First published by New Statesman 29th January 2015
After three months of freelancing and looking for work and essentially living on less than £30 a week, I decided that the only sensible thing to do was to sign on and collect Job Seeker’s Allowance.
Claiming benefits wasn’t a position I wanted to find myself in, but I wasn’t making enough money writing to support myself. I’d taken the very first job I was offered after completing my MA, it was completely unsuited to me and I was desperately ill and unhappy. The company agreed to allow me to work from home on a “freelance” basis. Being naïve, I didn’t ask for the agreement in writing, and after a couple of months, they stopped replying to my emails and the work dried up. The money I’d saved from working full time in the office dried up. I wanted to be in journalism, but there was no chance of me raising the money to move to London, where the media resides, to intern for free at a newspaper until I was maybe offered a staff job at some unspecified point in the future. Jobseeker’s Allowance seemed to be my best bet until I found something that I could do, and which had at leastsomething to do with the two very expensive degrees I’d spent four years of my life studying for.
Despite living in the centre of Manchester, two minutes from Piccadilly train station, the nearest job centre was miles away, in a part of Salford I’d never visited before. I arrived for my initial assessment after a 55-minute walk. They refused to let me use the toilet or have a glass of water – basic amenities in a public building.
Throughout the process, I felt like I’d fallen into the pages of Kafka’s The Trial. The process of receiving a benefit seemed to be peppered with vague and arbitrary rules that no one explained, and my treatment at the job centre made me wonder if I’d committed an imaginary crime. A small excerpt, on the subject of travel costs to the job centre and whether or not they are able to reimburse you:
Advisor: We don’t pay your travel on sign-on days, just when you come for advisor meetings.
Me: Why is that?
Advisor: Well it’s because you HAVE to come in for sign-on day or you don’t get any money, but we’d just PREFER you to come in for your advisor meetings.
Me: So I could do my advisor meetings over the phone?
Advisor: No, you have to come in for you advisor meetings.
Me: So what’s the difference between advisor meetings and sign-on days?
Advisor: We don’t pay your travel on sign-on days.
Recently, I spoke to Lee Healey, the managing director of IncomeMAX, an organisation that helps people to maximise their income and improve their financial situation. Healey says that “most people ‘stumble’ on to the benefits they receive without truly understanding why they receive them, how they are worked out or exactly what their responsibilities for claiming are. The letters benefits claimants receive are also really complex which don’t help. It is also worth remembering that most people claim benefits at a very difficult stage in their life; unemployment, sickness, retirement, disability, separation, children coming along, bereavement etc. I think that most people ‘get there in the end’ through a combination of looking online, talking to friends and family, getting advice and talking to the relevant government departments but it isn’t easy and many miss out on their full entitlement. Billions of benefits go unclaimed every year.”
On each visit to the job centre, there were more members of the security team in the building than claimants. Three uniformed G4S employees manned the door. There were more security guards than in a club or in front of a particularly troublesome pub when there’s a football match on. I was instructed to sit down on a bench and wait, with a member of the G4S security team hovering behind me, as though I required some kind of supervision. I wondered if they’d been told that smiling was not permitted, and if the advisors had been briefed to speak to claimants in comically slow voices. It was as if they’d decided that anyone claiming benefits must be either monumentally stupid or a criminal, or some unfortunate mixture of the two.
I saw advisors taking personal phone calls at their desks on more than one occasion when people were waiting to see them and the job centre was unusually busy. My advisor cancelled my claim by accident because she “didn’t really use computers”. I also heard a member of staff telling someone who had called the job centre, clearly distressed, that nothing could be done and they should try a food bank. I was aggressively reprimanded for “wandering around” by an intimidating member of the security team after being told to go through into the next room by an advisor.
Neil Bateman, a welfare rights advisor, describes the punitive atmosphere of some job centres as entirely deliberate. “I know ex-DWP staff who have been admonished by managers for spending time giving advice. Some DWP staff get a perverse sense of achievement by being unpleasant to claimants,” he says. “It’s truly disgusting and one only has to hear some of the office banter to know what is going on.”
The portrayal of benefit claimants in the right-wing press seemed to link very closely to how I and many, many others have been treated at job centres around the country. Both experts I spoke to described this portrayal by the government and certain sections of the media as “completely unacceptable” and they believe it is based on biased views largely lacking in real evidence. Lee Healey notes that “support for Jobseeker’s is under 8 per cent of total welfare spend so it’s ridiculous that unemployed people are portrayed in the media as undeserving of support and a drain on public resources”.
The toxic blend of a highly complex benefits system, unhelpful advisors and the coalition government’s ideological approach to sanctions means that it’s very easy to lose your benefit altogether, and not even be aware of the reason why. Lee Healey sees the sanctions as an attack on the most vulnerable people. “Jobseeker’s and ESA claimants will generally be on the very lowest incomes; literally receiving a top up to take their income to a government set ‘amount they need to live on’ – when this ‘top up’ is sanctioned, by benefits being stopped or reduced it hits claimants hard. In many cases it will leave claimants with no money”. In the last two years, over 2 million people have had their benefits stopped through the coalition government’s sanction regime.
As someone who has spent 40 years working with claimants referred through voluntary organisations, Neil Bateman now spends more time “sorting out stupid and nasty benefit decisions and they take ages to resolve”. Lee Healey reports helping 13,000 households this year, a 50 per cent increase on last year, and says that the demand for his services is growing.
I came away every week feeling furious about being belittled again by staff members who seemed to hold only distaste for me. On entering the job centre, my qualifications, internships, published achievements and public speaking successes were wiped away. I was basically a sub-human who couldn’t be trusted to use the toilet or have a glass of water or sit on a bench without someone in uniform standing over me. These small experiences serve to illustrate the hostile and mistrustful atmosphere of the job centre and the disrespect with which claimants are treated.
My job centre experiences are not unique, nor are they particularly extreme. Benefit sanctions, the unnecessary complexity of the system and the behaviour of some job centre employees are harming some of the most vulnerable members of society. Between March 2013 and March 2014, there was a 580 per cent rise in sanctions against chronically ill and disabled people. More than one million people received food parcels from Trussell Trust food banks last year. Benefit sanctions were used to ‘massage’ unemployment figures, as the coalition government conveniently excluded around 500,000 people on JSA from their statistics. Those people effectively did not exist, purely for the purpose of making a political point. It is essential that we, as a society, rediscover our compassion because something is very wrong here.