An Open Letter to Chris Grayling …

Firstly, I’m not nor have I ever been a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party* and, while I’ve heard of Mumsnet, I’d not realised in visiting its site I was colluding with hardened radicals.

I am, though, a job snob who wants to be paid for a day’s work. I have the gall to want to earn a living in a way I might enjoy. I’m also under-employed – along with millions more in the UK – due to a global financial crisis that is not of our making.

While you say young people should be grateful for unpaid work to show them the ropes, to give them experience, to get them a foot in the door, I say they should be paid for the work they do, encouraged to achieve and celebrated for what they can offer.

Our ambition is dismissed as snobbery while yours is celebrated on your website, telling us of your rise from school pupil to Employment Minister via the BBC.

At school I was told I’d never be a journalist, constantly reminded that people who grew up where I did had no chance of “bettering themselves”. I doubt you heard this as you worked your way to the BBC. I doubt you thought for a second that you might end up stacking shelves or see your dream job as just that.

“The industry is too competitive”, I heard at school. “You won’t know anyone who can get you a job through friends,” they would warn. “Those in public schools will be picked, leaving you at the back of the line for jobs,” they’d tell me, urging me to find a job, any job and stop day-dreaming.

I thought aspiration was a good thing, even for a working class child living on a council estate. I worked hard. I got O Levels, then A Levels, then further deferred the gratification of nights out with friends by attending university. I worked most nights and every weekend while at university certain I would never have to do so again, not once I was a journalist.

I did do a week of work experience while studying for my degree but not under the assumption that I didn’t understand what work was: I had the chance to see if I really wanted to work in journalism, not the chance to earn the lower rate of JSA while lining the pockets of big business.

After leaving Royal Grammar School and Cambridge, you went to the BBC. After leaving my inner city school and a northern former polytechnic, I got a job on a local newspaper earning £8,000 a year. I lived in a shared house, struggled to fund the car that was essential to the job, went without meals to do so: fed instead by ambition and a determination not to be at the back of the line for future jobs.

I then worked at press agencies, regional newspapers, national newspapers and magazines. I was good at what I did because I came from a working class background, not despite it.

Then – as the journalism industry was brought to its knees my those seeking bigger and bigger profits – I worked in university outreach, encouraging under-represented young people from working class communities to consider university, to know they were capable.

I tell them it is because life has not been easy for them that they’re sharp as tacks, interesting, articulate, funny and wise to old fools telling them they should work unpaid.

You seem to have concluded that young working class people are illiterate, undeserving of paid training and apprenticeships, and unaware that they’re being forced to work unpaid because of a crisis of capitalism. They’re not.

I worked much harder than you I suspect. I did so because I believed this would secure my future. Now you’re a wealthy politician selling the working class into slave labour and I’m working part-time, as a result of the decimated journalism industry and the savage Tory cuts in education.

I think I’ll be unemployed again soon enough, surviving on £67.50 a week, despite working hard for qualifications and competing with the likes of you for a job in the media. It is all too easy for it to be taken away from us – for us to pay the price for a crisis not of our making.

You should resign. You’re out of touch in defending the indefensible. Your contempt for us is tangible as you line up young people to work for free, demanding their gratitude as they make profits for multi-million pound corporations. You dismiss our desire for financial security and mock us for daring to dream of going day after day to a job we might enjoy.

You’ve stolen the aspiration of working class young people and condemned them to an existence of getting by, letting them take the blame for an economic crisis not of their making.

You should go and you should take your nasty Tory sidekicks with you. We’re not fooled by your plans and neither are our young people.

* Now that the SWP is said to be solely responsible for a campaign defending young unemployed people and highlighting the exploitation of the disabled and unemployed I’m more likely to join. I’ll also check Mumsnet daily.

Why Emma Harrison and Workfare must go …

I’m told by a regular reader that being unemployed and in debt in the US means you’re less likely to find work. It seems a bad credit rating could mean your boss decides you’re a bad risk: you need money to clear your debts but those debts stop you from getting work.

I share this not to point out how much worse they may or may not have it in America but to highlight another example of blaming the unemployed for situations beyond their control … and what we might face in the future following the brutal welfare reforms.

A site outlining the history of the US welfare system states, “Throughout the 1800s [...]  there were attempts to reform how the government dealt with the poor. Some changes tried to help the poor move to work rather than continuing to need assistance consisting of caseworkers visiting the poor and training them in morals and a work ethic was advocated by reformers in the 1880s and 1890s.

