Truss’s privately educated cabinet has no concept of the reality of benefits – but I do

I doubt any have worked a 40-hour week and still had to choose which bill they will pay because minimum wage won’t cover them all

Katherine Denkinson
Tuesday 04 October 2022 10:13 BST
'We are going to help people': Kwasi Kwarteng remains confident in mini-Budget

At the time of writing, the prime minister is still refusing to confirm her plan for benefits. Will they be raised in line with inflation, as her predecessor promised? Will they be slashed to pay for the unfunded tax cuts – now priced at £43bn – in the government’s chaotic mini-Budget.

Sixty-eight percent of Liz Truss’s cabinet attended private schools. To the best of my knowledge, none of them has the slightest idea what it is like to rely on the benefits system and I doubt any have worked a 40-hour week and still had to choose which bill they will pay because minimum wage won’t cover them all.

I have. From the nondescript decor, to the wilting staff gulping coffee from mugs whose glittery slogans were funny at the start of the year but now glint bitterly with every sip, job centres are custom-designed to sap the souls of all who enter. It has been years since I last had to “sign on”, but I remember the meetings like they were yesterday.

On one occasion, after waiting on the dilapidated foam-explosion of a sofa, I was called forwards by a woman who clearly had better places to be.

She glanced over my file, asking whether I’d done everything in my agreement. Signed at the beginning of a claim for Jobseeker’s Allowance, agreements are personalised plans in which you agree to do a specific number of things to look for work (applying for jobs, attending interviews and so on). Failure to do them can result in sanctions – mainly the government deciding you don’t deserve the pittance they’re paying and cutting your payment.

“I did seven things this week,” I told her. “You’re supposed to do nine…” The words hung from her raised eyebrow as she waited for – I assume – an apology. “There were no other jobs I could apply for. I looked every day and there was literally nothing else available that I’m qualified for,” I explained, as she gave me a look of disgust.

“It says you have to do nine. You signed an agreement. If you had a job and didn’t do all your work, your boss wouldn’t pay you. As a taxpayer, that makes me your boss, so why should we pay if you can’t do the work?”

Demoralised and on the verge of tears, stubbornness and pride forced me to meet her gaze. “If you hate poor people so much, then why do you work with them?” I asked in a small, cold voice I barely recognised.

Her expression was all the answer I needed as she dismissively muttered about sanctions and, after signing assent to my punishment, I was allowed to leave. Three days later I received my payment – £20 short.

In many ways, I’m lucky. It has been years since I was last unemployed and I’ve been able to work my way into a profession I adore. For others without these advantages, Kwasi Kwarteng’s statement that even those with part-time jobs could see their benefits cut if they don’t look for more work is a vicious kick in the teeth from a party that has burned our rights and thrown a party around the fire.

In a recent interview on LBC, Chloe Smith, the secretary for work and pensions, announced that, to help the poor earn their benefits, they would be employing “work coaches” to assist in finding suitable employment opportunities. A great idea were it not for the fact that the same government has pledged to cut 91,000 civil service jobs over the next three years. It has also announced the closure of 41 DWP offices this year and, despite reassuring people that this would not affect face-to-face services, I’m sure they will forgive us if we believe that when we see it.

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Modelled on the Conservatism of the 1980s, Truss’s dedication to running a full-scale Thatcher live-action role-playing (LARP) event is on course to steer us straight into the kind of hard-right libertarian nightmare the US is currently experiencing. Determined to convince us that poverty is a lifestyle choice of the lazy, the current government is now dedicated to the lie that it will do everything in its power to give us opportunities – we just need to stop being so stubbornly attached to our dignity and take them.

The justification for this has been drip-fed into Conservative voters for decades; wealthy men and women who started with nothing (except an inheritance) pushing the idea that anyone can do it, even as they refuse to pay a liveable wage and price the poor out of higher education. For decades, it has been impossible for working-class people to climb the income ladder – not because they’re not trying hard enough, but because those at the top have never valued their work enough to pay for it.

The country will survive without a few more bankers (and their uncapped bonuses), but try going a week without nursing assistants, cleaners, binmen or carers. The jobs we’re told we should aspire beyond still need to be done and they deserve to be well-paid. The RMT strikes have shown us what can be achieved when those “unskilled workers” come together. It is time Truss learned that the problem with libertarianism is this: eventually you run out of other people’s free labour.

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