Prior to my redundancy I had been in consistent employment since leaving University. Therefore, I had no personal experience of our Welfare system or claiming benefits of any kind. I would consider myself relatively left-wing in my political views and I have always felt that the British Welfare System was something to be proud of. I think it’s fair to say that, that is no longer the case. For the majority of my career to date, I paid tax in the highest tax band and had 40% of my bonus taken on several occasions. I can honestly say I have never felt resentful about that. I choose to believe that the majority of those who have no choice but to claim benefits are decent and honest people. I have never subscribed to “Daily Mail” stereotypes about who benefit claimants are.
That said, I was quite apprehensive the first time I had to attend the Job Centre to “sign on”. I was made redundant relatively early on in terms of the recession timescale (in May 2008) and honestly believed that it wouldn’t be long before I found a job. In actual fact I was job hunting for the best part of two years. I can honestly say I have never filled in so many un-necessarily complicated, repetitive and intensive forms. Now I consider myself a competent person, I have a degree in Law for goodness sake but I had to read the forms several times to ensure that I was filling them in correctly. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that people give up and don’t bother claiming at all. When I was no longer automatically entitled to Job Seekers Allowance I had to re-apply based on my financial circumstances. It took 7 weeks to process my form. Apparently, my claim was complicated by the fact that I had a mortgage rather than living in a rented property. I literally have no idea how people who have no financial help cope while waiting for their claims to be processed. I was able to borrow some money from family to tide me over until my claim came through. Apparently there is an emergency fund that people can borrow from if they are suffering severe financial hardship while waiting for their claim. I was not told about this, I found out about it after the fact.
I was treated relatively well by the staff at the Job Centre I attended, although very few of them knew anything about the Industry I had come from so were unable to help me find a job. I had to attend the Job Centre every two weeks, tell them how my search was going, which applications I had made and if I had any interviews. I had a “Job Seekers Agreement” which is a contract that you make with the Job Centre about what jobs you are looking for, how you are going to go about it and how far you are prepared to travel for that job. Despite having interviews around the country I never claimed a penny for travel expenses. The reason being, that I wasn’t told that I could until relatively late in my job search. This is the problem you see, if you don’t “know” the system you don’t have the faintest idea about what you are entitled to. It’s almost as if the Job Centre staff are told not to tell you about it. The onus is entirely on you to discover what you are entitled to and how to go about claiming it. I later found out that not only had I missed out on claiming travel expenses, I could have made a claim for interview clothing among other things.
The biggest issue I had was with Council Tax Benefit. I applied for it and was told that I was not entitled to it. I couldn’t understand how I could not be entitled to it but had no choice but to accept the decision. It didn’t alter the fact that I couldn’t afford to pay it. The situation came to a head when the Council sent me a court date for non-payment. During one of my numerous calls on the subject to the council I was told that the reason I had received a letter saying I was not entitled to Council Tax Benefit was because I had not supplied some of the information they required. This was not stated in the decision letter that they had sent me at the time. I had supplied the information and had a receipt to prove it. It transpired that through human error my information had not reached the relevant person so they rejected my claim. I immediately wrote a letter of complaint providing the aforementioned receipt and requesting my previous application was reviewed. Upon review they back-dated my entitlement and the court action against me was dropped. It made me wonder how often this kind of thing happens and people are unaware, so don’t challenge the decision-making process. I could quite easily have ended up in Court with a CCJ through absolutely no fault of my own.
During my time on Job Seekers Allowance I didn’t engage with other claimants to any great extent. Interaction generally took place when I was sitting waiting to be called to sign and listening to other people having their “signing on” interviews (there is no privacy in these situations). The thing that struck me was that there were people there from every walk of life. Unless they were hiding, I never saw the deluge of Immigrants our right-wing press would have you believe are bleeding the system dry either. Yes there were people who would fit the “Daily Mail” stereotype but these people were in the minority. As the recession deepened there were definitely more and more professional, well-educated people attending the Job Centre and the staff literally didn’t know how to manage them. Regardless of background there were several things that every single person I saw had in common; total demoralisation, a sense of shame and an almost cowed acceptance of the inevitably patronising tone with which we were greeted every single time we had to attend.
