Open Letter to ‘Benefits Officer’

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The following is a letter me and my friend “Steven” wrote after having received notice from the council that both his Job Seeker’s Allowance and Housing Benefits were being stopped.

The reasons for the stopping were not given any more specificity than ‘Failed to Sign’. I assure the reader that there were such reasons behind the failure and that after Steve  turned up an hour late he was told that his arrival would be passed on to the relevant member of staff and the appointment would be rescheduled. This did not happen. Instead, when Steve attended the JobCentre Plus later that day, he was greeted with shouts and a dressing down more befitting a matron in Victorian melodrama.

Previously, Steve also failed to respond to a call to attend an interview. This appointment was made with less than 24 hours notice. Steve, having lost his phone, was using an old handset with a battery life of only a couple of hours. Therefore, while he was waiting for a call back his phone died and he was unable to receive information that would have told him where to go, at what time and even for what kind of work.

It was a combination of these two events that led to the decision that his benefits should be terminated.

Steve is 21 years old. He has had a particularly difficult upbringing the details of which will – one fears – become more and more typical as austerity takes hold of the lives of a great many people.

This letter was sent to the council with minimum expectation… Steve’s breath is far from bated.  

***

Dear Benefits Officer – (the letter Steve received had no name as such – just the ominous ‘Benefits Officer‘).

First let me run a little ethical hypothetical by you, Benefits. (If I may be so bold as to use your first name) A person, for whatever reason, fails to sign on for his JSA appointment. Let’s say it was because he woke up late. Or assume perhaps that he had some family trouble, some personal issues that either prevented him from attending or delayed his attendance. All these, I am supposing you agree, might count as instances of reasons that could be relevant to the outcome ‘failed to sign’. I do not see any stipulation of the type of reason I failed to sign in your correspondence with me. Of course, the officer at the Job Centreplus seemed unconcerned with such reasons as she screamed at me, threatened me with sanctions (a threat she carried into action) and would not even permit me an opportunity at explanation. Given this indifference, why should I expect another department to demonstrate concern for such minor details as ‘reasons’?
(Before I forget, I have also made an appeal on a previous decision you made not to award a backpayment for housing benefit that I have yet to hear back on (some 4 months ago, now). Can you please make sure that I am made aware of the result of this appeal? I trust it is attached to the same claim and look forward to your reply.)

To return to the current situation: I have one further question with an ethical bent. Given that the reason for failing to sign was not specified as finding employment, the suspension of benefits becomes altogether more dangerous. There is no assumption being made on your part that I have actually managed to find employment. In part, however, this assumption as a grounding: I am not unemployed. I am rather underemployed, a phenomenon increasingly characteristic of the current economic situation. I have returned to employment with XXX. All this to say that I do receive wages, but at an incredibly low rate. I am classified as self-employed and this employer (as I relayed to you in previous correspondence) has been unwilling to provide proof of wages, proof of national insurance contribution or anything else besides. How this type of economic practice is legal I do not know. But it counts as work I suppose. The wage is low, I can assure you. So low that, again please refer to previous correspondence, I have fallen into 3 months of arrears with my landlord. These arrears are now being exacerbated by the suspension of benefits. So to answer the question as to where my rent payment is currently coming from: loans from friends, loans from family, and miniscule wages. I could list all the free meals I have managed to secure, the Hare Krishna I cycle to in order to fill up on food, the bins outside supermarkets and cafes. There is not one person – or café – about whom I can give you details. I am living on the generosity of friends and other services. When the state pulls the plug, one either does this or starves.

So to answer the question as to where my rent payment is currently coming from: loans from friends, loans from family, and miniscule wages. I could list all the free meals I have managed to secure, the Hare Krishna I cycle to in order to fill up on food, the bins outside supermarkets and cafes.

By suspending my benefits you are putting strain on these relationships, my mental health and my general ability to cope. I struggle to imagine what it would be like for someone without such relationships to turn to. What you are putting people like me through is nothing short of state-sanctioned sadism. As a civil servant I hope you appreciate the irony of the position you have been put in by this present government: judge, jury and occasional executioner. Public service this is not.

Other evidence of how I have been surviving without state largesse – I can bring you the content of my wallet if you like. Perhaps you would like to accompany me to work and see how I spend my days delivering food across the city, in offices and building sites, from which I rarely make minimum wage. Perhaps you would like to accompany me to friends’ houses where I am able to pick up free meals. Or else at the end of business in a supermarket where I can possibly – but not always – pick up a bargain or two. Other than that I am at a loss as to how to prove my income and my general means of survival. My bank account has been dormant for some time – except for the charge I received for a bounced cheque.

Finally, I want to push home the severity of what you are imposing on me. I do not have a stable familial environment to which I can return in my home town of Sheffield. I have worked in London. I am looking for work – currently without assistance from a Job Centreplus I found humiliating in the extreme. I do not ask for pity. I ask for assistance. If I get into any more arrears I will likely test my landlord’s patience to breaking point and I will be evicted. Given that I am not a priority case this means I will be homeless without recourse to help from the state. I will thus be without sufficient income and without a roof over my head. A direct consequence of the state’s indifference to my plight.

Perhaps you would like to accompany me to work and see how I spend my days delivering food across the city, in offices and building sites, from which I rarely make minimum wage. Perhaps you would like to accompany me to friends’ houses where I am able to pick up free meals.

I appreciate I have not provided information of my income. I do not have such evidence I am afraid. Life, frustratingly, all too often is lived between a trail of paperwork and receipts. This makes surveillance by state officials incredibly difficult, which wouldn’t be such a bad thing if I didn’t need assistance; assistance that seems conditional on being able to prove – and prove beyond doubt – that I am indeed in need of assistance. It seems misery must always come with a paper trail to be taken seriously. One wonders if the most miserable have time to lay down such bread crumbs. I can therefore only try and assure you that I do need assistance and hope that it will be forthcoming.

I therefore request that you do not suspend – or rather that you do restart – my benefits, that you leave me this quantity of money so that I can retain my current tenancy and not fall into further arrears and hence suffer eviction and then homelessness. I would also like to be told whether I, as someone who no longer receives benefits and receives less than a subsistence wage, counts as one of the employed in this country? If I do, it seems the status of employed comes with little of the prestige one might expect.

Regards,

Steve

NB: Names of people, places and employment have been changed.

All Photos: Courtesy of Chiva Congelado
From her selection ‘Hell and its Bureaucrats’.

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