The Government have gone to war on the unfortunate.
Benefit fraud: the public think that £24 of every £100 of benefits is fraudulently claimed. Official estimates are that just 70 pence in every £100 is fraudulent – so the public conception is out by a factor of 34.
Misconceptions like this fuel the belief that people want to live a life on benefits and that it is ‘easy life’.
Before I reached the dizzy heights of senior press officer for a charity I experienced unemployment, and therefore the world of being a benefit claimant, and it wasn’t pretty.
Claiming benefits is a dark place to be. Claiming benefits means that your next actual appointment for anything is in two weeks at a prearranged time and will last for five minutes. Even looking for work cannot take up all of that time, you’re stopped from doing work experience in relevant fields but you can do menial work for employers who could afford to employ you at minimum wage.
Mine is not a story that ends in misfortune. In fact, I have been extremely lucky to have had a supportive family, friends and colleagues who have helped me through. I do want to share though not only how easily you can end up on benefits, but the hugely detrimental affect it can have on your life and why I do not believe that the vast majority of people would choose it as a lifestyle.
I left university in the first wave of graduates who struggled to find work and so I interned and worked for free. Eventually I ran out of money in London and so had to move back to my parents’ home. I was exceptionally lucky to have that option, many don’t.
When I signed on to receive job seekers allowance after University I was told that I could not intern, or do work experience, even though it was helping me get experience in the field I wanted to work in because they said it would limit my job seeking capability. When you sign on you have to sign a ‘job seekers agreement’ and that stated that every two weeks, I had to apply for only TWO JOBS to be able to continue to claim my benefits. So while stopping me getting work experience, they had to continue to pay me to apply for a mere two jobs a week.
In the world of the internet, I applied for jobs in the evening, at weekends and whenever I saw them because I can email off a CV in two minutes. They were hindering me with no purpose.
When I returned to my parents I found temporary work which lasted nine months and when that finished I once again had to sign on. So off I went to the job centre.
Here is a rough breakdown of what I received a week:
£48.50 a week job seekers allowance
£57 a week housing benefit (my rent was £75 a week)
100% of my council tax covered
Here is a rough breakdown of my expenditure a week:
£18 excess rent a week
£10 bills a week
£5 internet (essential for job hunting)
£5 phone bill a week (essential for job hunting)
This means that per week I had to spend £38 a week on essential costs.
Therefore I had a grand total of £10.50 a week for food.
Have you ever lived on £10.50 a week? It’s difficult. Very difficult.
While I do know there are people who live on benefits, I will never ever believe that more than a handful of people choose to live on benefits instead of working.
Once again I was extremely lucky that at the time I lived in a flat near my parents’ house and so I was on the receiving end of the odd food parcel which kept me going.
Take a second now to think about how absolutely heart broken and humiliated you would feel to know that you had £10.50 to spend in the next week…
Now here are two incidents that happened to be at the job centre in Grimsby:
I went into ask how they could help me continue to train and get experience while I was unemployed, so they sent me to the local adult education centre. I went along and they asked me what qualifications I had. I listed my degree in English, my A-Levels and my GCSE’s. They told me that the highest qualifications they offered were key stage 3 IT, maths and English and because of this they couldn’t help me. I went back and asked what else they could help me with and they said that I could only get funding for an occupational course if I had a job offer which I could only take up on completion of the occupational course.
Now riddle me this, who will offer a job to someone based on qualifications they haven’t got on the off chance the job centre will fund them to take the course?
The job centre is not built for people who are experienced, qualified and out of work and as such you hear many stories about them trying to force people into totally unsuitable work, in conditions not suitable for them to be in.
Secondly I had two job interviews in London, one on a Friday afternoon and one on a Monday morning. The job centre pays for transport to interviews and so I went in to claim a train fare. I was told that I had to return to Grimsby over the weekend, despite me having people that I could stay with over the weekend in London. I insisted that a return ticket, Friday to Monday, would be fine but they insisted I must return and travel down again. The tickets, both at peak time, came to approximately £180 each. I took them to the job centre and left the first return and the second single on the desk and told them to get a refund as I wouldn’t be using them. That means that sheer inflexibility of service meant that the tax payer had to pay £180 for train tickets that would be unused.
The service should work for both the tax payer and the recipient of the benefit, but decisions like that don’t work for either.
I eventually found temporary work and moved back down to London but a year later I found myself having to claim again. That time I was lucky enough to find work in two weeks, and four months later I received my housing benefit payment for two weeks. Imagine if I was relying on that money?
As I began with, mine is not a tale of woe. The tales of woe are for those who do not have parental support, those who don’t have at times understanding landlords and those who cannot eat.
Unemployment can cause you to go into a downward spiral of depression and the longer you are in it, the less likely you are to make it out.
I tell you what I would have happily done in exchange for my job seekers allowance, I would have done community service – cleaning up parks, washing graffiti off walls, helping the elderly and disabled. I would have done that because it would have given me skills, experience and a sense of purpose. I do not agree with anyone who suggests that less that 99% of benefit claimants would not do similar.
No one should be expected to work full time for profit making companies in exchange for their benefits. However service within the community accompanied by the possibility of qualifications and the guarantee of experience, a community based service could be an answer to increasing community pride, stemming depression in some and giving people the experience to get back into work.
Whatever happens, do not vilify those on benefits. It could happen to you. It could happen to anyone.
I am a proud tax payer now and I am happy that some of my tax pounds go back into the benefits system.
If you are affected by depression or mental health issues and need someone to talk to, then you can call the Samaritans on: 08457 90 90 90 Talk to them. Don’t afraid, there is nothing ever shameful about needed a helping hand.
We are a wonderful nation who protect our unfortunate and so please take action by signing petitions to protect the NHS, benefits and all the other amazing things that make up our welfare state.
If you don’t, then we’ll all pay for it in the long run through generations of unemployed, rising prison populations and increasing health and wealth inequalities throughout the country.
Make sure you get out and vote in 2015, and I hope that when you exercise that democratic right, you choose to protect those less fortunate than you.