More #JSA stories from jobcentres: “It’s impossible. You’re trapped.”

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been attending leafleting sessions outside jobcentres with the Kilburn Unemployed Workers’ Group and talking to people on JSA about their experiences as they sign on. We’ve been talking to people about sanctions, about being spoken down to by staff and having to walk on eggshells or risk being sanctioned, about relying on the jobcentre for JSA payments between short-term, low-paid jobs and about pointless work programme courses. I’ve posted some transcripts from today’s discussions below.

This morning, we were outside the Neasden jobcentre. It was freezing cold and there was a nasty, biting wind and a number of people we spoke to looked cold and shaky because they were not dressed warmly enough for the weather. I know we hear a great deal about life on JSA being a rort and people on benefits enjoying TV and cigarettes and long days lying around in the sun and all the rest of it, but it never looks that great when I see it. People talk about having to go weeks without money and being forced to grovel and fawn to staff to avoid being sanctioned, and about the terror of putting the card into the cash machine and finding that no money comes out because you’ve been sanctioned after all. And in this rubbish weather, they look cold.

This is the punishment you get these days for the crime of being unemployed and not rich. You are utterly powerless. You’re on the receiving end of everything. You have to put up with everyone’s crap. Of course – things are very different if you’re rich and connected. Life generally is very different if you’re rich and connected. Very different. If you’re Chris Huhne, for example, you get your media-class buddies to give you a column at the Guardian when you leave prison. If you’re Maria Miller, you help yourself to £90k from the taxpayer and claim that little earner was totally above board. If you’re Nadhim Zahawi, you charge the taxpayer to heat your horses’ stables. These people genuinely believe that it’s the rest of us who are out of line. That’s the part that really gets me.

Most of the people we spoke to this morning were forced to collect JSA between low-paid and insecure jobs, or to subsidise low-paid and insecure jobs – something that ought to concern everyone who relies on a wage to pay the bills. One of the women, Noreen, talked about finding work on “lucky days.” She meant that she found work by herself on days when her luck was in and she managed to talk to the right people, not because there was any system in place to help her. Pity she doesn’t have as many lucky days as Chris Huhne.

I’ve been speaking to people for a couple of weeks now and have yet to find anyone who has found work through their jobcentre. Everyone talks about finding work themselves. These jobcentres are an exercise in degradation and futility. People don’t go to their jobcentre because they believe that someone will help them find a job. They go there to present meaningless “evidence” of a fortnight’s jobsearch activity and to sit very still and silently during interviews with jobcentre staff in the hope that they’ll avoid a sanction. “They’re about stressing people out and raising your blood pressure and they are there to give you a heart attack,” Noreen told us this morning. Can’t help thinking that is the point of the exercise as far as Iain Duncan Smith is concerned.

Anyway – here are a couple of people who sign on at Neasden jobcentre. I’m changing the names for these, because I don’t want jobcentres getting fancy ideas about sanctioning people who dare to share their views in public. I won’t respond well if I hear that is happening. People who are on JSA have every right to share their views and I’ll keep posting their views because of that.

Noreen, in her late 40s. Has been out of work for about 18 months, with a spell of short-term work over Christmas.

“I’ve been on the work programme for two weeks – it was writing your CV, learning how to attach your CV to an email. But I can do that. It was to build your confidence. But what I need to do is find a job. I want just a job, any job. Any job that means I don’t have to come here [to the jobcentre].

“I have to come every two weeks to sign on. They are a bit stroppy. You can’t say nothing to them, because if you argue back to them, the security is there and they will sanction you. I’ve seen people there arguing… you have to keep quiet, sometimes you don’t want to keep quiet. The best [thing you can do] is to get a job and then you don’t have to come here, innit. You can get your own money and then you can pay your own bills and you don’t have to come here. You come here like you’re some bloody scrounger. I have been looking for work for 18 months. I used to work at McVitie’s for 22 years – you know, the factory. They gave us redundancy. Since then, I have done carework and I’ve worked in supermarkets. I think I’ll have to go back into carework, but it’s not well paid and you have to walk up and down [all over Neasden] to people’s houses [from one care job to another].

“You don’t get paid for travel [travelling between care work jobs at different houses during the day]. If you drive, you don’t get paid for petrol, so it’s best if you can find something where you can walk it. It’s about £6.20 an hour that you get paid. You can’t pay your bills on that.

“Sometimes,with care work, the hours are zero hours, so you don’t know this week if you would get 16 hours [the number of hours you must work under to claim JSA]. You may get ten or 11 hours and then you have to come here and sign on to make it up to the 16 hours. It’s impossible. You’re trapped and there’s no way out.

