This is a report from a new JSA claimants’ induction meeting I recently attended.
When people sign on in this part of London, their first meeting at the jobcentre is held in a group with ten or so other new claimants. They don’t start with a private, one-to-one session with a jobcentre adviser. They’re flung into a group for induction. There’s no privacy. At all. People hate it. The guy I went with to the meeting below didn’t even know his first meeting would be held in a group. People are told it happens because staff don’t have time now to cover everything in the one-to-one meetings that come at a later date.
I also wonder if these group meetings are done to totally discourage people from continuing with their JSA claim at all. This one I went to was a classic of screaming dysfunction:
It is late on recent Thursday morning at one of the north west London jobcentres and I’m sitting in a new JSA claimants’ group meeting, watching the jobcentre adviser in charge of the session totally lose it with one of the new claimants (there are about 12 new claimants and an adviser crammed into a very small and rather dark side room). The jobcentre adviser and the new claimant bloke are having a full-on shrieking-match, which they’ve been working towards since the session started. I’m guessing that the louder parts of it are now reverberating around the jobcentre.
The new claimant guy – let’s call him Mark – obviously can’t take being patronised, or tolerate bullshit in any form, and has decided to come out swinging (metaphorically on this occasion). And fair enough, too. I know for a fact that if I was siging on, there’s absolutely no way in this world I could put up with the high-handed, JSA-claimants-are-on-the-make-and-must-be-kept-in-line presentation that we’re stuck in front of today. If I had just lost my job, this thinly-masked institutional hauteur would be needling me to the brink. It is anyway. The adviser’s address is full of You Lot Better Pull Finger directives such as: “If you have no commitments… we’d expect a lot more effort from you. And to be honest, you should expect a lot more effort from yourself.” The adviser chucks in plenty of poorly-disguised sanctions threats, too (even though nobody’s actually signed on yet): “The less effort we feel that you’re putting in [to find work], the more chance there is of your jobseekers’ allowance being affected,” and “the more vague your information, the more chance that your jobseekers’ allowance may be affected,” etc, etc. This pitch starts to work on your brain like nails down a chalkboard: “Your Jobseekers’ Allowance May Be Affected.” On and on it goes and my word, it grates. Without a doubt, the assumption from the get-go is that people sign on to sponge.
Anyway. The argument. Mark describes the jobcentre adviser as “sanctimonious” (which he is. To be fair, I suspect that anyone who must channel Iain Duncan Smith for a living inevitably struggles to come across as anything else).
Mark prods the adviser right the way through the session. He coughs very loudly when the adviser talks (the adviser can’t be heard over the hacking and hawking), asks if the adviser is part of a government agenda (“you work for an agenda!”) and intones meaningfully about people who toe party lines. “There is no party line!” the adviser says. “Is there not?” Mark asks. “There’s no agenda?”. Mark has chosen an interesting topic here, with its insinuation of government string-pulling, closed doors and DWP targets. It may be that it strikes some sort of nerve. The adviser finally spits the dummy and yells. He accuses Mark of petulance. “You are not only delaying this induction – you are delaying everybody else here!” he shouts at Mark. “Normally, I don’t need to raise my voice in this room, but I’m going to make an exception… If you have nothing of use to say, don’t saying anything at all!”
Mark clearly couldn’t care less. “Don’t get aggressive with me,” he tells the adviser. “I am here to look after myself.”
“You are here, sir, to find out how to make the best of the time you are with us on JSA,” the adviser tells Mark. He looks at the rest of us.
“Sorry about that,” he says to the whole group. “That is not how I normally am.”
I wonder. Everyone stares at the adviser. I think that people are probably trying to decide if the adviser IS normally like that – and if everyone else at the jobcentre is as well.
I am certainly wondering about those things myself. The output thus far has hardly been reassuring. We’re clearly in a place where a service provider thinks it is professional and indeed permissible to publicly shriek at a client who I suppose we might describe as “challenging.” I personally think that Mark is bang on the money with some of his observations – and a number of other people in the group nod at his remarks and say “he’s right” – but I guess some might say he overdoes it. They certainly might say it later on in the piece, when he puts the useful political commentary aside for a bit and decides to go for boorish. “I’ve got a kitten at home. I like a bit of pussy!” he laughs. I smirk, because I have a high threshold for crude, but you can bet that not everyone finds Mark’s comment the height of wit – certainly not right at this minute. People are here because they’re out of work and money. By its nature, this meeting is tense. Any extra problems are surely an imposition. I would certainly see extra problems that way myself. “This is bullshit,” the guy I’m with says. I agree. It’s hard to see exactly what anyone would get out of this – apart from a little more tension, that is.
And that’s the point. It’s clear that there’s no plan in place here to deal with disruption. It’s clear that once people are out of work, they’re expected to tolerate whatever comes along. The adviser’s response is emotional, rather than professional. He allows the group to see the anger. I wonder if that’s a kind of warning in itself. The rest of it is a blur. The session actually includes a great deal of important information, but it’s tossed out at pace. People are hurried through considerable detail about the sanctions regime, rushed through the procedure for setting up a universal jobmatch account (no matter if you don’t want to say in front of others that you can’t use a computer and/or don’t own one) and pushed to fill in claimant commitment forms. These forms include sections about your personal and work history. You may or may not want to ask which parts of your history to include while other people are listening. I think people probably don’t want to ask in front of others, because when the session ends, some stay to try to talk to the adviser one-to-one. They’ve already been told this session is their best shot if they want to find things out. “There is no way on earth that any work coach would have the time to go through all of this with you in one session,” the adviser says. Not particularly reassuring, as I say.
And as I said at the start: I began to wonder if this meeting was mainly about discouraging people from continuing with their JSA claim. I wonder how many people come back after this.