We are in party conference season at the moment, with each of the major parties trying to convince voters that they have all the answers and that we should vote for them. This week it’s the turn of the Conservative Party. Their slogan is “For Hardworking People”
So far the two major policy announcements are:
1) a £200 tax break for lower rate tax payers but only if they’re married. Because married people are better and glue society together. I obey the law, work and pay taxes. All of which counts for nothing as my single and childless life is ruining society. Which honestly, I think is silly but I can live with.
2) A ‘crackdown’ on the long term unemployed. Which involves making the long term unemployed do community work (picking up litter, cleaning graffiti) or go to a job centre every day or go on a full time course to sort out the underlying reasons for their joblessness. Failure to do this will result in sanctions, that means taking away benefits for 4 weeks in the first instance and 3 months in the second. This is the one that scares me…..
George Osborne says that you “For the first time, all long-term unemployed people who are capable of work will be required to do something in return for their benefits to help them find work….But no one will get something for nothing. Help to work – and in return work for the dole.”
Current estimates are that there are 200,000 long-term unemployed. I was unemployed from August 2009 to April 2010 and then again from April 2011 to November 2011. That isn’t considered to be long-term unemployment but it felt like it and I wrote about it at the time.
In February 2010, I wrote this about why I felt so hopeless:
The major problem with being unemployed isn’t the lack of money, it’s the sense of hopelessness. I spend time applying for jobs and hearing nothing back. The benefits system adds to that hopelessness. I can’t get a part time or lower paying job to tide me over because then I lose all benefits and if I can’t cover my rent, I’ll be homeless (as a single childless adult, my chances of getting social housing is mimimal and how am I going to get a job if I don’t have an address?) . When I go to sign on, I turn up on time but have to wait 30 minutes, I never know when housing benefit is going to be in my bank account, so am constantly on edge about money. I’ve worked full time since I was 19, I want to work, God knows I’ve applied for enough jobs, but I’m treated as if I’m not trying, as though I deserve nothing. I listen to the radio and hear that people on benefits don’t want to work and have unrealistic expectations (thanks Frank Field) but I don’t think that it’s unrealistic to want a job that pays enough to cover my rent and bills, is it?
In June 2011, when I had a temporary job, I wrote about the problem with benefits and the cost of working:
My point is this, the problem isn’t benefits, the problem is work.
Work should pay enough to support living. Work should cover the cost of things like rent and food and bills and saving for a pension. I don’t think that’s unreasonable, not all of us can be bankers not all of us have parents that can set up trust funds or buy us houses.
The truth is that if work doesn’t pay enough to make someone feel like it gives them a future, then that’s how people feel. Like they don’t have a future. Hell, I do work and I feel that my future is bleak, so why bother? I bother because I hope that at some point it will come around that it will change, I have earned more, hopefully I will again, I feel I have to try.
Accepting that you will live your life on benefits, is really about despair, it’s about believing that your life will never get any better, that you don’t deserve any better and that even if you had a job, it wouldn’t help, life would still be rubbish and you’d still struggle. No amount of telling people in that mindset, that they are sponging, that they are useless is gonna get them to work.
In August 2011, I wrote this about my experience of signing on and how I was treated:
At 8.30am on Monday 25th July, the job centre wasn’t open. A group of us stood and waited. At 8.40am they opened the doors. At no point during the time I was there, did anyone attempt to apologise or explain why they were late opening the doors.
At 8.45am – ish, a lady starts to talk to us about the packs we have been given. She tells us that we can have 14 days a year off from job seeking but we can’t go abroad, that we must attend every 2 weeks to sign on or we could lose our benefit, that if we have an interview and that is the reason we can’t attend, we must call them and let them know, that we will have an appointment today and sign a job seekers agreement, that if we don’t keep to this agreement we will loose our benefit, at no point does she introduce herself and the ‘presentation’ is all over the place and hard to understand because her English isn’t that good.
After this we go to have the interview and make the job seekers agreement. I wait 30 minutes before I am seen. We talk about my skills, she looks at my CV, etc. My next signing on appointment will be in 2 weeks at 10.40am. I’m told it’s on the 2nd floor and given a cycle letter. That’s it.