During the Great Depression, “when one-fourth of the labor force was unemployed” the government stepped in to solve the problem: under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Social Security Act was enacted in 1935. This system is celebrated but it relied upon the Civilian Corporation Corp of unskilled, unmarried men working for $30 a month and giving that money to their parents.

Then in 1996 President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act – giving annual lump sums to the states to use to assist the poor and asking those states to ensure the unemployed were encouraged to move from welfare to work.

Now Obama is being accused of bloating the welfare state by bringing in reforms – and is called a socialist more times than Che Guevara – despite plans to make those needing food stamps work for them.

Even in Australia – where the language is more honest – there is Work for the Dole which started in 1998 intended to help young people develop a work ethic but not looking at the causes of youth unemployment.

The suggestion that workers should not be helped when unemployed is nothing new nor is the talk of personal responsibility or the spreading of blame to the jobless: it is a convenient political trick for which we must not fall.

We’re told we have no need to help out strangers with welfare or taxation – but we do. A global economic crisis and a recession that has put 2.7m in this country on the dole is a national – indeed a global – responsibility, not a personal one.

It is the developing narrative of personal responsibility which gives companies – including Superdrug, Asda, Tesco, Argos, Matalan, Royal Mail, Burger King, Poundland, Top Shop, Boots, McDonalds, Primark, HMV, Evans, Dorothy Perkins, Miss Selfridge, Pizza Hut, WH Smith – the arrogance to employ people to do a full day’s work for no pay.

It is this rhetoric used by charities such as The Salvation Army, Scope and Oxfam to dismiss the fact that instead of finding those who want to volunteer they they are using slave labour.

Boycott Workfare, a UK-wide campaign to end forced unpaid work for people who receive welfare, states “Workfare profits the rich by providing free labour, whilst threatening the poor by taking away welfare rights if people refuse to work without a living wage.”

The system is forcing the unemployed, the vulnerable and the ill to work – providing Jobseekers’ Allowance plus expenses as payment.Rabid Tories would, no doubt, find this acceptable and say people need work experience, people need to have a routine, people need to develop a work ethic, people need to learn not to rely on the state – I say people need to be paid for the work they do.

Marie Curie Cancer Care is among those opting out of the scheme and state, “We participated in this scheme because we believed it could offer volunteers an opportunity to gain valuable experience. However, there is a difference between volunteering and being forced to work and if there is any chance that people with terminal illnesses could be made to take part in this scheme we would take this very seriously.”

Now Emma Harrison, Cameron’s sidekick behind the Work Programme, is under scrutiny herself. It seems the woman who says there are “hidden jobs” and that you just have to find them has a few questions to answer about her own income.

The Daily Mail reports that Emma Harrison “pocketed £8.6 million in one year, mostly from state contracts and [...] MPs said the company’s record in placing the jobless in work was abysmal – with a success rate of only 9 per cent.”

The Guardian points out, “Ministers have been urged to suspend welfare-to-work contracts with a company at the centre of allegations of fraud [...] five shareholders were paid £11m in dividends last year, of which Harrison received 87%.”

This comes as a Daily Mail columnist Sonia Poulton states, “I deplore the Workfare programme for many reasons but primarily because it is deplorable. Trumpeted as a programme that will give the unemployed key skills, it serves nothing of the sort.

“What it is, in actuality, is a benefit system for sections of our work force. And there was I, foolishly, thinking that when you are part of the capitalist work force then the appropriate term for remuneration received is salary. Apparently not. These days, and under Cameron’s stewardship, we receive ‘benefits’ to become part of the job market.

When Middle England is comparing Cameron to a Nazi even rabid Tories have nowhere to hide. The plans are cruel, selfish, brutal and money-spinners for those running them.

The plans do nothing to help those most in need in our country and fail to recognise that the unemployed are not to blame for a global economic crisis – we should oppose them. Click here to find out how to do just that.

Could UK have Cameronvilles?

I’ve experienced homelessness. Now, as I find my benefits still suspended – meaning I have no Jobseekers’ Allowance, Housing Benefit or Council Tax Benefit – the panic is creeping in that I will experience homelessness again.

I’ve not been told why this suspension has happened beyond “loss of paperwork” but that was said in a phone call, leaving no paper trail, so I suspect either untrue or not the basis of a complaint for me.

