A few thoughts as we kick into the year. Interviews from people who’ve been sanctioned at the end of the post:
As you’ll no doubt have read, the work and pensions select committee meets this coming week to hear evidence about benefit sanctions, with sanctioning connected to crime and depression.
Okay. I suppose that hearing will at least draw attention to the sanctions problem and the extent of it. It’s the What Next part that I wonder about. A lot of people know how things are. I spent many hours speaking to JSA claimants at jobcentres in 2014 (have posted some of those interviews below) and at least some of those people had complained to their MPs about sanctions and their treatment at jobcentres. Like many people, I can tell you now that there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that stopping jobseekers’ allowance – already a meagre amount of money – to people who have nothing leads to crime and depression. You don’t have to look too closely to understand that that is the whole point of the sanctions/jobcentre/work programme exercise: to push anyone who struggles for work to the edge in one way or another and to terrorise everyone else into tolerating rotten pay and treatment just to keep a job. There’s very little mainstream opposition to that idea. I certainly don’t count this.
Three points of note from 2014:
1) Nobody I met ever got a job or even a job interview through their jobcentre. Not a single person. Everyone I met who found work did so through their own networks, applications and contacts. Jobcentres exist to administer goverment benefits policy and to channel people to the work programme and so-called skills courses, in my view. Wonder when jobcentres will be wholly outsourced.
2) Quite a few of the people I met who were signing on were actually employed for some of the time – on zero hours contracts, or short-term contracts, or on such low and irregular pay that they needed hardship loans and some JSA support. This is one of the many reasons why I find Labour’s ongoing justification of sanctions regimes in some form or other utterly misguided (I have other words, but am keeping it clean for the New Year). Pisstaking JSA claimants aren’t the problem. Pisstaking employers are the problem. That’s where the entire political emphasis should be. People I spoke to weren’t signing on for the lulz, believe me. They were signing on because it wasn’t possible for them to support themselves in an ongoing way at current rates and means of pay. Or they were stuck in workfare “jobs” that should have been paid and paid properly. Tinkering with sanctions policy hardly addresses the fact that sanctions in any form are about terrorising people into insecure, low-paid work and keeping them there. Let’s stop pretending that sanctions are about “mutual obligation” and other long-dated bollocks.
3) So-called long-term barriers to work like literacy problems are now insurmountable, not least because support and disability advisory services are nowhere to be found, in my experience, at least. People who could use support are left to rot. For more on that, read the series of articles I wrote last year where I attended jobcentre signon sessions with a Kilburn man who has learning and literacy difficulties. The longest advisory or support session he had at the jobcentre during all that time probably lasted ten minutes and that included waiting time. Other than that, he’d be sent on courses and then come back, and then I’d help him with his job applications. This man’s jobsearch hours mostly entailed hanging out with me in Costa and filling out job application forms that I knew employers would chuck straight in the bin.
There was no doubt in my mind that unless he or someone he knew found him a job using other contacts, he’d be stuck in the system forever and serve out his time as work programme and JSA skills course fodder. Which was surely the point of the exercise and the reason that nobody lifted a finger to find him a job. It has certainly occurred to me that so-called “skills course” providers need a regular pool of long-term unemployed people, so that they can continue to charge for course provision (you can read more about these useless, but compulsory, courses here). Certainly, I’ve spoken to people who’ve been on course after course for years, to no avail. If they complain and say a course is a waste of time and public money because they’ve already been on it, they’re sanctioned. The DWP told me that straight out – that if people complained and refused to attend, they’d be sanctioned. In other words – private sector course providers will get their dosh and anyone who doesn’t like it will be flattened.
And a fourth point while we’re here – people freely say that they rob and steal when they’ve been sanctioned. Some even say that they’d prefer to be in jail than trying to make it in the so-called real world. I’d say a society has reached a pivotal point when people say that they’d prefer jail or death to carrying on – that jail or death are their feasible options. Hope the work and pensions committee gets that. I’m pretty sure that the government gets it. And enjoys it. And is up for plenty more.
Let’s hear from a few people on some of these points:
Robbing and stealing:
“Only work I’m getting is if I become a drug dealer, or if I go and rob someone. That’s all I can do – go out and do illegal scrapping, or get some cash in hand. These lot in here – they don’t care. They are not trying to find me a job. They say “go out and look for a job.
“I’ve been signing on here for six years and I’ve been up down, up down, up down. I’ve been on every course you could possibly have, but I still ain’t got a job out of it. I want to do anything just to earn a pay packet, basically. I don’t want to live off the jobcentre for the rest of my life.
“I done every work programme that they can possibly give me. I been to Acton College to do their work programme. I been to Aldgate East to do their work programme. I been to Work Directions…
“Like before when they stopped my money, they said you ain’t got money to eat – go to a foodbank. They give you some little piece of paper saying this person is from the jobcentre and they need food, but I been down there and the food they give me wouldn’t even survive me for three days.”
“I went to Tescos to steal. I don’t care.”
“If you put the money in an alcoholic’s account, he’s just going to spend it. And then get evicted [for not paying rent]. Which is what they [the government] want…I have suffered here [at the jobcentre] from sanctions. I had to go shoplifting, because they stopped my money. When the police arrested me, I told them why. I told the courts – it was because [I was late] five minutes [to the jobcentre]. There’s no flexibility. I even produced a replacement bus ticket because the bus broke down. I was still sanctioned. When I signed on, they didn’t tell me that “your money ain’t going to be there.” Very nasty. So when I signed on, I went to draw my money. Nothing there. I didn’t eat for a day or two and my electricity….
“I go to prison and come out and go to prison and come out. My local is the Scrubs. They know me.”
In and out of low-paid work:
“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.”
“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.
“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…You come here like you’re some bloody scrounger….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…
“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.”
Gio, 19. Kilburn jobcentre. Working part time as a supermarket manager and looking for a hardship loan. Didn’t want to go back to drug dealing for cash:
“I’m a manager and I’m still getting the minimum wage – £655 a month working about 25 hours. I showed them [the jobcentre] my payslips and I got a letter from my manager saying look, I need more help. I’m young and I got a kid and I don’t want to be on the streets drug dealing and stuff to earn the money, because I’ve been through that stage. The lady turns around and says “that is all we can do,” and I said “okay, well if that’s all you can do, I’m going to sort it out somehow.” I don’t want to go back to my old life… I work about 25 hours a week. It’s hard to work more [at the moment] because my wife is very ill. She’s had a cesarean. It will take her a couple of months. I just hope they help me.”