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Tuesday, 26 January 2010


A stentorian voice belts out a cheerful "ITS ONLY ME", although I admit that I have constructed the sense of this sentence, and its meaning, only after the fact. Only after, in fact, I emerge from under the bed, a feline-human joint hiding place, resorted to by instinct and accessed reflexively, even when still asleep. I am cautiously accompanied in my emergence by two very wide eyed cats. It is so early that my glance at the clock to ascertain the time yields no meaningful information. It is in fact, so early that I would be unsurprised if a gravelly voice over drifted through my head informing me that '........the time of the elves was ending. The coming years will be the time of was the beginning of history.....' All of this of course, means that B_ has arrived, and has brought doughnuts.

B_, per se, is not actually frightening. At least not intentionally. And she is a close neighbour trusted with a key who, these days, visits us for tea and gossip. I should, I suppose, explain that B_ is a craftsperson of the highest order, and is employed professionally as such. We first met her in the previous residence, Nickson Towers, where she worked, and used her immemse skills occasionally on a "cash" basis until some asshole reported her to a local benefit office. The £16.00 we occasionally paid her was what is known in the UK as "pin money" - unreported and untaxed. Consequently, B_ was prosecuted for benefit fraud. It goes without saying, although I will say it anyway, that if a banker or a businessman or an MP did tthe same as her - ie avoided tax, they would be lauded as "savvy". Tax avoidance is only a crime if you are poor. And in the UK today, make no mistake, these "crimes" are treated by the authorities with a seriousness that is staggering. Offenders are interviewed under caution, and jail sentences (longer than you would recieve for life threatening drunk-driving offences), seizure of goods and removal of subsistence-level beneifts are not only threatened, but regularly acted on.

The other side of this coin is that evidence requirements are minimal. A claimant, if caught, is taken to an interview room, cautioned and then usually presented with an allegation of working while claiming benefits. Government tactics for obtaining information is also based on old Eastern Bloc tactics in that we are encouraged by a torrent of radio and television announcements, hoardings, websites and newspaper adverts to inform on our neighbours. The placement of this publicity is interesting too - not the middle class outlets of Radio Four and newspapers like the Guardian, but local commercial radio and tabloid newspapers. Commercial television mostly runs these adverts during game shows and reality tv shows. There is a presumption of guilt right across the working class.

I cling on to memories of Canada. When I was unemployed there, I used to report my unemployment by phone, never once meeting a benefit officer. If I picked up a day or two's work, I also reported that and all that happened to my claim was that it was I recieved no benefit pay for the days I worked. In the UK, by contrast, picking up the odd day or two of casual work usually has the effect that you have to close your benefit claim completely and report that you have started work. After these two days of casual employment, you then have to re-apply for benefits, (a process which can take four weeks), and the income gained for those two days work is counted as a week's wages. I fail to remember, from Canada, a system so untrustful of its people, and so designed to encourage cheating.

And cheating does go on, in both countries, there is no doubt of that. And it is also probably "wrong". But a sense of proportion is obtained when, and I apologise for repeating these weary statistics, it is realised that while bank bailouts cost £850 Billion pounds last year, the cost of benefit fraud was £900 Million. And while fraud is wrong, the most successful(in terms of net gains) benefit fraudsters were resourceful criminals, with income already behind them - landlords, businessmen and full time criminals.

When she was 'caught', B_ was taken to a cell, interviewed under caution and spent the next six weeks terrified. She didnt answer her phone, her door or trust any of her friends. She didnt heat her house because her benefits were stopped and she could'nt afford to. She stopped buying milk, going out socially and her only point of contact became the benefit officer who had originally charged her. This person found her a job, which he assured her would make her better off.This would also, he assured her, make her feel better about herself, feel she was making a contribution to society. Besides, if she didnt take the job, she would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. If she didnt like this, she could aways hire a lawyer, was one of his parting shots. Naturally, B_ took the job. Unfortunately, she was worse off, by about fifteen percent, after doing so, and so in order to pay a plumber who came to fix a leaking pipe, took a loan out with a money lender, who's 50% interest rates are not illegal. The extent of her original fraud was about £160.00.

Despite all this, when B_ comes, albeit that she comes so early, we have a great laugh. RHB and her sit in the kitchen, eat doughnuts and gossip. They talk about grandkids, cats, trouble with plumbers and expanding waistlines. The compliment eachother on hair and make-up. I get referred to as "him" and laughed at for being clumsy. but then B_ tells RHB she should look after me better, and I get an extra doughnut. The womanising escapades of B_'s former employer get dissected, exagerrated and laughed at. B_ has a key because she feeds the cats when we are away, so we feel like we owe her. But in today's climate, we cant even risk buying her a box of chocolates on a regular basis in case she is still being spyed on.

It has been three years since we came here. 'Back' here is, I suppose the correct term. Mostly, this blog is, intentionally, a light-hearted piece of fluff. There are certainly no pretensions to journalism, and I apologise to readers expecting a bit of a laugh who've had to slog through this post, as laughs have been mostly absent this time. But this thing was started to report on our experiences in coming 'back', and in common with everyone's experiences, at times, reality intrudes. Looking back over three years, I remember the shock that accompanied our return. Now, co-incident with the three year anniversary of our return is the news that a friend (in the type of job which has seldom been vulnerable before) has been made redundant, gas prices have risen 300% in three years, my sister's husband is on "short time" at his factory due to the recession, budgets for Higher Education are being cut by 12%, it rains just about every day, there's still sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, its very difficult to get a dentist, and its still not legal for Catholics to ascend to the monarchy. From the inside, England can appear to be a very unhappy place, but its not the ordinary people of this country who are responsible for this. On a daily basis, across the UK, B_ keeps bringing the doughnuts.

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