Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Just remember: you’re all in this together

Britain: a place where people born into wealth
and privilege can rise into even more wealth and privilege
Learning disabilities, terminal illness and cancer? Sounds like you need to be getting ready for work, you little slacker.
Isn’t it annoying when you hear about workshy shirkers loafing around on sickness benefit when they could be filling call-centres and Primark store-rooms? Take twenty seven year old Ruth Anim, who apparently “can’t work” just because she needs a “one-to-one carer” and has such severe learning disabilities she can’t even cross a road. Since when did a terminal illness stop anyone manning the phones at Claims Direct? Are we going to let so-called ‘cancer sufferers’ lie around enjoying their chemo when they could be made to do low-paid shifts for big companies?
Another lazy good-for-nothing avoiding work
It annoys the government at any rate, who are busily turfing mountains of the idle sick onto jobseeker’s allowance with a secret weapon known as its ‘Work Capability Assessment’ (actually a New Labour baby, for the record). Because this is a party which believes in helping yourself. More of these claimants need to follow the example of Stephen Hill, who was successfully forced by the government back into work – so successfully, in fact, that he keeled over from a heart attack 39 days later. Now that’s the kind of determination everyone’s looking for! Just look at the Cabinet itself, which is full of inspiring examples of riches-to-riches. Did they just sit there lying around waiting for somebody else to make it happen? No: they pulled their finger out, gritted their teeth, and inherited substantial sums of money. And if they can do it, so can’t you.
Let’s face it, austerity has to be borne equally, which is why the hugely wealthy  families and friends of the Cabinet are committed to not bearing much of it. In fact the rich have fascinatingly novel approaches to taxation – which revolve around a complex Economics concept known as ‘not paying any’. Not that any of this ‘tax avoidance’ could be called ‘tax avoidance’ or anything dirty like that. It’s just a different way of working. Thinking outside the box, if you like. Currently the wealthy are thinking so far outside the box on the issue of tax that they’ve actually flown the box to an offshore haven, probably via private jet.
Cameron's pad: just like you and me, really
Top Shop owner Philip Green, for example, was so excitingly progressive in his approach to tax on his dividend of £1.2 billion (the biggest pay check in British corporate history) that he channelled it, excitingly and progressively, straight to his wife in Barbados, without paying a single penny – a £285m loss to the taxpayer. David Cameron was so impressed  he made him a senior consultant to the government.  
Of course you could say that it’s sickening to watch a Tory cabinet born into enormous privilege attack sick people for not having the energy to work in a call centre sweatshop twelve hours a day. You could say that all this is a cynical and predatory attack on the most defenceless in society from those who wield huge amounts of power, thinly disguised beneath a veneer of hard work and entrepreneurialism. Because ‘austerity’ is a magic word that’s full of magical surprises, and one of the most surprising of all is that it means something completely different when it comes to ordinary people – who instead face an exciting new era of falling wages and benefits cuts, while the government does everything it possibly can to protect its cabal of landed gentry, Royals, bankers, media moguls and fox hunting visitors from the nineteenth century from the tiniest bit of financial pain.
All of which raises a new possibility for trying something radical. You listening? Okay. Developed by economists and tested a little bit in places like Scandinavia, this drastic and untested measure is known by economists as ‘taxing the rich’, and could, if done gently, do some amazing things. Michael Meacher, Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton, has pointed out that the wealthiest 1,000 persons (just 0.003% of the adult population) in Britain possess ‘enough for themselves alone to pay off the entire current UK budget deficit and still leave them with £30 billion to spare.’ Luckily our own beloved Tory government is unlikely to listen to such crackpot ideas! So let’s get back to hounding those terminally ill, learning difficulties, heart-problem loafers into underpaid jobs, in the hope that it might raise a few pence here and there. That’s thinking out of the box – carry on like that and there’s a good chance some of these people might end up in one.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Dale gets arrested

‘We’ve got to process you along with the other criminals,’ the officer explained as she led me into the police station, suppressing a yawn. ‘Then we’ll see what happens.’
          Other criminals? I bristled at the inference. "Processed?"
          Life is an astonishing journey of discovery, I’ve always said, and one of the most astonishing discoveries of all is that the police can take your fingerprints, biometric and DNA data and sling you in a cell, simply because – as in my case – you obviously look a bit like a criminal. Who needs ‘evidence’ in these times of institutional efficiency? All you have to do is sit in Starbucks until one of the staff mistakes you for the bloke who stole her iPhone – they’ll be delighted to throw you in a cell for the evening until they get round to watching the CCTV tapes. Protect and serve...
