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One last scoot round the holiday home and I see the kids when they were little, buzzing about

The room is silent and stuffy, but it’s filled with the ghosts of holidays past.

It’s 9am, and I’m on holiday, sitting alone in the morning stillness, the only sounds being the burbling of the pool filter and the buzzing of the cicadas – rhythmic and relentless, like the shaker part on a disco track. Ben’s gone to the bakery, everyone else is asleep, and it’s a beautiful time of day, haze hanging over the hills, pots full of oleander and hibiscus and plumbago in the garden – everything muted shades of sage and grey, and a piney scent in the air. I’m deeply relaxed and happy.

I pick up my book, one I’ve brought with me to read for the Goldsmiths Prize, the literary award that looks for novels exhibiting “creative daring”, that “extend the possibility for the novel form” and “break the mould”... You know the kind of books I mean.

I’m all for the prize, and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the reading so far, but on the other hand, sometimes, on a plane circling the airport after you’ve finished your gin and tonic and stowed away your table, or on a sunbed at 9am, your brain has different requirements. And as I look at this particular book, one with which I’ve been struggling for a few days, my heart sinks. For I have blundered in my holiday choice and brought the one that is all hard work and no fun.

Looking up at me from the table beside my chair is an alternative, the book I brought, “just in case”. It’s To Kill the President by Sam Bourne (pseudonym of Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland).

A little guiltily, I turn to that instead, and within two pages I’m gripped. It slips down as easily and pleasurably as the local rosé and I devour it in two days straight. Fast-paced and exciting, it is perfect holiday reading, though on this particular holiday, perhaps all-too plausible. I’m sure I’m not giving anything away if I reveal that it begins with a Trump-like president attempting to order a pre-emptive nuclear strike on North Korea.

Before we arrived here in the south of France, the wildfires had been raging, tens of thousands of people being evacuated from their tents and holiday homes, forced to spend the night down on the beach at Saint-Tropez. The news had carried images of blazing hillsides, thick smoke hanging over the forests, and so each morning I have been scanning the landscape for plumes spiralling up into the sky, a sight I’ve seen here before.

But by the end of the week, what with the book I’ve just read, and the reckless tweets from You Know Who, and the articles on my phone entitled “How worried should I be about nuclear war with North Korea?” I’m now semi-seriously scanning the horizon for a distant mushroom cloud. Strange times indeed.

Aside from that minor worry, the holiday goes as ever: we laze and eat and do nothing. Much to Ben’s amusement, I’ve brought aqua dumb-bells with me and a book called Make the Pool Your Gym. In an effort to counteract some of the extra cheese calories, I’m marching across the pool for half an hour every day, which is like wading through treacle, or running in a nightmare.

I light anti-mosquito coils wherever I sit, and settle in my own little cloud of smoke, and at 3pm, when it’s too hot to think, I wonder why on earth we didn’t go to the Lake District this year. Then at 9pm, when the air is soft and warm, and the sun is glowing orange behind a cypress tree, and the hills are mauve and charcoal, I wonder why we don’t live here.

On the day we leave, I do a final scoot round the house – one we’ve rented many times over the years – checking for phone chargers and flip-flops. Upstairs I stand for a moment in the largest bedroom, where all three kids used to sleep, and which has now been bagged by my teenage daughter and her boyfriend.

Suddenly I can see them all when they were little, buzzing around me, late baths after a last swim, lying on the bed while I dry their ears out, putting lotion on pink shoulders and bite cream on itchy bumps.

The shutters are closed, and the room is silent and stuffy, but it’s filled with the ghosts of holidays past, every year the same, and always different. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia

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The Universal Credit nightmare shows there’s nothing more dangerous than a good idea

The hardest thing to build into any benefits IT project is common sense.

The trouble with Universal Credit is that everyone thinks it’s a good idea. Labour has long backed the concept of rolling multiple benefits into one payment but studiously refused to implement it when in power. Why? Because it takes all the mess and complication that claimants have to navigate and transfers that to the government. It’s like Whitehall volunteering to find your next house, sort out the survey and fix the best mortgage for you. It sounds brilliant – and that should make you suspicious.

