Another week and another pile of crap from Esther McVey on JSA claimant conditions. This week – hopeless guff about newly-unemployed people having to prepare CVs (most of the many newly-unemployed people I’ve talked to at jobcentres have one, because they’re stuck in the low-pay, insecure work cycle and are always looking for jobs), set up an email address and register on the notoriously useless Universal Jobmatch website – the one that people at jobcentres describe to me as “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.”
Doesn’t stop McVey, though. Rubbish is her thing. “This is about treating people like adults and setting out clearly what is expected of them so they can hit the ground running,” she blathers. Bollocks. It’s about nothing of the kind. It’s about introducing a few more steps for already-under-resourced, dysfunctional jobcentres to fail to administer properly, which will make it more difficult for people to get their first, much-needed benefit payment and could lead to sanctions as McVey’s own press release happily notes. All these things will do is keep people off the benefit books. People won’t show up in benefit stats. That’s what this garbage is about. People already have to leap through hoops to get their crappy £71 a week and they are already perfectly aware that there are expectations, thanks. They already have to participate in absurd form-filling exercises which take god knows how long and never lead to work. I’ve spoken with people who have to show that they’ve searched for 25 jobs a week – with at least some of these jobs being roles that are advertised on Universal Jobmatch, which of course leads nowhere. I’ve spoken to people who’ve gone on work programme-type courses which have involved ripping sheets of paper up and putting them back together again to learn about teamwork.
Here are some of the people I’ve spoken with in the last two months – about their struggles with JSA and the experiences they’ve had trying to deal with a system that is designed to push people off benefits and nothing else. This system is certainly not about getting people into jobs, let me tell you. It’s about putting the fear of god into everyone about unemployment. In my experience, people have to sort the getting jobs part out themselves. I’ve yet to meet anyone who has found work through their jobcentre. Absolutely everyone I’ve spoken to so far who has found work has done so off their own bat, through their own contacts. I’ve got more of these interviews to upload as well. You’ll get the point from these ones, though – this is a system that already sets people up to fail. McVey simply adds further conditions and further options for failure and sanction.
Ravi said he last worked in January. He works in sectors like retail and banking. He is struggling to find permanent work. He’s on a sanction:
“I have to come here every week. One week is to just sign on and one week is to speak to an advisor – but it’s not really to speak to an advisor. It’s just to sit in front of them and they are just going to say “there’s nothing to really match your criteria here – retail – so see you next week.” It is a system set up for you to fail. If you don’t turn up for an appointment – because [for example] you have got to come in every morning and they say, well, you didn’t turn up, so you’re suspended.
“They suspended my benefit. Apparently, the reason was that my jobsearch wasn’t correct. They go – “95% of your jobs are online” and they [said to me] “a few of your jobsearches say that you handed out CVs and these places don’t accept CVs. Therefore, you’ve been suspended.”
“I’ve got to come back to talk to someone at 3.15pm and they are going to explain it. My adviser [that I’m talking to today] – out of all of them, he’s okay. He’s more understanding, unlike the rest of them. I think they’re fed up with their own jobs to be honest. He’s really understanding. He would actually advise me, unlike the rest of them.
“I asked them – what was the reason for the sanction? I honestly didn’t know. [It came about this way]. Basically, I came in on time and it was 9.15am or something, and then one of the advisers looked through the [jobsearch] sheet and he said “come back at 11.15am to the third floor.” So I came back at 11.15am, not knowing what I was coming back for. She said “the reason why you’ve been told to come back is that your jobsearch is incorrect.” I asked her “Why? What’s wrong with it?” and she was like “some dates are missing,” and I was like “it’s all there. Maybe I’ve just made a few mistakes on it.” She actually gave me the chance to do it again in front of her, so I literally done it again in front of her. I spent like 15 or 20 minutes doing it again and I handed to to her and she said “it’s still incorrect” and I said – “I honestly do not know what you want me to do.” It’s their decision, so I just left them and I’ve been told to come back today to sort it out.
“I’ve always been working, so I’m not used to the system. They were telling me that there’s like a million people from age 18 to 24 on benefits, so obviously they’re probably frustrated behind the scenes and all, but I think that the way they take it out on us is not right.”
Mark was on the work programme and had been fighting the jobcentre for fare money to get to the site in Tottenham. He tried to make a complaint about that and asked for a complaint form at the jobcentre. An argument followed which led to the police being called on Mark (he says that was completely ridiculous) and a court date set in several months’ time.
