Archive for the ‘JSA’ Category

In my first post in this blog (http://skintandangry.wordpress.com/2012/07/10/work-programme-what-do-you-do/) I asked the question: Work Programme what do you do? I’m still asking that question and I still don’t know the answer. Since June 2011 1.2 million people have been referred to the Work Programme but in only 13% of cases has there been a “job outcome” payment which is usually paid to the Work Programme provider when their client has been in work continually for 6 months. Although the Work Programme’s results have improved in the second year (much of that 13% referred to above) it still isn’t hitting its targets. But even if it did hit its targets we have to ask what the Work Programme provider’s actually do to justify being paid. I’ve never had much help from them and I don’t think my experience is uncommon. I asked Lisa, another Work Programme client, from Clackmannanshire about her experience of the service the Government’s ‘flagship’ programme is providing.

Sean. How long have you been unemployed?

Lisa. Seven years.

Sean. What benefit are you on?

Lisa. I’m on JSA.

Sean. How long have you been on the Work Programme?

Lisa. I’ve been there since June this year.

Sean. Who is your Work Programme provider?

Lisa. Triage Central/Ingeus.

Sean. Have they provided you with any help and if so, what?

Lisa. They mentioned a confidence course that I’ve heard no more about.

Sean. Mentioning courses or different kinds of help that are supposed to be available and then not following through seems to be typical of the Work Programme. Have you been left to look for work on your own?

Lisa. I was handed a sheet of paper with an agency job printed on it, and was told to try Office Angels agency but my Jobcentre adviser agreed that agency work is no good. I was told to attend a CV workshop which I turned up to, and there was no workshop…I was told to print my CV out and do a quick job search…I could have done this at home easily.

Sean. In my experience almost everything you have to do with the Work Programme could be done at home. Have you had any interviews while on the Work Programme?

Lisa. No.

Sean. How have your advisers treated you?

Lisa. I’ve spoken to the Triage adviser for about half an hour the whole time I’ve been on the programme. It feels like a waste of time going there as I can do my job search at home. My Jobcentre adviser is great and is really nice.

Sean. Is Triage the provider you are with now and if so do they operate on behalf of Ingeus?

Lisa. Triage are linked to Ingeus, so it says on the website.

Sean. Would it surprise you to hear that the Work Programme is funded with £5 billion of public money?

Lisa. They get all that money? What a waste.

Sean. So you don’t think the Work Programme is worthwhile?

Lisa. I would think the Work Programme was helpful if they actually helped. I can job search on my own and I don’t see the point in having to go there for that purpose. They are also guaranteeing a job at the end of the two years apparently.

Sean. Good luck with that.

And good luck to everyone hoping the Work Programme will actually provide them with help at some point rather than just pressure.

A while back I signed off Job Seeker’s Allowance again but it’s not as easy a process as some might expect. It has always surprised me that it’s not easier but this time round was really an extraordinary experience.

First I checked my signing book for a phone number. There is a box on the front of the book under the words “If you need to tell us that your circumstances have changed, please call us on this phone number” the box was, of course, empty. Memories of previous occasions when I’d signed off came flooding back. For some reason no one ever bothers to put a number in that box.

I found a number on the back of the book as far from the box as possible. When I phoned it I had to listen to some dreadful musac for a while. Eventually someone answered. This is a truncated version of what happened next -

Jobseeker’s Direct (JD): You’re through to Jobseeker’s Direct how can I help you?

Me: I want to end my JSA claim.

JD: This is Jobseeker’s Direct how can I help you?

Me: Eh I want to end my claim for JSA.

JD: Which Jobcentre do you sign on at?

Me: It’s …

JD: Can you tell me which Jobcentre you sign on at?

Me: Yes it’s … in Glasgow.

JD: OK I’ll put you through.

Me: Thanks.

Telephone rings … and rings … keeps on ringing … rings some more. Telephone is answered.

JD2: You’re through to Jobseeker’s Direct how can I help you?

Me: What?!

JD2: You’re through to Jobseeker’s Direct how can I help you?

Me: I want to stop my JSA claim.

JD2: Which Jobcentre do you sign on at?

Me: It’s …

JD2: That’s in Glasgow right? I’m putting you through.

Telephone rings … and rings … rings … rings a bit more. Telephone is answered.

JD3: This is Jobseeker’s Direct how can I help you?

Me: Seriously?

JD3: How can I help you?

Me: I’m trying to sign off and end my JSA claim.

JD3: And which Jobcentre do you sign on at?

Me: It’s …

JD3: Could you repeat that please?

Me: I already have. It’s …

JD3: I’ll put you straight through.

Telephone rings … continues to ring … more ringing … and a bit more. Telephone is answered.

JD4: This is Jobseeker’s Direct how can I help you?

Me: (under my breath) F… sake!

JD4: Hello? This is Jobseeker’s Direct how can I help you?

Me: I’m just trying to end my JSA claim.

