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Saturday, 14 November 2015

Bread, Benefits, and Diamonds.

Fred wheeled himself out of the back door of his house to appreciate the lovely flowers in full bloom adorning his garden. He leans forward to reach out and enjoys the sweet aroma from one of the blooms. Unfortunately for him, out of the window of the house backing on to his, Deborah Ville gazes at Fred with a level of smug satisfaction.

Fred is a victim of a muscle disease which gradually restricted his mobility to a level where he had to be confined to a wheelchair. Having lost his ability to stand, walk and run, he lost his job as a contractor, and afterwards lost his wife too, still in her thirties, to a dishy colleague she met in the office, and to whom she fell in love. Fred, feeling angry and crushed by the loss of his spouse, also had to fight tooth and nail to claim his Disability Allowance, the only source of income with which he is able to live reasonably well.

Deborah is convinced that Fred is a Benefit cheat, milking on the taxes paid by hard-working professionals. As a sour-faced spinster, past middle age and who had never dated, and remaining childless throughout her life, she considers herself a model of moral idealism, and she can be seen at her traditional Church of England service every Sunday morning, dressed in her best finery and topped with her favourite decorated bonnet. She is disliked by her neighbours, and one of them overheard her giving her name to an official, as Miss D. Ville. No doubt, her nickname became known along the street, and so she remains referred to by her initial and surname.

Deborah turns back from her window before Fred has a chance to spot her. She heads for the 'phone and dials the DWP. She reports that this "disabled" Fred at such-and-such an address has been spotted as less disabled than he claims. A couple of weeks later, he receives a letter through the post announcing that his allowance has been stopped, as a result of a tip-off. Suspecting this might have been the work of Deborah Ville but unable to prove it, he heads back to the benefits office to prove his case. No success. He is analysed as fit to work, and he should consider himself lucky he did not face a Court prosecution. In the weeks to come, as he watches his bank account slowly diminish as both his stomach and the pursuing of his fuel creditors continue relentlessly with their demands, he looks for adequate employment, only to be turned away by one potential employer after another.

Deep depression sets in. He suffers loss of appetite and sleep. He turns on the radio to listen to the latest news bulletin. The headline was about the sale of two diamond jewels to a total of £50 million, bought at an auction by a Chinese businessman for his seven-year-old daughter. Never mind that this rich fellow had a five year prison term passed upon him for money-laundering. By staying out of the country where he was convicted, he can live on as normal, avoiding jail. All this to Fred was rubbing salt into the wound. He had already read about the fat cat lifestyle enjoyed by high flying management, especially of the Police, the banking industry, and the NHS, with their sky-high incomes, bonuses, golden pensions, and early retirement. Not to say good health as well, luxury yachts in the Mediterranean, round-the-world travel, posh cars, luxury homes away in the country and not among the terraced estate where he resides. Fred just could not understand why there is such gross inequality this day and age in the 21st Century. 

Fred felt his depression intensify as he watches his bank account go into negative equity. As he watches the figure with its minus sign in front grow bigger and bigger, so did his fears grew. After receiving yet another letter of rejection from a potential employer, he felt he had enough. With the pittance of a cash reserve he has always kept on the side, he buys a bus ticket to the coast, where there is a high cliff. Positioning himself, he wheels himself over the cliff edge, crashing onto the rocky strip of beach many feet below. Meanwhile, on the following Sunday, Deborah Ville makes her way to church, totally unaware of the recent tragedy. Feeling smug that she had fulfilled her moral duty, under the guise of prayer, she starts to thank herself for her high morals, not like that scum of a neighbour who milked the taxpayer with such a "dishonest" claim.

Although I have fictionalised the above story, I have wondered what God says of this when I read media statistics of not a few suicides among the disabled that had taken place due to situations similar to Fred's circumstances. As for Deborah; back in 2005, when I had to reduce my working hours to sit through a six-month parenting assessment, we claimed Housing Benefit until the assessment was over and I returned to full-time work. About three to four months into the assessment, we received a letter saying that not only the benefit had stopped, but we had to pay it all back, due to an anonymous tip-off. So began the tribunal defending our cause for claiming, and we lost the case. Fortunately, the benefit officer was a compassionate female who allowed us a three-year payback interval instead of the twelve-month period which was the norm for failed or dishonest claimants. At least I saw this as an act of mercy at a time of great distress, when the State decided that our mild autism, or Asperger's Syndrome, deemed us unfit to raise our own daughters.  

