This is an article from the Bristol Evening Post,
downloaded from their web site:
My close friend Jane was made redundant. She lives on her own, and with no guarantee when she'll find another job in this recession-hit job market, she rang the Job Centre to see if she was entitled to any benefits, having never claimed before.
Unlike most of our friends who have racked up huge credit card debts with exotic holidays and expensive luxuries, Jane has no debts as she's always lived within her means, even though she didn't earn very much. So any benefits she was entitled to wouldn't be wasted on debt repayments, they'd help with her rent, council tax and food bills.
The Job Centre lady told Jane she was entitled to Job Seeker's Allowance.
Now, Jane had been offered some part-time work, and - to the horror of some of her friends - it didn't occur to her not to mention this when talking to the Job Centre. She's a trustworthy, truthful person - lying wasn't an option.
The Job Centre lady said you can work part-time for up to 16 hours "without it affecting your benefit". Great, thought Jane.
She was summoned to the Job Centre where she had to fill in enough forms to paper a room. She mentioned her part-time work - again, just telling the truth, she had nothing to hide - and she was informed that you can work part-time for up to 16 hours a week without your benefit being withdrawn, not - as the Job Centre hotline lady had stated - without it affecting your benefit. Her benefit would be reduced by the sum she earned part-time.
Jane realised that this would greatly decrease the amount of benefit she'd receive. Still, every little helps, she thought. She signed all the paperwork and was given an appointment to sign on every fortnight at the Job Centre.
Jane knew she wouldn't receive any payment for her part-time work for the first seven weeks after she'd been made redundant, and she told the Job Centre that from the start. But 10 weeks on, she still hasn't received a single penny in benefits.
She was sent a letter querying her claim, and when she rang trying to answer their question, they said she had to put it all down in writing again and send them a letter, which she did.
When she told the Job Centre she hadn't been paid any benefit a few weeks ago, she was told that the Benefit Delivery Centre was investigating her claim.
"Why?" she asked.
"Dunno," said the robotic, stony-faced Job Centre employee. "You'll have to ask them. It's nothing to do with us."
After ringing them and being kept on hold for half an hour, she got through and told the tale. The man on the other end of the phone confirmed they were investigating her claim over a query about her part-time work.
He said he sympathised but it was out of his hands. He had no idea when the investigation would be over or when she'd be paid.
Two weeks later, having still received no benefit and with the "investigation" still going on, she rang the Benefit Delivery Centre again. Same story - "nothing I can do, it's out of my hands".
The man on the phone asked her to put everything down on paper - again - and post it to them. Jane lamented to him the fact that if she'd kept quiet about her part-time work she'd have received nearly £700 in Job Seeker's Allowance by now, plus her earnings from her part-time work, which she'd finally been paid. But because she'd told the truth, she hadn't received a penny of the benefit she was owed.
"You've been too truthful, my love," he said.
And there you have it. Where's the incentive to play by the rules?
I hear stories like this - not quite on a daily basis, but regularly enough for it to be painfully familiar.
When I share these stories with officials, the response is always about the details: this person did not follow the rules, or that procedure is being reviewed.
And that is a fair response, as far as it goes. Part of the moral of these stories is that the system does not work. It does not work partly because the system itself is wrong, and partly because it is being implemented by fallible humans, who sometimes make mistakes and run out of patience.
But the main point of these stories is that they are stories about real people. They tell you how real people feel after trying to make the system work for them. They help you understand why so many people feel that there is no point in trying to be honest. If the system cheats you, then cheating is simply part of the system.
There are solutions to (or, at least, there are things we can do to significantly improve) all these problems. But they require major and long-term policy changes, which will have a significant political cost even if they result in long term financial savings. The real question is whether we are willing to pay the short-term price.