Universal Credits: What’s Wrong? by Joy Roxborough

In a city of zero-hour and temporary contracts, redundancies and a generally cut-throat economic environment, I guess I’m blessed to have survived for so long without having to resort to claiming government benefits. I say ‘resort’ because it is stigmatised, despite the fact that we all pay into the system and are therefore entitled to benefit from it if we genuinely find ourselves in need of it.

Having come out of a particularly stressful fixed-term contract, my sights set on establishing my own business, I came to a place where I needed to ask for some help for a while. I can say that the experience was nothing short of traumatic and belittling.

First of all, I got off to a bad start with my ‘supervisor/work coach/advisor’. I was affronted by the military approach and the communication document that was given to me – i

t was littered with the word ‘sanctions’. In those few moments, I understood perfectly what my business advisor meant, when she said I needed to get the business going as quickly as possible, and not apply for any benefits because they were a trap. Of course, getting a business off to a booming start immediately is often easier said than done.

Now, here I was, being told that in order to receive any assistance I had to prove, going forward, that I had spent 35 hours each week looking for work—any work, and not a dream job. Luckily for me, I have no illusions of the existence of anything of the sort.

I laboured the following week, under the fear of knowing that I needed some money to tide me over quite soon; and even when the law of diminishing returns set in—there are only so many pointless applications you can make online or elsewhere to prove that you’ve kept to your ‘claimant commitment’—I soldiered on, realising that I was playing a game and that my immediate survival was the odds at stake. I felt like a slave!

On my second appointment to the job centre, I dressed in business attire and received a totally different reception; it was actually bordering on human. And, placing my inner rebellion and turmoil at the foot of the cross, I was actually able to see that the personnel who work in the job centres, administering such austere regimes, are themselves only one pay cheque away from sitting on the benefits side of the table, and that they had their jobs and their own welfare to protect.

The relationship with my ‘supervisor/work coach/advisor’ improved somewhat. I think she was genuinely trying to be decent, and so was I. She ‘helped’ me by sending me on a four-week course that was geared towards improving my prospects of gaining employment. Elements of the course included basic IT (cutting and pasting in Word, setting up an email account, identifying the parts of a computer). It was costing the government £450 per week to send me on this course. It took some amount of willpower to sit through that, when there is a course that I would actually like to do in relation to improving my craft for my business that costs just over £1,000. In a sane world, money could be saved by diverting that £450 per week away from teaching a graduate basic Maths, English and IT, and towards something that he/she has actually identified as relevant and beneficial. But, as we know, it’s all about ticking boxes and boosting the favourable statistics.

No experience is wasted, however, no matter how bad it is, and I have to say that I have met some interesting and lovely people on the course. Have you ever watched those movies, where a class of disruptive kids are transformed over the course of a year of being together, or where they develop from an underachieving sports team into one that leads in the championships? I’m not likening myself or the people on the course to kids, but a kind of transformation took place over the course of a week as a result of some of us being together all day—everyone from different backgrounds, nationalities, educational levels and personalities; and with different attitudes to their current situation—all different and yet the same: human, despite being currently out of employment.

I will not be in this system for long, but I feel it incumbent on me to speak up for the rights of others who may be inadvertently trapped indefinitely. We are paying the government to run this country. Why should we be paying to have such abuse meted out? I remember walking into the job centre on one visit and seeing a girl sitting in front of an ‘advisor’. She was crouched forward, all but doubled over in her seat, and I remember making a mental note to myself that that was actually a psychological thing: she was being emotionally bludgeoned into a position of submission to the system. Not everyone has the willpower to hold themselves upright, regardless of what is happening in their world.

In my humble opinion, the powers that be need to learn that no economy can be built on infringing people’s freedom. It’s a lesson that ought to have been learnt post-1833. And they need to recognise that the system isn’t just a system, but that it is dealing with real human beings, and those human beings are not responsible for the malfunctions of the economy.

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