Our welfare policies don’t work, says former RAF serviceman

‘I asked the benefits people how I could live on this. “You can’t,” they said’

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The Independent Online

A former RAF serviceman who has worked for 40 years and now finds himself claiming benefits for the first time has spoken out against the Government’s welfare policies for denying money to those who have contributed to society.

Alistair, who will not reveal his surname for fear of being labelled a troublemaker by potential employers, has written an open letter to the Work and Pensions minister, Mike Penning, after seeing him on Channel 4’s Benefits Britain: The Live Debate last week.

“He claimed the reforms will give people enough benefits to live on. My letter details exactly why this is not the case,” Alistair said. The 58-year-old claims he is “12 weeks away from becoming homeless”, as he struggles to make ends meet. Since 2008 he has lived in Blackpool, Scotland, Durham, Hertfordshire, Derbyshire and now Lancashire just to stay in work. He was a hygiene manager for a company in Clitheroe, Ribble Valley, where he lives, before having to go off sick at the end of last month due to an imminent shoulder operation.

“Norman Tebbit would be proud of me,” he says in his letter to Mr Penning, referring to the then Tory Employment Secretary’s speech urging the unemployed to “get on their bike”.

Alistair was on a short-term contract in his last job, so is not entitled to sick leave. After his shoulder operation, he will not be able to use his arm for three months, but must continue paying his rent and bills.

In total, he is receiving £598 in benefits a month. His rent comes to £500 a month and without savings to fall back on Alistair will be left with £98 for food and utilities. “That is simply not enough to live on.”

A DWP spokesperson replied: “We owe a deep debt of gratitude to the men and women who serve in our armed forces, many of whom risk their lives on a daily basis. But the benefits system the Government inherited was broken, trapping the very people it was designed to help ... Our welfare reforms will transform the lives of some of the poorest families in our communities making three million households better off and lifting hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty.”

‘I asked the benefits people how I could live on this. “You can’t,” they said’

Mr Penning,

After watching you on the C4 Benefits Street debate the other night, I felt moved to write to you as you obviously do not have a clue about what you are doing to people like me.

As a teenager growing up in Glasgow I got caught up in trouble. At 15 I left home and enlisted in the armed forces. I lasted four years before being discharged when I was sent to Borstal for grievous bodily harm.

The majority of people who get locked up tend to become repeat offenders and are in and out of custody on a regular basis. I never went back.

Since then I’ve worked more or less all my life, with a spell of unemployment here and there. I worked on oil and gas rigs, got blacklisted for union activities. I ran Restart courses for the long-term unemployed (ironic, eh?).

I’ve been a carer in the community working with vulnerable adults. I’ve sold double glazing, I’ve been employed packing T-shirts in a factory, taken any job rather than have to rely on benefits.

Since 2008, I have relocated to Blackpool, Scotland, Co Durham, Hertfordshire, Derbyshire and Lancashire just to stay in work. Norman Tebbit would be proud of me.

Alongside my work I have tried to help others. I was the first person to walk solo from John o’ Groats to Land’s End for Barnardo’s,

I organised a charity event called the Big Blackpool Toy Run for six years, donating many thousands of pounds and thousands of toys to children’s charities. I received a Hero in the Community award for my charity work, an award I am very proud of as it has helped alleviate some of the guilt I carry for the things I did as a young man.

So, in a nutshell that’s me. Far from perfect, very flawed but hopefully with a good heart.

On 29 January I put in a claim for ESA [employment and support allowance] and help with rent and council tax. I have been out of work for about three weeks, I cannot work as I am awaiting an operation on my shoulder. I live in a very small two-bed house in Clitheroe. My total monthly benefits income will be £598, although this will be reduced after 12 weeks. As my rent is £500 a month, I have £98 a month to feed myself, pay for gas, electric and water. I reckon that’s about £3 a day to live on.

I questioned the benefits people, I asked them how I was supposed to live on this. They said, “You can’t, but it’s the law.”

I wear thermal underwear and a dressing gown when I go to bed, I cannot afford to heat my home. It is just a matter of weeks before my utilities will be cut off for non-payment.

I’m not a resident of “Benefits Street”. I’m a hard-working, ex-serviceman. I’ve contributed many thousands in income tax and national insurance to help maintain the lifestyle of those who do live on “Benefits Street”.

Tell me, Mr Penning, how do I live on this? I’m not and never have been a scrounger, but are you prepared to let me starve and end up on the streets?

Would you like to join me for a week, Mr Penning, and show me how I will get through this until I am able to work again?

* This is an edited version of the full letter