I appreciate that there is a theory that the more unpleasant the Job Centre is to attend the less likely people are to want to attend and therefore continue to claim. I was told this by a member of Job Centre staff incidentally. It does not work. All the environment does is bring people who are on their knees down further and rob them of every ounce of positivity. How are people supposed to feel motivated to job hunt or further still believe they are going to actually secure a job they interview for, when they are having the life sucked out of them every 2 weeks?
Once you have been out of work for a year to 18 months you are considered “long term unemployed” and expected to attend something called “New Deal”. I attended it for a short period of time before I stopped claiming benefits altogether. To give some perspective I am well-educated and have my fair share of qualifications. I also had over a decade of experience in a specific industry. I asked several times if I could do a course of some kind, primarily to keep my brain alive and give my day some structure, but also to help me explore the prospect of changing career direction. I was told no absolutely not, I had more than enough qualifications to enable me to find a job so it wasn’t an option. So basically if someone has qualifications but wants to change direction they are completely discouraged. It’s almost as if you are being punished for being out of work. People who have been made redundant are not allowed the luxury of changing their mind about the career they want to pursue. At a time of recession I would have thought it made sense to encourage people to diversify and gain new skills. Apparently not!
New Deal is a back to work programme that you attend every day. Some qualifications are available depending on the area within which you wish to work. New Deal is essentially aimed at people who have little in the way of skills and education as the training provided is at a very basic level. The only thing that was available to me was some Microsoft training in Excel, Access and Word. I didn’t really want or need to do it, but it was better than nothing. It was completely dis-organised and essentially consisted of me sitting at a computer and ploughing through a work book which was then marked on-line. You have to sign a register to show attendance every day but ultimately there isn’t enough to do so people end up either twiddling their thumbs, inventing reasons to leave or being disruptive. The majority of people just end up doing their job search there rather than doing it at home, so sit on a computer all day long. For the sake of my sanity I had been doing some Volunteer work prior to commencing New Deal and fortunately this was accepted as part of my working week. If I had, had to attend the New Deal Training room every day from 9-5pm like many of my contemporaries did I think I actually would have lost the plot completely. Another aspect of New Deal is work placements. There has been much discussion of these work placements in the press recently as essentially people from New Deal are being used by large companies like Tesco as free labour. Very few people are offered full-time positions when their placements cease. These are basic, unskilled jobs so I refuse to believe that the people who are sent are unsuitable for permanent employment. The fact is, it is not worth a Company paying them when they can get the next batch of New Deal claimants to work for free.
Do I think New Deal helps people back to work? No I don’t. I think some people take any job that they are offered as a means to escape it. I guess this is a success of sorts if you choose to view it that way, but I don’t believe it leads to sustained employment. I think that for the majority of people New Deal just adds to the de-motivation that they already feel. It provokes resentment and anger and further erodes their self-esteem. Attendance is compulsory and financial sanctions are imposed for non-attendance. One woman I remember specifically was typical of the kind of people I met on New Deal. This woman was in her mid 40’s and had worked for the same High St retailer for 20 years. The branch she had been working in had been closed as a new one was being opened in Westfield Shopping Centre which was close by. The retailer was obviously taking the opportunity to make some people redundant by recruiting a new team for the new store. Existing employees were invited to apply, but ultimately they only took two staff from the store they were closing and they were both young. The woman had been looking in vain for another position ever since. Attempts to secure employment had included dropping her CV into every clothing store in Westfield. The woman was desperate to work but understandably completely and utterly demoralised. I was not in the least bit surprised that she wasn’t securing a job. The situation had shot her confidence to pieces to the extent that I think she would have struggled to answer basic questions at interview, despite her years of experience.
I often wonder what that woman is doing now and I really hope she found a job. I also think of her when I hear people discussing the “work-shy” and “layabouts” that are claiming benefits. Of course there are people who play the system and don’t want to work, but I think these people are the minority and my own experience of the system backs that judgement up. Anyone can find themselves unemployed through no fault of their own and it is extremely arrogant to assume that you are immune. Thankfully, I had some savings and payment protection insurance to cover the interest on my mortgage. My savings had gone within months but by hook and by crook we have just about managed to keep a roof over our heads. Consequently, I consider myself very lucky, I know there are many others who have not been so fortunate.
Related Post: Why I oppose the privatisation of the NHS – a personal perspective http://www.exfashionista.co.uk/2011/11/12/why-i-oppose-the-privatisation-of-the-nhs-a-personal-perspective/