I told the unemployment office that I had part-time work, I asked if I was within my rights to take it, I was told to keep signing on until I received my first wage – then my benefits were stopped and I was left with, literally, zero income. I checked my bank account this morning and I am penniless with my rent due in a week.

I’ve effectively been penalised for trying to find work. I would’ve been better off staying on benefits: I would still have my dole payment and still be filling in my Looking for Work booklet and going through a routine which meant I had money for food, bills and accommodation.

I never imagined while working for years as a journalist, while studying hard for all my qualifications, while trying to build some sort of financial stability for myself that I would, one day, be sitting at home panicking that I might not have one for much longer.

As a child I lived through a housing crisis and ended up in a squat in a derelict terraced house. This house was in the middle of a street of squats and became the subject of a BAFTA-winning documentary in which I can been seen dancing happily amid the chaos.

My moment as an early reality TV star didn’t leave a mark – I don’t think I even saw the documentary untiI I was much older – but the experience of homelessness certainly did. My fear of it can quickly lead to panic and depression: if you have no home, you have nothing as far as I’m concerned.

We were of course abused for being homeless: insulted by passers-by, bullied at school as the squatting movement came under attack from the national press – those without homes and income seen as having brought it upon themselves, as not taking personal responsibility for their financial hardship.

Now, some 35 years, later this social problem of too little housing, mass unemployment and increasing poverty is again a growing problem which is creating homelessness.

I watch the BBC news, my fists clenched in fear and anger, as I see Americans make tent cities having lost their jobs and their homes – but still desperately trying to cling to some sort of normality. Just like the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression these settlements are being found on empty land across the country.

Panorama writes, “Conditions are unhygienic. There are no toilets and electricity is only available in the one communal tent where the campers huddle around a wood stove for warmth in the heart of winter.

“Ice weighs down the roofs of tents, and rain regularly drips onto the sleeping campers’ faces.

“Tent cities have sprung up in and around at least 55 American cities – they represent the bleak reality of America’s poverty crisis.”

America is the richest country in the world but people are living in tents and “47 million Americans now live below the poverty line – the most in half a century”.

These people have lost their jobs and had their benefits cut by a brutal system that demands financial independence of individuals while failing to provide a way for them to achieve it – there are no jobs.

Conservative minister Maria Miller says that in the UK there is “no shortage of jobs” and rabid Tories cling to this lie to excuse a lack of compassion and to spread the blame to those of us slung on a scrapheap while the rich get richer.

The reality though is that in Lewisham 34 people chase every vacancy – with over 10,500 unemployed for 300 jobs available. In Hartlepool it’s 21 people chasing every vacancy. In Hackney it’s 22. While in South Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and the City of London it’s fewer than two people for every job vacancy.

Much like the US we find that no jobs followed by benefit suspensions – even for those who have made the effort to find work but failed – means abject poverty. People are cutting back on food and fuel bills to pay their mortgage or rent. And the government not only wants to cut the amount of Housing Benefit people receive but also want to raise the age at which single people become eligible to claim for a one-bedroom property to 35. It doesn’t take a genius to see where this could inevitably lead.

All this while there are no jobs to help people out of poverty: history repeats itself the first time as tragedy, the second as farce and I now hope I won’t get to experience being homeless again.

Getting off benefits: the worst part of unemployment …

This morning I received another letter, in an envelope obviously from a government department. I put it on the coffee table and looked at it for a while, not wanting to know what was inside. Eventually, with a calming brew in hand, I opened it.

My Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit has been suspended.

As you know, my Jobseekers’ Allowance has already been suspended.

So, trying to stay calm, I immediately checked my bank account online to see how much money I have to survive on until my employers pay me my part-time wage or Jobcentre Plus reconsider my situation: I was hoping it would be enough to last till a get a giro next week when this mess is sorted.

Then I find £30 has been taken in unpaid direct debit fees from my benefits (for reasons beyond my understanding because everything has been paid on time).

I would’ve been better off staying on benefits.

If I were still on benefits I wouldn’t need to find bus fares to my part-time work. I could go hungry at home rather than while trying to give lectures. I could sit in front of the halogen heater and not have to venture out into the snow only to return to a permanently unheated flat.

Jobcentre Plus agreed to my working – I asked for permission before I signed any contracts – but still I’m penalised.

This is the reality of how workers are treated when they make concerted efforts to get off unemployment and to earn an income, albeit a part-time, temporary one. For trying not to rely on unemployment benefits, for trying to find work that could, perhaps, lead to getting off the dole completely, I now have literally no income.