JD4: Which Jobcentre do you use to sign on?

Me: It’s …

JD4: Putting you through now.

Telephone rings … rings a bit more. Telephone is answered.

JC: Hello this is … Jobcentre. I’m … how can I help you?

Me: (under my breath) Thank F…!

JC: How can I help?

Me: I’m trying to sign off and end my claim for JSA.

JC: OK this isn’t actually the right office for that. We don’t deal with that here.

Me: !

JC: I’ll give you the number. Do you have a pen?

Me: Can’t you just put me through?

JC: No, sorry. Do you have a pen?

Me: Yes.

JC gives me the number. I note it down and call it. Telephone rings … and rings until an automated response tells me – “We are taking a high volume of calls right now and all of our operators are busy please try again at another time. For ‘call back’ press 5.” I press five and a different automated voice says “’Call back’ doesn’t work on this type of call.” I put the phone down calmly, take a deep breath and then unleash a string of swear words, shouts and threats at the phone, at the wall, at the heavens and at everything so angrily, loud and long that I forget to breathe for a while. I get dizzy and have to go and sit down well away from the phone and put it out of my mind until I’ve recovered. After a while I get up and try again and get the same automated messages, once, twice, three times, four times, five times, take another break, try again and again and finally a person answers. It takes the very helpful call handler about five minutes to end my JSA claim.

I’m now convinced that a dead rabbit lying at the side of the road being consumed by maggots could design a more user friendly system than Jobseeker’s Direct and Jobcentre Plus. Of course the system is in general designed to be difficult to put people off claiming benefits or to confuse them so much they don’t know which benefits they are entitled to but you’d think they’d at least make it easy to sign off. They actually make it difficult for you to stop them giving you money!

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.

This month the Con-Dem government implemented its latest punishment of the poor and vulnerable – the Bedroom Tax. If you were wondering what’s wrong with it, what all the fuss is about or why should we oppose it here are some points to consider -

1: It’s unfair

The Bedroom Tax means that people in social housing who rely on Housing Benefit will lose 14% of that benefit if they have one spare room and 25% for two or more spare rooms. This is clearly a huge financial blow to people who are already on a very low income.

Even the phrase “spare room” is contentious. Spare rooms are not necessarily “spare”: disabled people, for example, may need a room for equipment or their partner may have to sleep there on occasion. Some disabled people may have a carer who might need the room to stay the night from time to time.

The Conservative Party is big on what it calls “family values” and the importance of both parents being involved in the lives of their children. They are also keen to have a go at absentee parents who are not involved in their children’s lives or who are not paying maintenance. The Bedroom Tax will make it harder for estranged parents to spend time with their children. When they do have their children over to stay with them they will have to sleep on the floor and they will not have a room that is theirs in what is effectively their home.

It will also mean fewer working class people will have a room available if they are interested in becoming foster carers. Schemes like Throughcare and Aftercare, which help young people leaving the care system need people with a “spare room”. In these kind of schemes the young person leaving care stays with someone in the months leading up to turning 18 to get a taste of independent living before they have to do it without a safety net. If there are fewer people with a spare room there will be fewer rooms in supportive households available for these young people.

Then there is also the fact that the smaller accommodation people are expected to move into doesn’t exist. I recently considered moving from the small private let flat I live in to a housing association flat – there were no one bedroom flats to be found. Someone from my community has a four bedroom house where he has lived for many years and where his children grew up – he applied for a one bedroom flat five years ago and is still stuck where he is. If someone who has been trying to move for five years hasn’t been able to what hope is there for people trying to move now as the mad rush for one bedroom accommodation begins?

The Bedroom Tax is being imposed by millionaires with no shortage of spare rooms themselves. The architect of welfare “reform”, Iain Duncan Smith, lives in a £2million mansion that he doesn’t pay rent on because it belongs to his father-in-law the 5th Baron Cottesloe. David Cameron has, between Downing Street and Chequers, 14! bedrooms paid for by the tax payer and government minister and firm proponent of the Bedroom Tax Lord Freud has 11 spare rooms. That said his country home Eastry Court was built in 603AD for King Ethelbert so given how old it is it’s probably a dump.

Government ministers may be talking about houses and flats but the people at the sharp end of this argument are talking about homes. In many cases, like the man I mentioned above, they are talking about homes where people have lived for years or even decades, where they brought up their children, where relationships were made or broken, where there is a happy memory (or a sad one, or a funny one) lurking in every room and in every nook and cranny. They are not just houses and flats to the people who live in them they are family homes. How would Lord Freud, Iain Duncan Smith and his rich father-in-law or David Cameron feel if they were forced out of their family homes?

The people imposing this tax or more precisely this attack – because that is what it is – have cut income tax for the richest people in our society and they oppose a mansion tax or an increase in the top rate of Council Tax but they think it’s OK to impose a levy on some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the country. What happened to “we’re all in it together” and “those with the broadest shoulders” and so on?

