During the summer holidays, if you’re in search of artistic expressions of imagination and creativity, instead of the Tate Modern, try the Department for Work and Pensions.
It exhibited a delightfully magical work this week, a leaflet in which people on benefits told their stories. One was Sarah, whose tale was “I was told my benefits would go down because I missed a meeting with my work coach”. Not only that, but “I didn’t think a CV would help me”.
Luckily “my work coach told me all employers need one. I decided to complete my CV and told my work coach. My benefit is back to normal and I’m really pleased with how my CV looks”. Amazingly, it turned out that Sarah didn’t exist, and the department made it up. So the heartwarming account of DWP tough love was a glorious flourish of surreal prose.
Hopefully, it will follow it up with a sequel that starts: “I had cancer of the spine, when the nice man from Atos, or another private company, told me my disability benefit would be cancelled as I could still count to six. I was made to accept a job as a lumberjack and now, instead of whingeing, I’ve broken the Commonwealth record for the 400m hurdles. Thank you, DWP.”
This sort of account is so much more positive than the miserable negativity you get from real life. For example, Debbie Abrahams, the MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, told the story of one constituent who visited her for advice. He was living with heart disease and had a heart attack during his assessment for disability benefit. He didn’t complete the test so his benefits were stopped.
But instead of depressing claimants with that sort of misery, it would be more exciting to allow a little poetic licence, and say the man told his heart if it wasn’t prepared to pull its weight, he’d have to go on without it. The man went on to be an astronaut – as blood doesn’t need to go around your body in space – and the heart had a meeting with a work coach, then bucked its ideas up and got a job in PC World, using its three working valves to stare into the middle distance in a daze whenever someone asks for a plug.
There’s also a deep underlying message to the Sarah story, which is the reason that people are out of work is because they don’t think a CV will help them. Old-fashioned economists blame unemployment on a range of factors, such as levels of investment and growth rates. But the real reason is that at certain points in history, such as the 1930s or in 2008, people forget how to apply for jobs and don’t think a CV would help them.
That’s why the DWP should issue a leaflet telling the story of Alf, who says: “I used to go to interviews stark naked, and when they asked for my name I would bark like a dog. Then my work coach advised me to at least wear a pair of socks, and now I fly helicopters for Air-sea rescue.” After Sarah, the DWP introduced us to Zac, who had to rearrange a meeting with his work coach because of a hospital appointment. Zac let him know in advance, so his benefits weren’t affected, and if they’d had more space they’d have added that it was a beautiful spring afternoon with daffodils blooming and he’d have looked at them if it didn’t mean his benefits would be cancelled because he’d been watching flowers instead of looking for work.
Now it turns out that Zac was made up as well, and the photo they used of Zac wasn’t of Zac, but a “stock photo”. You can understand why they did this, because if they told the real stories they’d find people like the war veteran whose benefits were stopped because he’d spent an afternoon selling poppies. And who wants to be deflated by boring stuff like that?
In any case, if he’d kept the money he made from selling poppies instead of raising it for injured soldiers, he wouldn’t need to claim benefits, would he? But it’s just “me, me, me” with some people, isn’t it?
So, instead, they should make up more stories, such as: “Hi, I’m Alice. I was claiming disability benefit because of emphysema, so I was sent to be assessed. Then the official from Atos, or another private company, told me he’d never seen anyone look so beautiful in an oxygen mask, and now we’re happily married. Although he still cancelled my benefits for not being available for work on the day of the wedding.”
Since it was discovered their stories are made up, the DWP has agreed to withdraw the leaflets, and it says the stories may not have been true, but they were “illustrative”. Maybe this will be a standard defence from now on. In court, if a defendant’s alibi is disproved, he can say: “Ah, but when I said I was playing Mary Poppins at the Exeter Little Theatre, I was being illustrative, your honour. I was simply illustrating what I would have been doing if I was an entirely different person with ethics and values completely opposite to those I actually have, and didn’t instil a numbing fear in everyone I met.”
And the judge would say that he understood and ask for the next witness.
Another positive development is that the DWP is clearly so adept at projecting a false cheery image, it could branch out and produce a brand of toothpaste. Then it could produce leaflets with photographs of a young couple skipping through a meadow, saying: “I’m Richard and I'm Kate. And we could never get work because our breath stank, and bits of decaying tooth would drop out during interviews and land on the human resource manager’s lap.
“But since switching to DWP toothpaste our teeth shine so divine, and we’re on the board of GlaxoSmithKline. Thank you, Iain Duncan Smith, thank you.”