“I couldn’t get the fares to get to the work programme in Tottenham. It was going to cost about £38 a week. So, I went back to the jobcentre for two things – to get the induction fee [for the work programme] and to get travel money. I’m in Tottenham for the mandatory [work programme]. It is costing me £38 a week [to get there]. I can’t afford it. [They said] I got to pay it out of my JSA – they said that’s what your JSA is for. I said No it is not. It is to help me look for work. So I went back to the jobcentre to get my induction money for the one day induction and to get my fares to go for four weeks – both of which they refused. They said it was not their problem. [There were] two managers on the floor and both of them refusing to deal with me.
“I went to see my adviser. She, as usual, said go and see a manager. Two managers on the floor and I went to see one of them first. She said that she can’t help me and so she sent me to the other one. As soon as she saw me, I tell you, she was running. She sees me coming and both of them are refusing to deal with me. So if I don’t get the money, I don’t start by Monday and if I don’t start by Monday, I’m going to get sanctioned. I said – “you’re helping me to get sanctioned. You are saying that if I don’t go [to the work programme course], I’m going to get sanctioned and here I am asking you for the money to get there and stop me getting sanctioned. And you are both saying you can’t help me, so I’m going to get sanctioned.
“So far, the providers have done it [paid the fare]. [First] They did it once. They said it was a one- off. So I wrote them a letter and said “I’m not going to be here unless you give me the money” and so the second time they said “we’re going to do it again for the second time, but that’s it.” The third time, I went back – so what I’m finding is that each time I’m going back, they’re doing the same. I’m on the third week now and next week I’m just going to show up and do it again…so it’s quite clear that they are supposed to do it somehow.”
“I am 60. What chance do I have. You have all these people, aged 22 and 23 and they can’t find a fucking job. They’ve been to college with degrees coming out of their arse. What’s happening now is that the Pound Shop and all that – they’re employing people, but it’s the modern version of slavery [taking people on workfare placements]. They’re getting away with it. It’s the fucking bankers that ought to be done for it.
“People are saying that there’s benefit fraud and that people are sitting around watching flatscreen TVs. But there’s people who are genuinely trying. I get £142 a fortnight and I have to pay all of my bills out of that. That’s three or four pounds a day. I got a job myself. I was a professional musician for all of my life and I was trying to find a way to teach kids music – to get them off the streets. I wanted to do that voluntary, but people don’t fucking care. They’re pointing the fingers in the wrong direction.
“I was in a back-to-work thing with a company called Ingeus. There would be 20 people around the computer and they were trying to teach you how to do IT at 90 miles an hour. I can’t work that way. I would be better learning how to do it myself. Waste of fucking time – they’re spending money on the wrong things. But nobody’s saying that, so I keep coming in here. People haven’t woken up. You won’t hear this conversation on the five o’clock news. I was a professional drummer and I went all over the world – Germany, the States, all over. But the money in it has gone.
“I have to come in here [to the jobcentre] once a fortnight. Last year for a time, they had us coming in here four days a week. To sign on. That lasted for about two and a half or three weeks.
“I hate the place. They aren’t going to find me a job in there. Not a hope in hell. It’s my age as well. They’re not interested. There’s millions of youth unemployed. Nobody is going to look at me. If everyone was on the same wave and making good money, the jobcentres would be gone for a start. People like us are screwed to the ground. They’ve legalised bullying. They wear suits.”
“They sanctioned me. It was meant to be for a month, but it was only for two weeks, because my MP got involved. [They should not be able] to just sanction someone. You’ve got to tell people [that they’re going to be sanctioned] first, because otherwise, they’re not going to expect it. They just cut the whole lot and they don’t even tell you. The first thing you know is that you go into the store, get all your shopping up in the bag, put your card in and then [there’s no money]. All your shopping is left there.
“They told me, apparently, it was because I wasn’t doing enough to find work. But there is no work at the moment. When there’s work, I’ll find it. Last year, I was working for ten months, but I got laid off again. I’m a commis chef. So, I worked for ten months and then they laid me straight off. So, I have to look for more work. I look on the internet, but there isn’t much there. I send in my CV and I’m waiting for two or three weeks to hear a reply back. If it is way out in Surrey, you can’t take your CV there [in person], so you have to send it. Once you’ve sent it, you’re waiting two or three weeks for a reply. Then – what is the reply?
