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No vaping at Pizza Express – apparently it’s company policy

It's my policy, though, to argue about it. Or at least ask for "Hitler" on my coffee cup.

I was going to write about the Fray Bentos individual steak and kidney pudding this week, which isn’t so much a meal as a world entire, but then there was this . . . incident. And so it is I return once more to Pizza Express, and gladly.

I’ve animadverted on this particular purveyor of farinaceous discs in this space several times already, but feel no compunction in returning, doglike, to the colloidal matter which, let’s face it, looks like vomit. Why? Because I’m Homo pizza-expressus if I am anything: not only have I eaten at this chain for as long as I can remember, but I’ve raised four strapping children on its nosh. The last time I crunched the thin-crusty numbers, I calculated I had paid for several football fields’ worth of Margheritas, Venezianas and American Hots – and although I’m not going to do it again, let me just state for the record: you owe me, Pizza Express – truly you do.

What made the incident so very galling is that after a dip in attendance now that my kids’ palates have grown a tad more sophisticated, I’ve resumed dining there regularly. Why? Its Soho 65 pizza (on a gluten base) satisfies all my pernickety dietary requirements, and the decor – two parts constructivist to one of the Amalfi coast – is easy enough on the eye. True, I never enter a Pizza Express and think, “Wow! What a show-stopper!” But by the same token, I seldom do so and then speedily retreat because it’s an utter shithole.

Take the Pizza Express in Langham Place, just south of Broadcasting House and cheek by jowl with a branch of Byron. I’ve taken to eating there on Mondays, because that’s when I get my fundament greased by Doctor Wong of Wimpole Street. The place is a symphony of pale wood and pale wood-laminate, so, as a dynamic media professional (who requires regular fundament-greasing), I’m right at home there. So at home that I think nothing of puffing away gently and discreetly on my electronic cigarette.

The other lunchtime I was doing just this when the manager appeared and peremptorily informed me: “You’re not allowed to do that here.” I, naturally enough, asked why, and she replied: “It’s company policy.”

Well, surely, a bullish fellow such as me can be forgiven for reacting to this red flag. “Yes,” I snapped back, “it may well be company policy, but it isn’t against the law, and I’m not at all sure it’s legally enforceable – so why is it company policy?”

Anyway, I’ll spare you any more of the back-and-forth; suffice to say I wasn’t very successful in conveying this distinction to the no doubt harassed and underpaid manager who was, after all, only doing her job. The upshot of the incident was that I, considerably aggrieved, did not stop, and she, considerably aggrieved, reported me to some Higher Authority. (I picture a sort of giant Arcimboldo figure, its cheesy features comprised of many and varied pizzas.)

I know this, because the next time I popped in I was bearded by another manager. “I need to talk to you,” he said, “because you were abusive to my colleague the last time you were in.” I cavilled at this: “‘Abusive’ is an overstatement. ‘Forthright’ would cover it.” “The thing is,” he pressed on, “it’s against company policy to use electronic cigarettes . . .”

Again: I’ll save you the repeat-order of dialogue. Once I’d established I wasn’t going to be forcibly exiled from the mozzarella Eden, I engaged more fully with the manager, and he conceded that, no, he had no idea as to the whys and wherefores of this policy.

“All your colleague had to do,” I said, “was give me a reason, and I would’ve complied right away. I’m sure you, in your work, have to do all sorts of stuff that’s ‘company policy’ but which you think is utter bullshit.”

Somewhat hesitantly he concurred, and that is how we left it, after I’d further mollified him by conceding that I could be “a bit of an arsehole at times” (just ask Dr Wong).

And it’s true: I can be. I would estimate that 99 per cent of the time I am completely civil to people in the service industries, and at least 50 per cent of the time I’m a heavy tipper. (Ask Nick Lezard if you don’t believe me: I’ve sat across restaurant tables from him, settling the bill, and watched his mouth gape in disbelief as I bestow on the waiter pretty much Nick’s own weekly wage.)

