Give me an A, give me a T, give me a P!

What do you get? Adviser Training Programme!

“To function as a citizen in a society governed by complex laws and regulations, we need to know the laws and able to access reliable sources of knowledge and advice.”

Guy Standing, The Precariat

For the past 15 weeks I have been at school one day a week. Learning about benefits, about entitlements, about calculations, about discretionary payments, about debt and how not to drown in it.

After the crappiest year I can recall, that started with Brexit and ended up with my Dad dying, I decided it was time to finally fulfil an ambition I have had for many years — to volunteer as an adviser at Citizens Advice. I love the idea of Citizens Advice: people voluntarily helping others to access the services they need.

Or to put it another way, that they are ENTITLED TO. I deplore the use of the word “entitled” to mean spoilt and unreasonable. I want to reclaim the idea that everyone in our society has rights to things (like enough food to eat, and adequate shelter, ideally a decent life) that can’t be just taken away because there isn’t enough money, or because they’re unable to fight for the things they are due. It’s not charity. We don’t beg for it, or wait for it to be bestowed upon us. We are entitled to it. All of us, if we need it.

I can be one of those volunteers. It’s the way I can help to make the world a bit less shit and a bit fairer. This is the stuff I’m good at — figuring out a way through complex systems, helping people to make plans, filling in forms (a tiresomely useful talent).

Also, I really love it. The week we did Benefits Case Studies, which apparently drives many people on the course bananas, was one of my favourites. I enjoy figuring out the puzzle of the case study, pulling all I’ve learnt about benefits together and doing calculations. It’s been a long time since I got to do things that have a correct answer. It’s reassuring to get a big tick.

Learning about the principles underlying our benefits system has been fascinating and instructive. I now understand why cuts to benefits end up being a war on the disabled — because if you exempt pensioners from cuts, the people you are mostly targeting are those with disabilities.

It’s a really interesting time (in the Chinese proverb sense) to start as a benefits advisor, because the roll out of Universal Credit is going to change a lot of what people have taken for granted as their entitlements. In Northern Ireland many of the changes will be masked for a few years, but the medium-term future is unclear.

So it is in this world of Welfare Reform, a decade of austerity, high household debt, and Brexit that I will learn my craft as a Citizens Adviser. Wish me luck.

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