I’m at a loss at what to do. I can’t begin to imagine what rabid Tories would suggest. I assume this would still be my fault: perhaps my entrepreneurial skills have failed me yet again; perhaps I chose the wrong two careers in journalism and academia; perhaps my qualifications aren’t the right type; perhaps I over-achieved; perhaps I under-achieved; perhaps living within my means doesn’t show enough gumption and I should invest my £67.50 per week into some money-spinning venture from which I’ll emerge richer than Mark Zuckerberg.

All I want is a job. I just want enough money to live on. I’m happy to forgo holidays, meals in fancy restaurants, new clothes, a car, a mobile phone and all the things I once took for granted. I can’t, though, not have money for rent, council tax, food, travel expenses to work.

I no longer know what I’m expected to do. I would’ve been better off staying on benefits.

Amount of money I have £21.62

Cost of travel to work: £11.50 per week

Days until I am paid: 40

It’s A Fine Life …

I now have an emotional response to hot water. I’ve spent so much time avoiding using hot water straight from the taps that sinking into a hot bath almost reduces me to tears: my shoulders relax, my body disappears under the water and I feel myself well up. I just had the feeling again as I switched on the central heating: a mixture of excitement and a brief desire to cry.

Chaplin is now on the window sill above the radiator and his softened face and relaxed ears would suggest he is having a similar emotional response.

A very good friend of mine has given me some money for Christmas: it is enough to pay my gas debt and enjoy some festive drinks with other friends. It is unexpected, unrequested help that will make all the difference.

The generosity of friends is something you can’t buy. It isn’t something you experience more or less depending on your earnings. It isn’t even something you can expect because you’re in work or not expect because you’re unemployed.

That said, I think Cameron’s satisfaction survey is a crock. Initial findings of this “well-being survey” might show that Brits are smiling through the misery of a global economic crisis but it doesn’t mean we’re unaffected.

According to the BBC, “The survey of 4,200 people asked respondents to rank from nought to 10 how satisfied they were […] 76% rated themselves as seven out of 10.”

In case you’re confused 10 meant completely satisfied and zero meant not at all.

The survey costing £2m was conducted over the spring and summer and will lead to more detailed research to be used in Whitehall as part of Cameron’s efforts to develop a “happiness index” that will run alongside more traditional measures of the economic mood. This is despite Cameron’s saying of his own research idea, “You cannot capture happiness on a spreadsheet any more than you can bottle it – and if anyone was trying to reduce the whole spectrum of human happiness into one snapshot statistic I would be the first to roll my eyes.”

Reports of the survey have led to photos in the media of old women laughing alongside young women, women laughing and hugging and pretty women grinning like buffoons: the results suggests women and pensioners are happiest.

The peer, who founded of the Action for Happiness movement to promote well-being, Lord Layard, said policymakers could use the data to tackle the pain of recession: “We know from other European countries that this is sensitive to business cycles and in recessions life satisfaction drops.”

According to the Guardian the science of wellbeing is, while now fashionable, certainly nothing new.

What also isn’t new is the idea that poor people are happy to like or lump it. Forget the relentless misery of Eastenders – the poor working class are always cheerful, with wide, gap-toothed smiles despite the cold, the empty bellies and bare feet: give us a piano and we burst into song. And those children in the Poor Kids documentary need only a bed to jump up and down on to forget that their bedrooms are wet with mould.

This ridiculous stereotype of the poor is why, perhaps, John Jost, a graduate from the Stanford School of Business, considered how such images can reinforce the status quo. His research is far more interesting than Cameron’s costly con.

It suggests that “benevolent stereotypes like […] “poor people are the salt of the earth” ascribe complementary value to all groups in a system, including members of disadvantaged groups”. Jost says:

“They are appealing in part because they satisfy the desire to perceive existing forms of social and economic arrangements as fair, legitimate, and justified.”

If we’re reassured that pensioners are happy (despite increasing energy bills leaving then sitting in the cold and dark), that children are happy (despite going to school hungry) and that women are happy (despite fretting about finding childcare in order to go to work) then we no longer feel anxious about vulnerable members of society.

It is, ultimately, extraordinarily selfish – and is Cameron’s true plan: to stop us from recognising and caring that there are some seriously vulnerable members of society who need to be helped by the state.

