Benny On Benefits

A first-hand look at the benefits system in the UK

Month: May, 2014

Hurdles

One of the central points I am trying to get across with this blog is that the government agencies charged with administering our social security system (local councils, the Department for Work and Pensions, ATOS, Serco, WalMart Group, etc) do not exist in order to help those in need, but rather to find reasons not to help people. The popular perception is that one has merely to don a flat cap and some grubby overalls, stroll into a Job Centre, sign your name (or better yet, draw a ham-fisted ‘X’) and then walk out with a load of taxpayers lucre. Like most popular perceptions, it is wrong.

When you apply for benefits, whether they be housing benefits, tax credits, jobseekers allowance, or the confusingly named ‘Employment and Support Allowance’ (ESA), you are merely embarking on a long journey, at the end of which, if you are unswerving of purpose and quick of wit, lies a paltry handout, insufficient to cover the debts you have accumulated whilst waiting for it.

I’ve heard this process called ‘gate-keeping’, the analogy being that the benefits system is a kind of gated community, and the social services agency act as gatekeepers or security guards, tasked with keeping out the riff-raff. Personally, I prefer to think of it as like the hurdles event at the Olympics, except that each time you leap over a hurdle, race officials quickly place another one between you and the finishing tape.

These hurdles most often take the form of evidence you, the dole-scrounger, must provide. Never mind that both local and central government hold a wealth of data on their citizens (even disregarding that obtained through GCHQ and it’s foreign partners like the NSA), the onus is firmly on you to provide evidence of everything related (and unrelated) to your benefits claim. Any fact you assert must be backed up by documentary evidence, because the unspoken assumption is that we benefits claimants are all liars unless proven otherwise.

Some of the evidence is routine, like proof of identity and citizenship. I’ve never had a problem with this, my passport serves for both. But if you happen not to have a passport or a valid drivers licence, you might fall at this first hurdle, and thus save the taxpayer a goodly sum.

Some of the evidence makes sense, for instance, if you are claiming to be out of work, you’ll need to supply a P45, given to you by your last employer when they sacked you. But woe betide you if you’ve lost, or somehow failed to receive this vital document, since it is quite impossible to receive a duplicate. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs issued it in the first place, and so the government must have a record of all the data it contains, but of course they will require you to provide them with the actual piece of paper, or you fall at that hurdle too.

Some of the evidence is tangentially related to your claim, if at all. For no apparent reason, various benefits claim forms ask you about any courses of study you have been enrolled on. If you are foolish enough to admit to having been a student in the last five years or so, you will be obliged to provide proof of this fact. I can recall being asked to provide my GCSE and A-Level certificates in order to claim Job Seekers Allowance, although the only reason they knew I had these qualifications is because I told them, and had I not had them (or not told them about them) it would have made no difference to my entitlement. It doesn’t matter whether something will affect your entitlement to benefits, if you mention it, you must also provide proof, and failure to do so will be a reason to deny or delay your claim. Another hurdle to fall at.

Some of the oddest hurdles are the ones which seem to require you to prove a negative, i.e. that you do not have any income. This usually arises with regard to housing benefit. Local councils will generally grant this benefit to anyone who is already in receipt of another benefit from central government, on the assumption that the DWP has already verified your lack of income. However, if you stop getting that benefit, say because you missed an appointment at the job centre, or your medical certificate ran out, your local council will assume that since you are still alive, and not receiving government aid, you must have some form of income, and require you to provide proof of it. When I find myself in this situation, like most middle-class generation-Xers, I turn to my parents. You might think that copies of my bank statements highlighting these occasional deposits into my account from people with the same surname as me would constitute proof, but of course that would be too easy. I must also provide letters from my parents (because of course, no child has ever forged one of those before) explaining and accounting for their every contribution to my continued survival. In one instance, my mum happened not to include her own address on the letter, and so it was rejected (although they had never before requested her address.) Incidentally, I am exceedingly fortunate in having parents both willing and able to support me when the state fails to do so – most people have to rely on food banks, or simply go hungry. For those people, this is a particularly difficult hurdle; if you ever have to visit a food bank, be sure to get a receipt, or perhaps save the empty baked-bean tins.

The government doesn’t require benefits claimants to fill in endless forms, provide documents, attend interviews, and so forth because it actually needs any of this information (in fact, it already has it, and often it originally issued the documents it insists on being given in the first place.) It requires us to do these things merely because they are hard to do. The more hurdles we are required to surmount, the more likely we are to fail, give up, turn elsewhere for help, or simply die. These tasks are especially daunting for those of us with mental health issues, and this is why claiming Employment and Support Allowance (which used to be called Incapacity Benefit) requires considerably more paperwork than claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance. If a depressed person commits suicide before their claim gets processed, then that claim won’t have to be paid out, a great saving for the taxpayer.

See you in the dole queue,

— Benny

Advice to new benefits claimants

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.

— Benny