30 Apr 2015

Benefits - A True Story

This is a true story.

In 2007, two young people got married. They'd been together for six years precisely, and owned their home. He was an electrician, she worked in administration. Their joint income was around £40k, so plenty of money for the mortgage, bills and frivolity. Eighteen months later, their first child was born, and she cut her hours at work to take care of him. Childcare was provided, for free, by his mother, so the overall change in income wasn't too bad. Sixteen months after that, she was pregnant again, but things weren't so good. He left her in her 15th week of pregnancy. There was no hope of reconciliation. 

Overnight, her income went from around £40k+ per annum to £6k per annum. The mortgage and bills still needed to be paid, but he was reluctant to help since he didn't live there anymore. A solicitor's letter was sent, some money was acquired from him, but it in no way made up for the massive shortfall in income. She couldn't take on more hours, and even working full time, her annual income would have only been £13k. There was no safety net, no rich family to fall back on, not even to lend her money.

So the benefits system, quite literally, came to the rescue. She could only claim additional tax credits to begin with, as housing benefit only applies to rented accommodation and she worked too many hours to claim income support. The tax credits bumped her up to a survivable income, but it was not what most people would consider liveable. After going on maternity leave, she moved away from her free childcare source, and gave her house up to relocate to an area with better transport links as she couldn't drive. He continued to live in relative affluence, even after the chunk of income handed over in child support.

She went on income support after her maternity pay expired. This entitled her to more housing benefit, and she managed well (although lost £200 total a month from moving from working to income support) but was still poor. Meals and shopping had to be planned with military precision. New clothes for her were a luxury (the children's were often supplemented by their father). The house she chose to live in turned out to be in rather poor repair, with a somewhat dismissive landlord. When things broke, they were replaced with the cheapest possible option.

Things got better. She met someone else, they're married now, they still get some benefits but nowhere near as much as of old.

Obviously, she is me. But I'll never forget the stigma of going to the jobcentre, of being publicly told I should spend my time volunteering instead of being 'lazy', of having my educational achievements disdained because we live in a culture where employment is the only value, of being ashamed of my clothes full of holes, my feet getting wet because of holes in my shoes, of turning to empty cupboards and trying to conjure meals out of nothing much. Even tiny things like not being able to get to the doctors because it's a bus ride away and I had no spare money for the bus. You don't forget. You don't stop feeling poor even when you're less poor.

I was totally reliant on benefits for one year and nine months. Not long. Not my fault. Not my choice.

Nothing makes me angrier than people who claim they would never stoop so low as to depend on benefits. I was in a situation where we would have been homeless in a very short space of time if the benefits system had not been there for us. I chose to survive. I chose to swallow any remnant of pride I had and look after my children. I paid tax and national insurance for eight years, and was still paying tax for eighteen months after my first husband left, but this is ignored by the government. The electioneering is all about putting the tax payer first, as though people on benefits pay nothing. What of the thousands of families working, paying tax, and being topped up by tax credits? Does that not count?

What many people don't realise is how close to needing benefits most people are. One redundancy. One bad injury. One bereavement. One marital breakdown.You don't think it will ever happen to you, but when it does, you are fucked. Not only do you have the trauma of whatever event triggers it, you also have the trauma of suddenly not knowing who to phone, in what order, what to say. The sheer quantity of admin you have to do makes many people quail in fear - the half hour income support phone interview before they'll even send you an application form is one such horror.You fall to the bottom of a very big heap of similarly fucked souls, and you have to find your way back up. You have to wait for your money to come, if they decide you qualify for it - I had to wait five months for a change in housing benefit to go through when my husband first moved in. Thankfully I had planned for this, and didn't desperately need the money, but if I had, no "Sorry, you're in a queue" would have saved me from the debts.

The benefits system is not a bad thing. It's flawed - and even as a grateful recipient, I can see countless flaws in the system - but it is necessary. And, unless you're extremely rich (in which case good on you, vote Conservative) you're not immune to needing it.

23 Apr 2015

Party Political Bollocks Of Peterborough

I dislike the government. I dislike the way it is run, I dislike the whole culture of our 'elected officials' being unrepresentative of the people. I dislike the near-myth of democracy, even more so since watching the excellent Inside The Commons which demonstrated the difficulty MPs have in actually challenging the status quo. There is literally no room for the mildest of radical ideas in Westminster.