          The interior of a central London police station is a lot less exciting than I’d imagined it to be. I’d grown up on films where every police headquarters was a heaving pit of thieves and hookers and pushers. Holborn Central felt less a buzzing hub of crime-fighting activity and more like the place you go to sign for a parcel: a few uniforms standing around, a bored sergeant, silent figures melting into plastic chairs. For a moment I wasn’t entirely sure whether I was being arrested or coming in to make an inquiry about my tax status.
          ‘Sarge,’ my office said, as he led me toward the desk where a silver-haired bloke of about fifty stood behind a computer. The sarge glanced at me.
          ‘Charge?’ he asked bureaucratically, in a voice smeared in the east end.
           He looked me up and down. Then he clicked a button on his mouse and glanced at me with an astonishingly profound boredom.
          ‘Can you step forward to the desk, please.'
All the questions you’d expect: name, age, and so on. ‘Are you on any drugs?’ he asked me at the end of the interview. Don’t I wish... How did I feel? Scared, apprehensive... What if they did something to me? What defence did I have in here? They removed my handcuffs and I was led by a burly bloke to another area for the photo shoot and finger scans, which took place in a bare looking little booth with a lens and a computer screen: Snappy Snaps run by a creaking dictatorship. We did a few headshots of me, as I amused myself by providing imaginary replacement dialog in my head (‘Perfect, darling – now just one more to bring out my eyes’) and then he took hold of my hand and placed it down on a pressure pad.
          It wasn’t working properly.
          He swore under his breath as it buzzed an Error message, like we’d got the question wrong in a gameshow.
‘Do you want a solicitor?’
I blinked. I was back at the desk with the sarge, who was processing me with deep indifference, like a prompter reading lines of dialogue from a play.
          ‘But I haven’t done anything,’ I pointed out.
          ‘That’s not what I asked you. You just have to decide whether you want legal aid.’
          Legal aid?
          He sighed. ‘Don’t worry about the bloody films,’ he added, wearily. ‘It isn’t an admission of guilt.’
          More questions followed. It was like we were polite strangers trapped in some awful, surreal role-play, where they were compelled by convention to exchange a few pleasantries, chat to me for a while, then lock me in a windowless room and ruin my future visa applications. And then slip a glove on and force their fingers down my throat.
The smile on the sergeant’s face suddenly vanished.
          ‘At this stage,’ he said, ‘I’m obliged to inform you that we have the legal right to take your DNA.’
One of the cops was slipping on a pair of disposable rubber gloves,
They wanted me on disc. They had my face and my fingers. They wanted my soul.  
          ‘... Really?’ I said. I felt a bit sick.
‘Uh huh.’
          The guy picked a cotton swab from a pack, and slipped it out of its cellophane.
          ‘Step forward, please.’
          ‘Open wide,’ he said, as if he was going to make aeroplane noises while he flew a spoon into my mouth.
Half wanting to throw up, and half wanting to cry, I opened up and the other cop inserted the cotton swab into my mouth. He scraped the swab around my tonsils for a few moments, took it out, and slipped off the gloves. I gazed into space. I felt, in some way, like I’d been assaulted. 
          It took them another three hours to get around to watching the CCTV tape.
          ‘I can’t believe they would do that,’ my student said later, when they got around to watching the CCTV and decided, in a relaxed kind of way, that they should probably let me go free immediately. ‘In my country that could just not happen.’
          ‘Really?’ I asked, with raised eyebrows.
          ‘In Colombia, the police cannot just lock you up just because you look like a criminal. We have rights.’
          After they'd watched the tape and realised that the iPhone thief in it looked nothing like me, to their credit, the police - without a hint of an apology - let me go. But not before I'd spent several hours in a cell with nothing but my own gloomy thoughts for company. Not without keeping my DNA on record. My student may have been right: perhaps it's not fair to lock people up on an idle suspicion, to enact invasive procedures on their bodies. But while I was having a cotton wool swab shoved into my mouth, I wasn’t thinking about rights or wrongs. I was thinking about the taste of it: bland, sceptic, laced by the plastic of his glove. Whatever liberals like me might say, it’s hard not to be at least a little bit impressed by authority when it’s got its fingers down your throat.