The rise of the Undercover Guerrilla Volunteer
Universal Credit is coming and with it arrives an almighty mess that will make previous omnishambles look like minor typo’s.
One of the great joys of autumn and winter for me is that as the growing season winds down, I don’t have to spend every waking hour of the day down in the garden, but I have time to pursue a number of other interests. That is, after I’ve caught up with all those jobs that didn’t get done over the summer, as well as the bottling and preserving, the seed ordering, the planning, the accounts, the...oh well! Believe it or not, I do have a little spare time over the winter. And one of the things I started doing, is a weekly shift as a volunteer at our local community shop and cafe.
Our little community venture, Siop Cynfelin, is doing quite well; the reverse credit scheme allowed for enough basic start up stock to be bought and soon the range of goods was expanded to include those products specifically requested by the locals. There are always the basics, but also a lot of wholefoods and organic produce, local veg and fruit, meat from the local butcher, free range eggs, gluten free biscuits and a nice selection of tipple. And with the festive season looming, some really yummy looking chocolate has arrived on the shelves! It’s great not to have to travel to the nearest town for these things.
The cafe is still a modest venture, we can’t do “real” home cooked food yet, but a new cooker is on its way. I can’t wait until I can cook and serve the first batch of pumpkin soup there, made with locally grow butternut squash with home baked rolls, warm out of the oven! In the mean time, we’re getting to grips with the espresso machine, I’ve got renewed respect for the skills of the barista; getting the perfect milk foam on a latte it’s not as easy as it looks!
I’ve worked in the catering trade before, which you’d expect of a jack-of-all-trades like me and I can say that it was never a job I loved. It can be hard, stressful work, poorly paid and with little job security. Often, as an employee, you get treated appallingly and if you complain, you find yourself out of a job. So why did I choose to go and do that kind of volunteering work, I can hear you ask; well, doing it as a volunteer, for our community cafe, is a whole different ball game. For starters, everybody is so appreciative of even your most inadequate efforts. And then there’s something truly magical and empowering about giving your time and work for free, as Ben Brangwyn wrote about his Dr Bike venture:
"Why am I doing it for free?" Less simple to answer. I think there are six main answers – the potential of state interference, my views on money/consumption/CO2, a spirit of economic experimentation, an appreciation for the tough economic situation that lots of people find themselves in, something to do with self-confidence in terms of "business", and lastly a desire for interesting human interactions."
All over the UK, some of the most innovative, necessary, socially beneficial ventures rely on the help of volunteers. It’s something that you’d expect our current government to be broadly in support of, what with their notions of “Big Society” and all. You’d think that as they keep on cutting services in some of Britain’s poorest communities, they’d at least try and make it as easy as possible for volunteers to step up and take over. But not so; once “Universal Credit” will replace Working Tax Credit, I will no longer be able to offer my time for free, for fear of losing benefits.
Working Tax Credit (WTC) is a reasonably practical, means tested, social security benefit system, which allows people on low incomes to keep working. You can be self employed, which is particularly useful in geographical areas where there’s little or no jobs and the only work you can get is what you create yourself. It also makes it possible for those whose personal circumstances (such as caring for someone or health issues) don’t allow for them to hold down a regular job to work by working from home, choosing those hours that fit around their other responsibilities or needs etc. There are also a lot of small businesses which just don’t generate enough total income to keep a family going, which are nevertheless valuable activities that enrich our communities. I’m thinking of artists and writers, small holders and farmers, horticulturalists (like ourselves), village shop keepers, those working in the tourism industry, Permaculture teachers, herbalists, to name but a few. WTC acts as a safety net, it means you can try and start up a new business and your family won’t starve during the first meagre years or when the economy or weather don’t play ball. It is a system that encourages you to work, even though the job’s poorly paid or does not give you many hours, as WTC will make up the shortfall. It is thanks to WTC that my husband and I have been able to set up our market garden and slowly increase yields, both because we learned how to do things better and we improved the poor, acid soil. This takes time. Eventually, we hope to get an income that might be equivalent to one full time plus one part time minimum wage job, apart from the fact that we’d still be working far more hours than the 35 per week average.