“This place [Neasden jobcentre] is harsh. I wish they could close it down. They don’t find you a job in there. There’s the computer in there – you punch something into it and you read it and it says “Here’s this job.” You bring the job information up and you ring the number – but the job is gone. You send your CV, but you never get a reply. You will never find any jobs in there. No.

“It’s just a waste of time. Most of the jobs in there – they don’t bother to check the computer to see if the jobs in there are already filled. Every two weeks I go there, the same old jobs are in there. It’s just rubbish.

“I will find myself a job. Sometimes, [when you take your CV to a major retailer] they say “go online” [to apply] but it can be worth going in, to see if it is your lucky day. You can go into Ikea and they might say “go online” but they might say – “here’s an application form”. If it is your lucky day. That’s how you get a job if it is temporary. That happened to me [with a major retailer] over the Christmas period. [The woman I met at the store], she said “go online” but then she said “since you have come in, you can fill in an application form “and that’s how I got two months’ work over Christmas.”


So. That was Noreen. Like I say – Noreen’s lucky days are a bit different from Chris Huhne’s. Or even Nadhim Zahawi’s horses’.

Next, we spoke to Amy, who is 19 and had just been signed off JSA. She lives in supported accommodation where she shares facilities. She is pregnant. She works part time in a large retail chain. Her wages come in at about £150-£200 a month. Sometimes, she works eight hours a week and sometimes she works overtime. She worked overtime during the Christmas rush. She said she had been claiming about £10 a fortnight in JSA which she spent on food.

She was very confused about the information that she’d been given by the jobcentre and the reasons for her own signing off from JSA, as you’ll see below. People raise this issue a lot when we speak. They sometimes find their entitlements and JSA search requirements difficult to understand when they work and when they work different hours each week. That is often because they’re told very confusing things. I’m posting this discussion as an example. When confronted with this sort of confusing information, people sometimes just find it easier to sign off – and that isn’t fair. Amy left us her contact details, so if anyone can shed any light on the situation outlined below and Amy’s entitlements, please get in contact or leave a comment. We will get back to her.

Amy: They said [at the jobcentre] to do more hours, but my hours vary, because sometimes I do overtime. She [the women at the jobcentre] said to me that I have to do more hours. Then she said to apply for ESA. I’m going to have to call them later on.

“They tell me they are going to pay me £10 a fortnight [in JSA], but I can’t live on £10. I’m working, but all that money goes on my bills. They’re cutting off the tenner now. And now I can’t get that. I’ve signed off. I need that money because it pays for my food.

“I have to give them proof of looking for another job… I didn’t think they were going to hound me [for that ten pounds]. If you’re on JSA, you have to look for work, but I’ve already got work. But it’s not enough hours for tax credits. Then I have to go off on maternity in two months. I get £7.50 an hour [at my job], which is not bad.

“I asked for the hardship fund, but they said I can’t get it… But I have nothing to live off, now so I’m living off him (she points to her friend) until I get paid. They said go off JSA and go onto ESA. I have a GP letter which says I can’t work more hours.

“I’m working eight hours a week and they want me to go up to 16, or to get another job as well. They signed me off, because I couldn’t look for more hours. I was getting £20 a month from them. I’m living in supported accommodation. I pay rent for the house, bills, TV licence. My pay from work goes all to my bills. I get about £150-200 a month. Roughly. They made us work extra hours over Christmas, so I had more then.”


So. That was Amy. Wonder if Maria Miller found it that difficult to claim £90k in expenses.

More soon.

20 thoughts on “More #JSA stories from jobcentres: “It’s impossible. You’re trapped.”

  1. Pingback: More #JSA stories from jobcentres: “It’s impossible. You’re trapped.” | Benefit tales

  2. As to Amy’s situation: it has been written into the Welfare Reform Act that people who claim any means-tested benefits, including tax credits and housing benefits, will be obliged to keep looking for more hours or better paid work as though they were unemployed and didn’t have even part time work. Of course, this will be totally unworkable. The DWP hasn’t (yet) tried to implement it. But people now, like Amy, who claim jobseekers allowance are still subject to the full range of requirements to be available for and actively seeking work. There is no provision for people who are working so few hours that they can’t claim tax credits and are earning below the JSA rate. She can’t claim ESA just for being pregnant, pregnancy by itself isn’t an illness. But when she reaches a certain stage of pregnancy she can claim Maternity Allowance, and if she is a single parent she can claim income support until the child is aged five.

