the crash: life, the universe, the quangos and everything

I was going to do a Poet Files post about Victor Zamora, the Chilean miner who’s been writing poetry while trapped down in the mine.

Then I was going to do nothing because it’s been such an utterly shit couple of weeks, with nothing but work, work, lack of transport, more work, too few lunch breaks, the announcement that a quarter of all the quangos – that is, non-departmental government bodies – that is, the organisations funded by the government to carry out work to a government agenda – are being closed, merged, massively downsized – and a disorienting lack of close personal contact with anyone important to me. The key phrase is “focus on delivery.” In other words, shut up. Don’t do research, don’t advise on policy, don’t collect qualititative information, don’t think outside the box, don’t point out mistakes, don’t know more than we do. Don’t care, don’t want anything, don’t strive for goodness, just focus on delivery. Keep your head down.

Consumer Focus – formed only two years ago, partly of the National Consumer Council, where I worked – is being closed and its work merged with Citizens Advice, if you can imagine anything that stupid. Here is their CEO’s statement, which not only stands as a model of corporate communications but also vividly exposes the spirit of the whole sorry Bonfire:

‘Consumer Focus has achieved big wins for consumers in just two years – including a £70 million pound energy bill refund and cash ISA reforms saving over £15 million a year.  We’ve delivered our biggest results in the last few months but the biggest challenges for consumers are ahead, with major reforms to the energy, post and financial services markets.

I am immensely proud of what we have achieved.  Government has decided to transfer at least some of our functions to Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland.  The issue now is not who does the work but that the work is done well, at a time when consumers are facing difficult economic circumstances, especially those who are vulnerable and whom Parliament has given us a particular duty to protect.

What matters now, is that the transfer happens in a way that works in consumers’ interests. The expertise and knowledge that has enabled us to fight for consumers must not be lost.  Changes must not be at the expense of the public’s rights and needs – which organisations like Consumer Focus were created to protect.’

(I also note that one of the many places where I gave a great interview last spring for a slightly-too-junior job, and didn’t get it because they had an ex-head of international comms or something in the running too, is also being abolished. Sad about that: they do important work.)

But I read around a bit anyway, and was inspired by the story of Victor Zamora and the other miners, and had an idea for a post in mind which would be bigger and more ambitious than a Poet Files post. It was about poetry, survival and work. It would draw on the prevailing mood.

Then I looked in the mirror and saw how absolutely pale and shattered I look, and thought, “Who am I kidding?” Who am I to say what anything means or what it’s about? I don’t know anything. It sounds unworthy but the main thing I saw when those guys were rescued was how much their wives loved them. How wonderful that must be. I’m not down a mine but I have no idea if I’ll ever see my siblings or mother or cousins again. Though I suppose if I were trapped like them the rescue fund would have paid for someone to come…

That glorious rescue seems out of tenor with the moment. Maybe that’s why it looks like a miracle. Here in the UK, while Chile celebrates and is reborn in its collective identity, we are sitting here – 41% of us in our solitary homes – passively watching our services disappear, the whole post-war dream disappear. Sacked by a couple of visigoths in yellow ties. The most relevant story here this week is the utterly horrific one of Jimmy Mubenga, killed by his guards while being deported. An entire planeload of people heard him screaming for almost an hour and felt unable to do anything, even when he got more and more faint and kept saying “I can’t breathe.” The Big, Caring Society. Our world turns out to have been a very short blip.

And, unlike what these tea-party imbeciles and their ilk seem to think, you can’t just go back. We’re not in Dickens Days any more, there can be no such thing as “small government.” It’s a world economy, there are international infrastructures, complexities that require proper regulation, personal data is on servers everywhere, we don’t even know what intellectual property means any more. Every year the world population grows by three times New York City and no one knows how to deal with it. Well – we do, but the governments wont regulate and won’t make anyone do it.

And you can’t just go okay, now I invent Big Society! Cameron’s sheltered little nostalgia trip completely neglects the fact that, back in those Big Society Dickens Days, first of all women weren’t mostly working in full-time jobs, secondly families could live on one income, and thirdly lots of people starved, died of treatable illnesses and had generally awful lives.