I dislike the election bollocks even more. Since parliament dissolved, the media has been awash with claims each party is making. Most of these claims are financially impossible, and therefore probably lies to win votes. I mean, WE KNOW politicians lie. Last election, it was all "no privatisation of the NHS" this and "cut tuition fees" that, and look what's happened in the interim. However, unlike the last election which was very much a two horse race, thrown out by Cleggmania at the last moment, this election is unlikely to have a single party winner, so as well as promising us the impossible, the politicians are also hurling muck at each other.

Take, for example, Scotland. Now, I didn't watch any of the debates. If I want people to lie to me, I will ask my children who ate the last frube. Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the SNP, came out strong. A lot of people resented the appearance of the SNP and Plaid Cymru at the debates, because England can't vote for them. But if enough people in Scotland vote SNP, we could end up with a Labour/SNP coalition. The operative word is COULD, but considering the SNP are generally left wing, and certainly more left than Labour, this has shit the Conservatives right up.
But you see, this is ALL THE LAST GOVERNMENT'S FAULT. Cast your mind back to August/September 2014. Scotland had a referendum on their independence. This was totally ignored by Westminster until the Scottish polls suddenly indicated that a majority of Scots wanted independence. Westminster mobilised. Half of parliament went to Scotland to persuade the Scots that independence would be a BAD THING. Promises were made. Scotland (narrowly) voted to remain in the United Kingdom. And since then, promises have been broken and Scotland are deeply disillusioned with Westminster and Scottish Labour. So, if they DO all vote for the SNP, you know why.

David Cameron refuses to rule out a UKIP coalition (Grant Shapps does, but he's not exactly known for his honesty, particularly at the moment). It seems likely that the election will result in a coalition government of some type, and I would personally prefer it to be Labour/SNP than Conservative/UKIP, because dear lord God, we're all doomed if Farage gets in. Oh, I know he has a lot of support because of his totally untenable ideas about immigration (seriously, you can't just stop immigration by saying No, it's all tied up with international trading laws, look it up) but his party's attitude to women is disgustingly regressive, and combined with the planned Conservative welfare cuts for families, mothers would be fucked. Fucked, I tell ye.

Now, I live in Peterborough, a town of middling deprivation with a high immigrant population. Let me tell you of our city's political candidates:
Mary Herdman. UKIP. Farage himself has claimed that children don't play outside in Peterborough because IMMIGRANTS (never mind the lack of green space for them to safely play, or that it's a fucking car/lorry filled city: we don't want our children mown down). He's also claimed the M4 is busy because of immigrants. His own wife is an immigrant. Maybe she secretly hunts down the children of Peterborough, and then blocks up the M4 to annoy him. Maybe this is how he knows so much about the perils of immigrants. Or maybe he's just pulling shit out of his hat to entertain the natives. Naturally, being a multicultural city, there's a UKIP candidate standing. I haven't had her (yes, a woman, I nearly fainted) leaflet through the door yet, but I read it online and it's the usual health tourism lies, bigging up the military, protecting the rich, reallocating social housing according to parentage rather than need, and some other fascist ideas masquerading as socialism.

Darren Fower. Liberal Democrats. Darren seems a nice guy - he's the councilor of a neighbouring area - but he's got no chance. The Liberal Democrats as a party have effectively no chance. Poor Nick Clegg: his good intentions at the last election coupled with his total submission crippled his whole party and he must be absolutely dying to escape.

Chris Ash. Liberal. The actual Liberals, of Victorian political fame. His leaflet was the usual lot of crap about difficult decisions, trying to renationalise the railway, and some generalised waffle that leads me to believe he has no real policies or doesn't know how to express them and still come across as a viable candidate. Their website is also very 1998.

Darren Bisby-Boyd. Green. The Green party have been vaunted as a potential coalition force, but I don't see it. Similar to UKIP, they hold very few seats at the moment (one, to be precise) and don't have a great record. Their policies are very appealing, but not exactly workable. This Darren promises us more recycling (this would be welcome, since the Conservative council stopped doing free garden rubbish collection), lower speed limits and more allotments. But nothing much about what else could be done with the city. In fact, ALL the political candidates seem aware that their ability to influence local politics will be shut down by the divided council. Such is life. They could at least pretend.

John Fox. Independent. Not only has failed to send us a leaflet, but has no online presence to tell us what he stands for. So, not a likely winner.

