I went back to the jobcentre last week with the Kilburn Unemployed Workers’ Group – just a few days before George Osborne’s already-discredited Help To Work scheme is rolled out. Thought I’d ask JSA claimants what they thought of the scheme. Only one person I spoke to had heard of it and she said she’d refuse to participate in it.
Help To Work looks like a shambles to beat all the others, including the work programme. A lot of people doubt that Help To Work will even get off the ground. You can read more about the government’s failure to find “partners” for the scheme’s workfare component here. With Help To Work, people who’ve been unemployed for the long term will apparently “take part in community work placements, such as clearing up litter and graffiti,” (that’s workfare), attend “daily signings at the jobcentre,” or find themselves in receipt of “intensive support to address their problems,” whatever that means. The DWP’s recent pilot study on Help To Work yielded extremely thin results, even by the DWP’s standards. “Here’s what happened,” the Guardian said last week. “Exactly the same number in the control group – 18% – found themselves jobs as those doing the forced community work. Just 1% more found jobs from the group with jobcentre support. In other words, workfare didn’t work.”
I’ve got a longer article coming out on all this later this week (it covers the utter failure of workfare schemes around the world), so more on that soon. For now – I’ve posted below two transcripts from long interviews with JSA claimants I did at the Kilburn jobcentre last week. I’ve been collecting these interviews with JSA claimants for the past three months (there are links to the others at the end of this post). I’m posting these latest ones to show again how utterly dysfunctional the jobcentre system is for people who use it. These places are a nightmare. They are certainly a nightmare as far as administration goes. I can’t imagine how they’ll cope with Help To Work’s mass daily signings-on and workfare-attendance coordination. JSA claimants already show me all sorts of pointless paperwork they receive but don’t quite get: jobcentre letters demanding attendance at we’re-not-telling-you-what-this-is-about meetings, sheets instructing people to attend work programme classes that they can’t afford the fares to, lists of numbers to call to chase sanctioned benefits, numbers to call that are never answered (I’ve stood with people for ages while they’ve rung).
So. Help To Work isn’t about helping people to work. It’s about scoring political points off people who are long-term unemployed. It’s about quick political win. There are times when I wonder if it’s about even more than that. I’ve actually reached the point where I think that Help To Work and schemes like Esther McVey’s latest wheeze for newly-unemployed people are about introducing more steps for already-struggling jobcentres to fail to administer properly. Those failures will lead to more reasons for sanctions. The more people whose CVs are lost, or whose workfare and signing-on obligations are confused or recorded incorrectly, the more people the DWP can sanction and throw off benefits. The thing is bollocks. If the government really wants to bag weapons-grade freeloaders, why doesn’t Osborne grab Kate Middleton and that prince when they get off the plane, and demand to know what they’ve done with their lives? Why isn’t Nadhim Zahawi in the stocks, explaining why he made taxpayers fork out to heat his horses’ stables? Why isn’t Maria Miller in jail?
Here is Paul M_, aged 61 (he’ll be 62 in May). Paul was on Employment and Support Allowance, but was found fit for work by Atos recently. He asked for the decision to be reconsidered and is now several weeks into mandatory reconsideration. His housing benefit was cut off when he was found fit for work. He’d signed on for JSA while he waited to hear the outcome of the mandatory reconsideration. He planned to appeal if the original fit-for-work decision was upheld. He had letters and pieces of paper with phone numbers all over them. He seemed pretty confused.
“I’d been seen my this medical fella (at an Atos assessment). He was supposed to be medical, but I don’t think he was. He didn’t seem medical to me. It was weird what happened there. He’s written his so-called findings and they are all completely opposite to what actually happened. Then they said – as of a certain date, you’re no longer entitled to any benefit, so good luck. That was it.
“Then a couple of days later, I got a letter from Housing Benefit saying that they were suspending me. I had to appeal [the Atos fit-for-work decision], but I didn’t realise that this statutory [sic] reconsideration period would take so long. Basically, they’ve given us four weeks to wait. At the 18th of April, they said they had a target date [for the mandatory reconsideration decision], but then we got the Easter holiday.
“They say you can’t appeal [the fit-for-work decision] until you’ve gone through this mandatory reconsideration. I’m here [at the jobcentre] to phone them, to find out if they’ve done it. There’s no information about how you appeal, or anything like that, in there. If they say they’ve decided the [fit-for-work] decision is the same, then obviously I’m going to appeal. But is there some clause that says now that I’m on jobseekers’ allowance, I can’t appeal? I don’t know.”
“How do you appeal? There’s no forms in there. Do I say to them on the phone I want to appeal? The people you speak to are actually in a call centre. They are linked to a computer. When the computer is working, they can give you some information, but when the computer is not working, they can’t.
