Most of my books are available on Amazon with prices starting at a penny. Type in "Trevor Pateman" and you will be taken straight to them. A memoir of my childhood (I Have Done This In Secret) was published in June 2018 and is freely available from Waterstones and other bookshops.
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Friday, 6 June 2014
My Benefits, Right or Wrong
This essay tries to bring together several themes from maybe a dozen of my Blogs over the past few years
buses. In both senses. Where I live, they are involved in most city centre road
fatalities. And I don’t enjoy sitting in one. Partly, that’s because we don’t
have kerbside payment or conductors. If you need to pay, you pay the driver. So
your journey is often painfully slow.
who pay the driver look like tourists, language school students, students, and
mostly female workers of one sort or another – I guess, cleaners or care
workers on their way to a shift. But anyway, low paid workers. The minimum fare
is now over two pounds.
who don’t pay are the Over Sixties who flash their Bus Passes. Their fares are
being paid by someone else – taxpayers.
claimed my Free Bus Pass. I would be ashamed to wave it while paying passengers
watch. Imagine that it was Coloreds who paid and Whites who didn’t (and
looking at the cleaners and care workers, that’s not far from the reality).
And yet the
Over Sixties, quite solidly and sometimes fiercely, now seem to believe that
they have a Human Right to bus travel paid for by others – even though Bus
Passes are a very recent invention.
How did this
come about? The fault clearly lies with our political parties, always looking
for cheap ways to gain the favour of those most likely to vote. And any party
now proposing to withdraw the Passes would face a backlash of unreasoned wrath.
are not Pensioner Passes. You qualify by virtue of reaching your 60th
birthday, well below the ages at which most people qualify for state pensions.
At sixty, many people are still working, their children are gone and they have
paid off mortgages. They are better off than at any time before. Many of those
waving Bus Passes – of course, not all – are better dressed than they have ever
been. They can afford to be.
they will become old and even frail. It’s always stressful to watch a frail
elderly person board a bus, struggling with shopping bags and sticks. They
don’t need a Bus Pass any more. They need a once-a-week Taxi Pass.
they need adequate pensions. Free Bus Passes are not only electoral bribes.
They are also one of the cosmetic means by which feckless governments have
sought to disguise the inadequacy of State Pension provision. They have been
too fearful to force people to pay enough into retirement income schemes to
fund adequate pensions and reluctant - until absolutely forced by a huge rise
in life expectancy- to raise the pensionable age. Until very recently in the
UK, the State Pension age for women was set at sixty. Men at sixty five.
challenged that extraordinary bit of entrenched sex discrimination. It had its
origins in discriminatory thinking: women filled up the workforce during two
world wars and thus qualified for pensions. But allowing them to take their
pensions at sixty was also meant to ease them out of the workforce, leaving
more room for men who had fought. Over time, the discrimination transformed
from discrimination against women to discrimination in their favour. But no
one, literally no one, challenged it.
is very much connected to ability to make your own choices. The Bus Pass is a
clunking decision by politicians to make choices for you: Here, my good woman,
take this Pass and use that Bus over there! And show some gratitude!
generally benefit from walking or even cycling but politicians want you to take
the Bus. The bus companies are happy enough. They get paid.
In a better
world, older people would dispose of enough income to make their own choices:
walk, cycle, taxi, train, drive - or bus, where they would pay the same fares as
everyone else. It would be a better world not least because it would help
maintain self-respect: better to choose the bus instead of having it chosen for
there is something in my own history that makes me think like this. As a
grammar school boy in the 1960s, my School Dinner Pass was a different colour
from that of nearly everyone else. I qualified for Free School Dinners and my
Pass colour indicated that, not only to the Dinner Ladies but to all the other
boys queuing with me.
for Free School Dinners because we were poor –really, very poor. I lived with
my mother who was most of the time not well enough to work and that meant she
depended on the National Assistance Board (forerunner to the Ministry of Social
Security) for five pounds per week, of which one pound fifty went on rent.
principle there was no reason why she should not have been additionally awarded
whatever it took to cover the cost of school meals, allowing me to pay for them
in the regular manner. Or even if it was administratively cheaper to issue me
with a Free Dinner Pass, there was no reason for it to be colour coded.
