Archive for the ‘JSA’ Category

In 1997 I was at a political event in London. My accommodation the first night was a squat. I slept in a chair, my mate who I’d travelled down with slept on the floor, and a scruffy lefty from Paisley slept on the couch. I knew that lefty, Davie Fraser, a little, having seen him at meetings and demos, but that was probably the first occasion on which I’d spent any real time in his company. I was drunk and he was stoned and I don’t remember much about it except that we had a good laugh. We were both in the SWP at the time and already comrades in the party political sense, we gradually became friends after that trip to London.

When I moved to Paisley in 2000 Davie quickly became a regular visitor and a bad influence. I should have been studying but instead Davie would come round and we’d watch films all night. Some of them we watched so many times we could almost quote the entire film. Years later it wasn’t unusual for me to receive a text like “Back and to the left” and I’d know Davie was watching JFK again.

Then came a discovery that wrecked Davie’s sleeping pattern and almost destroyed my chances of getting a degree. One night he turned up at my flat with Championship Manager 00/01. Films were forgotten, university was forgotten, and at times the world was forgotten. Even when the game told us “Remember to feed the cat” or reminded us to go outside and get some sun we’d carry on playing, the bags under our eyes getting bigger and bigger. Right up to the last time I saw him he exhibited an astonishing memory for “Champo” matches. If a player was mentioned on TV he’d say, “Remember when you were Celtic manager and he scored a goal for you in the 4th round Scottish Cup match against Livingston in season 04/05? You went on to win the Cup but you lost in the European Cup semi-final to Ajax.” I’d just shake my head and ask how he could remember a computer game we’d played a decade earlier. He remembered things that happened in Champo better than most people remember things in real life.

There was some politics going on too. Davie and I were at times the nucleus of our party branch, and at other times we were the branch. We’d meet in the Bull Inn, where Davie would tell me “Gerry Rafferty used to drink in here. Billy Connolly too.” On one occasion, while having a drink in the Bull, he listed all the “intellectuals” in the other branches, then said “And we’ve got …” paused, looked at me with a raised eyebrow – “You!” and laughed. I was both offended and flattered.

I often felt that Davie’s political contribution was overlooked. As well as being virtually omnipresent at meetings and protests, he carried out – usually on his own – the SWP’s only regular industrial paper sale in the west of Scotland in the late 1990s and early 2000s at the Chivas bottling plant. He was such a fixture there that once when somebody else took over one week the people going in to start the early shift wanted to know who the interloper was and “what happen to the regular guy?” He was sceptical about the SWP in Scotland joining the SSP, but he did his best to make it work and I think he was well respected in the Paisley branch. We were both drafted in as council election candidates for the SSP but we weren’t particularly excited by that.

One thing Davie was excited by was the anti-capitalist movement. He loved the protests, the ideas, the books and the articles, but not the meetings. The meetings were, after all, awful, but the protests were amazing.

In 2003 we travelled to Italy for the European Social Forum (ESF) in Florence. We had booked tickets online in an internet cafe – remember them? We had spotted a flight to Pisa with Ryan Air that would have cost us about £15 each and thought that was amazing. We were just about to book it when one of us spotted flights to Ancona for something ridiculous like £1.50. We decided to go to Ancona then travel by train to Florence. It would take longer and would actually cost more when you factored in the train tickets, but we thought it was a good opportunity to see some of the Italian countryside. As it happens we saw loads of the Italian countryside because Davie made the mistake of insisting I get the train tickets when we reached the train station in Ancona. I misunderstood the man at the ticket counter and we ended up on a branch line train. By sometime after 9pm we had reluctantly accepted it was going to take us about 3 days to get to Florence that way. We decided to disembark in Bologna and try to find a hotel room.

In Bologna Davie needed to use the facilities at a MacDonald’s near the train station. So while he went to the toilet I considered the irony of ordering a McChicken Sandwich while en route to the biggest anti-capitalist event in Europe since 1968. I never got to be ironic. When Davie came back from the toilet he said we should leave because we had inadvertently walked into the seediest fast food place either of us had ever seen. There were people taking smack in the toilets, half the customers appeared to be prostitutes or pimps, and a fight was about to break out between what looked like members of rival gangs.