Many of those hit by this attack will have to move into the private lets, which may well be one of the hidden objectives – to boost the housing market by improving the prospects of making a profit in the buy to let sector. But even here there are new problems facing those driven from social housing. For example many private landlords aren’t willing to rent to people on benefits. Another problem is that when you live in a private let the equivalent of Housing Benefit is capped at £360 per month and you have to make up the shortfall and there will nearly always be a shortfall because rents in the private sector are significantly higher than those in the social sector. That means people fleeing the Bedroom Tax will be hit by another extra cost.

Last, but by no means least, people who were previously good tenants who paid their rent on time will fall into arrears and may end up being evicted. The government has stated that welfare reform is about fairness but how can it ever be fair to force people into debt and then kick them out of their homes?

2: It’s potentially costly

Not only will the Bedroom Tax hit those directly effected by it in the pocket but it will hit tax payers generally. To evict someone costs money. According to the Scottish Anti-Bedroom Tax Federation it can cost up to £26,000 to evict someone. That means that with an average Bedroom Tax of around £750 per year it would take over 30 years to save enough money to cover the cost of eviction. And the cost might be even higher if tenants oppose evictions in court.

Where do they go if they are evicted? Councils will put up homeless people wherever they can so there is the cost of hostels, B&Bs or even hotels to house homeless people who were until now living in a home and paying or trying to pay the rent.

Then there is the actual cost of rent. It is more expensive to rent in the private sector than in the social. Let me give you an example – my mother lives in a two bedroom council house with a front and back garden and I live in a small one bedroom flat yet my rent is £25 per week higher despite the fact she has just had a £5 per week rent increase. Given that I claim benefits for my rent if I was able to get a single bedroom council or housing association house/flat that would be a saving of at least £25 per week on the benefits bill. Imagine that saving replicated across the UK in many thousands of housholds. How much is it already costing the tax payer to allow a situation to continue where the health and profitability of the housing market is more important than actually housing people?

Another issue is that social landlords will find it harder to collect rent which means they will have less money to invest in the upkeep of properties and it may also have the knock on effect of them laying off staff. This has already been hinted at by a series of pilot schemes designed to test another aspect of the welfare “reforms” – paying Housing Benefit to the claimant instead of directly to the landlord. In all six of the pilot areas people who had never been in arrears found themselves struggling to budget and and falling behind with their rent. In Wales Bron Afon Community Housing said it had seen a 50% increase in the number of tenants in arrears during the pilot. There was a rise in the cost of collecting rent and over a third of Housing Associations said they thought the change would result in them having less money to spend on the maintenance of housing stock or the building of new houses. For more on this see my blog: http://skintandangry.wordpress.com/2013/03/12/housing-benefit-changes-a-disaster-already/. This gives us a clear indication of the kind of costs and pressures that social landlords will be faced with when dealing with the Bedroom Tax.

3: What will be attacked next?

The Bedroom Tax is by no means the only change in welfare and when I say “change in welfare” I mean – attack on the low waged, unemployed and disabled. It is just one in a series of attacks. The right to be paid for your labour or to be treated fairly when you are out of work is under attack in the form of workfare schemes that force unemployed people to work (often for highly profitable private companies) without pay which may be robbing people of paid work and exacerbating the unemployment problem. Housing benefit is to be paid direct to claimants regardless of how they feel about it, it’s equivalent in the private let sector is already capped at £360 per month, young people cannot claim Housing Benefit at all now and people in their 20s and early 30s are expected to share accommodation in order to claim it. Out of work benefits such as Jobseekers Allowance are to be frozen below the rate of inflation for 3 years which is a cut. The replacement of Disability Living Allowance by Personal Independence Payments will see many disabled people suffer a fall in income or a loss of this benefit entirely. And then there are the cuts to Council Tax Benefit. Can we really believe that the Bedroom Tax is the final assault? Of course it isn’t. If a bully gets away with it he/she keeps coming back. Maybe the next time the very existence of social housing will be questioned or perhaps the minimum wage or maybe unemployed people will be expected to be flogged publicly for the crime of not having a job in a country where there are more than five people out of work for every vacancy? So there are the reasons to oppose the Bedroom Tax 1,2,3,4,5 … and so on.

The Bedroom tax, Universal Credit, workfare, benefit cap, below inflation rise in benefits, cuts to legal aid – they just keep coming with this stuff. I for one would appreciate some candour from the government – if they hate people on the dole or if they hate the working class or if they hate the low waged they should just say so but for Iain Duncan Smith to say he could live in £53 a week and that benefits are not being cut and for George Osborne to follow it up with that joke of his about cuts to benefits and public sector pay freezes on the one hand and tax cuts for millionaires on the other being about “fairness” is just galling.

