Poverty Of Ideas

by Quinn

A couple of weeks ago, whilst writing about immigration policy, I mentioned that “when the BNP and their like criticise immigrants for just coming over here to claim benefit, they don’t seem to subject our own home-grown benefit claimants to the same scrutiny, as if social security abuse is solely the preserve of weird foreigners”. To my surprise, the following week, while looking through a couple of editions of the Daily Express that were lying around work, I found two stories that did just that. Oh, the front pages were still full of fears of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, but on two consecutive days, if you delved deep enough, you could read stories about hard working foreigners being employed in jobs that locals were not prepared to do (perhaps it is unfair to include the Express in the grouping “the BNP and their like”; but you know what I mean).

Well, I am never happy when I appear to be in agreement with the Express, so I would like to clarify my position. The whole tone of the Express articles suggested that the local Britons simply could not be bothered to work in their local factories, and so the companies were forced into employing immigrants who would be prepared to work for low wages. Now I dare say some people could accurately be described as not being bothered to work; but what most of the people interviewed actually said was that they would be worse off working in their local factory than if they stayed on benefit. They are victims of the poverty trap, and this can be a genuine problem.

I spent 6 months on the dole (strictly speaking, on income support) in 1992. It was, without doubt, the grimmest period of my life, and an extremely unhealthy situation to be in. Looking back now, I suspect that I was actually going through some sort of breakdown by the time I finally got a permanent job; certainly, my mental health was not the best, but over a period of months of full time employment I managed to get myself out of the hole. I know not every person will react to unemployment in the same way, but I really cannot imagine what must go through the minds of people growing up in areas where there are very few prospects at all.

Two points about the benefits system stick in my mind from around this time. The first came when I managed to get a job working in telesales, on a commission-only basis. I was a very poor salesman, and some weeks I made less money than the dole; other weeks, although I earned more than the dole, once travelling cost were taken off I was still out of pocket. One week I actually earned no money at all. In my final week, because I had made no sales, and because a sale from the previous week had been cancelled, I actually owed my employer money. No; selling is not my forte. When I inquired about whether I could get any financial assistance from social security to bolster my potential weekly earnings of zilch I was told I couldn’t, because I had a full time job. How much I actually earned was irrelevant; working over 18 hours meant no help whatsoever.

The second point I remember came after the telesales firm let me go (Why? What had I done wrong?). During one of my job centre interviews I was told that I was allowed to work part time and still claim benefit; I could earn £5 initially, but after that, for every pound I earned, I would lose a pound of benefit.

Now, I was still living with my parents at the time, and I thought that working commission-only was preferable to relying on income support; if things went badly, and I earned less than the dole, I still had a roof over my head, I still got fed, I had no dependants to worry about. For me it was worth the gamble in the hope that I could earn a decent wage and perhaps move on from there. I did finally get off the dole, and it was to another commission-only job, working for a timeshare company. It was grim, though better than nothing; but I can well imagine people in a different situation simply not being able to take the risk I could.

In September of that year I remember watching the Tory Party conference when a delegate rose to the platform and said it was ridiculous that people were forced by the system to stay on benefits. He raised the very points I have mentioned; the loss of entitlement if you get a full time job, regardless of your income; losing £1 of benefit for every £1 you earn. This needed to be reformed he said. He then walked off the platform to a mixture of silence and disinterest from the audience.

What is amusing, though, is that earlier that year, during the General Election, the Labour Party had been attacked for their taxation policy. They had suggested raising income tax for the richest in society, and abolishing the ceiling for National Insurance payments. This was roundly criticised as a huge disincentive for people; why should the richest bother to work more when the government was going to take 60p out of every £1 they earned? No one seemed concerned about the disincentive that already existed for the poorest people, the unemployed, who would love to be able keep just 40p out of every £1 earned when returning to the workforce.

It surely cannot be that difficult to devise a system where people do not lose more in benefit than they earn in wages when they return to work. There must be some sliding scale that can be devised where as people earn more money (and pay taxes) their benefit is gradually reduced, and then reduced further over time until they no longer rely on benefits. I am sure I could work it out myself, given a free afternoon. Or perhaps not.

I don’t think I am being naïve. I am sure there are people who actually do not want to work, who are happy to live on state handouts, who rely on their giro to supplement a life of crime. But there are also people who want to work, but who simply cannot afford to because of the inflexibilities of the system. We should reform the system; to help the latter, and to remove an excuse for the former.

Returning to immigration briefly, it was interesting to hear Charles Clarke the other day unveiling his new “crackdown”, without actually saying there were any problems with the current policy to crackdown on. Indeed, when Jeremy Paxman interviewed him on Newsnight and he was directly asked if we have too many immigrants at the moment, he said that numbers are about right and everything is fine and dandy. The reason for the announcement was to restore public confidence.

I would have thought that if there aren’t any concerns over immigration, then the best way to restore public confidence is to say “there aren’t any concerns over immigration”. Am I wrong?Yes, I know, I suppose I am wrong. This announcement is as much about being seen to be doing something, and about spiking the Tories’ guns on the issue. But I am tired. I am already bored with the election campaign, and it hasn’t even begun yet.