Was back at Stockport jobcentre on Friday with Stockport United Against Austerity. We spent a couple of hours talking with people who were signing on for jobseekers’ allowance, employment and support allowance and Universal Credit.
A lot of people were keen to talk on Friday – about benefit problems, that is. People didn’t talk much about the local elections which had taken place the day before (elections which left the Lib Dems and Labour tied at 26-26 on Stockport council, I believe, and already fighting like rampant weasels. Can’t wait to see how that pans out).
Anyway. While the political class disappears down the Brexit hole that it won’t or can’t stop digging, people in need are left to get on however they can.
That generally means trying to make sense of the haywire public sector systems that millennium politics has created (if “created” is the word), trashed and abandoned. Pity that there’s so little sense to be made. I keep meeting people who can’t get answers. They certainly can’t get the answers that they need.
Here are two examples from Friday.
The first story came from Dave*, 57.
We see Dave regularly at the jobcentre. He’s a friendly bloke and always keen to talk. He’s been looking for work for a while.
On Friday, Dave said he was in the running for a permanent job as a carer. There was probation to do and then he should be underway.
This news of a job would be reason to celebrate in a world which made sense.
Unfortunately, we’re not in such a world.
Dave was worried. He was pleased about the job and eager to start – but he’d been told that taking the job and working certain hours would stop his jobseekers’ allowance and trigger a Universal Credit claim.
The mere mention of Universal Credit is enough to crush any excitement about a job offer.
As Dave understood it (and he wasn’t sure that he understood it at all), a move to Universal Credit would mean that he’d have to:
– move his housing benefit claim to Universal Credit and wait 5 weeks and more for his rent payments to start (he’d still be several weeks’ short in rent if he did get an extra fortnight’s housing benefit). Nobody in the real world believes that migration to Universal Credit will go well
– trust the DWP to accurately record Dave’s varying weekly zero-hours-contract wages as a carer and pay him whatever Universal Credit money he was owed each month on time. This is a skill which the DWP famously does not have. I’ve interviewed part-time workers and self-employed people at Stockport jobcentre who were tearing their hair out because the DWP had literally never paid them the right amount of Universal Credit, or on time.
Big DWP cheese Neil Couling told me on twitter that Universal Credit systems for people in these situations work beautifully. People who actually use these systems tell me that Neil et al are talking shit.
Point is – the potential for disaster was weighing on Dave’s mind, with good reason.
Dave couldn’t get reassurances from the DWP that he’d have money for rent and food if he moved from JSA to work and Universal Credit.
He said he’d been told that the best he could hope for if he ran short was an advance loan on his Universal Credit (which, of course, he would have to pay back when his Universal Credit began).
You see my point. Logic is missing in all of this.
The world that we’re talking about here is terminally arse-about. People do the so-called “right thing” and find work – but instead of being free to get stuck into that, they must keep their minds on their other full-time job, which is trying to make sure that the notoriously dysfunctional Universal Credit system doesn’t land them in terminal poverty.
People must check that they are paid their rent and income topups – and chase the DWP when it all turns to tripe. They must try to understand why their existing benefits suddenly stopped and navigate long gaps without income.
People can’t find out easily if they must migrate to Universal Credit at all. Dave wasn’t that he should have to move to Universal Credit if he took the job and started on a small number of hours. He only knew he’d been told that he must move to Universal Credit and that he would face income and housing costs delays:
“I’ve got a chance of a job – health and social care, care assistant… and what it is… unfortunately, they’ve been trying to tell me about zero contract hours. [I’ve had] no word [from the DWP] about transition. Even if I do ten hours, I have to come off jobseekers’ allowance and go on that Universal Credit. Then I get an advance… whatever that is… I don’t know…
“Whoever introduced it needs flogging…It’s American, I think.
“She [the jobcentre adviser] said [even] under 16 hours [of work a week]… soon as I get the job, then you go straight on to Universal Credit, no matter if it’s under 16 hours.
