Don't be fooled by their cutesy gifs. Between the bedroom tax and universal credit, being on benefits introduces a whole load of complications to our love livesby Grace Fletcher-Hackwood / February 14, 2018 / Leave a comment
The Valentine’s Day campaign from the DWP should remind us how hard love actually is on benefits. Photo: Prospect composite Happy Valentine’s Day! In case you missed it, yesterday the Department of Work and Pensions marked the occasion by tweeting out a reminder to let them know when you fall in love, lest they lock you up. Over the years I have had to advise countless people that the DWP considers their personal lives its business. You know how more and more divorced couples have to stay living in the same house for years until one of them can afford to move out? It sounds like a nightmare. Now, imagine the visit from a compliance officer checking that you’re in separate bedrooms. And then there was the woman whose neighbours accused her of benefit fraud every time her kids’ dad came to visit. And the woman who couldn’t move away from her abusive ex’s family until she’d paid off the rent arrears that built up after he put her in hospital. And everyone who nervously asked me “How many nights am I allowed to stay at my girlfriend’s flat before we’re living together?” One woman said a compliance officer told her that “You’re not allowed a boyfriend if you’re on benefits.” My first instinct was disbelief: surely he didn’t come right out and say that? But, of course, he did. Benefit payments come with a whole list of things you’re not allowed to have. Like a spare bedroom, a third child, a real work experience placement, or enough money to cover private rented housing. Time at home while your kids are small? That’s not for you, you need to get a job. Get any job. Spend 35 hours a week looking for a job. Not that job, a job with more hours. Now that’s too many hours, so you’re not entitled to any help. https://twitter.com/dwppressoffice/status/963423779413114880 So it makes sense, in a sad and twisted sort of way, that you’re also precluded from so many aspects of relationships that others might take for granted. Taking time to work things out with the father of your children? Nope. Letting him sleep on the sofa so he can see the kids in the morning, because thanks to the bedroom tax there’s no room for them at his place? Nice try. Taking things slow? That’s not for you: he either lives with you or he doesn’t. Love? On the dole? You must be joking. The extent to which your life is not your own, once you claim the financial assistance to which you are entitled, was perhaps most sharply illustrated for me the week I noticed I was getting more calls than usual from single parents. They were all in receipt of tax credits, and they had all been sent letters saying they were under investigation for living undeclared with a partner. Fearing the loss of money they relied on to pay for childcare or just keep their family afloat—not to mention the hours of their life they were about to lose to the bureaucratic hellhole of HMRC—they racked their brains to work out how they had transgressed. “I’ve been letting my daughter’s boyfriend stay over,” one woman told me, guiltily. “I didn’t know that wasn’t allowed.” They didn’t know—neither did I, until later—that the letters were part of a target-driven Concentrix fishing expedition, sent apparently at random. But the message was clear: you have this money under sufferance, and we do not trust you. Nobody expects to be given financial help from the state without some conditions. But are the conditions proportionate to the help? 14 million people are living in poverty, many in work. And their benefits have been frozen while the price of rent and travel and food continues to soar. And yet, from sanctions to Universal Credit, the government continues to demand ever-increasing compliance, and meekness, and loss of privacy, in exchange for so little money that you’ll need to use a food bank anyway. The DWP are forcing people already constrained by poverty into a life that is narrow and suffocating and fearful. It’s a deliberate strategy, as cruel as it is ineffective. So it doesn’t matter how many cutesy gifs they dress it up with this Valentine’s Day—don’t be fooled. This government is heartless.