Last week, on BBC Radio 4, I heard author Lloyd Markham sharing a Kafkaesque tale about belonging – and not belonging. His story is all too familiar to anyone who has had to deal with the DWP. He particularly marks out the draconian position that anyone having to deal with the state find themselves in, and concludes that the checks and balances, against the states power to ensure it is not abused, have long been removed.
I provide here a transcript of the short talk, but also encourage you to visit the Radio 4 website and download the audio of the talk for yourselves. Please share far and wide, as this tale is the story of a blight inflicted on the most needy and vulnerable in our society.
[00:00:03] Hello and welcome to forethought. We’re in Wales tonight and our speaker has just been nominated for the ‘Wales Book of The Year Award’ for his first novel ‘Bad Ideas Chemicals’. It’s a dystopian vision of life in Bridgend, just down the road – a very noisy road tonight, where we are at the moment with our audience at the Volcano Theatre in Swansea; and tonight he’s got another dystopian story for us. Please welcome Lloyd Markem.
[00:00:38] In May 2014 I became no-one for a while. I say I became no-one because in order to be someone you need to belong somewhere. And in order to say you belong somewhere you need proof that you belong somewhere, and that proof needs to be accepted by the somewhere you say you belong to. In May 2014, the somewhere I thought I belonged, Britain, no longer accepted my proof of someoneness. At the time, I was not aware of this. I was busy with my master’s degree labouring under the illusion that I was still in fact someone. Someone named Lloyd from Zimbabwe, who had moved to Bridgend with the rest of his family when he was 13; someone whose dad had British citizenship; someone who had been given indefinite leave to remain as a teenager; someone who planned to one day get citizenship himself, once he had the money; someone who belonged.
[00:02:00] That was the someone I thought I was until January 2016 when, shortly after starting work at a shop, I was called into the backroom by the manager. The H.R. department had contacted him to say that the passport I provided was “insufficient proof of my right to work.” This was because one of the legal changes brought into effect in 2014 was that expired passport, even with the correct Home Office stamps, were no longer considered proof of legal residency.
[00:02:34] I was bewildered. Up until this moment I’d taken the permanence of my Indefinite Leave to Remain for granted. The word indefinite meant forever after all, right? I was of course mistaken. After 2014 forever had become for now. Distraught I went home and decided to finally apply for British citizenship. It would be very expensive over a thousand pounds but my options were limited at this point.
[00:03:12] The next day at my Job Centre meeting I informed my advisor of the situation and asked what I should do given that no one was allowed to employ me. She expertly responded by telling me to ring the helpline. I called the helpline and waited the usual 30 plus minutes listening to a tinny rendition of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ that was repeatedly interrupted by a robotic voice informing me that someone would be with me shortly.
[00:03:42] Eventually a man answered. I explain the situation and he helpfully replied, “er,” and then, “ah.” And then after a while, “I better had a word with my supervisor; could I put you on hold?” I agreed that he could, and again waited. Then waited a bit longer. Then a bit longer still. Dun dun dun de-de-daaa… Dun dun dun de-de-daaa… Eventually, another man answered and informed me that they could not make a decision. “Oh,” I replied. Continuing he explained that my situation was “complex” and therefore they would need to request the abilities of a “complex decision maker.” This complex decision maker would make the complex decision, and then contact me. In the meantime, I should keep applying for jobs, filling in activity diaries, and attending Job Centre meetings. And so, I did that.
[00:05:00] Two weeks passed. My next Job Centre meeting came up and by advisor asked me a very existential question, “Lloyd, why are you here?” To which I replied, “Eh, er, um, the meeting?” She told me that my claim was cancelled and that I should call the helpline. So, I went home and called the helpline. Queue Vivaldi; queue 30-minute wait; queue- someone telling me that my claim had been cancelled and that I should receive a letter explaining why soon.
[00:05:41] Weeks passed. I made good progress on my citizenship application. Finally, I received a letter from the complex decision maker explaining the cancellation of my claim. It had been decided that: because I was not a British citizen I shouldn’t have been allowed on Universal Credit to begin with and therefore all the money I had received must be “recovered.” The amount totalled £2428, 66 pence. I was advised to contact the debt management team who would help arrange for this “overpayment” to be recovered. I was also advised that I should contact them soon or action will be taken against me for “non-compliance.”.
[00:06:28] I felt absolutely defeated and resigned to being in debt for several years. But my friends and family encouraged me to go speak to Citizens Advice. It took a few days to arrange an appointment with someone experienced enough to discuss such a “complex” case, but eventually I got to speak to a person and they encouraged me to contest the decision and request a “mandatory reconsideration notice.” I mailed off the official request forms the following morning on “Next Day Delivery.”.
