How’s another ride in the DWP clowncar:
It’s a nice sunny morning and we’re back at Stockport jobcentre.
This morning, we’re shooting the breeze with Steve*, who is telling us the one about the time when he was sent on an outdoor workfare-type experience in Levenshulme.
Somebody at Restart or wherever (can’t remember exactly – one or other of the usual welfare-to-work companies that have smelted into a single pile in my mind) decided a little while back that Steve and a few other unemployed blokes would make good (not to mention free) gardeners.
Steve and these others were instructed to turn up to some site where an impressive assortment of gardening kit awaited:
“They’ve got all the gardening tools, petrol strimmer and a motormower…” You got the feeling that somewhere in his mind, Steve had been looking forward to going large with some of these appliances.
It was also possible to see why this particular unpaid work experience (“you get paid nothing for it”) could be felt to beat other workfare “opportunities” that those of us on the circuit have seen over recent years – opportunities such spending the day as a sandwich board, helping test people for the clap (true story), and standing in the rain with a charity collection bucket, etc. When you recall George Osborne’s smug face as he rolled out his workfare programme, the chance to wield a strimmer strikes you as an opportunity in itself.
On with the story. Steve and the others had a look at the tools and things built up to the big moment. They went to their workfare gardening sites – not raring to start the unpaid work exactly, but possibly keen to see who did what with which tool…? okay – that’s probably more what I would have thought. Anyway – they were all set to fire up the strimmers and mowers, and the rest of the arsenal… so they yanked up the starter cords and… nothing. Nothing happened. Total silence. The strimmers and mowers wouldn’t start.
A cursory probe revealed that there was no fuel in any of the tanks. Nobody in charge had quite got around to getting petrol for the tools. A phone call to the work placement company that was in charge of the shambles revealed that nobody there was interested in paying for any, either.
Steve says: “I phoned the guy at the [work placement] place and he said, “we can’t afford the fuel… might as well go home, lads.”
Says Steve: “I got sent round to this woman’s house to mow the lawn, but the petrol was empty. She had an empty petrol can. I said I’ve come to sort your lawns out.”” That seems to have been the end of that – Steve on a lawn on his phone trying score some petrol with an impotent strimmer lying in some old love’s petunias. I can’t help feeling that there’s a metaphor for life in 2022 in there somewhere. I suppose the good news is that it ended up being an environmentally sound experience, in that the grass was left to grow and a litre or so of fossil fuel stayed in the earth, or was bought by someone else and thrown over their bonfire, or whatever. Anyway. Big start – small finish. That’s the DWP all over.
“It’s a joke what they’re doing,” Steve says.
It does sound like it.
Luckily for Steve, the DWP has plenty of other bad ideas up its sleeve. He says that last week, someone at Restart told him that he had to take up a cleaning job in Bolton.
“Bolton?” I say. “Why would they send you to Bolton?” Others who are listening to Steve chime in. Bolton is miles away from Stockport. It’s a bus or train (if either turn up) ride to a whole different town.
Nobody gets this one. It makes as much sense to send someone from Stockport to Bolton to clean toilets as it makes to send someone from Stockport to Bolton just to go to the toilet. It’d be like going from Crouch End to Watford just for a piss. And okay – maybe not a bad day out compared with everything else that is going on, but once would probably be enough. Surely there is something in Stockport that Steve could clean?
Let’s move onto Barry.*
I have a good chat with Barry. Barry is in his late 40s, about 4 years out of jail and, like most of the rest of us, beginning to suspect that the primary reason for his existence can’t be good. Nobody you speak to up north is optimistic about current events. On your darker days, you feel pretty sure that Liz Truss’ regional-economy kickstart plans will involve projects such as having us mined for our calcium.
You can see why Barry is pissed off. Ex-cons come a fair way down the list of useable commodities in our end-of-days capitalist times. Barry also comes across someone who is not interested in taking shit. It’s possible that doors have closed because of this, but we’re going to give him full marks for it.
And I suppose we should note any balance where we find it: Barry is pissed off with the jojobcentre, but he’s pleased with the weather. Also, the DWP is having a laugh at Barry’s expense, so his life is at least fun for someone.
At the moment, the jobcentre is making Barry attend 3 times a week in person. He says he lost his phone, so they’re making him come in, so that they can track him physically, rather than via text or google earth or whatever big tech is currently sniffing us out with. The DWP often engages in this sort of perverse activity. When they’re stalking people, like they’re stalking Barry, they put the onus on the claimant to come into the jobcentre to be stalked. Three times a week Barry has to walk 40 minutes or so to and from the jobcentre (he can’t afford the 3 bus trips and has given up asking for help with the cost). He has to do all the running to the jobcentre even though they’re the ones hunting him down.
“What do you do there [when you get to the jobcentre]?” I ask.
“Nothing,” Barry says cheerfully. “It’s a fulltime job coming in.”
From time to time, the jobcentre sends Barry on a wider arc – about 10 minutes up the road to a site where the aforementioned work programme-type companies like Restart/Ingeus et al hold the usual useless “employability” courses.
Barry’s not convinced that he’s getting a lot out of these courses. I’ve never met anyone who has been convinced, now that I think about it. Of course – helping guys like Barry get anything out of anything is not the point of these exercises. The point is that the DWP likes making people dance for their benefit money. It’s all about putting people through the mill for someone else’s entertainment and electoral chances – something more and more people are starting to get a feel for as Truss goes for the premiership and energy companies close in. You don’t learn much about work, or survival, from any of it, but you sure as hell learn your place.
*names changed etc