Cameron Penny is a financial services lobbyist, East End
resident and member of the Conservative Party for over a decade. He was a
senior officer of the UK’s largest university-based Conservative
Association and stood as a local council candidate for the party. Follow
Cameron on Twitter.
On a side street by the headquarters of Channel 4 off Horseferry Road in London there is a building. Outside homeless men sit or stand drinking. Inside the furniture is, literally, bolted down.
I know this because, for a time, it was where I was required to go in order to claim jobseekers allowance. No one, aside from my parents, knows about this chapter in my life. Until now.
I am writing this now not because I deserve pity or concern, but because the debate about welfare reform has become increasingly personalised. Apparently I'm in good company; Iain Duncan Smith also knows what it's like to be on benefits.
I have been privileged in life. My parents worked very hard and gave myself and my siblings the best upbringing their income and personal values could provide. However, at the height of the post-Lehman crisis, fresh out of university, I found myself without work. In the interests of full disclosure I should say that whilst my background was middle class, I was also a young man in my 20s and my parents were not able to, and nor did I expect them to, support me forever.
The first time I went to register at the Chadwick Street Jobcentre I felt, frankly, rather sick. The embarrassment of it consumed me. This was, I felt, not where someone with a degree from Oxford should have been. I entered, filled in my paperwork and sat to wait for an adviser to see me. It's an experience that politicians of all hues would do well to recreate. I sat in a sterile bubble as other advisers helped people, some of whom didn't have English as a first language, fill out their forms.
Then it was time for my interview. It was obvious that the system, into which I have since paid significant sums, just didn't know what to do with me. I ran the adviser through the jobs that I had applied for – the emails are still with me. I told them about my education, my skills etc. It felt like we were really just going through the motions. They signed something and that was it, with a future date set for the next appointment. With that I returned to the 8ft x 8ft room in a shared flat I called home.
As a proud and hugely ambitious man, this is not an experience I like to dwell on. I am deeply grateful to live in a country where my fellow citizens pay their taxes so, at times of need, those of us who have fallen out of the workforce can work towards getting back into it. I'm also sure that many of those in that situation can emphasise with me the massive hit your self-confidence takes. I remember well one interview. in particular, where it seemed humiliation rather than a serious conversation about a position was the preoccupation of the interviewer – recruitment consultancy is an industry I can't recommend!
I am one of the lucky ones. I am painfully aware that today, nearly a million young people in the UK, aged 16 – 24, are unemployed.
I eventually found a paid-internship working for a start-up internet company and from there I managed to get a low-paid but full time position at another firm. From there I moved to another company where I work with amazingly dedicated people whose only concern is serving our clients.
So, in a nutshell, that's my story. It's not something that should really matter. though. We all have our stories, some worse, some better. That's life. Personalising a debate doesn't, in the main, help to inform it. I don't believe, as some on the left have said, that reforms to welfare are about punishing the poor. No one, whether Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat or other, would or should wish hardship and humiliation on another.
The time, though, has come for a reckoning, forced both by the state of our economy and also by the extreme exemplars that the tabloid press drag up on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Of the giant evils facing our society it is idleness that preoccupies our discourse. The sense that some of us don't want to work and can't be bothered to look for it.
The welfare state should protect the most vulnerable and it should support those who, for no fault of their own, are out of work. Yes, there are problems with the current reforms; I was deeply upset by reading about Martine White's situation. This is someone I want my taxes to provide for. On the other hand, those who see the state as a way of life, when they could work, do not deserve our generosity. When the Prime Minister spoke of "wider questions" that the Philpott case raises it was the latter that he had in mind. When £220bn of taxpayers money is spent on welfare, it's time we all, regardless of political stripe, started formulating answers to those questions. Far better we do that honestly and without resorting to the tribal rhetoric we've heard and read too much of in the past week.