Strike One! Blair Takes A Baseball Bat To The Poor

 The queue starts early on Monday mornings, winding and snaking its way from the barred heavy wooden doors, down past the municipal cleansing department depot and right again as it borders the local park, before almost turning back on itself into the nondescript shopping arcade. The scene is one reminiscent of a thousand pre-perestroika cold war propaganda depictions of the former Soviet Union; the all-too-familiar queue of several hundred pensioners and young mothers with children: waiting in the grey morning rain for the doors to eventually open and offer them respite from the waiting that started at seven o’clock this cold, grimy morning. But this isn’t Moscow or St. Petersburg – or any other communist bloc city or town for that matter.

This is Glasgow 2001 – and the weekly social security benefits queuing ritual that is repeated the length and breadth of Britain’s forgotten sink estates and inner city slums. It is a world away from the smart designer stores and coffee shops that have sprung up just eight miles away in Glasgow’s regenerated city centre – eight miles which might as well be eight thousand. Harassed mothers smoke and curse the slowly ticking seconds that follow the weekend of waiting for this moment and the promise that it holds out. Conversation is restricted to identifying those members of post office staff that like to keep you waiting and those more fair-minded individuals who open punctually – ‘See him? He’s a bad bastard. He never opens on time’ says a headscarfed woman with rich red veins on her W.G. Fields nose. Something as mundane as post office opening times can be proof of the war of attrition the people here feel themselves to be combatants in.

A small group of men dressed in Tommy Hilfiger’s finest – local loan sharks and their men-at-arms – congregate outside the burnt out and famously burgled discount toiletries store; malevolently waiting for what’s theirs. These moneylenders are generally lauded for their generosity of spirit: others just take the ‘Monday Book’ (as the social security benefits payment book is commonly called) with menaces and more. It’s a situation that many people on benefits find themselves in as they turn to thugs for money to meet the emergencies – an unexpected utility bill, a final demand, an unexpected illness – not allowed for by the social security benefits they receive. Those not in hock to the heavies

find short-term solace and long term financial anguish in the arms of ‘legitimate’ – but no less predatory – financial companies who circle like sharks around the previously untouchable unemployed.

Shops like Cash Converters (“Cash Converters exclusively provides today’s consumers with two unrivalled services – a quick and convenient way to sell used or unwanted good for instant cash. Each Cash Converters store now offers a range of popular financial products and services including cheque cashing facilities, short-term loans and an exclusive re-purchase option simply called ‘Buyback’) and Crazy George’s (“Our aim is to provide anyone, regardless of their household income, employment or credit status, with a wide choice of high quality products for their home at affordable prices”) are the modern tally men of choice for low income families. ‘Affordable’ here means a crippling APR of almost 30%. It is hard to know who is worse: the local hoodlums with their cheap jewellery and knives or the respectable businesses with their casual financial violence. Either way, the weekly benefits wait is in their mutual interests – most of the money cashed here this morning will be heading their way.

The already bored children wear the clothes favoured by all poor children (Adidas, Fila, Nike and Reebok), but like poor children the world over, they have nothing in their bellies. The tea and buttered toast which normally passes for breakfast has long since ran out; which is why most of these children spend their Monday mornings huddled outside a depressed and depressing post office rather than in school. It is a ritual which thousands of Glaswegians and Britons can testify to – a mournful rites of passage not outside my own realm of experience.

When the doors do eventually open, there is a tangible sense of energy and occasion which tells its own story. For many here, this is and will be the highlight of the week. The thrill is short lived. Agnes is a case in point. Of the 78.90 pounds which she receives, almost 65 pounds has already been earmarked for electricity and gas tokens, the mail order catalogue from which she buys her childrens clothes, the money borrowed from a neighbour and on it goes. This leaves her and her two children with around 13 pounds for the remainder of the week. This must buy food for the week, cover bus fares to school and put new clothes on the children’s backs – it didn’t last week and it won’t this week either. I asked Agnes if she was ever tempted to take a part-time job to supplement her meagre benefits entitlement. “Well, I know people that take on small cleaning jobs and things like that, but they’re taking an awful risk.”

Indeed they are. This month sees a major re-structuring of the British welfare system, ‘the most comprehensive shake up of the welfare system for a generation’ says Works and Pensions Secretary Alistair Darling. Tough new measures to crack down on benefit fraud will also come into play. For the first time, private bank, insurance and utility company details will be checked where there are ‘reasonable grounds to suspect that fraud’ is being committed. The Social Security Fraud Act 2001 (Fraud Act) already paved the way for increased Department for Work and Pensions powers to obtain information from listed organisations about their customers in order to combat benefit system fraud which the agency estimates at two billion pounds a year.

The icing on this particular cake is the introduction of a ‘two strikes and you’re out’ policy which allows ‘persistent’ offenders to be cut out of the benefits equation and excised from the unemployment figures for up to thirteen weeks. In cases where a couple with dependants attempt to circumvent the sanction by swapping the claim to the innocent party, provisions to reduce the amount of income related benefit paid to the partner or any dependant of the ‘offender’ will apply for the duration of the sanction. A high profile anti-fraud advertising campaign is also underway – with controversial billboard posters and 40 second television spots imploring the public to call a fraud hotline with the details of friends and neighbours they suspect of fraud.

