At the moment claimants of Job Seeker’s Allowance are expected to look for work every day and to spend a minimum of 20 hours per week in their search. Later this year it will rise to 35 hours. This is clearly a ridiculous figure. You can search for just about every available job relevant to your skills and experience by visiting just one or two websites and if there are no jobs suitable for you that day, you are just supposed to go on searching even though you know the jobs aren’t there.
Then there’s the job search diary or Customer Activity Log the layout of which is just plain stupid. There is nothing new in the idea of a job search diary, unemployed people have been noting down their job search activities for generations and yet the layout of the current log is actually worse than previous diaries. You’re supposed to go into enormous detail explaining the steps you took to find work, such as which websites you searched, which employers you sent CVs to, which jobs you applied for and any other job search activities you have undertaken and you’re supposed to do all that in a space the size of three stamps. I recently applied for 9 jobs in one day and it took 3 lines to give them the details they wanted and for the rest of the week I had to cram information into the margins. Then there is the “what happened” box which to me is a question but there’s no question mark. As far as I can tell this box requires at least some of the same information as the first box listing your activities and is pretty much a pointless waste of space.
Nevertheless I have been twice hauled over the coals about this box in recent weeks. Let me clarify that I wasn’t in trouble for being late or for not applying for jobs or for not spending enough time looking for work, I had met all the criteria I was supposed to and then some. I was interviewed at length because I had written “nothing” or “nothing applicable” in the “what happened” box when I hadn’t found anything suitable. I then had it explained to me in a way that made little sense so I asked for a photocopy of the notes she’d made on my diary as a guide for next time. What happened next time? I was given a hard time again, by a different adviser, who insisted I put most of the information I had been told to put in the “what happened” box in the first box instead! So even the advisers don’t seem sure of the purpose of this box but they are quite happy to give someone a hard time over it.
Back in the day the job search diary was a little booklet and that meant you could take as much space as you needed. Now they issue you with a single piece of paper 8 lines (a table) on each side if it’s been photocopied correctly. The lines aren’t even the same size and none are big enough to fit a postage stamp on. This might seem like a small matter compared to the Bedroom Tax, benefits cap etc., some might say “use a piece of scrap paper numpty” but for me it’s symbolic. They want enormous detail but don’t provide you with the space you need to give them what they demand. It’s petty, just like the demand that you spend a set numbers of hours each week looking for jobs regardless of the state of the jobs market and just like the Government’s attitude in general towards unemployed and disabled workers.
You can of course be sanctioned for not filling in your job search diary which leads me to a wider issue. People have asked me about what’s required of a job seeker in order to get the money you are legally and morally entitled to and if you can be sanctioned for not doing these things. This isn’t an advice blog and I feel uncomfortable giving advice, especially about such a convoluted system that has been designed to trip people up. Reluctantly, however, I’ve decided to write a little advice on avoiding sanctions.
First of all you must turn up to sign on. You are supposed to come 10 minutes early to check the job points and you can be sanctioned if you are more than 10 minutes late for your appointment – the irony being that Jobcentres are full of people every day who turned up early and are then kept waiting for 10, 20 or 30 minutes after their appointment time without so much as an apology. You are entitled to two short periods of sickness each year but if you are ill and miss signing on phone them and tell them you’re sick. If you don’t you could lose money. Also get in to sign on as soon as you can to avoid your payment being delayed any longer than necessary.
Secondly you must bring your signing book and filled in job search diary. I have heard of extremely busy Jobcentres calling names like a roll call or getting people to sign en masse without checking diaries. But in even a Jobcentre like that I would strongly advise you to bring your signing book and completed job search diary – just because they didn’t ask to see it last time doesn’t mean they won’t ask next time. They will also refuse to sign you if you don’t have your signing book and have the power to sanction you if you don’t produce your diary when asked. Don’t give them the opportunity to take your money away from you.