2 weeks time. I arrive at 10.35am, I was at my Mum’s the night before, so I go straight there, I have a coffee in my hand, I’m told that I can’t take my coffee in as I might commit violence against the staff with it. Ok that’s a fair point, until I notice the cups of tea and coffee that the staff have on their desks – what’s to stop me committing violence with their tea and coffee. There’s a big sign saying ‘No mobile phones’, my book is on my phone, so I switch it to airplane mode and start reading. “No” says the security guard,
“But it’s on airplane, I can’t make any calls with it”
“No mobile phones allowed” he repeats.
It’s nearly 10.40am, it won’t be long until I see someone. At 11.05am, I hear someone saying, what sounds like my name…”Ms Demps, Ms Demosay”, I figure it’s me they’re calling and I get up but I can’t see anyone calling my name. That would be because they are around the corner and sitting down. I get there and say hello, I sit down, I say “it’s Dempsey, my name”
“Oh” says the man, who didn’t stand up, didn’t apologise for the 25 minute wait, is wearing a sweatshirt, “Where’s your job search booklet?”
I hand him the booklet I have to fill in to document what I have done to find work. He reads it, signs it hands it back to me, gets me to sign something and tells me I can go. I haven’t had a letter from anyone confirming I’m going to get any money, does he know what’s going on with that? No he doesn’t, call this number downstairs.
I didn’t enjoy unemployment, I tried to apply for at least one job every day, I got up and got dressed and went for a walk and then came back and spent at least two hours a day, changing my CV, writing letters etc. Longer if there was an application form to complete. I volunteered to get me out of the house and to try and keep my spirits up, I babysat for a friend, I helped T&C move and I did everything I could think of to get myself out of unemployment. I took all the help the Job Centre offered me. I went to the CV workshop and they told me they couldn’t make any changes to it that would improve it and asked if they could show it to the others in the group as a good example. I went to the ‘re-training’ appointment and was told that my ‘A’ levels and the NVQ I did in Administration meant that I wasn’t eligible for any of the training they offered.
In the last 10 years, I’ve never had an interview that didn’t result in a job offer, I interview really well. It was getting the interview that was the problem and I still couldn’t tell you why, of the hundreds of applications I made, I was only asked to 3 interviews in time I was unemployed (two of the jobs were temporary contracts). I have a permanent job now and financially things are better but they are still rocky because I earn less money and my rent 56% of my income after tax, utilities, energy and food is more expensive but I’m actually better off than a lot of other people. I worry about not having any savings or security of accommodation when I retire but it’s ok and I have 27 years to worry about that and work to resolving that issue.
The long-term unemployed have it worse than I did when I was unemployed, there may be work out there but that work probably isn’t near where they live or they’re not able to do it. They are already living on the edge economically and they can’t afford to move where there might be work and anyway that would mean losing housing and support networks. The lowest paid and unemployed are often the people who pay the most for energy (pre-pay meters) and, especially if they don’t live in cities, food because there’s one supermarket and you have to get the bus and that costs more money. They have tried to get work and been subject to the demoralisation that comes with almost constant rejection and the Job Centre, which is not a place that anyone comes out of feeling positive or optimistic.
Welfare spending in 2011/12 was 29% of government spending, 13.5% of GDP. Of that 42% was on pensions, housing benefit and winter fuel allowance for the elderly. 20.8% was spent on tax credits and housing benefit for people in work. (source). I couldn’t find the figures on how much of housing benefit goes to private landlords but I bet it’s a significant amount of money.
So instead of trying to resolve the problems of work, or education, or housing, or living costs. Or telling the true about where the money spent on welfare actually goes. The plan seems to be, blame 200,000 people and punish them for not being able to find work. Make it harder for them and talk about “no one getting something for nothing”.
Hope that no-one notices that there’s been a tax cut for higher rate tax payers, or that George Osborne has a trust fund based off shore so it avoids tax. If they make the rhetoric good enough maybe it’ll distract the public from noticing how many Cabinet ministers benefited from the higher rate tax cut or that MP’s expensive are still rising.