Jost studied the “system-justifying” effects of stereotypes pertaining to economic inequality, including “poor but happy,” “rich but miserable,” “poor but honest,” and “rich but dishonest” stereotypes. Participants in his experiments were asked for their perceptions of the status quo and those who had been exposed to complementary stereotypes were more likely to see the existing social and political system as legitimate and just. Jost said,

“These findings demonstrate the existence of a justification process that is new to the social justice literature.”

While I agree that owning things does not bring happiness, that joy can’t be measured by a bank balance and consumerism is not contentment – we still need warm, well-lit, comfortable homes and jobs so we can buy food and clothes.

A convenient stereotype won’t keep pensioners warm –  25,000 die from cold each year and energy prices of up to 18% untackled will only add to this number. It won’t feed children whose parents are on benefits. And it won’t find work for the 2.6 million unemployed or for the nation’s young people who have been thrown aside like dirty dishrags.

I can also honestly say that knowing my corner shop now stocks Marques de Caceres for £8.99 and I can have a bottle this weekend has cheered me up no end.

Little bit of history repeating …

The gap between the rich and poor is hurtling towards Victorian levels, the High Pay Commission tells us. The BBC reports “its study lists a 12-point plan to stop ‘high pay creating inequalities last seen in the Victorian era’”.

This comes as no surprise to most. It’s also not the only comparison: old Tories dominated politics, for the most part, between 1885 and 1906; Cameron’s intention to use philanthropic intervention rather than state aid makes even more chilling reading when seen as part of his long-term thinking regarding the workers of this country; unemployed workers are still told to get a job, any job, dismissed as lazy as we were by many Victorians; and food parcels are being given to the jobless who are not given the financial help they need and deserve.

But we know of Victorian poverty, don’t we? We’ve been taught it in school: it is way back when, another world, unrecognisable to the iPod carrying, Starbucks drinking, McDonald’s eating generation.

Not really. Forget the Winter of Discontent we’re re-tracing the steps of our Victorian ancestors.

As the tents go up we can recall, perhaps, the Trafalgar Square demonstration of November 1887 during which politically-motivated violence led to moral panic: police and soldiers were called in to stop the demonstration but a crowd estimated at 10,000 gathered  – with East London meeting West London in an event seen as a focus of the class struggle.

Or perhaps we can recall the London Dock Strike of 1889 which saw the unions grow among workers and brought attention to the problem of poverty and, with it, public sympathy.

Or the Matchworkers’ Strike of 1888 when workers reacted angrily to the sacking of a colleague, the poor working conditions, fourteen-hour work days, poor pay, excessive fines, and the health complications of working with white phosphorous.

In just eight days this country will see workers from at least 26 unions – around three million workers – walk out. Demonstrations will take place across the country as workers fight against government demands for them to pay more into their pensions, work for longer and retire with less.

Meanwhile, the average chief executive in the UK earns £3,740,000 compared to the average worker earning £25, 900 – 145 times more. The High Pay Commission says this is not sustainable.

Asa Briggs analysed Victorians writing about cities back in 1963 and, of those depicting Manchester, said: “As early as the 1780s writers were describing a “growing gulf” between rich and poor.”

Benjamin Disreali wrote in Sybil (The Two Nations) published in 1845: “Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by different breeding, are fed by different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws … THE RICH AND THE POOR.”

And Friedrich Engels wondered in 1844 what would become of Manchester’s “populous millions who owned nothing and consumed today what they made yesterday […] those who are daily becoming more and more aware of their power and pressing more and more strongly for their share of the social advantages.”

It is impossible not to make the distinct comparison between Victorian workers and workers now as we face the same economic inequalities, the same political upheaval and watch as the poor face homelessness, joblessness and poverty while the rich who caused this global crisis sit pretty … earning 145 times more despite their failure.

And when novelist and journalist Margaret Harkness’ wrote in A Manchester Shirtmaker, in 1890, “… it’s better to work for him than to walk about looking for work and finding nothing,” I consider my own traipse around employment agencies.

Now I intend to join demonstrations on November 30 with workers taking a stand against this appalling inequality … just as my ancestors did.

Currie makes me choke …

Edwina Currie was at it again last night – telling BBC Radio 5 Live listeners and Owen Jones that people are not living in poverty but fibbing about their circumstances. We know this is nothing new and that a few weeks ago she said no one in this country is going hungry. In fact, the show also revealed that in the 80s she said northerners die of “ignorance and chips”. The woman is repulsive.