Iain Duncan Smith (the Ratbag), meanwhile, has been mouthing off that he could survive on £53 a week. Easy to say when you know you’ll never have to. While those on the dole are attacked as scroungers draining the country dry MPs get a food allowance of twice the size of Jobseekers Allowance each week on top of their pay of £65,738 a year – that’s right as well as being paid for their job they get their food paid for them by the tax payer – a bill that has gone up by 20% since 2009 while most people have seen their incomes fall. But since Iain Duncan Smith is a Cabinet Minister not just an ordinary MP his pay is £134,565 plus all the juicy expenses and pensions contributions (www.parliament.uk). Oh and unlike people who really do have to scrape by on a pittance IDS has his rich father-in-law, the 5th Baron Cottesloe, to fall back on. £53 a week doesn’t look so scary when there’s a rich Baron in the family. No one should have to live on £53 a week and if you do have to you certainly shouldn’t be vilified for it.

Universal Credit has been dealt a blow with its start date being pushed back but they are determined to go ahead with it. Many thousands of people, perhaps hundreds of thousands will have to sort out their benefit claims online regardless of whether they have internet access or the necessary computer skills. Iain Duncan Smith has previously said that one of the reasons they are switching to an online system is to encourage people to learn those computer skills. In other words learn or starve. I for one would certainly encourage people to learn some basic IT skills but where are people to learn these skills? College budgets are being cut and libraries are closing. Perhaps they’ll set up computer skills camps where people can earn a bowl of gruel if they manage to successfully navigate the Universal Jobmatch site or print of a CV. I’m sure the guard dogs and barbed wire would only be there to ensure the safety and comfort of the campers.

Some are already working for their gruel. Poundland, ASDA, Argos and Debenhams are all happily making profits off the backs … sorry, providing unpaid work experience to unemployed people. Apparently it’s good for the economy and it helps people “get ready for work” and so on. If that’s true then Homebase must be the most altruistic company in history. They have taken on 21, yes TWENTY ONE, unpaid staff at a single store in Haringay. For Homebase business is clearly all about doing good. I wonder how many paid staff selflessly gave up their overtime or even their jobs to make way for those in desperate need of learning how to be taken advantage of?

Iain Duncan Smith and George Osborne have angrily defended the benefit cap and the limiting of the rise in out of work benefits to 1%. IDS actually said, with a straight face, that the government weren’t cutting benefits they were “managing the growth” in benefits. As if that wasn’t insult enough Osborne said that cutting benefits on the same day as cutting income tax for millionaires was about “fairness”! He’s got a pair I’ll give him that. He also said it wasn’t right that a third of government spending was on welfare. At last something we can agree on – it’s not right. It’s not right that intelligence, talent, experience and even lives are wasted. So the obvious solution is to take money away from the poorest in society and give it to the richest – oh no wait! That’s not the solution. The solution is to create jobs and make sure they pay well so that people don’t need to claim benefits in the first place. Huge numbers of people work AND claim benefits because their jobs don’t pay enough. It’s time the government accepted the need for a living wage.

Not enough for you? Want some more bad news? OK if you happen to require “justice” at some point in your life you better hope you win the lottery first because otherwise there’s a good chance you won’t get it. The government, not content with attacking benefits, cutting tax for the rich (they’re so put upon after all), punishing people for living in social housing and forcing people to work for free have also cut Legal Aid. £350 million has been cut from the Legal Aid budget. Shelter and the Citizens Advice Bureaux have already shut down offices because of this. The government’s own research showed that a staggering 600,000 people would lose access to legal advice and representation.

They’re coming at us from all sides. “Where’s the silver lining?” you ask. Well disability rights campaigners, anti-workfare campaigners (still happy about their success in driving Superdrug out of the scheme) and now the anti-bedroom tax campaign shows us that we can fight back. At the weekend thousands of people across the UK from Edinburgh to Belfast to London and around 5,000 in Glasgow protested against the bedroom tax, meetings and campaign groups are springing up all over the country at a rate that some veterans of the anti-poll tax campaign of a quarter of a century ago say compares favourably with the movement that brought Thatcher down. At a meeting in Glasgow one anti-bedroom tax campaigner, Luke Ivory, pointed out that the anti-poll tax movement had faced a strong government and a Prime Minister who had defeated Labour time and time again, defeated the Miners and other unions as well as Argentine President General Galtieri, had herself been brought down by working class people who had had enough of her and stood up for themselves. He went on to say the government we face is much weaker. Former MSP, Tommy Sheridan, at the same meeting, called for a tax on the mansions of the millionaires rather than a tax on the bedrooms of the millions.

The Tories obviously want a fight – I think we should oblige them.

Joe from Glasgow was sanctioned under the rules governing Workfare or Mandatory Work Activity (MWA). He shared his experience of the benefit sanctions regime with me.

Why were you selected for Mandatory Work Activity?

I was selected for Mandatory Work Activity by my jobcentre adviser who claimed I lacked certain skills and needed more experience.