“I think it’s quite a good idea, having it all in one go,” says Jo Whitaker when I speak to her at home in Moulton, North Yorkshire. Unfortunately, the reality fell short. Diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2016, Whitaker had to give up her cleaning business as she underwent chemotherapy. She was told – oh, happy day! – that her local jobcentre was one of those testing Universal Credit ahead of its countrywide roll-out.

There was a catch. In order for her to claim Universal Credit, her existing child and working tax credits had to be stopped for six weeks, while her eligibility for the single monthly payment was assessed. She created an online “journal” to record her income and provide supporting evidence and was told that she could apply for an advance, which would have to be paid back later, to cover the time she spent waiting.

She received her payments in November and December, then ran into a problem. Whitaker, a mother of three, owns a house jointly with her ex-husband, but it was on the market and had no tenants. (She was renting elsewhere.) This seems to have given the jobcentre computer conniptions: did Whitaker have an asset that meant her housing benefit should be reduced, or not?

She received a demand in her “journal” a few days before Christmas: show us that you’re paying rent, or we’ll stop your benefits. “I was on my fifth round of chemo and I wasn’t well at all,” she says. “After Christmas, I couldn’t get hold of anyone to give me a straight answer. This went on for about a month.” The January payment didn’t come. Whitaker spent hours on the phone – her mother, listening to our call, chimes in to amplify this point – and she eventually received a letter admitting that it was a mistake to withhold her benefit. “I can remember being on the phone, crying my eyes out,” she says. “Chemo, it does your brain in. It was the last thing I needed. It was an absolute nightmare.”

Yet Jo Whitaker’s story is not a particularly extreme one. She is, she says, lucky to have a great support network, and she never felt truly helpless. Her business experience helped her budget and cope with rectifying the jobcentre’s error. I’ll also admit that when I heard she had a house, I thought: hang on, why is she claiming benefits when she has an asset? As she talked, the situation became clear. But this is the kind of detail that computer systems struggle to deal with: the hardest thing to build into any IT project is common sense.

Many aren’t as resilient as Whitaker. New figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that around a quarter of new claimants wait more than six weeks for their first payment. And because Universal Credit is paid to tenants, rather than directly to landlords, it has significantly increased the number of people falling behind on their rent.

There’s a cruel double bind here. Most people claim benefits precisely because they are in difficult personal circumstances. They have lost their job, got sick, or broken up with a partner and had to move house. Those same circumstances make dealing with bureaucracy more challenging. When the computer says no, it doesn’t just take away one of half a dozen benefits; it can disrupt the only assistance people are getting.

The quiet unhappiness of Jo Whitaker’s story should worry the government. In 2015, the possibility of cuts to tax credits caused enough concern on the doorstep and in constituency surgeries that even Tory MPs quailed. George Osborne’s resulting fudge was to kick back the cuts, promising that “savings” would be found anyway as more people moved to Universal Credit.

The idea that this can be accomplished without people feeling noticeably poorer is optimistic. That it can be accomplished using the existing IT system is even more so. Universal Credit should be a pragmatic project, but it has always been politicised: first by Iain Duncan Smith’s evangelical insistence that he would “make work pay” (even though 60 per cent of UK households in poverty have at least one member who works) and then by his flouncing anger that the project was being used as a cover for “salami-slicing” the welfare budget. IDS must have been the last man in Britain to work out that Osborne wasn’t just pretending to be into austerity; he really loved it.

In 2013, the National Audit Office found that the Universal Credit programme was struggling with a “tight timescale, unfamiliar project management approach and lack of a detailed plan”. The Labour MP Margaret Hodge, then the chair of the public accounts committee, concluded that most of the £425m spent so far would have to be written off. The programme was “reset”.

That, in effect, is what Citizens Advice wants to happen again. The organisation is calling for a pause on the roll-out, which is scheduled to accelerate next month. “[It] is a disaster waiting to happen,” says its chief executive, Gillian Guy. “People face severe consequences, like visits from bailiffs and eviction, when they can’t pay their bills.”

Like Jo Whitaker, she believes that the “principles behind Universal Credit are sound”. But that won’t be a consolation to anyone left cold, hungry or homeless over Christmas. In politics, there’s nothing more dangerous than something that everyone thinks is a good idea. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left