“Since I came here to sign on, they’ve got a system in place where you’re supposed to furnish them with proof that you’ve been looking for work. Now – I’ve scoured London for every newspaper that’s available. Every newspaper has either skilled jobs, or computer accessible type things. I’m 62 years old. I’ve never switched on a computer in my life. When I turn up to sign on on the 29th of April, I’m supposed to show them about 17 job applications – which I can’t do, because I can’t get into a computer. I don’t have one and if even I did, I wouldn’t get a job in that. [When I raised that at the jobcentre] the fella says to me – “I’m a bit busy. I’ll see you on the 29th.“ He wants me to come back with 17 job applications. I did explain to him that I had no computer knowledge and he said “we’ll talk about that on the 29th.”
Paul went into the jobcentre at that point. He came out about half-an-hour later. He said:
“Finally I did get through to the call centre. I asked them this question about the mandatory reconsideration. They didn’t know, so I made another call to find out. They said someone else will phone in three hours. Someone gave me a mobile recently and I’ve written the number down. I’ve got it in me back pocket. I never wanted a phone until this happened.
“[Regarding my housing benefit claim]: They said that until mandatory reconsideration is decided, you cannot claim housing benefit. I’m not paying my rent at the moment. The housing association wrote me a letter recently saying that I’m in arrears by £600. I’ve been signing on here for two weeks now, so housing benefit will pick up those two weeks.”
So – that was Paul. Couldn’t help thinking that he’d have a better chance of getting his rent paid if he was one of Nadhim Zahawi’s horses.
Next, I spoke with Heather, who is 55. She lives in Kensal Rise. She was the only person I spoke to last week who was aware of Osborne’s Help To Work concept. She’d been made to sign on daily in the past:
“I’ve heard a little birdie… I’ve got a friend who works in here [at the jobcentre]. He told me that he had an argument with a manager last week, [because] they want to make everyone come in again everyday [to sign on]. They did that to me before.
“I’ve been on six work programmes. I’m over 50, right, and I’ve got even less chance [of getting a job]. I went to an informal interview with a charity, because I’ve done charity work, right. I can’t get a paid events organiser job in the whole of London and I’ve done events for nothing. Then I go to this poxy interview with this charity. They’re down the road [in Kilburn]. The guy is blatantly ageist. It turns out he is 49. I’m 55, so he’s only six years younger than me. He said to me – “actually, I prefer to employ younger people, because there is heavy lifting.” He meant bin bags full of clothes. I do gardening for a hobby. I lift heavy things. I can lift half my own body weight. I’m still strong. But they are telling me that I can’t do a job. I phoned up the organisation and I told his boss [about the ageism] and the boss told me that he didn’t say anything of the sort. So – that guy is still working and I’m out of work. I could have done that job with my eyes shut. I looked at him and I said “I don’t believe that you just said that.” I was gutted. You can write that down.
“I’ve been on six work programmes. They are still trying to send me on one to Edgware. I said – “excuse me, I live in Kensal Rise.” I had a big argument with them [in the jobcentre]. She was telling my business in there, saying my age. I said – “excuse me, you can’t take away my human rights as a human. Don’t speak my business in front of people.” I asked for her name, because they wouldn’t give me her last name. I said – how could I report her if I didn’t know her name? You’ve got no rights as soon as you walk in that door. You’ve got nothing.
“When I went to the call centre [job test] thing, it was like a meeting for Scientology. They were like – clapping hands, “do it like this.” It was in Holloway road and it was to raise money for charity. We had to do all these scenarios. It was awful. It was like they were brainwashing you. And then you have to give this long speech which takes five minutes to every person you phoned up. I was so happy to get to an interview. I thought – okay. I’ll go one in Clapham and then one was in Holloway. I had to pay for those to go to. What sort of shit is that? Clapping hands. And he [the job test organiser] put me in this scenario with two people. He said – “pretend you’re going to the pictures. Pretend your subject is science fiction.” I don’t know nothing about science fiction. I didn’t know what to say. I said to the guy – I’m 55 years old. Then – if you got that hand-clappy bit, they put you on a trial. You were still on a trial, for a week. They weren’t going to commit themselves. There were about 300 people at their desks. They had people outside, geeing them up, trying to get them all excited about selling for £6 an hour. I said – how do you expect me to live on that?”
On Osborne’s workfare and Help To Work plans:
“I told them I am not doing that. They want you to do 30 hours for nothing. That is out of order. I’m trying my best. Why am I being punished? It’s a good job I’m a strong person, because there are people killing themselves. I spent £13 on fares to two stupid interviews. They’re not interested in getting you a job [at the jobcentre]. They have got 200 clients each. Do you think they have got time? I come in every week. I don’t even know what it’s for.”
More to come this week.
First story from outside the jobcentre: Kilburn
Second story from outside the jobcentre: Neasden
Third story from outside the jobcentre: Marylebone
Fourth story from outside the jobcentre: Kilburn
Fifth story from outside the jobcentre: Kilburn