Currie’s life of luxury

The show then went on to a teacher who is considering moving to China because she can’t find work here: her tale of attempts to find work stacking shelves were met with some disbelief. I can assure you that the jobs once seen as easy to get are no longer anything of the sort. I’ve applied for yet more jobs this week … for which I’m an odd mixture of vastly over-qualified and irritatingly under-qualified.

I’m told by Jobcentre Plus to “play down” my qualifications – I wonder if they know that by telling fibs on a job application I could later end up sacked if I got the job and then refused benefits if I had been sacked. I wonder.

I don’t lie. I tell all and I’m sure many employers recognise I’m applying for jobs to please the Jobcentre and because anything will do for a while. Employers want someone who wants to work for them, someone who might stick around, and someone who might actually enjoy what they’re being asked to do: it is clear I’m not always that person.

I want to be a journalist, I’m happy to be a lecturer. My degrees and post-graduates qualifications are suited to both these jobs. I chose to concentrate on these qualifications in order to be suitable for these jobs.

Passing my NCE was a momentous occasion, proof that I was a bone fide journalist, equipped and qualified to investigate the heck out of the small town I worked in. We had put the paper to bed on the afternoon I received the news that I’d passed.

Child poverty exists in the UK in 2011

Once the weekly paper was done there were no calls to make, no news to write, an afternoon to go and “visit the patch” … so we all went home. I always used it as an opportunity for a civilised afternoon nap when I could be guaranteed to be left alone. This time phone rang. I picked it up without thinking. I even answered – habitually – with the name of the newspaper I worked for.

“Are you working from home these days,” my editor said, in his firmest voice. It was the tone that could lead to the opening of the All These People Could Do Your Job drawer containing what looked like CVs.

I sat up, struggling for some unknown reason to find a notebook and pen. I was silent. Then muttered, “I … er …I just popped home to –”

“Oh? You sound like you’ve been asleep.”

“No. Ha! No. I left something at home that I need so I just popped back to get it.”

“I really don’t mind if you have been asleep,” he said, cheerfully. I wondered if I still was asleep. “I’ve got your NCE results and you’ve passed so, as far as I’m concerned, you can go back to sleep. Congratulations and well done.” With that he put down the phone.

I feared I’d pay for this at some point but I never did. Even the most obnoxious of editors knew how important it was for me as a journalist and for his newspaper that I had the qualifications relevant to my role: qualifications which meant I could be trusted to report, was a professional, trained reporter with an important job to do.

Some degrees now seem a waste of time

Now I’m thinking laterally and applying for jobs for which I have transferable skills but, in reality, I don’t have the qualifications now seen as essential to these posts. I don’t have an NVQ in Advice and Counselling. I don’t have an NVQ in Learning and Development. In fact, I don’t have a single NVQ but up they keep popping in the “essential criteria” and I find myself describing my relevant experience instead.

One can’t help but think that all these qualifications are something of a money-spinner. I mean, does one need a high level NVQ when one has already paid for degrees? Does one need a lower level NVQ when one left school with GCSEs? When did experience become less important than a certificate?

The NVQ began, as I understand it, back in 1987 under the Task Group on Assessment aimed at creating nationally standardised tests: brought in by the Tories and kept, and developed, by the Labour government. These National Vocational Qualifications are “’competence-based’ qualification [helping you develop] the skills and knowledge to do a job effectively.” Why, if I have the skills and knowledge already, is the NVQ an essential qualification?

One can get an NVQ in Cleaning and Support Services. This course will help you to “demonstrate your ability in a wide range of cleaning areas” and is aimed at anyone “working in the cleaning sector, whether as a street cleaner, window cleaner or industrial cleaner”. The jobs this qualification can lead to are “cleaner, housecleaner, industrial cleaner, street cleaner and window cleaner.”

If you’re already working as a cleaner – and one imagines not paid a great deal – why should you need to have a qualification to prove your skills and go on to become a cleaner? Especially if you have to pay for the qualification.

Worse still, if you need to earn money quickly and have a bucket, a ladder and the willingness to wash your neighbours’ windows why should a lack of qualification stop you? If you have a business plan to start an office cleaning business should not having this NVQ hold you back?

This is not to mock cleaning jobs or to suggest window cleaners are not skilled workers – this is about seeing capable workers unable to get jobs because they haven’t got a very specific qualification.

Thankfully the Newspaper NVQ was scrapped a few years ago so my NCTJ (paid for by a former employer) is still worth something to someone somewhere.