My adviser also told me that is was policy now that if you have been claiming job seekers allowance for more than 6 months you are automatically referred to MWA.

Why did you turn down the placement?

I met with a work experience adviser at my local JCP [JobcentrePlus] who advised me on work experience and gave me a self-marketing form to send to potential work placements, and told me I can source my own work experience as long as it meets DWP requirements. Through my own initiative I searched for my own work experience and contacted an organisation called Project Scotland in which I spoke to an adviser who informed me that they can offer me a work placement meeting the demands of the DWP as Project Scotland works in partnership with the Government and DWP. Project Scotland matched my skills and experience to a work placement called Fareshare in Glasgow this was for 30hrs per week and was for a period of 3 months and Fareshare is also a voluntary organisation – meeting all the demands of the DWP. Throughout my attendance at my local JCP I spoke to many advisers and explained to all of them that I was in contact with Project Scotland and planning on starting the work experience in January 2013.

I also refused to start mandatory work experience due to the fact that JHP Employability (the work placement sourcer) informed me to attend a group interview at their local office. There was around 20 people, a diverse range of people, we were all told the same thing and the adviser who took the group meeting pointed to posters in the office which gave us reasons why we there. The reasons included we ‘lacked soft skills’ and we ‘had no discipline for work’ also we ‘lacked the experience of work’

I refuse to believe that all the 20 people who were referred to JHP lacked all of these skills and experience.

How did the jobcentre react to you not accepting the placement?

I asked to have an interview with my job adviser at my local jobcentre regarding my decision not to attend and to explain the reasons why I was refusing, however, when I attended the interview my adviser informed me that there’s nothing she can do that it is now a matter for a DWP Decision maker.

They were not cooperative when I tried to ask to speak to anyone regarding my work experience.

The staff’s tone and language used towards me in the interview was degrading and my adviser ended my interview by stating

“well Joseph there’s no such thing as free benefits anymore.”

What were the sanctions applied to you?

I was then informed of a sanction about a week after I refused to attend. The sanction was for a period of 3 months and that was without any payment and even after the 3 months I would still have to do work experience.

The only assistance you are offered is a hardship form to complete and even that then takes many interviews to get processed.

Did you appeal and if so how is that going?

I appealed the decision to sanction me by filling out the JCP appeal form but received a rejection back from my first appeal.

However, I then appealed with an appeal letter and for the second time sent it to a DWP decision maker.

I also went to my local MP’s office for some advice about my sanction and to seek any help they could offer. The caseworker did help my appeal by writing on behalf of me to the DWP in support of my appeal and asking them to overturn the sanction.

After sending my appeal letters away to the DWP I waited several weeks until I received a response stating that my benefit has been reinstated and I will have my money back dated.

The letter was very vague as to the reasons why they were reinstating my benefits but it was a great relief.

But I then wanted to pursue a complaint against 2 members of staff who had been my personal advisers who I believe had been speaking to me in a degrading manner and using comments that should not be used when speaking to the unemployed.

Also I raised issues in the complaint about my experience of JHP Employability and the way they group people together and judge them without assessing them and how that has affected my self-esteem and confidence.

At the beginning of this month I was informed by the deputy manager for the DWP Glasgow region over the telephone that my complaint has been processed, that the 2 members staff have been interviewed and disciplined by their line managers, she then passed on her apologies on behalf of the DWP and admitted that errors were made when assessing me and giving me information regarding mandatory work experience.

The deputy manager also informed me that she was concerned about the issues I raised about JHP Employability and she would be passing this complaint on to higher management and to a government level.

What advice do you have for people in a similar position?

My advice to people who find themselves in a similar position is to know your rights and seek out all the information before you attend interviews about work experience. Keep records of your visits to the job centre and complain about any member of staff who you find acts unprofessionally towards you. Seek advice from your local MP and don’t be disheartened, keep appealing and know you are not alone!

Universal Jobmatch is part of the Government’s shake up of the benefits system. It has replaced the previous system of job searching on the directgov website. According to the leaflet handed out to jobseekers by Jobcentreplus

Universal Jobmatch  will make looking for jobs easier and quicker. It uses the latest technology to help you find jobs that are right for you, by matching your CV and skills to jobs posted on the service.”

It also describes it as a “secure online service” but it is security that is at the heart of the debate surrounding it. According to Kevin Rawlinson writing in the Independent (21/12/2012) hackers have gained access to the personal details of thousands of people through the site. This includes passwords, National Insurance numbers and scans of passports. Channel 4 News reported similar concerns over security. Fake jobs, such as one for a hitman, or even illegal jobs such prostitutes  have been posted. This all calls the vetting procedures into question. Jobcentreplus and the DWP have a legal requirement to check that the jobs posted are kosher and that they are not scams designed to harvest claimants’ personal details for identity theft. Clearly jobs are not being checked. Do unemployed workers not have the same rights to security as other people? Are our details to be handed out to fraudsters as additional punishment for being unemployed?