Thirdly, when searching for work you must meet the time criteria of 20 hours a week or 35 hours later this year. The fact is that this is a ridiculous amount of time to look for work each week but since the policies this government are directing towards people on benefits are designed to take money away from the poorest and most vulnerable in society, while the wealthy get tax cuts, and they are therefore deeply immoral so as far as I can see there is nothing wrong with being “creative” (clears throat). Google and Amazon do it to avoid paying tax so why shouldn’t you do it to make sure you can eat? If your hours are coming up short good places to go are council, F.E. college and university websites. They are big employers and even individually they have a wide range of jobs going so whether you’re a teacher, administrator, driver or cleaner you can reasonably expect to find something to apply for if you look at enough of them. The best thing is everyone knows that the online applications on these sites can take an age to fill in so if you’re applying for a university job, for example, putting 2 ½ or even 3 hours in your job search diary shouldn’t raise any eyebrows. They don’t need to know you stopped to eat your dinner or watch Eastenders in that time. Just be careful if you actually do stop for a break, or to shout obscenities at the computer like I do because of the ridiculous nature of the questions, that your session doesn’t time out.
You must also accept a reasonable offer of employment – i.e. one that fits the requirements that you and your adviser agreed to put in your jobseeker’s agreement. Failure to accept such a job could easily lead to sanctions so make sure there are no jobs in your agreement that you’re not actually prepared to do.
If you are on the Work Programme your provider Ingeus, A4e or whoever cannot actually sanction you because they don’t have that power but that is only a technicality. If they ask the jobcentre to sanction you then sanctioned you will be so tread carefully with your Work Programme provider.
Then there are various workfare schemes. Unfortunately this is a murky world full of half-truths, lies and myths so it is difficult to know what is true and what isn’t. I have never been on one of the schemes created in recent times, although I was on a scheme for graduates years ago, so I cannot draw on personal experience of workfare. What I do know, however, is that there are several (at least 4) such schemes. The one that got lots of publicity a while back and is aimed at people who are 24 and under is voluntary. At least it’s voluntary until you’ve started then you’re stuck with it. Some young people have ended up on that scheme because they were told or were led to believe, by Jobcentre staff!, that it was mandatory. The evidence of this is too common to ignore and Jobcentre staff have to decide which side they’re on.
There are other less well reported schemes that involve Mandatory Work Activity (MWA). Your Work Programme provider can send you on one of these schemes and non-attendance/ non-compliance can and will lead to sanctions. That said if you are sent on such a scheme you are supposed to be given 5 working days notice before it starts and you can request to find your own placement, see http://skintandangry.wordpress.com/2013/03/24/benefit-sanctions-lunacy/ . Sadly, however, if you are placed on a MWA scheme as long as they have followed the rules you have to do it.
The government is particularly fond of these schemes because they keep the Tory right happy by making “scroungers” work for their bread and even though people on workfare are still receiving JSA or another benefit they magically don’t appear in the unemployment figures. All 100,000 + of them just disappear. They are doing “work like activity” or “work experience” not actual “work” so they don’t get paid by their employers who get to use them to maximise their profits by stopping overtime, cutting hours or even laying off staff. But even though their employers don’t think they are “working” the government disagrees – not to the extent of making sure they get paid but just enough to make sure they don’t appear on the unemployment figures.
One more issue to consider is the Universal Jobmatch website. You don’t have to set up an account just because your adviser tells you to. If you really don’t want to and dig your heels in they can issue you with with a written instruction to do so (see http://edinburghagainstpoverty.org.uk/node/105 for excellent advice on this). You do NOT have to provide your Jobcentre adviser with access to your account. You are covered by data protection law. If you choose to allow them access that’s your decision and there might be strong arguments in favour of it but don’t let anyone tell you you have to. You don’t, it’s your choice.
My final piece of advice is that if there is anything you are not sure about you should ask your Jobcentre adviser for clarification – but talk hypothetically. Don’t give them any ammunition against you but they are there to do a job so make them do it. Don’t ask a Work Programme provider because most don’t know how the Work Programme works never mind the benefits system and the sanctions rules. The Citizen’s Advice Bureau is another option or welfare rights officers and boycottworkfare.org is a good place to go for information on workfare.