Thursday, 20 May 2010

Means - tested Benefits

This is autobiography.

I am one of those who benefited from means-testing. It's one of the reasons I am deeply suspicious of the non-means tested freebies introduced by New Labour, especially those handed out to the over 60s (of whom I am now one). It appals me how easily older people - many of them affluent, middle class - have acquired the notion that they have some kind of human right to a Free Bus Pass. It's not even dependency culture. It's just meanness and arrogance.

For the first seven years of my life (1947 - 53), I lived in a council house with my parents, in Slade Green, Kent. After being demobbed from the Army, my father started his own business in Dartford. He rented a workshop where he repaired old furniture for resale. New furniture was very scarce after the War. He expanded the business, adding two lock-up shops selling carpets and linos which he fitted in the evenings. He had women working for him in the shops and a Polish refugee, Victor, working in the repair shop. I have memories of the workshop and the shops, though I guess the buildings in which they were housed have been demolished in modern Dartford.

For two or three years, I attended my local primary school, North End Mixed Infants and Junior, just outside Erith in Kent. It was a school for poor children - years later, I saw that it was in a designated Educational Priority Area. It could be scary. Assemblies were punctuated by children falling to the floor, faint from lack of food. Many pupils had their faces painted with gentian violet (for impetigo). Some children were ragged and smelt ("Stinker Elizabeth").

I was often ill: in one year, chicken pox, whooping cough, scarlet fever.

Then my father, turning 40, decided it was time to do something less arduous than carrying carpets on his shoulder and laying them with the tools of the time, which crippled your hands. He bought (or bought the lease on) a shop in Dartford and began selling prams and toys. I lived in the comfortably furnished flat above Babyland until I was thirteen, attending York Road Junior School and, after passing the 11+, Bromley Grammar School for Boys - over an hour's journey by bus from my home. My mother thought it would be good for me to be away as much as possible from the marital disputes. She also thought that it would be a nicer school than Dartford Grammar - she had heard boys from that school using bad language in the street. You can see where my mother was coming from. It was a demented and punishing decision to condemn me to travel alone on a bus for two or three hours a day. It was impossible to form proper friendships. I continued until I was 17 - I took my A levels at 16 and then stayed on for the one term Oxford Scholarship preparation.

When I was thirteen, my mother finally carried out her plan to leave my father, secretly packing her belongings, as he became more and more abusive, and spending the final weeks sleeping in my bedroom with the door barricaded. There was no question but that I would go with her.

For the next year, we lodged with my mother's brother and his wife who had two spare bedrooms in their tied house, owned by the paper mill where my uncle worked. My mother initially found work as a shop assistant, but her health (mental and physical) was poor and my father did not pay his maintenance, either for my mother or me. He was one of the most recalcitrant, at one point handed a prison sentence.

After one year, we moved to a flat in Lower Belvedere, between Erith and Woolwich. There was an outside loo, no bathroom, no hot water, no floor covering, and just one electric plug in the flat. It remained that way. I continued to catch the bus to my Grammar School.

I qualified for a school uniform allowance and free lunches, though not free bus travel since my parents had chosen my distant school. At fifteen, I also qualified for financial support for staying on beyond the school leaving age. I remember one day outside the Head's study reading a notice which set out the levels of support available according to income bracket. Another boy, standing beside me, pointed to the bottom line, giving allowances for those with a parental income of less than £300 per year. He snorted, saying no one could be that poor. I was in the bottom line category, but I didn't say so, just as I didn't say that we didn't have a television at home.

I felt shamed that my dinner pass was of a different colour, allowing everyone to see that I was on free meals in a school where few were, but the means - tested benefits provided by the very Tory Kent County Council did allow me to stay at school and get in to Oxford, starting my course in 1965. And means testing qualified me for the maximum student grant of £370 per year - greater than my mother's annual income - to which I added a £60 per year Open Scholarship from my Oxford college. I began to provide financial support for my mother, on a modest scale, while still a student and I continued until she died in 1978.

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