The posters are unashamedly scaremongering (‘BENEFITS CHEATS. WATCH YOUR BACK. WE’RE ONTO YOU’ and ‘BENEFITS CHEATS. WHEN WILL YOUR NUMBER BE UP?’) – it’s little wonder that the likes of Agnes are loathe to risk losing their benefits for the sake of badly paid cleaning and nursing jobs. Curtain twitchers and snoopers can also submit details online using an online questionnaire which touches on all bases ridiculous and sublime: ‘What type of benefit fraud do you think is being committed?’ Is the accused ‘broad, heavy, medium, proportionate, short, slim, stocky or other’? Do they have ‘Afro, Bouffant, Bald, Curly, Dirty, Dreadlocks, Greasy, Long, Mohican, permed, punk, quiffed, spikey (sic) or spiked’ hair?’

It would be funny if it wasn’t so appalling. Sadly, no government mandarins are on hand to explain the distinction between ‘spikey’ (sic) and spiked’. It is a fitting irony that would-be informants are advised to ‘make sure that [you] are not being watched while you are filling in this form’. The Agneses of this world don’t take kindly to being called re-classified as ‘customers’ – even less kindly to the implicit assumption underpinning the new legislation that all people on benefits are potential benefits cheats.

The Department’s own literature goes as far to admit that prosecution of employers is ‘not always the most effective way of tackling the problem’ of employers who knowingly collude in or promote fraud. Prosecution of claimants is an altogether simpler matter: given that they don’t typically have the wherewithal to mount a legal challenge to charges brought against them.

No money means no costly legal battle. The daily privations of life on benefit are insurmountable enough without entertaining the foolhardy notion of appeals once benefits have been removed. The statistics are alarming: one in three Scottish children lives in poverty. One in four households is on the breadline.

The ‘Welcome to Glasgow’ signs which announce admission to this depressing housing estate – home to almost 30,000 people – invite you into a recent social past gone wrong. This is not a world of digital cameras, DVD players and foreign holidays. Nikon may as well be a Greek island for all the difference it makes here. This is the world of benefit office queues, social security cheques and low expectations. One woman told me, ‘If I could afford to work without claiming social money I would. I know people who work and claim but still don’t make ends meet.’

For many of the people I spoke to, it would be more immoral not to work in a poorly paid job and claim benefits than not to. At least this way, they argued, their children have clothes on their backs. Britain’s Labour government has been rightly applauded for introducing a national minimum wage; but despite the small steps of progress made to date, one in three British children still live in poverty.

In a further sop to the tabloid press and the proxy moral majority, Tony Blair has also refused to back down on controversial plans to dock child benefit from the parents of children with poor school attendance records: the parents of children like eleven year old John who hasn’t been at school for two weeks because his mother can’t afford to buy him a new pair of shoes. Or children like fourteen year old Maggie, who refuses to go to school because of the casual violence and drug dealing that takes place in the playground.

The New Deal programme which was initiated to put the young and long term unemployed back to work has proved to be a means of cheap labour for unscrupulous employers who enjoy a healthy subsidy for every person they take on. Young people between 18 and 24 who refuse positions they consider unsuitable lose their benefits. Even the on-message Demos thinktank estimates that some 624,000 young Britons have disappeared from official records this way. This is what happened to Jason, whose pallid complexion suggests a welter of experience beyond his 21 years. Since losing benefits he has been sleeping on friends sofas, but he knows that can only go on for so long. His mother wants nothing to do with him, after finding out that he has been taking drugs. Jason thinks his mother’s attitude has more to do with the string of ‘uncles’ who have been filling his mother’s bed since his father walked out. He did have a job once, working as a care assistant in a nursing home for the elderly, but they let him go after he missed a shift due to illness. Uncombed hair and unkempt, he has the look of someone who is beaten and knows it. If he ever had any ambitions he doesn’t now: ‘Why do I smoke hash and do pills? Why not? There’s nothing for me. I can block things out, forget about everything. It make me feel better.’

Hearing Jason’s story I didn’t so much see the indigent and workshy youth suggested by messrs Blair and Darling – rather I saw the snuffing out of the light of hope.

The unemployed are hopeless in every sense of the word – but not in the way that punitive legislation and scaremongering ad campaigns suggest. The absence of hope and feelings of failure have given way to a dead-eyed fatalism among the people who populate these dreary identical streets of damp filled rooms and leaking roofs. This is life at the bottom; where the future often seems more of an implied threat than a reason for hope. Their dreams are modest enough – like having enough food to last the week, enough money to buy a crying child a pair of school shoes, not having to borrow money to pay for a child’s school trip – but not modest enough for a Labour government whose much crowed ‘compassion’ holds sufficiently less water than eleven year old John’s shoes.

Back at the now closed post office, a crowd of alcoholics has gathered while police sirens sound in the near distance.

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