We walked miles that night trying to find a hotel. Everywhere we went they were full up. We walked so far we ended up on a housing estate miles from the city centre and had to walk back. Eventually we found a hotel with a room, but now there was a new obstacle. The man on the front desk was reluctant to give us the room. The hotel had been refurbished recently, he told us, but not that room. It only had a double bed, surely we wouldn’t want to share a bed? I don’t sleep well, especially when I’m travelling. I hadn’t slept the night before and had barely slept the night before that. I had to beg him to give us the room, and I was close to just climbing on to the counter and going to sleep in front of him when he finally relented. There was nothing wrong with the room, it was really nice.

The next day, reasonably well rested, we pushed on to Florence. This time we were on a proper train and it didn’t take too long to get there. On the train Davie had been reading his “Rough Guide to Florence”, which said the train station was full of people renting out rooms but on no account should we rent one. So, obviously, we rented a room from the first person who approached us. We spent a few days in Florence, and we had a nice room (this time with three beds in it as if to make up for the hotel) in a lovely street lined with flower pots and hanging baskets. And it was a stone’s throw away from the venue that was hosting the ESF. It was also near an Irish theme pub called the Fiddler’s Elbow – owned by an Englishman and staffed entirely by Scottish students from Dundee and Edinburgh. We enjoyed a lock-in there, and enjoyed the free beer the landlord gave us even more.

I was supposed to be interviewing activists for the dissertation on the anti-capitalist movement I’d be doing the following academic year, but the fact is we barely noticed the ESF during the day. We went sight seeing until late afternoon, when we’d try to go to a meeting. On the final day we went to the Fortezza. It was supposed to be the starting point for a huge demo. We waited amid a mass of people for it to start. What we didn’t realise was that the protest was so huge that as we sat on the grass waiting for it, it had in fact been filing passed us for an hour. Just like being in the eye of the storm, we were in the one spot in the neighbourhood where there was calm. There were plenty of people, but like us they were waiting not marching. At least 1 million people marched against capitalism and for a better world that day. When we joined the march it was still morning. We marched, shouted, chanted all day, and when it got dark we still hadn’t reached the end. Reluctantly we had to leave for our flight home – this time from Pisa airport, thankfully.

The following year we did the same all over again – in Paris. We stayed in a hotel in the Asian district known as Tolbiac. We did plenty of sight-seeing, just like we had in Florence. I missed my last chance to interview activists for my dissertation, and we once more had to trek across a city – this time looking for a pub not a hotel. Wine bars were there in plentiful supply, but Davie wanted to go to an actual pub, so one night we accepted the recommendation of the Rough Guide and found – eventually – an Australian pub that was every bit as Australian as the Irish pub in Florence had been Irish: in other words it sold Fosters. While we were there, a student from Burma tried to sell us some weed, but the thought that he was probably connected to the military junta put Davie off.

Another night, we kept our fellow guests in the Hotel Tolbiac awake as we sang the Internationale over and over again at the top of our voices with the windows open. I blame the rather good cider we’d bought at a farmers market. That was a welcome change from the Konigsberg that seemed to be the only beer Parisian supermarkets sold – so much for the vast array of choice capitalism is supposed to provide. On our final night there we were so exhausted we just stayed in our room and watched Taggart in French. Neither of us could speak French, so sadly we missed the line “Ah, Monsieur Jardine there ‘as been a murder.”

The ESF in Paris ended with a protest at least as vast as the one the previous year in Florence. Again we had to turn back before the end, but anyone who has ever been to a protest of 100 people and then been subjected to 50 speakers will appreciate how lucky we were on a protest of over 1 million people, including a multitude of nationalities, to avoid having to hear the speakers.