That’s just the first problem with the new system. It is also to be used to snoop on claimants. It utilises ‘cookies’ that track use of the site letting Jobcentreplus advisers know how much an individual has used it, which jobs they applied for and when it was accessed. The Government wants to control the jobsearch of individual claimants which is strange for a government that is continually preaching about individual responsibility. Government policy, we are constantly, told is not to blame for unemployment – it’s the unemployed, unemployed people have to accept responsibility for their situation BUT the Government will control their jobsearch!

If all that wasn’t enough to undermine confidence in the Universal Jobmatch system there’s more. Deliberate confusion has been created around whether or not the system is mandatory. It is NOT mandatory to sign up to  Universal Jobmatch although individual jobseekers can be made to sign up to it if their adviser feels that they are not trying hard enough to find work. The DWP told Channel 4 News that it expected “most JSA claimants will register willingly. However, where registration is deemed by a Jobcentre Plus adviser as reasonable in terms of improving employment prospects, but the claimant will not do so willingly, the adviser will be able to require registration through the issue of a Jobseeker’s Direction.” The short hand here is – we can only compel jobseekers to use this site individually if they are not doing enough to find work so we will simply assume none of them are doing enough and issue Jobseekers Directions to all of those who won’t play ball. The PCS have claimed that some of their members have come under pressure from management to mislead jobseekers on the voluntary/mandatory nature of the system.

Even if you are made to sign up to the site it is NOT compulsory to allow your adviser access to your account as Rowena Mason, writing in the Telegraph, (20/12/2012) confirmed. Indeed, as she pointed out, such tracking activity is illegal under European law. So you don’t have to allow them to snoop on you. However, many people have been told that signing up to Universal Jobmatch is compulsory or at least they haven’t been told it’s optional neither have they been told that allowing their adviser accesss to their account is entirely voluntary. When I signed on again a few weeks ago, after a short term job, I was told by my adviser that it’s a compulsory system and that benefits can be effected by not using it. I have not signed up to it.

Some jobseekers have raised concerns that the system will be used not only to snoop but to take benefits away from people. Melissa, from London, told the Independent “I overheard two advisers talking about a man they had just seen and the staff member whose claimant he was said she was going to use his not signing up to the site as an excuse to suspend his money. She said this with relish and it made me sick.” Jobcentre staff should drop the relish – the so far unmentioned (by anyone as far as I can tell) side issue here is that this is yet another step (along with recent jobcentre closures and the creation of the Work Programme) towards the complete privatisation and de-unionisation of the sector they work in. The remote monitoring of jobseekers could lead to fewer people doing the work currently done by jobcentreplus staff and a less skilled lower paid workforce. 

Some people might feel that it is reasonable to be able to check on the progress and efforts of jobseekers who are, after all, living on public money. Right now you have to fill in a job search diary and the Jobcentre staff can check on the jobs you’ve listed. William Foxton pointed out on the Telegraph website (20/12/2012) that this system is ‘creepy’ but it’s also unnecessary and a waste of money. Since almost all job searches are now carried out online you could simply forward the relevant emails to your adviser. The cost of doing that? Nothing. The cost of Universal Jobmatch? £16.7 million paid to Monster (a recruitment company) for setting up the system as well as ongoing costs of maintenance. 

After a recent short term job I signed on again. On Monday I had an appointment in the Jobcentre followed by a back to work meeting with an advisor. This turned out to  be a mini lecture by an advisor on the changes being made to the sanctions regime. I think it says it all that the first thing you get told about when you become unemployed is sanctions. It’s as if they’re saying “Oh you’ve become unemployed? How unfortunate. This is how we’re going to punish you.”

15 minutes after our appointment was due to start (of course, because being unemployed we had nothing better to do with our time) six of us were taken into a room by two advisors one of which then outlined our responsibilities and the potential sanctions for not meeting those responsibilities. Nothing was said about their responsibilities. I didn’t record what the advisor said and there were no handouts detailing the new sanctions but I’ll try to sum up the major points.

There are 3 main things you can be sanctioned for: 1) not attending an appointment or interview at the jobcentre; 2) not filling in your job search diary properly or not doing enough to prove you’re looking for work; 3) agreeing with your advisor to apply for a specific job and then not doing it. For the first 2 of these the sanctions (complete loss of job seekers allowance) are 4 weeks for the first offence, 13 weeks for the second offence and 26 weeks for subsequent offences. For the third issue, not applying for a job you have agreed to apply for, the sanctions are 13 weeks for a first offence, 26 weeks for a second offence and 3 years, yes three YEARS for subsequent offences.

The next issue she talked about was changes to the job search diary. Anyone alive in the UK who has ever been unemployed, no matter what age they are, will be familiar with the concept behind the job search diary – prove you’re looking for work. Read accounts of unemployment from the inter-war years or even before the First World War and you’ll realise that it’s not a new idea. People have been noting down their job search activities for generations.

