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,