“The jobcentre is total crap. They aren’t going to find me a job. You find yourself a job and I’d rather find myself a job. Then they can’t turn around and say “Sanctioned” and I can turn around and say “I found my own job.”
“They pick on anyone – because they’ve got a job [as jobcentre workers]. They can sit on their backsides and they get paid for it. They think that they’re higher than everyone else. They’re just as low as anyone else. Just because they work behind a counter, they look down on you.”
Maheesh, who is 56, Kilburn. He was a cook, then worked in a food factory before he was laid off. He looked tired and unwell.
“I was on ESA, because I had a problem with my heart. My jobcentre was in Marylebone, but they moved me here. In December, I had a problem in my heart and yesterday, that started again. I went to my GP and he gave me a medical certificate. The doctor said bring this to the jobcentre and they said ring this number (he shows me an 0800 number). But they already have my medical reports.
“They said to ring this  number and to tell them that I want to move again to ESA from JSA. They told me I was not allowed to ring the 0800 number from the jobcentre. You have to ring from the outside. They haven’t found me a job. Now, I just go and ask my friends if they can give me a job. To them, I’m nothing really.
“In March, I will be 57. I lost my job in 2009. Now, it’s like this. I’m older, I’ve gone a long time with no job and I have a health problem.”
Andy, in his 50s. Works as a painter and decorator. Worked a lot around Europe. Has to sign on when work dries up.
“I was sanctioned. They stopped my money [because I got an attendance day wrong]. They had me signing on on the Monday and then coming in on the Tuesday for a review and then the following Monday to sign on again, but they kept changing the days and I got the Monday mixed up with the Tuesday. I was meant to go on the Monday and it was usually a Monday, but they put Tuesday down. I didn’t get it. I genuinely made a mistake. I realised and went in the next morning – and they stopped me for four weeks money. I just got my first payment [after that sanction] last week. I signed on again last Monday. By Thursday, it had been six weeks since I had any money. But on Thursday, I didn’t receive anything in my bank account. I was furious. I came here and [found out that] they hadn’t released my money.
“They said to me – “have you got friends you can borrow [money] off? Have you got family you can borrow off?” I said – “what’s that got to do with my entitlement for money?” They said – “are you owed money? Can you get it?” Well – it’s nothing to do with that. [It shouldn’t be about] whether people owe me money, or whether I have friends here who can lend me money. I did get some money from friends where I used to work, because I couldn’t survive, but it’s not their business whether I get help from a friend. If it wasn’t for that friend that sent me money across, I’d have had very little. They don’t have a lot of money but they helped me out with the basics.”
“After stopping my money, I didn’t get any money for almost six weeks. I had to ring up, because what happens is that they lock your account. If there’s a sanction against you, they lock your account. [Last week] they hadn’t unlocked my account, so I rang them again, because I had no money last Thursday, even though I wasn’t on the sanction. I did get the money, but I had to go through a lot of hoops. It was on locked and she had to release it.
“This lady here at the jobcentre, she is always difficult. Now, she says I’ve got to go back on Friday. Normally, my day is every week on Monday for a signon and then it can be Monday or Tuesday for a kind of review of what you’re doing.
“With Universal Jobmatch – she always keeps on at me [to use it]. I’m not on it. It was useless. I didn’t tick the box which gives them the right to look at it. I knew I had the law on my side, because I knew it was not mandatory, but every time I see her, she’s always [on about it].”
Spoke at length with one man who had been sanctioned for some months. He wasn’t sure why. English wasn’t his first language and he was struggling to understand the story that he’d been told, or the steps he should take to get his sanction lifted. He said that his jobcentre told him that something had happened to his records when he moved from one part of London to another. He showed us payslips from his most recent job. He’d been working on and off in light industry. Now without income, he was relying on family to survive.
“It’s embarrassing to me. I have to go to my sister-in-law for food and for somewhere to sleep. I have no food, no light, no electricity. I don’t like that I have to rely on her.” People offered to go back into the jobcentre with him, to try and find out more about his situation. He seemed completely stuck.
I could go on. I’ve got so many of these interviews and more to upload. This “system” is hopeless. It is meant to be hopeless. Adding more layers simply adds more opportunities for administrative stuffups, payment delays and sanctions. Which, as I say, is the point.