Having chronic pain and being unemployed is complicated. The actual job search is demoralising, yes, but there’s more to it than that. It’s realising that, without work draining so much of my energy, I’m eating more healthily, exercising more (re-gaining important ground in terms of core strength) and losing weight (which sounds like vanity but every little counts on a tiny, broken musculoskeletal structure like mine). It’s having the energy to do a bit of housework. It’s also realising I’d better job search from my desk or I will lose vital muscle support that I’ll need to keep me upright in a new job and that I have to stop seeing my osteopath until I have a new salary though. Most of all, it’s being in less pain. Even though the negative stress of being out of work makes the pain I’m in more intense, my activities are better for me so the negative stress effect isn’t outweighing them. (Incidentally, I define positive stress as the day to day high of dealing with the normal pressures and deadlines of being a solicitor. I thrive on that so it doesn’t increase the pain. If anything, it distracts me from it, although continuously ignoring the rising tide of pain in this way is dangerous and categorically not a recommended way of dealing with chronic pain.) Even taking the time to bask in the sunshine is a part of my physical recuperation. The long winter was hell on me, wave after wave of spasms running through the muscles in my back, neck and shoulders in response to the cold. When I’m in the sun and the heat seeps into my bones, my muscles are as relaxed, and as pain-free as a result, as they ever get. Less pain. More energy. I’m still in pain but there’s less of it. I’m getting glimpse of a better quality of life, in many respects. It’s going to take mental strength to start a new job when I eventually find one because these things are an absolute bloody luxury but that’s what I want, as well as need. I want to work. I want to use the skills which are both innate and learned. I want (and the doctors have made it clear this really can’t be negotiable), a better quality of life but I can’t actually cope mentally or emotionally with so much mental inactivity. The lack of income scares me but the lack of actual work is what is ultimately driving me just as much. My body is thankful for the break but my brain really needs more now, please.
A while back, Labour started talking about bolstering the contributory element to the benefits system. It’s now expanded on this theme by suggesting that unemployed people should be offered loans of up to 70% of their previous salary (up to a maximum of £200 per week) if they have already made sufficient contributions, in a student loans kind of system. The aim is to ensure that people who lose their jobs don’t lose everything else because they’re unable to repay their mortgage and other debts. If they continue down this path, I suspect they’ll announce the loan would be secured against the claimant’s home after the mortgage. That way, the State wouldn’t lose out if the person became long term unemployed and had to sell their house.
As a middle class person with a mortgage who lost my job, I’m unconvinced as to the practical assistance this will give. These are just some initial thoughts. We ought to get more detail from Labour in due course and other people will be digesting the proposal too. I only got statutory redundancy pay but, added to pay in lieu, ended up with six months pay in total. Many people in similar circumstances would get more than statutory redundancy. Why should I dip into the public purse and increase my existing debts at this point? I’ve got enough to be going on with during the six months period the salary loan would be available.
Because it’s capped at £200 a week, the loan wouldn’t often cover more than just the borrower’s mortgage, if they have one. Many people with mortgages also have insurance against redundancy. Having used sickness insurance, I am absolutely certain that the insurers will fight tooth and nail to avoid paying out under policies people have paid into, often for years, if a government put alternative support on the table. It’s usually a safe bet to suggest regulations to implement new schemes like this will be littered with loopholes and they’d need to be unusually careful to avoid just benefitting insurers.
Since the banking crisis, mortgage lenders have been obliged to help customers who lose their jobs and get into arrears. It was Labour who insisted on this. Aren’t we helping the lenders more than their customers if we introduce a new scheme under which public money pays the mortgage? You could argue that the interest to repay the government would be lower than the interest accruing on the mortgage arrears but, still. Will Labour’s loan scheme work in addition to the requirement on lenders to give time? It all seems rather pointless unless it is.
I should mention the Support for Mortgage Interest scheme we already have. That provides state assistance for people who have a mortgage and aren’t able to get a new job by the time the right to claim kicks in. This happens after the end of the support Labour’s new scheme would give, at which point things really would be looking pretty bleak for most people with a mortgage in terms of their chances of keeping their home.
The emphasis in the article is on home owners (because Labour feel it’s politically expedient to offer support to home owners as part of the all party battle for the “squeezed middle”?) but I’d have thought that a scheme like this would be more useful to renters, who won’t get the same kind of leeway on arrears of rent that owners get on mortgage arrears and are less likely to have insured against redundancy.
Where will the money come from? Labour haven’t even been willing to commit to reversing the bedroom tax. They agreed with the Government that it shouldn’t reimburse people wrongly sanctioned under a flawed Workfare scheme. It’s all well and good to say people who make sufficient contributions will be entitled to use the salary loan scheme but the tax and national insurance we pay in now is already allocated elsewhere and is desperately needed for those purposes. They could introduce a scheme of voluntary overpayments but it would take time to build up a fund and people are losing their jobs now. With inflation rising and salaries falling in real terms, I’m not convinced people would overpay anyway. If anything’s coming out of salaries right now, it’s likely to be pension contributions.
