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Everyone Benefits

I was reminded this week of an old boss of mine.

When I arrived back from London in the early 80’s, jobs weren’t the easiest thing to come by. Maggie was just settling in at number 10 and had virtually erected a closing down sale sign in Scotland.

Vast numbers of people who had never before had to cope with the indignity of ‘signing on’ were confronted with the reality. Government support for industry, whether at the Chrysler plant at Linwood or the Ravenscraig Steelworks was rapidly withdrawn. Of course before its eventual closure Mrs T did make a big thing of getting cheap Polish coal into Ravenscraig not only to stick it up the striking miners and Ravenscraig workers but just because she could.

Anyway I landed a job on a casual basis (ie as and when they needed me) with a removal company. Although the housing market was depressed, there were plenty moves in our area for service personnel and their families with the Trident submarine base just up the road. I wasn’t the only guy there on “casual” – there were three or four of us. In those days it was up to us the employee to declare any days work we had done when signing on day came.

The wiser ones always declared something, seeing the loss of three or four pounds as preferable to ending up in court. There were an army of “sniffers” with cameras collecting evidence of anyone claiming unemployment benefit whilst simultaneously working.

So, back to my boss, the transport manager Ian. He was the kind of guy who had an answer for everything. Despite being a partner in the business, he was an avowed socialist and trade unionist but of course if there was ever a dichotomy between the two positions he reverted to boss mode. He called everyone “Jock”. This wasn’t because he wasn’t a Jock himself but it seemed to add emphasis to his views. To be honest I don’t think he was that good at remembering names.

He was a fantastic philosopher. Amongst his quotes were:

“See all these violent criminals Jock? I’d put fifty of them on an island on Loch Lomond with a crate of wine and a machete each.”
“Free speech? So you can say Maggie Thatcher’s a bastard but where does that get you Jock?”
“Gay? Jesus! can you imagine Spud and Tam (two of my fellow workers) kissing each other Jock?”
“What is it with these CB radio people Jock? sitting in your car talking to some c*nt you don’t know at four in the morning?”
“My biggest fear is dying on a Friday night with a full wage packet Jock”
“I’ll try anything once Jock but I draw the line at buggery or Brussels sprouts”

On the subject of casual workers claiming unemployment benefit, he was unequivocal. One day to an assembled crowd at work in the canteen he held court:

“Tell me this. If Spud works here a couple of days and earns maybe £60 extra, what does he spend it on?”

“Drink!” came the unanimous reply.

“OK, drink or other non essential purchases. Drink has something like 50% duty on it and VAT at 15%. So tell me who is Spud cheating?”

There was silence

“Well he’s not cheating the exchequer by buying goods at that rate is he? You could argue that he’s avoiding income tax on the money but when he spends it he’s getting hit at a much higher rate of duty and tax anyway.”

“So it’s really just badness when the dole people try to catch him out”

I thought of Ian’s words this week when Cameron was banging on about “benefit cheats”. No longer will the sniffers with cameras be popping up behind a hedge to capture a claimant working on a building site. In this digital age credit check companies have so much information on peoples’ finances that they can give an insight into individuals’ spending habits and capabilities. The government will then pay these bastards companies for the said info. In other words they are on an incentive scheme.

Don’t get me wrong, there are people who are kicking the baws out of the benefits system. There are an awful lot of walking sticks left in shops for example.

However who will get caught? Will it be the wise guys who know their way around the system? Every nuance and every dodge carefully factored in? Or will it be some poor guy getting paid cash for a few hours work to supplement his meagre existence?

Ian is long gone but his words of all these years ago resonate.

“Politicians? -they’d take your last shilling, come back for the tax on it and then make you feel guilty about how you got in in the first place Jock”