Dickens redux

It’s not been the best of weeks. I have been troubled by very bad visual hallucinations, as well as the usual psychotic symptoms (see Psychotic & proud). I only left the flat once, though I managed to do a big supermarket shop and visit the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) to see The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt (now sadly finished, but the web page is still worth looking at for films and essays). The exhibition was extremely good.

I know you shouldn’t think about Christmas till December, but while at the NPG I bought my Christmas cards, good value at £6.50 for 20. They have a wide selection. You can cross the road and get charity Christmas cards for half the price at St-Martin-in-the-fields (or even less at Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Lidl, or down the market, obviously), but charities often only get a small percentage of the profits – though maybe the big names like Oxfam with branded cards do better.

I think major galleries do well. If you have a click around, you can see that they put some real effort into it, especially the Tate. If you’re an arts wankery enthusiast like me I recommend buying from galleries and if you’re in London visiting and so saving yourself the postage.

But all this has been a distraction. What preoccupied me most of the week apart from the psychosis was the news reporting of the rollout of Universal Credit.

If you’ve come here via Twitter and share my interests most of the following may be familiar to you, but I have covered some things you may have missed.

If you haven’t seen the news over the past week here is a quick primer: BBC News What is universal credit – and what’s the problem? Also see Wikipedia, (especially criticisms).

If I hear the phrases “Simplify the benefits system” and “Make work pay” one more time I’m going to headbutt the telly. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that you’ll need a Ph.D. in semiotics to receive Universal Credit and many people are going to be thousands of pounds a year worse off.

Already people are being denied dental treatment and prescriptions due to confusion as to who is eligible.

I know from the voluntary work I do for a charity that Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC) forms for new employees don’t include Universal Credit: not even the taxman can cope with it!

Women’s Aid has raised concerns about the benefit being paid into a single bank account for a couple (people were previously paid separately). This is a return to the traditional “single breadwinner” concept, taking us back several decades, with potential for abusive men to withhold money from wives and girlfriends. I’ve not seen references to it but I assume the same could apply to LGBTQ couples/civil partnerships.

Universal Credit has only been rolled out in a small part of the country and already Citizens Advice is overwhelmed and people are crowdfunding to train volunteers to help people apply. The Child Poverty Action Group has calculated that lone parent families – many of them in work – will lose a massive £2.380 a year on average by 2020. Making work pay?

Universal Credit has been described as a nightmare leading to rent arrears and evictions, people being disincentivized to get a job as they fear if they sign off benefits they’ll never get back on again, and likely to cause a level of destitution not seen since the foundation of the welfare state or even since Victoria England.

Some of the Department of Work and Pensions’s (DWP) own staff are in revolt. A whistleblower told the New Statesman:

“As a case manager, turning away those in abject poverty is a part of the job. Those who have worked in Universal Credit since the early days have become hardened, having dealt with thousands of vulnerable people. It’s very difficult to tell claimants, “I’m sorry but we can’t give you any more”, even if we know that children will suffer and go hungry for weeks”.

A DWP spokesperson gave the usual glib response “Our frontline staff offer invaluable support to people facing difficult circumstances”.

Six benefits that have been rolled into one to create Universal Credit (Income Support, Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance, Income-related Employment Support Allowance, Housing Benefit, Working Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit).

They are now referred to as, “Legacy benefits”. Does someone have a sense of humour?

These benefits were designed for people who were too disabled or ill to work, people unemployed because there was no suitable work and to top-up low wages and cover high housing costs.

(If you’re familiar with the basic history of the welfare state you skip the next three paragraphs).

The origin of the welfare state is rooted in the acknowledgment that work frequently isn’t available and income needs to be provided to avoid a large number of people being destitute: see The Guardian Long Read, Why we need the welfare state more than ever.

The Beverage Report published in 1942 established the modern welfare state, offering welfare “from the cradle to the grave” and identifying the five “Giant Evils” in society: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease. Underlying all this was a belief that the state had a moral duty to intervene, though Beverage argued the state, “should not stifle incentive, opportunity, responsibility”.

When launched the Beverage Report proved hugely popular with the public – more than 600,000 copies flew off the shelves – and it fitted the mood of the time. The war gave society a sense of common purpose and social solidarity. People across the social classes were brought together in a way that had never happened previously, there was a new found respect for the common man. Since the beginning, much of the welfare state enjoyed support across the political spectrum.