“I thought because they said you’re on the 12 week probation period for the job… and I said, “it’s so complicated…”it benefits them more than the worker
“… I get housing benefit at the moment, so the whole lot [would have to move on Universal Credit] that will… They said that there are ways of getting past the zero contract hours… the more clients you have, the more hours, so you won’t need that [benefits or Universal Credit] but I have to come in [start off] with the Universal Credit and that with me wage slips. But for the first month and that, I’ll be without money unless they do the advance payment…
“[I don’t know] where government expect somebody unemployed to get the money for the rent for a month…
“They got Offerton with the most clients and that it’s up there where I’ll be working. I’ll be going to the clients’ houses. Probably on this (bike) Reddish is not too far from me. The commute between Reddish and Offerton, it’s about 20 mins on the bike. I can go. I think for the first couple of weeks, I’ll get a lift with somebody. There will be somebody shadowing me to make sure I’m capable and all that. [Also] when you’re using the hoist [to lift people when working as a carer], you need two person.”
“I haven’t done the work before, no…at first for the week it’s £9.20 and at weekends it’s £9.40, but it’s compulsory that you go in for your grades….I want to try and make about a 48-hour week.”
So, there was that.
The second story:
I spoke with Miranda*, who was 21.
Miranda had been in and out of homelessness since she was 16. She’d lived in a domestic violence hostel. Her boyfriend at the time had broken her ribs and smacked her teeth out – her front teeth were missing. She was living with another boyfriend at the moment. She relied on him for housing.
Miranda’s problem was getting the mental health assessment that she needed to be prescribed the medication for the complex psychosis that was one of the reasons for her homelessness. The problem was securing an appointment with an oversubscribed mental health service.
With the meds, she’d be in a better position to secure training and work:
“I can’t get any meds for [this psychosis] until I’ve been through counselling and therapy, because they have to determine what it actually is.”
“I’m already on Universal Credit… because I’m on and off the streets, they don’t really pressure me to find work. They just want me to sort out training courses and stuff like that, because I’ve not really been able to do much training… while mental health and homelessness and stuff like that, so I’m restarting [laughs]. I feel like I’m starting up again as a 16-year-old…
“I’m 21 now.
“I’m staying with my partner at the minute… it’s just a bit complicated not having any experience to get a job and then them saying, “you need experience to get a job!” [laughs] I wanted to work with kids, but at the moment, I can’t because of my mental health. I want to just work in retail until I can get some help with my mental health problems…
“I haven’t got mental health help at the moment, but I’m looking into it. I’m looking into Healthy Minds and stuff, but you’ve got to wait until they ring you up and that. My partner is still waiting for his appointment. He rang up and had his over-the-phone appointment over two months ago and they said they would call him back after six weeks. He’s still waiting for the phone call. He’s 30…
“The meds [I take at the moment] help with the depression and anxiety. I can’t get any meds for my [complex psychosis] until I’ve been through counselling and therapy, because they have to determine what it actually is…Because I was on an antipsychotic for a while…because one of them were a bit of a crazy person… but now they’re a bit more chilled out. For a while it was about trying to stop them being so angry and now it’s more about trying to stop them coming out and taking over my life, so a lot of them – I’ll be walking down the street and see someone completely different than what I see…”
“That’s life, innit. I’ve got [to get] a proper diagnosis. They say – “well, if it was really that important, you would have got help three years ago.” I’m like, “well, you can’t get help three years ago if you’re living with your bastard of an ex and he won’t let you leave the house can ya?” Yeah, he was abusive [points to the space where her front teeth were] broken ribs…
“I was in a DV hostel, but I got moved from out of there, because someone was after me. I moved to down here and back in with my partner that was down here in the first place. He wanted to wait until it died down, because he wanted me to visit again. When I visited again, he realised that the person I was staying with was someone that I was dating at the time – before I got back with him…”
I did ask Miranda about the previous night’s local elections:
“I’ve never voted or anything. I don’t really follow it. It’s censorship. There’s no winning. No matter what I decided, we’re still in the shit, so I’ll just let everyone else decide… if there was ever a chance of being a good option [I might vote], but neither one of them are good options, so fuck it. Deal with it yourselves.”