Lisa Forbes. Labour. Labour are obviously the main challengers to the Conservative government. Lisa Forbes is a lovely lady, who gave my autistic son her last rosette, so yay for her. She is the only one of the candidates I have actually met - nobody else seems particularly interested in doorstepping our area. From a political standpoint, Labour are probably not going to be much better than the Conservatives in practice, but their ethics tend to the more socially conscientious. And the fact is that Lisa Forbes is the only realistic challenger to the nemesis...

And that nemesis is Stewart Jackson. Conservative. Now, even if I was a Tory (which isn't likely to happen, unless I become rich - I understand that's usually the way) I wouldn't vote for the horrible man. He doesn't agree with gay marriage. He voted against it. He really, emphatically, does not believe in it or the "mischievous, disingenuous, mealy-mouthed, patronising leftie drivel – typical middle-class, tofu-munching Labour nonsense" people who put it through. Surely the imperative as an MP is to vote for your constituents, not yourself? Well, as Stewart Jackson made abundantly clear, he really doesn't like homosexuals and doesn't give a shit if they are his constituents. He later justified his views by saying he wasn't an MP anymore and therefore didn't have to defend his constituents. Parliament had been dissolved THAT DAY, so I'm not wholly buying his backtrack.
So, Stewart Jackson, odious homophobe, sent me (actually my husband: apparently I don't need a leaflet) his manifesto and I read it chuckling with joy. You see, on the one hand he promises more jobs, more nurses, more homes, tax cuts and living wage. And on the very next page, he announces that the COALITION OF CHAOS (I'm not making this up) cannot afford to do the er...very same things he promises because Britain's got no money. Well, that's wonderful. I'm sold.
In addition to this, the Conservative party is presented as a homogenous group (no, not homosexual Mr Jackson, sit down) while the SNP (represented by Alex Salmond because reprinting is expensive), UKIP, Lib Dem and Labour are presented as...you've guessed it...THE COALITION OF CHAOS. Now, I'm not sure the Conservatives realise they have been in a coalition government for the past five years, because they've generally steamrollered the Lib Dems into submission, but they're really not SELLING the strength of the last government (headed by them) in this leaflet.
Also, they have used a variety of press headlines to illustrate how magnificent the Conservatives are compared to the Coalition of Chaos. It is telling that the 'yay Tories!' headlines are from the Express, Daily Mail and Telegraph, whereas the 'DOOMED' headlines are from almost all from Murdoch publications. I didn't need an AS level in English Language to tell me their sources are biased.

Back to Mr Jackson and his particularly special form of caring about Peterborough. Well, he wants English Votes for English Laws, so I'm sorry Wales, N.Ireland and Scotland, your votes no longer count. He's also very disparaging because Lisa Forbes was put in Peterborough by the Labour party, ignoring that he was put in Peterborough as a representative in 2001, by the Conservatives. And then we get to my favourite bit of the whole document. All About Stewart Jackson. And, with due copyright accorded to Peterborough Conservatives, I quote:

"As your MP, Stewart Jackson has helped thousands of constituents each year."
Just not the gay ones.

"Before election, he gained two degrees and was an HR manager, working with small businesses."
He's got a BA, an MA and a CIPD. He was the president of his university's union, but lost his seat due to a vote of no-confidence. In addition to being a small business helper, he seems to have forgotten that he worked as a bank manager for nine years. He's worked for the government in some form since 1997. I mean, does he not know we can look this up on wikipedia and check how much of a man of the people he actually is?

"He uses local public services and shops as well as commuting to work in Parliament."
Well, why does he need a house in Ealing then? His Peterborough house is designated his second home (more on that later). In addition, for those who don't know, Peterborough is a main stop on the East Coast Mainline - commuting to London is not just easy, it's something many Peterborough residents do every day.

"Not a career politician. He resigned from Government to fight for an EU referendum"
He's been working in politics since 1997. He didn't resign from government - he resigned as a goverment aide because he wanted an EU referendum and the party whips did not. He still hasn't got his EU referendum. He remained an MP for the rest of his tenure.

"Principled, not afraid to stand up for what's right - making a citizen's arrest in 2012"
Actually, that should read that he TRIED to make a citizen's arrest, FAILED, and then the police actually turned up and did their job. But he tried, so that's something.

