how private companies make medical decisions while the opinions of doctors are disregarded, how being a jobseeker makes it harder to find work, how the safety-net is being shredded and charities being forced to catch those who fall through it, and more from the topsy-turvy world of social security.