February 25, 2011 by Rhi
I’ve just come back from an amazing five days away in the company of good friends. Days visiting my old uni stomping ground, and nights spent talking over pints of beer in lovely pubs (and in kitchens!) chewing the fat and having the kind of interaction that I haven’t had in months. It was all the more lovely because, a few days before leaving, Mr Bint and I realised that we couldn’t afford to go. We could use our food budget and some money gifted from my parents to get us there and back, but we would have nothing to spend once we got there. When I informed my mates of this situation, with much regret, the response was “Don’t worry about it. Get yourself here, we’ll do the rest.” And they bloody well did. There was a pint handed to me the moment I walked through the door of the pub on the first night, and they kept coming. I had a proper Sunday Roast cooked for me (a real treat – we gave up eating meat weeks ago because it costs too much), and generally the generosity of my best mates touched me deeply. I know (and I hope they do) that this situation won’t be forever, and that I’d do the same for them. God willing, on the next visit, I’ll be the one getting the rounds in.
So on my return, it was with great amusement that I read an email linking me to a message board where someone had passed comment on my recent bemoaning of the cost of passports. Mine is up for renewal this year, and a quick check of the directgov website told me that I’d need to find £76 from somewhere if I wanted a new one. Ouch. I’m not the only person in financial dire straits at the moment – and I should have a better chance than many of getting out of it. But, I was 21 before I got my first passport, and I can well remember the ballache it was back then trying to do normal, every day things without it. As security has increased massively in the last 10 years, it got me thinking, how do people who can’t afford a passport cope? I haven’t left the shores of the UK since 2005, but I still use my passport regularly. Even though I have a driving licence. There’s the first reason, to apply for a provisional photocard licence, you need to either show your passport, or go through an incredibly elaborate rigmarole of having a photo signed (often at a cost) by a certified professional. I used my passport to open a savings account, to protect my income from being sucked up by my massive student overdraft. Without proof of ID, you’re limited to using Post Office accounts. Banks don’t like it when you haven’t got a handy little document with your photograph on it to prove you aren’t a criminal. So passports being so unattainable to people on low incomes pushes them further into their place in a two tier system where those with money can go and do as they please – in this case, open a savings account with the best interest rate around – and those without are stuck with what they’re allowed to have, and make do with it.
When I worked in insurance, they requested that I bring my passport to my first day of work. Not as part of a list of acceptable ID, but as a requirement, alongside other things like bank statements and driving licences. And here we are again in another circle of hell. What do I tell them? I haven’t got a passport, or a driving licence (because I haven’t got a passport), or a bank statement (because I haven’t got a passport). Obviously, I do have all of these things, at the moment. But only because I’m lucky enough to have had periods of prosperity in my life. I remember my Mother crying outside the bank once, because she couldn’t open an account in her own name after her divorce, because she didn’t have sufficient identification.
In the UK, at the moment, a passport is more than just the right to travel freely between countries. It’s the right to move freely in this one. It’s one of only two officially recognised forms of photographic identification. I handed mine over at work, when applying for my CRB check, when receiving my benefit payments, FGS! If I didn’t have one, it would make it infinitely more difficult to access things which most people take for granted.
Apparently, my comment about making passports more affordable for people on low incomes, made this silly person mad, because it amounted to me asking the government to subsidise my foreign holidays. But it just proves how some people can so easily fail to understand the reality of actually living on the breadline. If you are poor, and can’t afford to pay £76, because you are too busy feeding the electricity meter, or feeding your kids, or something daft like that, then you’re stuck here. Chance of a cheap week away? Sorry, no can do. Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State won’t be happy to request nor require in the Name of Her Majesty to whom it may concern to allow you to pass freely without let or hindrance, let alone afford you assistance or protection. Not unless you’re willing to stump up the cash, to pay for the interview, the application process, the biometric information. All this national protection comes at a price – and once again it’s the poorest who have to go without.
For the umpteenth time in the last five months, I’m left feeling like a second class citizen. I keep hearing about people speaking about the struggle of living on a budget, whilst they blog on their shiny new Ipads. And I keep thinking, am I asking too much? I’m extremely fortunate. I don’t for a second suggest that I’m living in abject poverty. But then, that makes me feel even worse. Every week I come up against something else that makes me realise exactly how hard it is to really live on the breadline – without any safety net to pick up the tab of rent or other “expenses”. Does anyone actually give a shit about people struggling to make ends meet every week. Surviving on £100 a week because the benefits system is set up to withhold money where at all possible. Giving people the chance of having a small piece of their identity, a passport not to foreign climates, but to things most people take for granted, would be a small chink of light in the darkness that is living in poverty. Without let or hindrance? They’re things that people at the sharp end know far too much about, I’m afraid.