"Stewart is a local candidate with a track record of putting Peterborough first."
Well, first, if you're interested have a read of his voting record. Look at him, your voice in Westminster, tirelessly voting for the needs of Peterborough! Oh no wait...no equal pay...raise in tuition fees...bedroom tax... no disability benefit...against the educational maintenance allowance...no gay marriage (duh)...no to human rights. The man doesn't seem to really like voting for anything that might make people happy or their lives easier. And then there's his financial history in making Peterborough better. You see, he has managed to make ONE HOUSE in Peterborough substantially better using government funds. His own.

He's just not my cup of tea.

5 Apr 2015

When Right-Wing Politicians Use Religion As A Selling Point

So, Nigel Farage has justified his views that HIV immigrants should be denied treatment as a 'sensible, Christian thing to do'.
Meanwhile, in Conservative land, David Cameron is 'standing up' for the Christian faith.

It is Easter Sunday. For many of you, it means little beyond chocolate eggs, a long weekend and a chance to catch up with friends and family. Good! As with Christmas, it is something we can all enjoy, regardless of faith. However, from a Christian point of view, it's something a little deeper.  Everyone knows Jesus was crucified, and then rose again.
Here's a very rare R.E lesson from me, on Easter:

Jesus was a man. Oh he was the son of God, and supposed to be perfect, but he was also in a human body, and subject to the same cultural prejudice and conditioning as everyone else in his society. And his society was a right-wing patriarchy, where the Roman Empire was in charge, despite having little in common with normal people, and the church monopolised ethical behaviour, often hypocritically. Sound familiar?

So, Jesus was a man, but he was not like others, while also being the same as everyone else. He worked. He went to the church. He welcomed women amongst his followers, as friends. He was totally unafraid of the sick. 'Leprosy' at the time was considered similar to HIV in the 80s - you had to go and live outside civilisation if you had it. And the church decided if you had leprosy, so often you might just have particularly vicious eczema or acne. He accepted the poor, the sick, and the shunned as better and more deserving than those with money or power.
Jesus was killed, on trumped up charges because he was giving the church such a hard time and causing a lot of trouble. According to the Bible, this was a perfect sacrifice, because he had done nothing wrong. The importance of sacrifice in the most ancient religions has been lost, but you gave up something you really needed (usually food, clothing and wealth, in the form of animals) in exchange for forgiveness. Deuteronomy is full of the different sacrifices that had to be given either to thank God, or in exchange for forgiveness.
The world needed Jesus. The world killed Jesus. The world was forgiven.
Jesus rose again, proving the world was forgiven, that God was real, that God was his father.
So, on Easter Sunday, the Christians are happy because we were saved by one man's selflessness. I know, it's full of theological plotholes, but that's the message.

Now, the Christian message has been so warped and demented over time, that it's sometimes quite difficult to understand that Jesus was an example of total radical thinking and cultural overhaul. The Christian message has been co-opted by those in power to win them more power over the years, losing the inclusive, social justice imperatives that were quite simply revolutionary in the first few centuries CE. The powerful stories in Christianity have been adapted to suit different cultural beliefs (Easter probably didn't actually happen in Spring, but a lot of fertility rites did, so it superseded them, See also: Christmas and the birth of the new year) and the laws of the old testament have been used to develop law systems across the world.
In other words, the rigid, right-wing, superior exclusivity that is now viewed representative of Christianity is A TOTAL BASTARDISATION.

Nothing shows this more than the British right wing political parties (and similar across the world) using Christianity to justify their shattering policies of giving more to the privileged and taking from those in need.

Christianity is about love, acceptance, fairness, equality. It's about helping those most in need. It's about sharing. If Jesus were alive today, he would be screaming from the rooftops about how hideously unfair welfare reforms, taxation loopholes and criminalising poverty is. That's what he did in his own time, according to the Bible. That's why the powers that were killed him.
He wouldn't be sitting in judgement on people with HIV. He wouldn't be taking from the disabled, and workless. He wouldn't be exploiting workers. He wouldn't be encouraging the government to take from the poor to increase the rich.

If you consider yourself a Christian, and you support UKIP (and to a lesser extent, the Conservatives) you really need to reconsider your faith, or your politics.

Faith and politics should be kept as far apart as possible, because nothing shows up the rampant hypocrisy of government like pretending to have God on their side.