It may be a middle class vote winner to offer assistance but I’m not convinced it will stand up to scrutiny or that the policy will survive the two year wait up to the next election. And, for me, the idea of taking public money from the people who need it most when I’ve got another five months worth of salary in the bank makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. It all feels a bit too much like Labour is making policy based on a review of #middleclassproblems on Twitter.
I’ve blogged on the worker/shirker, striver/skiver issue before but now I’ll flesh out why this makes me so damned angry. It’s not my own redundancy that makes me really angry. I know all too well what unemployment feels like because in 1994 I fell in love with someone who was unemployed when we met and remained so for the first 15 months of our relationship. Doing the math? He was 21 when we met. He’d left school at 16 and gone to work in auto manufacturing. He learned a skill and thought he was safe. Then he was laid off. He was a pretty smart guy and a genuinely lovely person but he quite literally didn’t make the grade. He wanted to work so badly but the work just wasn’t there for him. I always thought the single biggest factor in the length of time he was unemployed wasn’t his desire to work or his ability to work. It wasn’t the economy or the state of industry, although that caused him to lose his first job. It was the fact that nobody at his school ever made it clear enough that you need GSCE grades regardless of what you think you’ll do when you leave school. My God, he paid for the times he hadn’t taken school seriously. He couldn’t compete on paper on that one point.
George Osborne and the rest of them have no idea what strength it takes to get knocked back over and over and over again and still get back up and keep applying. If they did, they wouldn’t use such pernicious labels. It was hard enough as it was. I honestly don’t want to try to imagine what it would have done to him to see shrieking headlines we have today, calling him lazy and workshy, during that time. As it was, he was unemployed at a time when the Tories were on another restructuring of benefits, which ultimately led to the introduction of JSA.
He didn’t sit back and wait for the Job Centre to find something. He never stopped actively trying to get a job. Eventually, he got a break: a temporary job in the run up to Christmas. Even though it was only a very short contract he attacked it (nb businesses who participate in Workfare: he chose to accept a temporary job in the days before both JSA and the minimum wage). He wanted to work. He was motivated to do a good job, not by the prospect of sanctions (by the way, he only ever got the dole – nothing else), not because there was a promise of any work at the end of the contract but because he was happy and proud to be in work at all, even temporary work. His dedication paid off. He was offered a permanent job. That led to a new one elsewhere, which led to another.
He’s 40 now and he’s had a job ever since. He’s the person I think of when politicians label unemployed people. I knew him at least as well as anyone else on earth did when he was unemployed and he was a striver. The length of time he was out of work didn’t change that.
That was the 1990s. A couple of years ago, I met a man whose grandson studied law at the same university as me. He asked if I’d known him. I asked what year he graduated. His answer was pretty damned flattering: ten years after me, in 2008. His grandson had ended up working for the same company which gave my ex his break over ten years earlier. He didn’t expect to ever practice law. I sympathised with his situation. Afterwards, I thought about my ex. Would someone in his shoes in 2008 have got the break which has kept him in work ever since? Chances are the answer to that question is no. He’d still be the same person, eager to work once he’d put the classroom behind him but, where in the 1990s unemployment was a common problem for skilled workers without higher education, everyone’s at risk now, especially among young people.
There would also be another new threat to his job prospects today. His break was a temporary job. That was back when university grants actually meant something and before tuition fees. Now, I suspect he’d be going up against current students for the same job. A student’s chances of getting that job would’ve been better. When it came to part time jobs to stretch a grant and temporary jobs in the holidays, I never met a student who couldn’t find someone willing to hire them. Not many people I knew took part time jobs during term time at my university (which is reflective of the socioeconomic backgrounds of the people I knew) but most of us worked in the summers and more than a few picked up shifts at Christmas. I’d imagine there would’ve been more people working at the new university too. Where would my ex be today if tuition fees had been around back then?
Would my ex have suffered in the application process itself as a result of the labels placed on him as an unemployed person? The Government and the media have spent three solid years putting forward the argument that anyone without a job is “workshy”. What the hell makes them think anyone is going to want to employ the feckless cattle they portray, who can only be forced into motion by the application of a sharp stick? Surely stigmatising them makes it even less likely that they will be able to find work, regardless of whether they actually want to or not (and, of course, most people do want to)? If my ex had been stigmatised in the same way, would he have got his life changing chance?
Tories have been falling over themselves lately, saying that they don’t want people to be trapped on benefits. Even Esther McVey trotted out the same line in relation to disability benefits (note how strong willed I am, resisting a tangential rant on the need for DLA/PIP to enable people to work). We know there aren’t enough full time jobs to go round. Surely, the last thing a Government which doesn’t want to trap unemployed people on benefits should be doing is pre-completing their job applications with a stamp that declares in bold, capitalised letters in a font that somehow manages to scream, “SHIRKER”. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Lazy politicians who fall back on sloppy rhetoric (or just snipe from the sidelines without depth or real alternative policies) are the shirkers. Incompetent politicians who won’t admit their mistakes, let alone how those mistakes impact on others, are the shirkers. They’re the ones who should lose their jobs. They won’t be out of work for long but at least they might not be able to do quite as much damage from the highly paid grace and favour jobs they’re bound to end up in.