I remember my first ever interview. It was at the DHSS (now known as the DSS) office in Aberystwyth which was a newly built gray concrete building especially constructed to withstand bomb damage (yes, really). Standing outside the building waiting for it to open I was joined by a couple of tramps. One of them was relating a story to the others about his experience the previous fortnight at the same place and how the official had asked him (and he put on a slightly posh voice): “Since you last signed on has there been any change in your circumstance”. And he had replied “Yeah… …I’m two weeks older”. The whole group burst into laughter.
This was the time of the Thatcher campaign against social scroungers and also a deep recession in the UK economy. But as a naive youngster fresh out of school I was totally unprepared for what was to come.
My first problem was that I hadn’t signed on straight away. I hadn’t been desperate. I’d been relaxing, lazing around and playing guitar. A few weeks had gone by and after a bit of gentle prodding by my mother I had finally got round to it. But apparently this was really suspect. “Why didn’t you sign on straight away?” the interviewer asked. “What have you been doing since you left school?” I was trying to think up plausible things that I had been doing rather than just the truth that I had been too lazy to bother going. “We don’t believe you. We think you have been working. What have you really been doing?”. It appears not being a very prompt Social Scrounger goes against some DHSS rule.
The second problem was that I didn’t know exactly what job I wanted. They gave me a list with check boxes against each of them. None of them looked that good so off the top my head I chose hospitality. However to them I wasn’t being serious about getting a job because the holiday season was coming to a close. “Well what do you want me to choose then?” I asked. I can’t remember what I ticked in the end, but the only job they ever offered me was in a garage cleaning cars which wasn’t down on the list. Second DHSS rule – Social Scroungers who don’t have a career in mind are bad.
The third problem I had was that I let slip that I would be resitting one of my A-levels and so wouldn’t be on the dole for very long. I thought they would be happy but no, trying to get a qualification and go to college was equally suspect as I couldn’t possibly be looking for a job if I was studying. Third DHSS rule – trying to stop being a Social Scrounger is equally bad.
Because of my attitude problems, they must have thought I needed another assessment so they could grill me some more. As I sat in the waiting room waiting my turn an old man was telling everyone who would listen that he had “…worked all my life. This country has gone downhill” he repeated again and again. Luckily the person interviewing me the second time was a bit of a hippy trotskyist that knew me and my family vaguely and was pretty sympathetic and a bit more sensible and let me sign on — though it might be coincidental but the DHSS called me in for another interview on the very day of my exam resit. So there I was, one of Maggie Thatcher’s Social Scroungers … though happily not for very long.
On two more occasions in my life I have had to sign on and both occasions had similar results. After moving to Cardiff I was briefly unemployed but my housing benefit hadn’t turned up. When I complained they sent me the unemployment benefit form again as I couldn’t get housing benefit unless I was unemployed. As I wasn’t unemployed anymore I had to write that I was in work. So of course my request was unemployment benefit was rejected (which I didn’t want anyway). Even though I had written in the covering letter that I was only asking for housing benefit for the period when I was unemployed and that they could easily check their records to prove that. But the machine had broken. After much going backwards and forwards they finally agreed after I appealed the decision.
Years later, after I was made redundant, I got offered a few hours work at the same company I had left, setting up computers. This was on a casual basis. I declared that to the DHSS straight away but of course this was problematic. What could they label me with — I hadn’t set up my own business, I wasn’t really self-employed, I wasn’t a casual labourer paid by the hour. I was paid by the number of computers set up and then only when I put an invoice in so didn’t know when I would be paid or how much work there would be. This sent the whole machine into a tailspin. A number of the officials were in a bunch shaking their heads and raising their shoulders. They admitted to me that they had never had a similar situation and had to send my case to the head office.
I had started this casual work while I was still technically employed as I had been put on garden leave while the company supposedly looked for another role for me. How could I be self-employed when I was still employed. All very pointless and silly and a failure on their part to understand that everyone’s circumstances and situations are different and life isn’t like the little boxes they ask people to tick.
On another occasion I was also refused benefits because I had been working but since the company had gone bust they weren’t able to pay the staff for the last month. Of course because I was not available for work at the time since I was actually working, I wasn’t entitled to anything. It seems that being without an income isn’t the point in their eyes.
Friends of mine have also had these type of experiences. There was an attempt to make absent fathers rather than social security pay the costs of bringing up children. But it failed to take into account that in many cases both parents had come to an arrangement already and often mothers either knew the father couldn’t pay or didn’t like to tell the DHSS who the father was. This was the case of a friend I know. Of course they found this suspect and interrogated her further “But you said that you didn’t know who the father of your other child was either.” To which she replied “Well, what can I say… I’m just one complete utter slut.”
Then there is their check on people who live in shared accommodation to ensure they aren’t “living together as husband and wife”. I’ll hand it to the DHSS that they were the first to officially recognise the status of “unmarried couple”. But then how do they go about it? My friend was asked “If you were going to the shop and buying a packet of biscuits. Would you then share them with [the other person they suspect of her partner]?”
One DHSS official told me about the difficulties of the job. “It really is a bit awkward when say, you have a woman claiming benefits who may in fact have several gentlemen friends who may have money…”.
They even told me once that they didn’t like the way I signed my name and that I had to change my signature. Of course I refused. Talk about denying someone their identity.
Now, you would have thought that any democrat would cringe at this type of intrusion, including the Conservatives or maybe especially the Conservatives. Isn’t the whole idea behind Conservatism — that the state should get off people’s backs; that it shouldn’t intrude in people’s private lives; and that people should be encouraged to stand on their own two feet? Yet the benefits system is a bureaucratic, inept authoritarian state within a state especially designed for the poor. The never ending interrogations, their stasi-style officers employed to spy on people and special hotlines for people to inform on their neighbours. And just like in this sort of regime the way people fight back is with wit, non-cooperation and the sarcastic reply.