[00:07:01] Two weeks later, I got a letter from the debt management team. It claimed that I had not communicated with Universal Credit in regards the overpayment, and that if I did not contact them soon they would take action. I called them and got through surprisingly quickly. No Vivaldi for debt management… I explained that I had actually sent my request for mandatory reconsideration notice weeks ago and it should have arrived well before the deadline. I was told that Universal Credit had not said anything and that I should call them. So, I did. Queue Vivaldi etc… Universal Credit then told me that my request had been received on time, and was being processed and- they didn’t really know why debt management hadn’t been informed. They assured me that there would be a message marked ‘Urgent’ sent to the relevant people. Assured, I put down the phone.
[00:08:01] Weeks went by. I passed my ‘life in the UK test’ and put my certificate in with the rest of my now completed citizenship application. A huge file containing three years of bank statements, good character statements from lecturers, diplomas, letters from student loans, and letters from Universal Credit. Well, when we are on good terms. The next day I mailed the whole thing off. Crossing my fingers and praying.
[00:08:26] Shortly afterward I got another letter from debt management informing me they were taking action to recover the overpayment. I called them; they still hadn’t heard from Universal Credit. I rang Universal Credit. Vivaldi etc… I was once again told that my request was being processed and that it should have been communicated to debt management. More reassurances. I was not reassured, but I pretended to be.
[00:08:57] Days later I got my first letter from a debt collection agency along with a string of text to my mobile. I contacted them but they wouldn’t take my word for anything and told me to ring debt management. I rang debt management. The woman on the phone was surprisingly sympathetic and arranged to have the order to recover the money temporarily put on hold. I called universal credit again, Vivaldi, more assurances. I don’t even pretend to be assured this time.
[00:09:27] These run around phone calls between debt collectors, debt management and Universal Credit became my new normal for a few months. Eventually I received the mandatory reconsideration notice. It had laborious step by step breakdown of how the complex decision maker had reached his complex decision and every bit of evidence he had used in the process. But, curiously, there was no mention of my indefinite leave to remain status. Could it be that the complex decision maker had not been informed? I decided to query this, and sent him scans of my passport and Home Office letter- the one I had originally received when I was a teenager. And just like that, spell was broken! Everything suddenly me resolved itself. The DWP told me they were dropping everything in light of this “new” evidence I had provided, and were reinstating my claim.
[00:10:32] Things returned to normal, well mostly. I actually continued to be harassed by debt collection agencies well into the following year; but eventually after enough pleading Universal Credit finally talk to debt management and the threatening letters stopped. And in the same month the DWP climbed down from their decision, the Home Office accepted my citizenship application, and I got my British passport. My new proof of someoneness.
[00:11:00] And that’s how my story ends with my someoneness returning to me. Not with a chorus of angels, but with a dry fizzle. If I don’t sound too reassured by my victory it is because in the present context of the awful Windrush scandal, with people who’ve lived in Britain longer than I’ve been alive being bundled onto planes in the middle of the night, it is apparent I was let off easy.
[00:11:32] We are often told that these stricter laws are just there to catch ‘illegal immigrants’ and other ‘wrongdoers’. And, if you’re a law-abiding person then really you have nothing to fear. But, if you make it harder for people to prove their innocence, then logically more innocent people will be found guilty, even if just by technicality. When a system deals in harsh binaries: citizen or non citizen; legal or illegal; someone or no-one; it cannot make nuanced distinctions between those guilty because they have intentionally broken the law and guilty because the forms they were issued with over a decade ago have been rendered obsolete by a politician.
[00:12:20] There is a perverse logic that guides the actions of both the DWP and the Home Office, a logic that bleeds into everything they touch. The Home Office sums it up as, “deport first; appeal later.” Well the DWP sanctions you first, then graciously allows you to contest their sanctions. “Presumed guilty; Punished.” Then you can try and prove your innocence.
[00:12:49] This is an inverse of the rules which are meant to underpin a liberal democracy; rules best expressed in that old maxim that a person is innocent until proven guilty. That maxim is not just about how the law should conduct disputes between individuals, but also about how it should conduct disputes between individuals and the state.
[00:13:11] State bureaucracies wield incredible power and they are meant to be checks and balances against that power to ensure it is not abused; particularly in cases where the individual being acted against is marginalized and does not have the resources to readily defend themselves. I think these stories which are coming to light show that in Britain those checks and balances have long been removed.
[00:13:40] Thank you for listening. My name is Lloyd Markham. A someone, for now.
Copyright and authorship of this talk belong to Lloyd Markham.