Recordings from a jobcentre meeting are further down the post. The argument between the adviser and the JSA claimant is the third clip – a classic of an adviser slapping down a claimant who decided to challenge the DWP:
On Wednesday this week, people plan to gather at jobcentres to protest about the arrest of an activist who accompanied a woman to an appointment at Arbroath Jobcentre. The thought of that arrest and upcoming court hearing gets on my nerves very badly, for a couple of reasons. One of the reasons is completely selfish. I accompany people to jobcentre appointments all the time and I don’t want to hear that someone has been hauled off by the police for doing similar. I hope the DWP isn’t getting ideas here. It already has jobcentres in near-lockdown. I’ve had run-ins myself with security guards who police jobcentres and know they can be extremely unpleasant if they feel like it. This sort of crap could inspire them to further triumphs.
And there’s more. Plenty more. I wonder if this arrest means that the DWP will begin to push the idea that JSA claimants should be denied the right to take someone along to their jobcentre meetings. God knows that accompanying people is tricky enough already. I’ve been stopped by security guards who have demanded to know my name (I’ve always refused to give it) or who have simply said You Can’t Come In. Different people at the same jobcentre sometimes tell you different things about access. One guard at a northwest London jobcentre stopped me from accompanying a man with learning difficulties to his appointment until we explained that the disability adviser in the very same jobcentre said that the man could bring someone to help with his forms. The man has literacy difficulties and can’t use a computer. He struggles to apply for jobs online, which means he is at risk of sanctions.
Other people feel exposed without a witness. They’re right to. They are. There’s an awful power discrepancy at jobcentres, you know. I’ve met advisers and guards who are decent and helpful, and I’ve met advisers and guards who are not. Certainly, there are jobcentres where JSA claimants report that some advisers run terror campaigns: “there’s a woman in there who signs people on. She is bullying people…She shouldn’t be working there.” People feel that they must keep their heads down to avoid sanctions: “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 have to keep quiet.” People hope for the best, but they may not get it. The equation balances out if the person who is signing on can take a supportive witness to appointments.
So. To show you why people often want to take someone along to their jobentre meetings, I’ve published below some short audio recordings from a recent meeting where people were patronised, reminded non-stop that their benefits could be sanctioned, and then where things turned sour between one claimant and an adviser. (These recordings are not from the Arbroath jobcentre where the recent arrest took place. They’re from a group induction meeting for new JSA claimants at a jobcentre in London. About 12 new claimants attended the meeting, which was run by one adviser).
You’ll see why people feel that they’re on the back foot from the moment that they sign on and why they’d feel they needed a witness at any further meetings:
1) How people who sign on are addressed right from the start.The assumption from the get-go at this meeting was that everyone signs on to scrounge. There was absolutely no recognition of the fact that people in the room might be worried, frightened, skint, newly unemployed, struggling with mental health or physical problems, or desperate to find work. There were points when I could almost hear this adviser channelling George Osborne on one of his Unemployed People Lie Around With Their Blinds Drawn tangents. The ever-present sanctions threat turns up in this as well:
“If you’ve claimed in the past, you were probably given a set number of jobs to apply for each week as a minimum in order to receive your jobseekers’ allowance to look for these kinds of jobs on a weekly basis. This now does not exist. We now expect you to set your own targets and to apply for as many jobs as you can on a regular basis to get your jobseekers’ allowances. There is no fixed numbers. However, if you have no commitments and you are looking for a more general kind of work, we would expect a lot more effort from you and to be honest, you should expect a lot more effort from yourself. If you have to work reduced hours because of circumstance, that can be factored in as well – the same if the kind of work you are looking for is specialised and there isn’t so much work available. It is also about other things that you are prepared to do… any employers you approach directly, any specialist applications you make… effort that you put in to find the work you’re looking for on your own terms. The less effort we feel that you’re putting in, the more chance there is of your jobseekers’ allowance being affected, so please bear this in mind as well.”
2) Sanctions and being late. People took issue with the adviser’s DWP-speak and asked him to use plain English. One person started to challenge the adviser on his use of language. Another amusing individual asked what happens when advisers are late to appointments [ie – do they get sanctioned?]. The adviser got annoyed and simply spoke about the ways that JSA could be sanctioned:
CLAIMANT – It’s the vernacular, isn’t it?
ADVISER – Yes, I understand that and I have some more vernaculars for you which you won’t be too enamoured with.
