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.
You would be hard pressed to have missed the controversy that Raquel Rolnik, UN special rapporteur on adequate housing, seems to have caused on her mission to examine the effects of the bedroom tax on the people of the UK.
Grant Shapps, chairman of the Conservative Party (or ‘Michael Green’, or whatever he is calling himself today) made assertions on the morning of 11th September that:
- Raquel wasn’t invited by the government;
- she didn’t visit government offices;
- and she did not use the proper terms for government policies.
These points were proved wrong by the afternoon in Raquel Rolnik’s press statement. In no uncertain terms.
I have been following the detail of the “tax” since the beginning; I have read her report (linked above); I have heard the governments petulant response. Far be it from me to call Right Honourable Members of Parliament liars, or even to accuse them of untruths. But let’s look at the UN statement.
At the top of her report, Raquel says, “From 29 August to 11 September 2013, I undertook an official visit to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland at the invitation of the Government.”
Round One: Raquel (of the UN).
Straight away the report say, “I wish to start this statement by expressing my gratitude to the various Government Departments, for the cooperation and hospitality extended to us during the organization and throughout the development of this fact-finding visit. ”
Pretty clear. But just incase you were still in any doubt:
“I have had the opportunity to meet with numerous Government officials, including some Ministers. In England I met with the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Ministry of Justice, the Department of Work and Pensions, the Homes and Communities Agency, the Department for International Development and the Manchester City Council. I also met with officials from the Department of Housing and Regeneration from the Welsh Government.
“In Scotland, I met with the Scottish Government, including the Housing Services and Regeneration, the Housing Supply, the Homelessness and Equality Policy Departments; and with the Scottish National Housing authorities and Planning and Architecture Division. In Northern Ireland, I had the opportunity to meet with the Department for Social Development, and with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.”
Round Two: Raquel (of the UN). Not looking as if the government are being all that honest so far. So now on to:
Of all the criticism of their housing policy, this seems to be the one that riles them the most. It goes something along the lines of, “It’s not called the bedroom tax! It’s called the ‘Under occupancy penalty’ (sometimes they say it’s a charge or reduction.) We didn’t call it a tax, so it’s not a tax!” An so on, ad hominem.
Firstly, let’s look at the direct point: did she use the ‘correct terms’?
“Especially worrisome in this package is the so-called “bedroom tax”, or the spare bedroom under occupancy penalty.”
So, she did use the term ‘bedroom tax’! Hang on though, she prefaces it with “so-called” and then goes on to use its Government sanctioned name. (It get’s petty doesn’t it when the government dismiss your criticism because you use the wrong name, even if it is politically charged name.) Shapps’ complaint to the UN secretary general will come to nothing because he doesn’t have a leg to stand on.
Now for the detail of what this policy is regardless of its name.
The amounts of so-called “subsidy” removed from a persons benefit are not negligible to those on benefit, as it in many cases it amounts to a reduction of around 35% of what is a very small income.
Shockingly, the Government policy seems to be about efficient reallocation of housing resource on a national scale, moving people and families around like a theoretical big puzzle to be solved with zero regard for family, social or community ties, responsibilities, suitability, job availability, and children’s education, together with the upheaval caused and the Scarce provision of small properties at affordable rents.
The policy treats people inhumanly on every level possible. She is right to point out that the basic human right to affordable shelter “is not at any cost” – the cost being that which I outlined above – and the government has a duty under human rights laws not to retrograde its provisions in meeting the law, but to seek ways to always improve.
Let’s be clear. A right under law isn’t self entitlement, it is a right. And all have a right to affordable shelter, something that doesnt exist in this country. Society through the structures of the rule of law and government must always make sure those less well off are looked after as right, and not as charity, for it we are all peers, and should be dignified with rights as opposed to begging or being left destitute.
However, one thing remains true, and no amount of government bluster and spite can alter basic logic.
A penalty that is unavoidable by most is a tax by any other name.
I have been following the saga of the “120,000 troubled families” since it was first mentioned in speech by PM David Cameron last May. I first reported here in some detail that this number and the rational behind it was at best dubious. And finally after some pressure form others in the field, Louise Casey, the author of the original report in to this, finally admitted that the “120,000 troubled families” number was simply made up.
Do you earn enough for a basic standard of living?
The Minimum Income Standard for the UK shows how much money people need, so that they can buy things that members of the public think that everyone in the UK should be able to afford. Take the test at the link: http://www.minimumincome.org.uk/
Now compare ‘minimum income standard’ with what someone on long term sickness/disability benefit actually gets. The hypothetical person has no realistic prospect of returning to work in the near future, yet their compensated income isn’t even subsistence income.
But whilst the public may think that someone on a wage should be able to afford these things, you may not. It could be said that they can do without alcohol and they don’t need to spend money on social activities because there are things that can be done for free. Someone can quite rightly claim that clothing isn’t something that has to be purchased every month either, especially if you’re careful with your clothes.
It is often mis represented that the case for higher benefits (in this context) is wanting parity with an earning standard of living. This was an exercise in demonstrating the current wide disparity by showing that £115 per week is the gap at two extremes (within the context). However the figures proposed at minimum working/earning standard of living are not wild or fanciful. The reality for all disabled and long term sickness benefit recipients is that the benefits are barely meeting their needs, let alone even partially their desires.
I think that the debate should be where between the two extremes should the income be set. So what is appropriate substance levels, bearing in mind that the disabled person has no fair reason to be excluded from normal participation in society? Also bearing in mind the difference between an Able bodied job seeker, vs what we are talking about: incapacitated through sickness/health or disability.
For the job seeker, a temporary exclusion from normal participation is acceptable due to the temporary nature of unemployment relative to employment, and the motivation that exists there in; however the long term sick/disabled faces exclusion from participation in cultural activities, or from affording enough variety in food and social activities, and the motivation factor is redundant in this respect.
The disabled or long term incapacitated person will also have generally higher costs of living associated with their incapacity. There also comes a point where all clothes eventually do fall apart, no matter how careful one is, or become tatty/ragged, yet the less than substance existence provides not much leeway for replacement of items clothing or household that break or wear down.
For international comparison, the income for disabled/sickness benefit in UK is 1/4 of that in Canada, and 1/2 of the European average.
And final, all social security will be uprated at 1% for next three years. As the benefits barely cover cost of all essentials, this means a very real drop in income as inflation increases. Compared to someone on median wage of £21k, someone on the income provided here has currently £96pw. In fixed cash terms, after three years that will be equivalent to £66pw.
The point being: there is very little “fat” left to cut. Literally in some cases!