You may be wondering how I know all this – famously, I have only one O level (geography).

Apart from the fact that I can google and wiki to my heart’s content, before I effectively dropped out of school at 14 (see Psychotic & proud), I was taught about the welfare state. We all were back in the 70s. Are kids now?

It was our thing, it was intricately linked to working-class identity. Our grandparents had fought a war for it, along with the NHS. It was our heritage, it was our LEGACY.

My mother likes to talk about the Land Girls in her sheltered housing scheme: they were heroines for a generation of women. After their sacrifice, they now have granddaughters who regularly go without food to afford childcare, who face cuts to benefits that just about enable them to survive, and could well have to turn to foodbanks.

We all know about benefit claimants, they are presented on Channel 5 documentaries as obese, heavily tattooed chain-smokers and heavy drinkers, slumped in front of the telly when not being promiscuous, only venturing out to the bookies or to Greggs for a steak bake, while stopping off on the way home to commitment some antisocial behaviour – and that’s just the women.

They are scroungers and skivers, living off the backs of the strivers and hardworking families.

The assumption behind Universal Credit is that it is addressing personal failings, lack of responsibility, “welfare dependency”. It ignores the fact that some people are unable to work through disability or illness and it ignores the fact that in a lot of Britain there are simply no jobs.

Within ten minutes walk of where I am sitting writing this, there are two employment agencies. If I were well enough to work (I’m not, see the Psychotic & proud ), I could arrive at eight in the morning, and assuming they were happy with my documents, I could be in work by nine. But this is London, with its pressing need for hospitality staff. If I didn’t fancy that there’s always warehouse work, perhaps I could get a forklift truck driver’s license. Sainsbury’s are crying out for people – I could get a discount when I do my weekly shop.

I don’t need to point out the reality to people outside London and the South-east reading this, especially not to people in the old industrial heartlands, many rural communities, much of Wales and Scotland.

People have said that Universal Credit is Theresa May’s Poll Tax, but Universal Credit makes the Poll Tax look like Disney (interesting historical note, Lord Freud, one of the chief architects of Universal Credit, helped steer the stock market flotation of Eurodisney). The Spectator Magazine published a hagiography of Lord Freud by the journalist Peter Oborne. I’ve liked some of Peter Oborne’s journalism. One time I saw him on the tube at High Street Kensington – he didn’t appear to be the village idiot.

Lord Freud is now denying the six-week wait for a Universal Credit payment was his idea. Iain Duncan Smith (IDS) is also denying that it was his idea. IDS, always keen to appeal to the reasonable man in the street, is in favour of a four-week wait for money for people to be able to buy food.

It has cost £15bn plus to date, and Universal Credit, along with other welfare reform, is having a catastrophic effect on other public services, those provided by local authorities and the NHS. It’s well documented that various welfare reforms have cost more to implement than they have saved. We don’t hear a peep from our old friends at the Taxpayers’ Alliance.

Politician, charities, church groups and others have pleaded with the government to halt the rollout of Universal Credit in the run-up to Christmas. Have you not read Dickens they say, fearing a return to Victorian levels of poverty and squalor.

Was there a subliminal influence in my choice of Christmas cards this year?

But we’re expected to return to a golden age where people “took responsibility” and had “self-reliance”, where there was no “welfare dependency”.

I tell you who are going to be the loudest voices calling for the slow-down in of the rollout of Universal Credit? The insurance industry. At the moment the public still appears to believe that Universal Credit is “simplifying the benefits system” and “making work pay”. Eventually, it will get out into the culture that what we had – our legacy – has been taken away and there’s next to nothing for you if you lose your job or fall ill. There will be a stampede to buy income protection insurance. Too much growth can be as bad as too little, companies don’t want to expand too quickly. They will need help from the government and will get subsidises to cope with demand, former ministers and DWP civil servants will become advisors and join boards.

No doubt there will be a wave a mass public revulsion when people wake up to what has been done. The Tories may be swept out of power again as they were in 1997. But will it be too late by then? Apart from the ravages of welfare reform, have public services been fatally undermined since 2010, the austerity years? What will it take for our society to recover?

Featured image: A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens Christmas cards, taken with my iPhone, October 2017National Portrait Gallery (NPG) shop.

After this blog post was written my neighbour took me for a second trip to the NPG. Images are on my Instagram account.

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