There are many schemes the unemployed now have to go on in order to keep their benefits (including my Billionaire Training) but little funding for qualifications. It seems obvious to me that if people are going to be forced to have specific qualifications then they should be able to study for those qualifications while unemployed … but instead we jump through hoops and are expected to work for less than minimum wage.

There are few enough jobs without employers demanding qualifications instead of experience.

New worry: I’ve been repeatedly assured that when I’ve completed my Enterprise Club it’s not compulsory for me to join the New Enterprise Allowance but today I read “unless you have a good reason, if you fail to take part in the Employment, Skills and Enterprise Scheme your Jobseekers’ Allowance may be stopped or cut. This may also happen if you don’t join one of the government initiatives that are part of the scheme”.

Mad moment: At 6pm last night I momentarily panicked: either that I hadn’t read the nationals in preparation for an editorial meeting or hadn’t written a lesson plan for would-be journos. Then I remembered I’m on the dole.

Why I write …

Many people feel the need to hide their poverty. I’ve been contacted by those who feel shame at their situation: pretending to friends that they have eaten, explaining that the house is in darkness by choice to neighbours.

I write to defy this shame and embarrassment: I’m not living in poverty through any fault of my own. Like you, I’m willing to work, I want to work but a global recession has taken away my job and made a mockery of my qualifications.

I returned home from Billionaire Training the other day and was asked by a curious neighbour where I’d been. It was unusual for him to see me up, dressed and spending an entire day away from home. I told him about my day, about the gas meter charges and my lack of food – knowing he’s in a similar position. This led him not to judge but to advise me that his gas company doesn’t have a £2.50 a week surcharge – useful information. He also offered me a bag of pasta which, while not needed, was a kindness that should cheer not cause shame.

I read today that people are taking their own lives because they feel ashamed at living without heating, food, new clothes, because they sit in unlit homes, the telly off to save energy, they slide into cold beds at night. We should feel angry about this. Suicide rates are rising as more are made redundant – and we shouldn’t accept this as an inevitable result of austerity measures.

I’m not ashamed that some days I have to boil the kettle to have a wash. I didn’t plan this: I worked hard, paid for and gained qualifications, changed careers as needed, I watch my pennies, I sit in the dark and cold, my bed is full of hot water bottles. My one luxury is Chaplin whose food costs money I struggle to find but, to be blunt, it would cost me more than I could afford if I chose to put him down.

Shame is a form of social control – it isolates the unemployed and makes them tolerate the generalisations offered by Jobcentre Plus staff as the norm. Shame makes us condemn “benefit scroungers” as nation rather than focus on the fat cats and a government so out of touch it demands we find work – introducing brutal welfare reform but not creating jobs.

Our media has fuelled this image for too long. Benefit cheats cost us billions a year we’re repeatedly told when unclaimed benefits amount to £13.25 billion. The benefits system is complicated – trapeze-walking, marathon-running, mountain-climbing benefit cheats are a rarity – but news of them serves a purpose in adding to our shame.

I can also entirely understand how someone struggling as I do week-by-week – especially someone with children, especially in the run up to Christmas – would work cash-in-hand, risking the fury of the law and the media while MPs claim expenses for second homes and bankers take big bonuses. It’s not benefit cheating, it’s survival. The benefits are not enough to live on and now the Tories want the unemployed working full time for them – that is earning a third of the minimum wage. Skilled workers will be forced to use those skills for poverty pay because we’re told if they don’t they’re scroungers.

I’m now humiliated and patronised in equal measure on a fortnightly basis. My work experience, qualifications, life experience, knowledge of the world – none of it matters now I’m unemployed. I’ve found that my stress levels rise as I’m due to sign on and, after the awful event, I sleep like a baby.

“You’ve been shortlisted for interviews and that’s a good sign,” I’m told by an irritatingly enthusiastic adviser who seems not to realise he could be next.

“I know how to complete person specification job application, in fact, I’ve taught undergraduates how to do it.”

“But, nevertheless, it is good that you’re being interviewed,” he carries on regardless.

“At my last interview they had over 900 applications and whittled it down to eight interviews.”

“Exactly my point! That is something to be proud of.”

“It hasn’t got me a job though, has it? It’s hard out there.”

“It is,” he beams. “But you’re getting interviews.”

I struggle to see pride in competing with eight people for one job more than 900 wanted for which I was over-qualified. I struggle to feel pride but I refuse to feel shame.

