Just before Christmas my mother-in-law took voluntary redundancy from her old company and launched herself onto the job market. At the beginning of June she got a new job doing something complicated in the financial sector. "Ooh" I said. "I know" she said.
But to work in the financial sector you have to have CLEARANCE. CLEARANCE is something I will never have. "Ooh" I said, again. "Precisely" she said. My mother-in-law's CLEARANCE comes courtesy of an outside company, who work round the clock making sure every new financial sector bod is good to go. She went to get her CLEARANCE sorted and found herself in a room with a lady who shuffled papers and looked fretful.
"So...you didn't sign on at all during your period of unemployment?" the lady queried, with knitted brow.
"Um....why didn't you do that?"
"I had my redundancy money. I didn't need to."
The brow knitted further.
"But you could have got money to keep you going. Free money. From the government."
"I know, but I had my redundancy pay-out for that."
"But...you could have got your interview travel expenses paid for."
"I didn't need to get them paid for."
"Yes, but...it's free money, though."
My mother-in-law wondered if there was a different way of saying 'I didn't need to, though'. She grimaced apologetically and gave a little shrug. The CLEARANCE lady's brow tied itself into a knot.
"The thing is," she said, "the thing is, though, if you didn't sign on, how can we tell you weren't in jail during that time?"
And there we have it. This woman, on encountering my clearly middle-class, clearly comfortably off, well-dressed, well-spoken mother-in-law, found it more believable, more comprehensible, that she should have spent the past five months in jail, rather than having chosen not to take government money she didn't feel she needed.
Every day on my walk with Milly we go past Shipston House, which is the old workhouse. The Victorians were a good bunch overall. They embarked on huge public improvement programmes, spent a vast amount on charity, and dedicated much of their time and energy to making Britain a better place to be. One of the big conundrums that kept them up at night was the issue of the workhouse, and how to run it: make it too harsh a place to be and you were in danger of treating people like animals, but make it too agreeable and you ran the risk of having people choose to live in the workhouse rather than try to earn their own living.
We still have the same problem today. Benefits should be available, freely available, to those who truly need them. But they don't constitute "free money". Over the past thirteen years Labour have created such a culture of hand outs that anyone not shoving their paw into the pot is actually viewed with suspicion. It's no longer a question of need. It's not even about entitlement. It's about greed. The old capitalist devil has become a socialist nightmare, thousands of open mouths all shrieking "gimme, gimme, gimme!"
The conversation obviously didn't end there. My mother-in-law attempted to prove she wasn't a jailbird by suggesting she got the recruitment agencies who'd been job searching on her behalf to testify to her lack of incarceration during the past five months. The CLEARANCE lady sighed and folded her hands into something neat and frightening.
"Ahh," she said. "Well, yes, I suppose you could do that. But isn't there anyone else who could speak for you?"
"Anyone else? Like who?"
"Well, someone of standing in the community? A doctor, a lawyer?"
"We don't know any doctors or lawyers."
"Well...how about the vicar?"
"THE vicar? We don't know any vicars. At all."
The CLEARANCE lady unknitted her brow in order to look down her nose with maximum efficiency, and, in a laudable gambit to bring some political balance to this blogpost, threw in some old-school Tory snobbery.
"We know OUR vicar personally." she said.