CLAIMANT – we can handle it. We’ve got big shoulders. [Laughs] Bring on the diaspora [laughs].
ADVISER – As you may well be aware, there is a sanction policy involved while claiming jobseekers’ allowance. A lot of what I’ve mentioned already has ended with “jobseekers allowance may be affected.” I’m not going to leave it hanging in the air.
CLAIMANT – No, you’re a good man!
ADVISER – I haven’t finished yet. I will let you know what that sanction policy is and how to get around it. There are two levels of sanction that we have for those who don’t do what they are supposed to do while claiming jobseekers’ allowance. There are lower and intermediate levels. Lower levels sanction begin from a four-week loss of jobseekers’ allowance. Now, this can happen if you do not attend an appointment on the correct day, if you are persistently late for your appointments, if you do not carry out a jobseekers’ direction and if you are on one of our courses…
CLAIMANT – Can I ask a question? Do you mind? Um – well, you were actually ten minutes late for the appointment [today] anyway, so do we have any kind of [recourse]? So, if we come in early and we’re ten minutes late (sic) and you’re 20 minutes late to sign us on, does it not work the other way…?
ADVISER – You are more than welcome to put a complaint in writing if you so wish, but do you think you were ten minutes late today?
CLAIMANT – No, I was ten minutes early. We come in late today – but I’m not blaming you. I’m just saying, you know – you’re saying if we’re late, we can’t get our giro… but if we come in early and you’re late…? Does that make any difference…?
ADVISER – you can make a complaint, as I said, if you do feel that you have been unduly delayed. But this session…
CLAIMANT – Can I go to the ombudsman or something?
ADVISER – No, you can write to the section manager
CLAIMANT – Where is the section manager?
ADVISER: On the section
CLAIMANT – where is the section?
ADVISER – Probably on the first floor. May I please continue?
CLAIMANT – Please.
ADVISER – The session was due to start at 11am today. You are always told to come in at ten to, just in case people are late. I’m just saying that you’re not late, even though you think you are.
3) Slapping down a challenge by a claimant. Here, the adviser got emotional as this guy continued to challenge him. He didn’t take the guy aside to spare the other people in the room, or have a backup plan on the chance that someone in the group presented with challenging behaviour. He just started to yell in a “I’m in charge here” way. The adviser made a very public show – to all the new claimants in the room – of putting this bloke in his place and letting people know what happens when you speak out of turn. This is what I mean when I say that there is a problem with power at jobcentres. This adviser clearly felt free to lose his temper. I wonder if he thought repercussions were unlikely.
CLAIMANT (talking about the private company that “advises” people how to set themselves up in self-employment) – And they are a private company working for the government now, are they?
CLAIMANT: And they are doing employment?
ADVISER: Self employment
CLAIMANT – so that they are employing people to tell them how to get a job? When there’s no jobs around anyway. Where is the coaches? I thought you’re the coach. Where’s the coach? Let’s get the coach on.
ADVISER – [Angry now]. Would you please be quiet so that I can continue? At first it was a little bit interesting, a little bit funny. It’s now getting tired and boring. If you have anything to say that is of any use…[yelling]
CLAIMANT – You work for an agenda. You work for an agenda.
ADVISER… say it. If not, please be quiet.
CLAIMANT – Don’t get aggressive with me. Don’t get aggressive with me. I am here to look after myself.
ADVISER – You are here, you are here, sir, to find out how to best make the time you are with us on jobseekers’ allowance.
CLAIMANT – All right. Don’t get aggressive with me.
ADVISER – No, you are not only delaying this induction, you are delaying everybody else here, who, like myself, are somewhat bored with what you are saying. Which is highly unconstructive. Now normally, I don’t need to raise my voice in this room, but I’m going to make an exception [angry]. If you want to complain about me afterwards, I will give you my name and you are more than welcome to do so, but please if you have nothing of any use to say, don’t saying anything at all. Thank you.
Right. Sorry about that. That is not how I normally am.
You get the picture. You sign on for JSA – you’re on the back foot from the off. You’ll hear an awful lot about the ways you can be sanctioned. You’ll be shouted at if you take anyone on. You can see why people think it is important to take someone along to the jobcentre – and to make sure the DWP doesn’t try to put a stop to that. As the Kilburn Unemployed Workers’ Group wisely observes: Never Attend Anywhere Official Alone.
See Boycott Workfare for details of Wednesday’s protests and lobbies in support of the activist who was arrested at Arbroath Jobcentre.