The attitude towards the unemployed is that we’ve lost our intelligence as soon as we lose our jobs. We could be led to believe that our knowledge, skills, understanding of the world, leave us as soon as we’re handed redundancy papers: of course this is not the case, we’re still us but without a job. Journalists have the double shame of unemployment and being accused of hacking phones more often than postmen deliver letters – regular readers will know I was asked about my history of hacking while attending Jobcentre Plus.

As unemployed workers we need to accept that is what we are – unemployed workers. Just as we do when we look back at previous recessions we should acknowledge the awful way the unemployed were and are treated: the images of the Great Depression may be in black and white but the workers were in the same position we’re in now. Unemployment is part of a recession and we’re in a global recession.

The shame in a parent not being able to afford childcare does not belong to the parent. The shame of someone whose home is repossessed doesn’t belong to the homeowner. The shame of an unemployedhack having to boil the kettle to have a wash does not belong to the unemployedhack.

The shame isn’t ours, it belongs to those who messed up the economy and, in the words of Shelley, ye are many they are few.

Rainy days and Tuesdays …

The relentless drizzle is getting me down. Today feels like Sundays used to, before you could waste them away in DIY centres, when the only noise you could hear in the street was an afternoon film or a family quarrel.

The sound of the rain gurgling in the drain outside my window, a dog barking in the nearby park and the occasional yell of a neighbour is creating a miserable soundtrack for a miserable day. I do hope my life isn’t becoming a Smiths song.

I  wonder how other people are spending their time. This is a dangerous pursuit, considering how others are spending the weekdays as you lie on the settee, not realising how dark the room has become. I also wonder how the very rich are spending their day.

High rise and grey skies

They don’t have to do anything but, I assume, manage to play tennis, go horse-riding, enjoy a lunch with pals or whatever it is they do to fill their time: I suppose if you’re not demoralised and used to having nothing to do it doesn’t come as a shock.

I think this having read that the UK has seen a big rise in poverty with a further 600,000 children being pushed into destitution and deprivation by falling incomes – hitting both middle class and working class families. Poverty for all is financially defined as people living on less than a certain amount:

  • Single adult, no children: £165 per week
  • Couple, no children: £248 per week
  • Lone parent, 1 child: £215 per week
  • Lone parent, 2 children: £264 per week
  • Lone parent, 3 children: £314 per week
  • Couple, 1 child: £297 per week
  • Couple, 2 children: £347 per week
  • Couple, 3 children: £396 per week

This amount is to pay for all bills, clothing, food, travel and other expenses we each have just for existing.

I can hear the school playground from where I’m sitting and know that today, in this relentless drizzle, children are going to school hungry, in tatty uniforms, not being able to keep up with their well-fed, well-dressed classmates. I’ve worked in schools with children unable to concentrate because they’re so hungry, frustrated by the journalism activity because it will make no difference to their day, their eyes revealing they’ve witnessed misery beyond their years.

The Department for Work and Pensions say they will tackle the problem – expected to reach a massive 3.1 million children living in poverty in just two years – by “making work pay”.

This means 1. assuming most of those in poverty are on benefits, 2. pretending there are well-paid jobs available (the Institute of Fiscal Studies state that poverty will increase due to “a large decline in incomes”) and, 3. ignoring the realities of poverty while continuing to cut essential services that make day-to-day existence for those struggling that little bit easier. The IFS adds, “the net direct effect of the coalition government’s tax and benefit changes is to increase both absolute and relative poverty.”

Poverty is about much more than the amount of cash coming into a household: it is about how you see yourself, how others see you, about feeling punished, being angry, a lack of control over one’s life, and not seeing an end to a situation that is as miserable as it is absurd.

I  found some quotes from others to explain the reality of poverty:

“Poverty is like punishment for a crime you didn’t commit.” Eli Khamarov

“The greatest of evils and the worst of crimes is poverty.” George Bernard Shaw

“Poverty is the worst form of violence.” Gandhi

“Poverty makes you wise but it’s a curse.” Bertolt Brecht

“Wars of nations are fought to change maps. But wars of poverty are fought to map change.” Muhammed Ali

Good news: A friend has bought me an early Christmas gift of a halogen heater, meaning I no longer fear the mini Ice Age (but still have to pay a surcharge for not using the gas meter)

Further good news: Today is giro day so I have a fridge full of food and a Chaplin full of cat treats