Recently job search diaries have gone through a series of short lived changes in format. When I signed off a few weeks ago there were two sections, one for the steps you’d taken to find work and another to list the jobs you’d actually applied for which, by the way, was always too small to fit the jobs into. But the new job search diary has a subtle difference to it. It still asks you to outline the steps you’ve taken and the specific jobs you’ve applied for but there is now a new column for the amount of time spent on a particular activity. From now on you don’t just have to look for work and prove it but you must spend a minimum of 20 hours a week on “meaningful” job search activities and next year that will rise to 35 hours and you will be expected to do some job search activity 7 days a week. So now unemployment is to be treated like a job (instead of the lack of a job) but it will be an unpaid job that you don’t get a day off from.

I should point out that during this talk the advisor repeatedly said that the application of sanctions wasn’t up to the staff there. Sanctions would be automatically triggered and then a “decision maker” would, not surprisingly, make a decision.

Some people might say “Well what’s wrong with all that? You’re getting dole money, housing benefit etc. Why shouldn’t you have to do something to justify it?” First of all when you work you pay tax and national insurance to make sure that there is a welfare safety net in case of unemployment, disability or whatever.

Let’s consider the specific areas of sanctions: 1) Not attending an appointment or interview without giving a good reason like illness (which is only acceptable twice a year). I don’t want to fall into the trap of accepting stereotypes about unemployed people but the fact is that many of them, particularly those who are long term unemployed, live chaotic lives. Surely that has to be taken into consideration as does the fact that if you are more than 10 minutes late you will be considered to have missed your appointment while unemployed people who are on time or early are routinely kept waiting well beyond their appointment time with no sanctions being applied on the jobcentre. I suppose the crux of my argument here is – shit happens. People are late for or miss or forget appointments in all walks of life so why should someone have their entire, meagre, income taken away from them for weeks or months for missing an appointment?

Sanction area 2) not filling in your job search diary properly or not proving that you’ve done enough to find work. There are lots of people who sign on who can barely write (again I don’t want to fall into using stereotypes but it’s true) yet these illiterate or semi-litterate people are supposed to present, fortnightly, a lengthy and detailed written account of their job search activities. I don’t think I need to say anything else on that matter it’s so obviously nonsensical. But there are other issues here – human issues, the human condition. People are flawed. The last time I signed on (before this current period of unemployment) I was getting ready to leave the house to go to the jobcentre. I put my signing card and jobsearch diary on my desk and told myself “The last thing you want to do before you leave is forget to put those in your bag” and sure enough the last thing I did before I left was to forget my signing card and jobsearch diary. I didn’t remember them until I was on the bus and half way to the jobcentre. I thought about getting off the bus and going back for them but then I would have missed my appoinment. As for the issue of not proving you’ve done enough to find work I’ll come to that in a moment.

Sanction area 3) agreeing with your advisor to apply for a specific job that either you or they have found and then not doing it. This one is just stupid. Many times in the past I’ve agreed to apply for a job or I’ve found one while at the jobcentre and then when I’ve got home I’ve realised that the distance is too far or that they require someone who drives or is familiar with a specific piece of software and then I’ve realised I’m not suited to that job so I’ve decided not to apply for it. For that I could lose benefits for up to 3 years! Human beings make mistakes. Sometimes something that seems like a good idea at the time doesn’t seem so good when you’ve had time to give it some thought – just ask people who voted Lib-dem at the last election. You could have searched for work for 40 hours that week, applied for 20 jobs, arrived at the jobcentre half an hour early for your appointment, sent out 100 CVs and secured an interview yet because you changed your mind or realised you made a mistake on one job you could lose benefits for 3 years. Absolutely ridiculous and it makes the reasons for the sanctions regime clear.

Now I’ll come to the point about proving you’re looking for work and the time element. Again it’s important to remember that many, although by no means all, unemployed people have chaotic lifestyles or are poorly educated. Just because they haven’t filled in their jobsearch diary very well doesn’t mean they haven’t looked for work. Another problem with this is the amount of time. I generally try to apply for at least 6 jobs a week as well as sending out CVs. But we’re told now that our jobsearch activies have to be “meaningful”. What do they mean by that? Well, when you first sign on you have to make a “Jobseekers agreement” with your advisor. That agreement will include a list of job types that you should be looking for. So for an individual who has been working in the building trade this might include bricklaying and general labouring and perhaps shop work because he worked in a shop when he was younger. If that person now applies for any other type of work, he is potentially in breech of his jobseeker’s agreement because his advisor might not think that applying for office work, for example, is “meaningful” in his case. The result might be that several hours of job search activities on his diary no longer count so he has incurred a sanction even though he actually applied for a job.

