I was a teenage dole scrounger

Posted by Gareth Hargreaves

When times are tough the unemployed make a soft target, writes Allan MacLachlan.


Signing on was never part of the plan. When I left school, I had a job lined up, cleaning British Rail carriages. It wasn't exactly the career that I had dreamed about. Still, beggars - as everyone seemed keen to point out to me at the time - could not be choosers.

This was 1978. Although we associate mass unemployment with the 1980s and Margaret Thatcher, the dole queues had actually started to lengthen long before.

The country was in a mess. Manufacturing was in terminal decline. 'Greedy unions' are still held up as the culprits, though the bloody minded refusal of owners to invest and modernise was equally at fault.

I left school on Friday and was due to start in the railway yards on Monday. On the Saturday, however, I received a letter telling me in almost impenetrable official language that there wasn't actually going to be a job for me to go to.

Shock gave way to panic. Over the weekend I went through all of the local newspapers, calling those job adverts I could phone and hand writing letters to the rest.

On Monday I arrived at the Department of Health and Social Security. (My dad still referred to it as the Labour Exchange.) Most of my friends from school were there too. In days gone by they would have started in the local British Steel plant. But that was winding down prior to closure and no new workers were being taken on.

Claiming the dole in those days still carried a stigma. Things had been comparatively prosperous and for a time there had been near full employment in the UK. It was possible to walk out of a job in the morning and start a new one in the afternoon.

If people were unemployed, it tended to be a short-term situation. It was only a tiny minority of 'tinkies' who seemed to be unemployed by choice. These were the sort of people who divided their time between home and prison, who took up and sold the floorboards in their house and who made moonshine in hidden stills behind the golf course. You did not want to be like them. It wasn't cool.

I filled out many forms. I was interviewed by several people. I had to go through the charade of applying for Unemployment Benefit, being turned down (because I had never paid any National insurance contributions) and then applying for Supplementary Benefit. I then went home where on my first day out of school my mother and some of the neighbours lectured me on being a layabout. It was suggested that a 'good war' was what was needed.

Over the following weeks I applied for - literally - hundreds of jobs. I got absolutely no responses. My parents started to drive me nuts: they meant well, but every time they started going on about one of my friends who was 'doing well' in his job or news about the son of a friend of a distant relation who had managed to find a job, my teeth started to grind together. That only happened every time they saw me.

I got just under £60 a fortnight. My mum took most of it. The rest was hoarded.

Eventually I left home. I sold my stereo, all of my albums, various other odds and sods paid for from summer jobs. I had enough to put down a deposit on a room in a flat. Supplementary Benefit would cover the rent.

I eventually stopped bombarding employers with letters. It seemed like a waste of time and money. There were entry level jobs, but I realised that my chances of getting one were pretty astronomical.

I was short of one Higher (Scottish A-Level) and a language at O-Level to be able to apply for a university place. I spent most days going to the library and studying for an Economics and Mathematics Higher. I persevered with French but soon found that Spanish came a lot easier

I also started a fanzine (amateur magazine) called Carbomb. At first it was a rough and ready affair, typed on an ancient IBM Electric that had been a gift from an uncle, headlines inLetraset salvaged from the bin of a sympathetic printer. Eventually I struck a deal with a typesetter who agreed to set the whole thing for £50 an issue. If I went without food, I reasoned, I could easily afford it.

It was a struggle. Contrary to what the Daily Mail may have told you, if you're unemployed you will not be given £40,000 a year, housed in a mansion in Hampstead and fed on gold. I was constantly hungry and cold in the winter, living on instant noodles, porridge, tins of tuna and slightly rotten apples.

On the upside, I was out every night seeing bands that I loved, interviewing the likes of Joy Division,Echo & The Bunnymen and Siouxsie & The Banshees. I was learning to write and I was producing an increasingly professional and respected publication. I started to take advertising from record companies, ploughing the money back into the magazine.

I passed my Economics and mathematics Highers with flying colours. I scraped through O Level Spanish. It was enough to get me a place at university.

I kept the fanzine going in the first term, but the course work was demanding, so I gave it away as a going concern to a friend. I was also getting freelance work from London music papers such as Sounds, which actually paid well and supplemented my student grant.

When I graduated, I got a job as a trainee reporter on a local newspaper chain. I've subsequently worked for national and international newspapers and magazines . I've worked in radio and TV.

My point here is that while I've never been rich, I have paid back in taxes many times over the amount that I took in the form of benefits and grants after I left school. I calculate that all told the amount of money that I received over the four years between leaving school and starting a job was roughly £13,6000. That’s benefits, rent, student grant and university fees. In the first 10 years of work, I must have paid that back in tax and National Insurance at least five times. Over the course of my working life, I calculate that it will be at least 300 times.

Had I started work cleaning trains, who knows where I would have gone? Maybe I'd have done the same thing. I doubt it, though. I think it’s unlikely that I could have done the same things while I was working full time, particularly at a strenuous, grotty and demoralising job that paid only a few pounds more than the dole.

While I’m not arguing that everyone should be allowed to kick back on the dole, it does seem counter-productive to force some very able people into menial low-paid jobs.

We have to stop seeing all benefit payments as ‘hand-outs’ and look at better ways to invest in people. Of course the country’s skint, but long term recovery rests on bringing money into the exchequer. Forcing people to work for £5.80 an hour is a false economy.

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