In the same
way, it would be acceptable to withdraw the Bus Passes and add to the State
Pension the equivalent of the money saved. All that you lose is the
self-satisfied smile of the politician who wants you to doff your cap and thank
him (Gordon Brown, Ken Livingstone) for the Pass.
The Bus Pass
is a symptom of a deeper problem which resides at the very core of the British
Treasury and the way it relates to British governments. The Treasury hates two
things above all: ring fenced money and entitlements. It is committed to the
ideas that all revenues should go into a single big undifferentiated Pot and to
the idea that all outgoings are a matter of discretion.
That is, of
course, an understandable way for a Treasury to think. It gives you the maximum
of flexibility in what is often – thanks to politicians – a struggle to make
the books balance. But it is also completely symbiotic with the interest of
party politicians. They too want maximum discretion. Let me give one example.
prime ministers normally want to pick at least one war to fight during their
time in office. These wars of choice can be vote-winners. They allow the prime
minister to walk tall. Mr Cameron –Prime Minister as I write – was deeply
disappointed when he was not able to get his war in Syria, supporting the jihadis.
a government going to war does not want voters to think about the financial
costs. The last thing it wants is being forced to impose a War Tax. That would
make voters think twice about their gung-ho enthusiasms for invading far away
Fortunately, the Treasury pot is usually big enough to absorb the
costs of a small war. Money can be shifted between notional budgets and, if
not, borrowing can be discreetly increased. But if monies were ring-fenced and
there were entitlements, it would all be more difficult.
As a result
of this way of thinking, both Treasury and politicians are committed to the
ideas (though they would never admit it) that All Benefits are Voluntary Hand Outs and No Benefits are Entitlements. In other words, citizens have no
way to create entitlement to Benefits is through insurance schemes. People pay
into the scheme and, at the same time, they are informed of their Entitlements
under the scheme. That is what Britain’s National Insurance system is supposed
to be about. But it isn’t. No one pays anywhere near enough to accumulate
entitlement to the Benefits they can claim. Nowadays, it is merely a concession
to the idea that there can be Benefits to which you are entitled because you
have insured for them. If the Treasury had its way, even that concession would
be abolished. The Treasury loathes the idea of insurance. It gets in the way of
tax and spend.
has almost a winning hand in one simple fact about our psychology. We hate it
when we see money removed from our pay packet before we even get it: Pay as You
Earn taxes, National Insurance. If National Insurance was for realistic sums of
money we would hate it even more.
But when it
comes to paying 20% Value Added Tax on virtually everything we buy – well, we
don’t even notice it (partly because we don’t see it separately itemised). This
is the Treasury’s winning hand – taxes we don’t notice. Not only that: such
invisible taxes are not linked to any specific government expenditures. The
Treasury gets just the kind of money it wants, money it can use as it (or its
political masters) please.
The Treasury & Politician commitment to avoiding Entitlements and favouring Hand Outs
immediately opens the door to the parlour game known as Benefits Scrounging, in which the winners are those who work out
every Hand Out for which they are eligible and promptly claim them all.
Sixties whose 60th birthday is celebrated claiming their Free Bus
Pass are benefits scroungers. They have no entitlement to the Pass, they have
done nothing to deserve it, they often don’t need it – but it’s there, a
Handout, yours for the asking.
Britain have an increasingly shaky idea of what it means to be a citizen. The
Benefits Culture created by politicians is disempowering. It encourages
childishness at election times: voters shop around looking for the party which
offers three for the price of two. No more than that. No expectation that you
think about the future, about your children and grandchildren; certainly no
expectation that you think about right and wrong, justice and fairness.
towards re-building ideas of citizenship involves, among much else, dismantling
the Handouts culture and re-instating the idea of a Contributory system: you
pay in for health care, unemployment benefit, and pensions. That must be the
expectation for nearly everyone, with a non-contributory social safety net principally for those who are born disabled or become so.
involves challenging the Treasury & Politician collusion. There is no reason
why money should not be ring fenced, why taxes on X should not go towards
paying for Y and only for Y. If politicians want a war, then they must use a
War Tax to pay for it. If voters want a War, then they should be obliged to put
their money where their flags wave.
* Added 25 July 2018: This material is included as a chapter in y book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones, and other booksellers