But I was praised even by our Social Worker for adopting the "Ethic of King Solomon." This was based on the Biblical story of the two prostitutes who presented themselves to King Solomon with a living infant and a dead one. Solomon had to decide who was the mother of the living child. Since each of the two women claimed that the living child was hers, the King ordered a sword to be brought to him, so he could divide the living child in two, so both can have half each. The real mother fell at the King's feet and begged him to give the living child to her rival, but not to kill him. Her rival instead agreed to the kill. Solomon then knew who was the real mother (1 Kings 3:16-28.)

The same is true for our three daughters. Although our hearts grieve over our loss, we now feel that it was better for our daughters to grow up in an environment where they would get the best of everything, rather than miss out under our care, loving and sincere as it might have been. But our hearts continue to grieve, and I believe that has affected the health of both of us. Alex had lost her full mobility, and has become lame. Although she can manage her housework without too much difficulty, whenever she goes outdoors, it has to be in a wheelchair. To see her in that state breaks my heart, but she is a lot more stoic than I am. She takes it all well in her stride. As for me, I would not be at all surprised if there may be a connection between the loss of our daughters and my heart condition. I needed open heart surgery to replace a regurgitating aortic valve. As a manual worker cleaning windows and the need to lift and transport heavy ladders on foot, (I don't drive) I have lost some of my vitality after the procedure. Fortunately, when my 63rd birthday came around just a few months later, I felt this was a good time for retirement, a move backed not only by our Church Elders, but by the majority of my clientele, even with the statement, "It is about time!" uttered by a couple of them.

To some who has always worked and have never been on benefits, I guess it is easy to believe those on benefits to be workshy scroungers, milking the taxpayer. I can understand Deborah's point of view, which is a view seen by many in our country. But to those thinking that retired life is all about ease and leisure, Pension Credit, which we are now receiving, is a benefit which is different to State Pension, which I'll get when I reach 65 years of age. My present benefit enslaves me somewhat to the extent that if my savings exceed £10,000, I have to tell them. Likewise if my wife is taken to hospital, a care home, divorces, or dies. We cannot leave the UK, even for a holiday, without first telling them (although we are not barred from leaving the UK). It is a bit like living on a knife edge. It makes me ashamed in a way, living off the taxpayer, even if I have paid tax throughout my working life. Sometimes I feel immoral by not working, although I comfort myself with the knowledge that 47 years of working since I left school in 1968, is generally longer than one who graduates at university at 21 or 22 years of age, and retires at sixty, after just 38 or 39 years sitting at a desk (although many who receive a doctorate work for even a shorter duration.)  

And here's the point. It was only two years ago that I felt confident enough in my health to work past 65 years of age. I had my own domestic window cleaning business which I was wholly committed to, and fiercely guarded against intrusion by rivals. So to be diagnosed with heart failure during the Summer of 2014 came as a real shocker, believe me! But now as a retiree, I can't help feel a sliver of guilt. Never mind that the Chinese businessman buying diamonds for his daughter is fact, making news headlines, and not fiction. Never mind that there are thousands of those in managerial positions who retire in their fifties with a massive pension. I still can't help feeling at times a sliver of guilt, combined with a feeling of insecurity.

But is benefits Biblical? I believe it is, and the relevant Scripture can be found at Leviticus 19:10 and 23:22, where both verses instructs landowners harvesting their crops, particularly of the vine, not to go back to glean what was left behind, but to leave these grapes for the poor to take freely. This has been written twice by Moses in the same book, emphasising the importance of such a command. This is God ensuring that the needs of the poor are met, and it should be done in love. Likewise, in the New Testament, Paul instructs Timothy to ensure the elderly widow's needs are met (1 Timothy 5:3-16). This is more in line with the present benefit system, but on condition that the widow has no family members to support her, and that she lives a godly life in Jesus Christ.

And that is how I should view the benefits system - as an act of compassion rather than compulsory giving. But then again, had my vocation had been in the office or non-manual, I guess I wouldn't have even considered retirement at this age. Instead, I would have returned to work after my heart operation, and not consider retirement until the proper time.

Especially if I was a jeweller working on expensive diamonds.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Frank,
    I am so sorry to hear of these trials you are going through. It is often difficult to understand why God allows these, and yet we can have faith that He is working out all things for our good and His glory. Praise God for His provision for His children and for knowing what we need before we even ask Him.

    Praying for you and Alex. God bless,