We provide you with the tools to work

I’m Afraid you don’t

The benefits system is broken. Left and right agree on that, albeit both for significantly differing reasons. There is merit in each although neither really understand how or why they are wrong.
I’m guessing you haven’t ever been on the dole. It’s one of those things that I never considered either, a stigma that can’t be washed off.

Benefits and redundancy were two words that spoke of failure, of lack of achievement, of being inadequate. As I’ve got older the latter has for me at least, become a less dirty word — some of the brightest and best in many industries fall into this trap. It happens.

Benefits and being on them is still considered to be only applicable for some kind of underclass, those that have chosen it. If like me you live in London and work in a professional job, you’re unlikely to come into contact with said untouchables. We live our lives in offices surrounded by tales of weekends in Marrakech and client lunches. Days sandwiched with 6.30 crossfit workouts and late night expensed drinks.

And yet I have.

And no matter what Ed or Dave tell you, the system is the reason why Britain’s benefits system is a shambles. Instead of supporting people in dire need, it instead focuses on numbers and targets, institutionalising its members into some draconian workhouse. Box tickers, calling forward individuals who are seen as a number rather than an individual. The sterile setting of grey and beige compete with plastic potted plants for the title of the most morose. In a place where paperwork is more important than people, the destitute or those close to it have little chance.

When someone is on their knees, kicking them isn’t going to help. Thatcherism taught us that, although sadly some pretend that it didn’t. My recollection below is a story of the ‘job centre’. As I sat looking at a 50 year old man with no prospects I contemplated quite possibly the greatest piece of propaganda any government in the history of the world has ever spun.

“We provide you with the tools to work”

A man…

He had greying hair, a 1980s Belfast moustache and a patterned jumper. The hair in his ears sprouted out vigorously, slightly unkempt. He sat looking at the booklet in his hand. Maroon in colour with instructions dotted across it. He had scrawled information in the empty white boxes. Employers contacted and next steps. By the looks of his shabby clothes he either didn’t care for spending on this luxury or didn’t have the means.

As he sat in his seat he coughed, large and phlegmy, as if he held a cold or flu deep within his lungs. Lines were drawn on his face deep and solid. There was no room for a glint in his eye, as he shifted from side to side.

I contemplated his thoughts. His wife or daughter. Football this evening or supper. Fish and chips with a mug of tea, strong and black with a thick slice of buttered Irwin’s on the side. As he chewed crumbs would spill into the crevices in his old blue armchair.

He shifted to the side, craning his neck ‘This fucking place’.

A pause…

‘Young and old, old and young’.

As our conversation started I wasn’t sure of the end goal. He had a slight wry smile on his face as he continued regaling his life, his struggles and his future, all detailed in bizarre positivity.

He had been born into a war zone and without really having a plan had become a political volunteer. He soon graduated to a political prisoner. Four years imprisonment preceded by two dedicated to internment. The university of life had set him up to play in the dark spaces of society.

Through some luck and a steely eye, he progressed to become a foreman for a builders yard in the west of the city making enough to take his wife on holiday to Mallorca, in the decade before foreign holidays were widespread.

A month short of twelve years to this idle Tuesday, he was made redundant.

He asked around for a while, mates and old comrades mainly. He started work as a black taxi driver but had to stop after two years. His back wasn’t the same after years of digging and mixing cement by hand. Carrying block left him with pains in his elbows. And the drink left him with pains in his head.

And that was it. Nearly a decade of nothing.

He was now old and it appeared to me tired. He was unable to fit into the modern world in a meaningful way. He had little in the way of qualifications and even after weekly applications his face didn’t seem to fit. B&Q, Sainsbury’s and Moy Park chicken factory on a zero hours contract.

Austerity aligned with a lack of support does not build communities. It leads them to rot hindering any real chance of growth. Economic growth is important, yet so are people. They go hand in hand.

Soon our brief five-minute sojourn came to a stop.

‘384…number 384’.

He rose to his feet and I wished him well, as I saw him walking towards his death.