Again someone might ask “What’s wrong with that? He agreed to apply for specific types of work.” True he did, but at the jobcentre and on the work programme people are routinely encouraged to apply for jobs that they hadn’t previously considered. The new rule will restrict a claimant’s job search. People simply won’t want to risk losing benefits by applying for other types of jobs – especially because the “decision makers” do their job in isolation from the claimant. So having been sanctioned you won’t be able to talk to the individual dealing with your case and explain why you think that in this case you were justified to go for a specific role that was outwith your agreement – transferable skills, for example.

Another problem here is the time element. You have to job search for 20 hours a week, soon to be 35, but the way in which the system of websites, HR, Jobcentres etc works has for years been to try to streamline job searches and application processes (not successfully in the latter case). I could go onto, and do so weekly, a site like s1jobs and search hundreds of jobs and apply for 5 admin jobs that I think I’m suitable for in the space of 30 minutes. Then I could go onto Indeed.co.uk and guess what? All the same jobs are listed there, and on directgov and so on. There may only be 5 suitable jobs that week, or there may be 25, the point is once you’ve got an account on these sites and an up to date CV you can apply for all of the available suitable jobs in a matter of minutes. What are you supposed to do with the rest of the 20 or 35 hours of your job search activities? Apply for the same jobs over and over again on every site even though you know you’ve already applied for them?

The system isn’t about making sure people are applying for jobs, or applying for the right jobs. If the jobs existed there wouldn’t be 2.6 million unemployed. It’s about making unemployed people jump through hoops to keep Daily Mail readers and Tory voters in general happy. The system should be about helping people identify jobs they’ve got a chance of getting, regardless of “job type”. And neither the jobs applied for nor the hours it took should be counted. One week it will be 5 jobs, another it will be 25 and another it might even be zero. That’s the nature of the jobs market and unemployed people don’t control the jobs market, if they did they wouldn’t be unemployed.

As for the sanctions regime it’s not about making sure people on benefits aren’t taking advantage of the state’s generosity or living the high life at tax payers expense, it’s certainly not about encouraging people into work. It’s a petty, brutal and vindictive attempt to take money away from those who can least afford it while millionaires and billionaires flaunt tax laws in ways that if they were poor would be instantly labelled criminal.

A culture of sanctions has developed in jobcentres and work programme providers. There have been reports of staff being pushed by managers to meet sanctions quotas, stopping benefits for weeks regardless of whether or not claimants have been meeting their obligation to look for work. The personal impact of benefits being stopped can be devastating but the government wants to save money and if that means some of the poorest people in the country being pushed from a bad position into a dire one then so be it. They only care about their own.

The hypocrisy of attacking the poorest people in the country while giving tax cuts to millionaires is obvious but there is another hypocrisy facing benefits claimants every day.

Letters from Work Programme providers warn against missing appoinments or not carrying out tasks you are required to by the provider. The following is an extract from a standard letter issued by one provider (Ingeus):

“If you do not undertake the activities required in this notification your benefits could be affected.

“If you do fail to take part and DWP decide that your Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) should be sanctioned, your benefit will be stopped and you will lose National Insurance credits for:

- Two weeks, for a first failure

- Four weeks, if DWP have previously decided that your JSA should be sanctioned because you failed without good reason to take part in the Work Programme or any other scheme set up under the Jobseeker’s Allowance (Employment, Skills and Enterprise Scheme) Regulations 2011, and that sanctioned started within the last 12 months; or

- 26 weeks, if DWP decided on two or more previous occasions that your JSA should be sanctioned because you failed without good reason to take part in the Work Programme or any other scheme set up under those Regulations, and the most recent sanction started within the last 12 months.”

Benefits are paid from the public purse so it’s only right that people in receipt of a benefit like JSA should be doing their best to look for work. However, there is another side to that.

The above letter says nothing about sanctions levied against Work Programme providers or the DWP when they fail to live up to their responsibilities.When a claimant turns up more than 10 minutes late for an appointment they may find their appoinment cancelled and they may, given the sanctions quotas, find themselves in real trouble. Go to a jobcentre or a Work Programme provider any day, monday to friday, and you will find people who have been kept waiting for much longer than 10 minutes. I have been kept waiting for appoinments at my Work Programme provider for well over an hour. I have had appointments cancelled when I was en route. As another claimant told me “as far as they’re concerned I’m unemployed so I must have nothing better to do with my day than sit here”.

Claimants are warned, threatened or sanctioned if they are late for or cancel appointments (“without good reason”) but the DWP and Work Programme providers are free to keep people waiting or cancel appointments whenever they wish. We face the threat of sanctions when we fail to live up to our responsibilties but they are not similarly obligated.

This is just one more example of the victims of the economic depression being blamed and punished while those who caused it walk between the rain drops. It is also a good reason for unemployed workers to join the upcoming demonstrations by the TUC and STUC against austerity. The STUC march starts at 11am, George Sq, Glasgow on 20th October and the TUC march begins on the same day at 11am, Victoria Embankment, London.