Actually – let’s not.
We’re back at Stockport jobcentre:
First thing that happens – a security guard who over summer has made a keen, if hopeless, effort to befriend our protest group hurries out the front to pass on a dire and utterly vague warning. He’s done this a couple of times over the months – trotted out to alert us to some potential drama or other which I’ve never had enough coffee to get my head around.
“If you see the doors shut, it would mean something is going on,” the guard says, pointing meaningfully at the jobcentre doors. “It would be a good idea to move your protest… it’s your safety I’m worried about.”
My first thought is Sanctions – as in the jobcentre is planning to sanction someone who will (rightly) take it so badly that the jobcentre is planning to restrict the audience*.
Could be a repeat sanction for someone who didn’t respond too well to earlier ones. Jobcentres have long had an intriguing habit of laying repeat sanctions on people who are most likely to struggle to manage, or even remember, jobsearch commitments – which is, of course, why they keep getting sanctioned. These are people with addiction problems, mental health problems, prison histories and/or chaotic lives after years in care and in prison. The DWP seems to have this idea that even if you sleep in a ditch half the week, you should be up at dawn to log your commitments in Trello. Less mention is made of the fact that people haven’t got much support for learning ways to keep to the DWP’s meaningless routines, because the Tories have spent 12 years binning support. A lot of the people I speak with can barely read.
Let’s face it, too – even when you’ve done the right thing, the assumption will be that you haven’t. For instance: I’ve been talking in recent times with Barry, who has been in and out of prison for about 13 years, and totally at sea since he last left jail 4 years back. Barry says his most recent sanction (there have been a few) came about because the DWP said he’d failed to attend a work course that he was actually at.
“They said I hadn’t turned up, but I was there. I got the guy [who was running the course] on the phone to the jobcentre and he said “Barry’s been here.” There followed the usual one-way conversation where you try to explain and explain and explain, and begin to half-feel you’re on mute. I’ve done this with people more often that I care to recall – sat in a jobcentre office trying to get the DWP to see sense about a sanction, or even a wrongful claim closure. You talk on and on, and the DWP stares at you in silence like it is measuring you for a coffin. It’s like spending a morning trying to justify a new food to your cat.
Paul is another guy we’ve seen several times here. He lives in Brinnington and has been out of work a long while. Brinnington is well known in Stockport as the part of town where people with addiction and mental health problems are dumped.
Paul says that the jobcentre treats him well, except for the times when it doesn’t. He doesn’t expect this to change and it obviously won’t. The trick, it seems, is to know how to ride it out when a sanction hits – or at least to know how to appear indifferent to the DWP’s ongoing attempts to nail you.
“I’ve been sanctioned all the time,” Paul says, pushing a hint of fatalist cheer. “With the sanctions – sometimes I’m bothered and sometimes I’m not. I just carry on with life” – by which people usually mean they pinch food, or cash if they see it (a rarer event in our contactless era) until their benefits start again.
Paul says his last sanction was a month or so ago. He says he missed a signon meeting because he was sick.
“I’ve got this sickness called COPD, but when I put my sick note [in to the jobcentre], I got my mate to do it for me and they never let him do it.” It seems this is a sanction that does bother Paul, because he wants to appeal it – even though he’s probably out of time. Not to worry, though. He can appeal the next sanction. Doubtless, it’ll be along very soon.
*We didn’t find out what happened at the jobcentre that day, but I can report that someone did turn up to smash a bottle of something into the building. Can’t say the closed jobcentre doors contributed much there, because it took place outside.