    • Thanks Carol that is helpful. That was a key part of the issue – earning below the JSA rate and not being able claim tax credits. Her working hours were inconsistent each week too. Didn’t quite get why she’d been told to apply for ESA.

      • They stopped my ESA for nine month and told me at one point on the telephone to, “Get to the food kitchens,” I was realy ill from a car accident and was so ill I could not walk just before this for nearl a year layed on the floor with a level 8-9 of chartered pain on morphene, It was the lowest worthless time of my life, my friend had just commited suicide who helped me, I told ESA and then there was an article in the local news paper that it was a suspicous death…”Sure was.” I suffer from deprssion and other medical problems on top of the damaged spine still on ESA ten years later living off £45 pound a week dew to the ESA maths, stopping my money offering it back to me as a loan and then taking it out my legal amount to live off £72 pound a week ESA benifit, am trapped can’t pay any bills as this is just a on going cycle with court council tax deduction fines now from my benefit, have two comming out at once, plus three social loans where they stopped my ESA, I’m a very strong character, the group that run the ESA are a bunch of worthless evil mind controling profit making satanic unhuman filth, should be hung in a public square, they have been the cause of possibly thousands of deaths, they where murded simple as that in the UK by the central goverment.

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  9. Hi, you say imagine living for weeks without money, to cut a long story short, since Jan 2013 i have not had one penny from JSA because they claim i do not lodge at my friends on the settee. yet i had been on there records prior to that at the address, as a lodger. If i move out, get a flat and into debt, they will then give me money again. No help no money no food, at 56 years old, Not in the best of health. i now have to shoot off every now and then, (not stay at my friends, while I), go and steal push-bikes to sell for food money, pinch from shops anything i can to sell for food money. Break in to property to take stuff and sell for food money, clothes on my back, shoes on my feet. my friend still let me stay, sleep on the settee as before. I do extra work to earn my keep. Pinch razors for a shave or steal items to sell to buy razors or go without. So try to think how it is for me, one and a half years with out a penny unless i pinch it at 56 years old. Yes i have tried for job after jobs after jobs & before they stopped my money was attending work search programs. And i am sure they must be more like me in the UK. But at least i have a roof over my head for now. So 56 yrs old and one and half years no money except what i now have to make by breaking the law, to feed myself, clothes on my back shoes on my feet and all the day to day needs. this is how i have been forced to live. But not complaining just saying how i am forced to live.

  10. Pingback: A few words from young people who must sign on because work is insecure and low paid | Kate Belgrave

  11. I sign on at Halifax. The .gov Jobsite is not worth the electricity keeping the servers running. Ordinary firms don’t advertise on here. Only agencies who are collecting sign ups just in case they have a vacancy. 4 days work then a Rapid Reclaim, what a laugh that takes the same time as a normal claim there is nothing rapid about it.
    Time to shut it down for good.

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  14. Even though this article was published some time ago, I couldn’t help but agree with every single point. This article is more relevant now than it ever was and yet nothing is being done about it. I have to attend the job centre like a good little girl every 2 weeks for my pittance and I received no help from them whatsoever. I find it a cheek that the ”job” centre staff call themselves ”advisers” when they do no such thing! The other week, I saw a job centre applying lipstick and around six just standing around literally doing nothing and I see this every time I sign on. If the government is serious about saving money etc then the first places I would cut is the ”work” programme an the ”job” centre as both of them do exactly NOTHING. I have been signing on/off for the past 5 years and I have found it extremely difficult to cope. I have been through various charities and Citizens Advice over my debt problems as there’s no way I can pay my bills, food and travel etc all on the pittance I receive. I have found that no organisation can really help me as my debts are so high and my pittance is, well, a pittance! Unfortunately, I have had to run from a couple of previous addresses as the bills kept mounting up and the stress of it all was getting way too much so I felt like I had no choice but to go and try and start anew at a different address. I currently live in Barnsley and it is very much a poverty-stiken area (we’ve got Maggie Thatcher to blame for that!) There is no work here unless you want to work for the local slave driver or work at Sports Direct on an as-and-when basis. The politicians are all talk as usual and nothing’s being done. The ”job” centre doesn’t deserve to exist in my book, I don’t understand why an employee can get around £20k a year for ”advising” people when they do no such thing and they don’t get any sanctions if they don’t get anyone into work so there’s no incentive for them to do their jobs as they pick up a wage no matter what.Stick them all on the dole as it’s cheaper than the taxpayer paying out £20k to a bunch of blaggers when they can be put on £72 a week and that money can be pumped back into the local economy. Job done!

