Something sinister is happening to the Social Benefit Services in the UK. As Government officials' rhetoric and public opinion guided by sensational tabloid newspaper headlines and 'benefit' porn on television has vilified and even criminalised those who find themselves at the bottom of the social system, the services have lost the reason for their existence. Instead of helping, the system seems now geared to stopping as many people accessing help, a lot of times in a cruel and uncaring manner.
The people working for these departments and I include those within local councils, though Job Centre Plus, for example, is officially a quango, are civil or public servants i.e. servants of the public. Their job is to serve you the public who employ them – they are not “tax payers' servants” or “working people's servants” and so do not get to choose who they want to serve. The attitude from so many of the staff is like they are doing you a favour! Don't ask me for examples, pick up the phone and attempt to communicate as a needy person, if you lucky enough to get through.
Do these employees start out compassionate and then morph into these uncaring people (I am being nice here) working through a system that is getting more frustrating for both employees and the public? Or is it that as the system has got hasher, only those with an uncaring deposition manage to get the work and stay on as staff?
The system is geared to making things so difficult – telephone numbers with so many options to choose from when you do eventually get through and 'online' only application forms. They even have lines of telephone booths in Job Centres so you can talk to other public servants not available in your local centre. Really? You have email addresses and fill in online contact forms where the responses inform you that it will take 4 to 6 weeks to respond to you urgent request! These are the tricks of large commercial companies that want to limit expenditure on and contact to customer care but are willing to take you money at the drop of a hat.
An administrative assistant working outside of London in the DWP's Universal Credit Operations earns £17,598 - £19,734 a year. On the other hand, apparently the typical Jobcentre Plus Personal Adviser salary is £27,431 though I am not convinced it's that high. Surely some of these public servants members have to face the Benefits system - Tax Credits, rent benefits etc themselves? Can they not see that the system is breaking? Do they not feel aggrieved when they are spoken to like suspected criminals? Do they not understand that when they are dealing with some members of the public, they are likely to be dealing with a frustrated someone who has just spent half a day on the phone waiting for their call to be answered and being unwilling to be fobbed off with 'your chose the wrong option' or 'you have to phone another department'?
I am not making this stuff up. I, personally, had a taste of this a few years ago when I found myself unemployed and have since watched several family members and friends fight an ever more difficult system. I know of at least one person who doesn't even bother!
What is the root cause of this lost or forgotten raison d'être?
Conservatism? Well it was Tony Blair's Labour government's Efficiency Savings Programme of 2004 that sought decrease the Jobcentre Plus' expenditure by a whopping £960 million. How did they do this? Decreased centres, reduced staff and being a quango maybe even lowered salaries. All over, Government departments have been cut to the bone by both Labour and Conservative administrations in the search for the elusive balanced budget!
Money then? Well obviously but not so obviously. First of all, change rules so that less people qualify for help then vilify those remaining there is a stigma attached to requiring help – back to the Victorian days!! If that doesn't work, then treat any potential claimant as a potential fraudster after all we lose so much money to criminals. Yeah right! Why are the loopholes still in place that allow fraud? The very same reason why tax evasion and other monetary loopholes still exist.
There will always be those who will use abuse system to their own benefit, we must catch them and, as a deterrent, punish them not the vast majority of honest people who are doing they best to get by. There is a reason why money lenders, even in these uncertain employment times, continue to lend money to individuals. It is because they understand that most people are honest and will attempt to meet their obligations even in difficult circumstances and bad debt is expected and written into the system.
As a society, I think most people agree that we have to look after the vulnerable and weak because the social consequences of abject poverty are inconceivable. We keep being told how expensive our social benefits bill is and that as a country we owe lots – to someone – we don't know who. We do need to understand that we have to pay for the system but we need the system to serve us, the public, not the government. After all, It is this that will allow us to step outside our houses in the morning without having to step over a starving child in our doorway.