Yet there are certain things that do drive me completely spark-a-loco. Company policy is one, and the way that baristas nowadays ask you for your name before frothing your coffee, so they can inscribe it on the cardboard cup. Yes, yes, I do understand the practicalities of making several sweet slops at once, yet there is still something so intrusive about it that I always quibble – and the form my quibbling takes is to reply: “Hitler, my name is Hitler.”

Possibly the biggest surprise my life has to offer is how compliant 99 per cent of baristas are with this bizarre (and possibly abusive) request, obligingly scrawling the hateful designator without any cavilling whatsoever. I’ve various theories about why this should be so, but on balance my suspicion is that the reason for their compliance is quite simple – it’s company policy.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war

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Universal Credit takes £3,700 from single working parents - it's time to call a halt

The shadow work and pensions secretary on the latest analysis of a controversial benefit. 

Labour is calling for the roll out of Universal Credit (UC) to be halted as new data shows that while wages are failing to keep up with inflation, cuts to in-work social security support have meant most net incomes have flat-lined in real terms and in some cases worsened, with women and people from ethnic minority communities most likely to be worst affected.

Analysis I commissioned from the House of Commons Library shows that real wages are stagnating and in-work support is contracting for both private and public sector workers. 

Private sector workers like Kellie, a cleaner at Manchester airport, who is married and has a four year old daughter. She told me how by going back to work after the birth of her daughter resulted in her losing in-work tax credits, which made her day-to-day living costs even more difficult to handle. 

Her child tax credits fail to even cover food or pack lunches for her daughter and as a result she has to survive on a very tight weekly budget just to ensure her daughter can eat properly. 

This is the everyday reality for too many people in communities across the UK. People like Kellie who have to make difficult and stressful choices that are having lasting implications on the whole family. 

Eventually Kellie will be transferred onto UC. She told me how she is dreading the transition onto UC, as she is barely managing to get by on tax credits. The stories she hears about having to wait up to 10 weeks before you receive payment and the failure of payments to match tax credits are causing her real concern.

UC is meant to streamline social security support,  and bring together payments for several benefits including tax credits and housing benefit. But it has been plagued by problems in the areas it has been trialled, not least because of the fact claimants must wait six weeks before the first payment. An increased use of food banks has been observed, along with debt, rent arrears, and even homelessness.

The latest evidence came from Citizens Advice in July. The charity surveyed 800 people who sought help with universal credit in pilot areas, and found that 39 per cent were waiting more than six weeks to receive their first payment and 57 per cent were having to borrow money to get by during that time.

Our analysis confirms Universal Credit is just not fit for purpose. It looks at different types of households and income groups, all working full time. It shows single parents with dependent children are hit particularly hard, receiving up to £3,100 a year less than they received with tax credits - a massive hit on any family budget.

A single teacher with two children working full time, for example, who is a new claimant to UC will, in real terms, be around £3,700 a year worse off in 2018-19 compared to 2011-12.

Or take a single parent of two who is working in the NHS on full-time average earnings for the public sector, and is a new tax credit claimant. They will be more than £2,000 a year worse off in real-terms in 2018-19 compared to 2011-12. 

Equality analysis published in response to a Freedom of Information request also revealed that predicted cuts to Universal Credit work allowances introduced in 2016 would fall most heavily on women and ethnic minorities. And yet the government still went ahead with them.

It is shocking that most people on low and middle incomes are no better off than they were five years ago, and in some cases they are worse off. The government’s cuts to in-work support of both tax credits and Universal Credit are having a dramatic, long lasting effect on people’s lives, on top of stagnating wages and rising prices. 

It’s no wonder we are seeing record levels of in-work poverty. This now stands at a shocking 7.4 million people.

Our analyses make clear that the government’s abject failure on living standards will get dramatically worse if UC is rolled out in its current form.

This exactly why I am calling for the roll out to be stopped while urgent reform and redesign of UC is undertaken. In its current form UC is not fit for purpose. We need to ensure that work always pays and that hardworking families are properly supported. 

Labour will transform and redesign UC, ending six-week delays in payment, and creating a fair society for the many, not the few. 

Debbie Abrahams is shadow work and pensions secretary.