  15. This “system” is an absolute wreck. I know this article is pretty old, but it’s still as important as ever. I can’t wait until some big revolution happens and that sh*thole is finally demolished.

    If anyone has any advice about JSA and going abroad, I would really appreciate it.

    Basically, my situation is that I rent a flat out from a private landlord (the flat is in my name), and my dad and my brother live with me. I am the only one who gets JSA and housing benefit. My dad gets a student loan every 3 months or so. My brother is too young to sign on or find a decently paying job. So, I get a little over £550 each month. This is supposed to cover rent, food, heating, water, electricity etc.
    My rent is £413. So I’m left with about £137 to spare. Now, me and my dad came to the agreement that I would just pay the rent, and he would pay for food and everything else. My problem right now is that I need to go abroad to see my family. When you leave the UK (It doesn’t matter for how long) your JSA is completely shut down. Not paused, it’s stopped all together.

    So I am really stuck between a rock and a job centre; I really, really need to go see my family abroad (they can’t come to me), but if I leave, then the rent won’t get paid, and my dad and brother will be homeless.

    It’s absolutely ridiculous that the job centre and most associated think that job seekers don’t have lives outside of the job centre. I am planning to move out of this country and live abroad, so I am trying my best to save as much as I can. But when you’re left with £137 each month, and you are the only source of monthly income, you’re soon left with nothing. This system is designed to keep the poor poor, and to pressure us into working sh*tty jobs because we have no other choice. What kind of benefit system has pitfalls which end up with you becoming homeless?? Those rich as*holes are living it large in their warmed stables, when I can’t even afford to warm my damn home. It’s f*cking degrading and I’ve had enough.

  16. Have spent the last 5 years on and off benefits after being taken ill at work and losing my previous job due to loss of my driving licence through illness. I am now in a position where i can drive again, however my licence has to be renewed every 3 years and no longer allows me to drive comercial vehicles.

    I too can confirm that the Job Centre are unfit for purpose. My current spell on JSA has been 3 months so far. Work has generally been through employment agencies that are filling short term staff issues, although they are advertised as being ongoing or temporary to permanent jobs. The longest spell of continuous full time work has been 7 weeks and ended a week before Christmas 2015. I like to get back out working but over the last year it has been getting harder to get any form of work, let alone enough hours to earn a sustainable living. Most vacancies are part time and minimum wage at that so even when working you have to sign on to top up to 16 hours. If you happen to be working at the time of signing on you face a sanction for non attendance.

    My Jobcentre Plus advisor or ‘Work Coach’ as they now prefer to be called continuously tells me that im not doing enough to find permanent employment despite applying for dozens of vacancies every week as well as sending out speculative letters. It’s a humiliating and demoralising experience every time you go in to sign on. If you question anything or raise a concern security are called to eject you from the building. I was sanctioned for 4 weeks in January for attending a hospital appointment with my consultant which coincided with my sign on time. Plenty of notice was given to my advisor before hand and she even photocopied the hospital letter. Tried to query my missing payment at the job centre and they had no record of any hospital appointment. In any case “Signing on has to take priority”.

    I had to ask to speak to the manager, who was reluctant to speak to me in order to reinstate my payments. I’ve started the complaints proceedure and have to wait for it to be investigated by the JC in question before it gets escalated further. I have co-operated along every step of the way and i realise that the staff employed to work in the job centres have to deal with some unsavory characters but why do they feel the need to treat everyone with contempt because they have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own?

    I’ve had a dreaded rejection letter for a vacancy i applied for this morning. I honestly feel that there is no hope at all and think that it may be time to end it all.

  17. I agree with all that is mentioned here. The job centres are not helpful in enabling people into work as you have to find your own job. Job centres are full of staff doing not a lot except signing people so why are they called job advisors? The system is designed to catch people into a trap.. the poverty trap. Poverty for people makes wealth for the elite others. Our newly founded reformed welfare state is failing people and the cuts more recently have placed some people into extreme poverty, ie living off £73.00 a week JSA if you live alone. How on earth are people expected to run a home and live, eat on such a small income? A politician would spend more on his lunch… its a joke

  18. I got finished at work after 21 years due to medical capability a bad hand injury that wil only get worse! [surgeons words]. I went on esa was told I wasn ok to get “some kind”of was taken off that.then went on JSA…they have all my reports [cant write lift grip etc with my main hand].but,they are still sending me for agency packing and speed handling jobs!!.when I turn up for an interview and tell them about my disability.they always ask “why have they sent you here?”…good question.but I think it annoys the JC people that I cant get a job because companies don’t want me.its a ridiculous way to treat people who haven’t anything

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