I’ve recently left work at the Citizens Advice Bureau to take maternity leave. My work is primarily in benefits advice and I am a huge benefits geek. It’s a combination of the intellectual exercise of manipulating regulations along with the pleasing sense of mastery over a system that appears all powerful and capricious when you are on the other end of it. I love it.
One interesting thing about the benefit system is that every government since its inception has tinkered with it to some degree and marked it with its own ideology, so that the regulations resemble rock strata, each layer reflecting the social narrative of its time; the prevalent views about unemployment, the social contract and the minimum standards of dignity which citizens should be afforded.
The majority of benefits claimants I come across at work are dealing with the most modern form of the system, the means tested benefits. Jobseekers Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance (the recent replacement for Incapacity Benefit) Housing Benefit and so on.
The internal logic of these benefits is brutal. Apart from being set at (no exaggeration) starvation level, they tend to be subject to draconian and vicious entitlement conditions. So if you are claiming on the basis of illness, you had better be so ill you can hardly function. If you are claiming on the basis of unemployment, you will be made to show exactly what you have been doing to look for work.
The level of interrogation set against the amount of help, is in itself, a humiliation and speaks volumes about the attitudes of those who set the system up.
You work with this system everyday and you get inured to it. You learn its internal logic to better help others and, god help you, you internalise parts of it yourself. You start thinking that perhaps someone with agoraphobia should be expected to do a bit of piece work from home. You start believing that even with back pain; perhaps you should struggle in to work. Everyone seems to have back pain and depression these days after all and people should just toughen up.
I get thoughts like that creeping into my head occasionally and then I get the flu and experience perhaps one tiny fraction of what someone with a chronic condition goes through every day and I call in sick with no problems at all, because I am not on benefits and the brutal logic of the system does not apply to me.
I try to hang onto this thought and use these occasions to remind myself that the logic of the system is wrong, wrong, wrong. People deserve dignity and comfort and some decent standard of living and no one should be pressured to work if they are not able to do so.
Going on maternity leave was like that writ large. I’m lucky enough to have built up enough National Insurance Contributions to receive Maternity Allowance. Remember the rock strata? Maternity Allowance is laid down in ancient times, representing a different version of the social contract altogether. An older version of the welfare state where everyone pays in and everyone draws out. When circumstances require them to, without shame and with no conditions attached, other than the condition of having paid the contributions in the first place.
(I'm not sure when Maternity Allowance was introduced, but as a contributions based benefit the legal principles governing it can be traced to the National Insurance Act 1911 and to the National Insurance Act 1946, following the Beveridge Report.)
I went off for maternity leave a little earlier than originally planned. I had been wildly over optimistic about the amount of time I would be able to keep going and found myself at 36 weeks, emotionally volatile, knackered and, in all fairness, not a great deal of use to my employer.
I turned up at the midwifes all red faced and puffy eyed because negotiating with (my own) housing association about a water tank had somehow led to a crying jag two hours long. I was firmly advised to stop work. This turned out to be excellent advice and I am now much better, thank you for asking. If you don’t want to be stressed, stop going to where the stress comes from. Works a treat.
The point is though, that even though my symptoms felt impossible for me and even though a health professional advised me to leave work, by modern benefits standards they were nothing. Take pregnancy out of the equation and what are you left with? Anxiety and Fatigue. Trust me that is not getting you anywhere at an Employment and Support Allowance tribunal. And a tribunal is where you will end up because really, no one is being awarded Employment and Support Allowance first time these days.
And yet I walked into work, stated that I was leaving early and met with no resistance. I filled out a form, sent it back and received £138 per week with some delay but no major difficulty. My need not to be at work was not questioned for an instant.
My point is that you still come across these bits of the welfare state sometimes. The bits that remain in the lower strata. The bits that are humanitarian and still work. You come these bits and you realise how low our expectations have become and how much has been lost.