The sector I work in is being demolished – and I’ve already done almost a year of unemployment, and it’s hard to be in any way sanguine about anything. No one has a permanent job anymore, everyone is on a contract. Those of us without any partner or other means of support – who will never inherit anything – who don’t even own our homes – who are going to be poor anyway when we’re old, which is disproportionately women – are at most risk. If I lost my job again I could very easily indeed lose my flat, or go into fast-escalating arrears and debt, out of which one would expect never to climb. They’re “reforming” the Housing Benefit, too, don’t you know.

The other day it was the Bonfire of the Quangos, and on Wednesday the government’s public spending review announcement will drop on our heads. That’s when we’ll find out that the government departments that are meant to be taking on all the functions of the axed NGPDs are simultaneously being stripped of the budget to do it. With the so-called reforms of the benefits service coming in, to force people to work, where are these jobs going to be? “Focus on delivery.” But we can’t ALL sweep the streets.

A friend of mine, who won’t countenance claiming benefits on any level – even though he now has a disability and could do so, even with the new “reforms” – had a rather brilliant exchange with a woman in his local Jobcentre Plus. She was criticising him for limiting the jobs he was looking for to the salary band he’s used to (not exorbitant!). He justified it, saying he needed a salary he could live on. She said, “I earn [some small amount] and I manage.”

He challenged this.

“Well,” she said, after admitting that she has a husband, who is also working for a pittance. “Of course we get working families’ tax allowance. And we get a bit of housing benefit too because it doesn’t cover the rent. And…” And, in short, the only way she was able to survive on what the government is paying her is by claiming benefits on top.

And meanwhile, downsizing one’s expenses is almost impossible because for every tiny little thing we are now on scary contracts – I tried last year. Phone bill, TV/internet/landline bill, utilities – all locked down. You could give up your TV and your ability to communicate with the outside world, but for anyone who relies on the internet or their phone to do their work that would of course be catastrophic. Talk about Big Society! The Big Companies have got us.

And meanwhile I know plenty of people who are carrying on just as if nothing was happening. Maybe they’re not reliant only on their own ability to support themselves.

University loan – forget student grants, we’ve already forgotten those – loans are going to be put on normal interest rates, is it? And fees raised to £7,000+ a year? It’s a shame to see my daughter just getting obsessed with the daily news, just as she starts her A Levels, only to follow the story about how she may not be able to go to university at all. But the recent graduates I know are mainly not able to get jobs.

My life savings were wiped out last year and the year before, even with my redundancy money – partly through my own stupidity, because I took my time at first and lived normally off the money. I was trying to regroup after a particularly damaging line-management situation at work and it never occurred to me that with my skills, experience and CV I wouldn’t get a new job equivalent to the one I’d lost. Plus, I had some challenging stuff going on at home, which cost me a lot of money (and attention) one way and another.

So Mlle B is working now in a local shop on both Saturdays AND Sundays, and although she thinks it is to take pressure off me and her dad and save up for her summer festivals and trip to Greece next year, I worry that it could turn into something much more grimly utilitarian. And what seemed like a lot of pocket money will simply turn into not-enough-for-uni.

My pay packet meanwhile is fully £500 a month less than it was two – or even five – years ago, and everything costs twice as much – so I’m hardly going to be salting away a fortune for her.

I am, in fact, literally worried sick. My stomach is still bad, the pills are running out, I have to go back to the doctor. I’m very tired: my demanding paid-&-unpaid work programme this year was only going to be achievable because I thought I was in a position to be able to expect a grain of support – moral, emotional, and in the form of someone else occasionally cooking dinner or being nice to me. Sometimes you just want to sit down in comfort, with someone there who vaguely cares. But instead I’m having to go sit in pubs and restaurants and poetry readings – some of which can be painfully interminable, and cost money I don’t feel I should spend, and require an hour on a bus to get home from – just for some company and to vary the 24/7 solitary commute between work-at-work and work-at-home. It is good to see your friends of course, and I love my friends, but it’s not the same, is it.

They say that he travels fastest who travels alone; some of us know that’s because he has to keep going or he’ll crash.

And now I am going to make some tea and put together more of the next resplendent issue of Horizon Review. You’ll see. It’ll be great.

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