Enter Universal Credit (UC). According to the new rules, the self-employed will have to be earning more or less at minimum wage levels to be considered to be “in gainful employment” and this for at least 48 weeks of the year. That’s tricky, if not to say impossible, for any business that is subject to seasonal variations. Okay, so surely your income gets assessed over a whole year, so that the greater earnings of the summer, for instance, cover the smaller takings of winter? No. That would be too sensible, they want monthly reporting! There is still a great lack of clarity in how all of this is going to play out, but as things stand, it would seem that each month’s income and expenditure will exist entirely separate from the rest of the year and what you earn in one month, counts as income only for that month. Equally, any expenses incurred, will only be deductable from that month’s earnings in which you paid for those expenses. At this point, I can imagine all of you who read this, who have some experience of running your own business, to sit up and declare that I must have got this wrong, because you simply can’t run a business like that. But no, with the information that is currently available, this is how things stand.
Next month, we will be putting a new cover on one of the poly tunnels. This is hugely expensive. We planned to do this during our “quiet” period, because then we have time for repairs and structural improvements, but of course it’s a time of the year where our income is quite low. Under UC rules, that would then mean that we’d make a catastrophic loss for November, rendering our business instantaneously unviable. But to make matters worse, we would also fall below the “minimum income floor”, which would result in deductions being made from our benefit, which under UC, includes housing and child benefit. I know it makes no sense, the whole scheme reads as if it’s been thought up by a bunch of monkeys, drunk on cheap wine and I sincerely hope that by the time it gets implemented, it sees some common sense changes.
But what is also very worrying is that under Universal Credit, any self-employed person who is in receipt of UC, who wishes to volunteer at, say, the community shop, will no longer be able to do so, because if the UC officials decide that this business could afford to pay you, you will be “deemed to have earned reasonable remuneration for that work” and your benefits will be docked accordingly. Thus I can see the creation of a whole army of undercover guerrilla volunteers, who will come to do their shifts under pseudonyms whilst wearing false moustaches, sunglasses and wigs.
I’d like to pay tribute to Cathy Ashley, author of the “Permaculture House in Totnes” Blog, without whose hard work, trawling through the legalese of “The Universal Credit Regulations 2013” , translating it into a readable document called “Universal Credit and the Self-employed” and making it freely available to all, we would be non the wiser about what the powers that be are cooking up for the low earning self-employed. This is what she says in her introduction and I wholeheartedly agree with her:
“Universal Credit is the new benefit system that is due to be introduced in October. Described by the DWP as: "... a new single payment for people who are looking for work or on a low income". It is going to affect pretty much everyone of working age who receives state help of any description - including Tax Credits. I am not a conspiracy theorist, and I'd always urge against scaremongering - because I believe in creating a positive reality where 'all is well', and because I believe it is disempowering to set oneself up as a victim. But this is a nasty piece of legislation, which is going to affect the most resourceful, hardworking people in the most sustainable businesses with the most frugal lifestyles. It is possible that Universal Credit will have some winners, but I am very concerned about the ludicrous rules for the self-employed. It isn't absolutely clear what is going to happen and how and, unhelpfully, all HMRC say is: you don’t need to do anything until the Tax Credit Office tells you to. The Tax Credit Office will tell you when you can make a claim for Universal Credit, and stop claiming tax credits.
Actually I think we do have to do something. We have to have a look at the proposals, work out how they will affect us, ask a lot of questions about how they are going to be implemented in practice and make an unprecedented fuss about it to anyone who'll listen."
Photo's: Siop Cynfelin - Creative commons / Universal Credit logo - Cynical gits.gov.uk / A. Zappa, undercover guerrilla volunteer - unknown