A few thoughts on the extraordinary efforts that our punitive state now makes to isolate people who need state help:
Not long ago, I had ANOTHER altercation with a G4S security guard – this time at one of the East London jobcentres. You can hear some of that argument here (there’s a bit in it about a bicycle that you’ll need to read on to understand):
The dispute was about people’s right to bring a friend or supporter along to their jobcentre appointments. I was there to accompany a young woman to her first jobseekers’ allowance signon meeting. She had all sorts of complicated problems with her benefits, so I went along to take any notes that she needed. She also wanted someone along as a witness.
You’d think that was fair enough, especially at the moment. People need witnessess to their interactions with jobcentre advisers. That is because the whole jobcentre system is a fiasco. People get their benefits sanctioned for reasons that nobody understands, or they’re told to attend meetings that end up being on another day entirely, or they get in trouble for not turning up to appointments that another adviser has cancelled (I’ve seen endless variations on all three over the last year or so). Taking a witness along so that at least one other person understands what jobsearch activities and meetings are agreed is pretty important to survival. The DWP’s own responses to FOI requests about bringing a supporter along to JSA appointments seem to imply that accompaniment is perfectly fine. Other people have argued the toss about representation with the DWP and apparently won. Feel free to leave a comment, or email me, if you have any further insight into the rules. I’d ask the DWP myself, except that asking the DWP anything these days is so utterly pointless that I can’t actually find the motivation to lift my finger and dial the DWP’s number. I ring the DWP and I email the DWP and the DWP simply refuses to respond to my questions.
Which isn’t necessarily a huge loss in the greater scheme. The point is that people should be entitled to take a witness along to their jobcentre signon meetings. The other point is that nobody on the ground seems to know what the rules are anyway. People just say whatever suits them at the time. Some guards (they’re generally in the minority now) have said to me Yes, You Can Go In. The rest say No. That means that the majority of jobcentre security guards I see now are very quick to put a stop to someone’s right to any sort of representation. Their first response shouldn’t be No, but it is. It’s No for the hell of it. It’s No, just because guards can say No. I’ve probably attended around ten jobcentre appointments with people this year and reckon that security guards have said No to my going in at the start of more than half of them. One guy I just totally ignored. I pretended I couldn’t hear him telling me to stop and just kept walking. The rest generally backed down after debates about procedures and/or previous agreements which I largely made up on the spot, but fortunately convinced people existed. This says to me that nobody is very clear on the facts. Things sometimes seem to go better when guards think that I’m a claimant’s mother. I don’t know what it is about mothers. The problem is that I can’t be everyone’s Mum, especially when I turn up at the same jobcentre with different people. It is also a tricky call when claimants and I are around the same age.
What you have then, as I say, is No for the hell of it. You have a situation where guards say No just because they can. The default assumption is that people on benefits have no rights. Any event or issue that helps to justify that view is seized upon.
And we did have a problem at the start of this particular jobcentre appointment that the guards seized upon. The problem was the bicycle the young woman had with her. Here it is (the guards told me off for taking this picture – No Pictures, blah blah blah. That’s the main reason I’m uploading it):
This young woman rode the bicycle to the jobcentre, because riding a bike doesn’t cost anything and getting the bus does. Unfortunately, she didn’t have a working bike lock for the bike, because she couldn’t afford one. She thought that the jobcentre guards would let her leave the bicycle in the foyer for the few minutes that it would take her to sign on. Needless to say, the guards said Absolutely Not. The sign on the door said No Bicycles. So – that was the end of the bike and any discussion about it as far as they were concerned.
Except that the problem wasn’t solved. I can understand that jobcentres don’t want their foyers filling up with bikes and that making an exception will give everyone else the wrong idea about bikes etc, etc. This G4S guard trotted out the usual health and safety line, which is one of officialdom’s fondest justifications for stopping people from doing anything – but the fact was that this young woman now had an impossible choice to make. It was a choice that the guards were absolutely not going to make easier for her under any circumstances. Either she parked her unlocked bike on the street somewhere and hoped nobody pinched while she signed on, or she abandoned her signon appointment to take the bike home, in which case she would risk a sanction. That was the choice. Keep the bike and get a sanction, or keep the JSA and lose the bike.
On one level or another, the guards seemed to enjoy this impasse. They kept saying No, she couldn’t take the bike in. In the end, I said I’d stay with the bicycle while the woman went in to sign on.
That’s when the guard and I had our discussion. It was also when things got ridiculous. As you can hear in the recording, I said that the guard had denied the woman her right to representation by making me stay with the bike. He said she’d never had that right in the first place – that she’d never have been allowed to take a friend to her appointment anyway. I said that was garbage. Which it surely is. A second jobcentre worker came in at some point to say that discretion could be shown in some instances. A supporter might be allowed to sit in the jobcentre, but not to go upstairs with the person who was claiming JSA to attend the signon appointment. That struck me as a pretty useless version of accompaniment, really. I mean – you’re not exactly accompanying someone to their signon appointment if you’re made to sit in another part of the building while the signon appointment is taking place. This guy also said that I’d need to show ID (we never really established exactly what sort of ID he meant).
A woman in a management role came out to say that people in an official support capacity could attend appointments (we never really established exactly what was meant by official support capacity either), or perhaps someone else could come if that person contacted the jobcentre in advance. You see where I am going with this. Everyone was saying something different. A cynic might say that everyone was making the rules up as they went along. A real cynic might say that people were saying whatever they needed to say to keep people who they didn’t like the look of out. The really intriguing part of all this was that several weeks before, I’d been allowed to accompany this woman to an appointment at this very same jobcentre. The person we saw that day thought that I was the young woman’s Mum. Nobody asked for ID on that day, or insisted I prove that I was a support worker, or anything along those lines. You take my point. There are no rules on the ground. There is simply the mood and inclination of whoever you see on the day.
I have a lot of recordings from jobcentres now and after the election, when I know which MPs to target and where, I’ll be doing something with them. This one is useful now, though. I think it helps tell an important story. It is just a bit more evidence that people who claim benefits are very quickly denied representation of just about any kind. A security guard can decide on a whim whether or not a JSA claimant can take someone in to an appointment. If you argue the toss – as we did about the bike – you’re out. Meanwhile, we head into an election where mainstream representation for people who claim benefits is very thin on the ground. As I say, I find this intriguing – the lengths the state now goes to in its attempts to isolate and bully people who need state help. It’s much easier to bully people when nobody’s watching, after all. People will say anything when they want to get stuck into someone who is on the receiving end – and to be alone with that person while they do it.