One other memory I have of Davie and the anti-capitalist movement was the time I was watching the news coverage of the protest at the G8 summit in Genoa. The phone went and it was Davie, in Genoa, on the protest I was watching. People on the section of the march he was in were getting worried about smoke they could see drifting in from a side street. Luckily the camera angle on the news meant I could see right down that street to where a flare had been let off, and Davie was able to relay what I was getting from the news to the people around him. It was quite surreal.

As the anti-capitalist movement began to run out of steam, Davie was becoming disillusioned with the SWP and the SSP. The bickering, the impending split, it got to him and he eventually gave up on party politics, as did I at about the same time. He continued to see himself as a socialist for a long time, possibly until the end, and an anti-fascist, but he was done with political parties many years ago.

Now comes the dark stuff. When I think about the good times we had I should feel happy to have known him, and I’m sure those feelings are there, but right now they are buried under a furious anger. Davie Fraser was still a fairly young man, just approaching his 42nd birthday, but his health had not been good for quite a long time. Sometimes he’d be improving, sometimes getting worse. Last year he had pneumonia and ended up in intensive care. He had 2 toes amputated, and his time in hospital had taken a lot out of him. He needed time to recover, and he needed help. Instead, what happened was a prolonged period of being pushed from pillar to post. He was told he should be getting disability benefit, then he was told he should be on JSA, then back again and again. Often he was getting neither, and that meant he wasn’t eating properly which led to complications with his diabetes.

This year that all seemed to have been sorted out. He had moved to a nice new flat, he had even joined a scheme to look after abandoned or abused dogs that were waiting to be re-homed. But that period of stability was only a brief respite. Once again they cut his money and he was left with nothing. The last time I saw him was 3 weeks ago. I’d gone to Paisley to visit him and give him some money for groceries. He was gaunt, having lost a lot of weight, and walking very slowly. Twice as we crossed the pedestrian precinct in Paisley High Street he had to stop to rest against a lamppost. When we went into a cafe for lunch he would only take a cup of tea – he was worried he might be sick if he ate because he’d barely eaten for days, and he didn’t want to risk that in public. He told me he felt old, and said he was sure if he went to the hospital they would admit him immediately.

A week and a half later Davie was in intensive care fighting for his life. They had to amputate his leg below the knee. He fought on. Finally, on Monday 27th June Davie fell into a diabetic coma and later died. His death was entirely needless. The benefit system that should have helped and supported him the last time he was hospitalised instead failed him and even punished him. Rather than help him recover, they pushed him around, they threatened him, they starved him and they eventually wrecked his health and killed him.

If you said to me “surely a life long socialist and activist like Davie should have shouted louder for help?” I’d agree. If you said “couldn’t you have done more?” I’d say yes. Whenever he asked for help buying food I helped him; but I shouldn’t have waited to be asked, I should have asked him what he needed. If you said “couldn’t the people around him have done more?” I’d say yes. But to all of these points I’d also say, you just don’t expect that in 21st century Britain someone could be allowed to go hungry for days or weeks just because they’re on benefits. You don’t expect someone in that situation to be allowed to die. You say to yourself “I’ll phone him at the weekend and see how he’s doing.” When the weekend comes, maybe you phone but maybe other things get in the way. You expect any problems with benefits will be sorted out eventually. It never occurs to you that someone might die waiting for that to happen, even when you’ve heard stories like that so many times. You just don’t expect it. I could finish by saying that we should all check on people we know who are having a hard time, but while that would be a good thing to do, it misses the point. Davie and thousands like him should never be in a position where they need to ask a friend to buy food for them. The DWP is responsible for David Fraser’s death, his and many many more – unequivocally.

In recent times Davie’s life took some unexpected turns, and he went in new directions and explored new lifestyles. I didn’t see much of him over the last few years, but whenever we met up it always felt like we’d only just seen each other the day before – and of course he was always ready to remind me of some triumph in Champo, like the time he won the SPL with St Mirren or the European Cup with Reading. He could be funny, and I’ll miss his sense of humour and zest for life. One night when we were out in Glasgow the group split up and Davie went off to one pub and I went to another. Later, while I was waiting for a taxi with some friends, he reappeared, and he was extremely happy having had more than a few. He spotted me and shouted “Sean! I love you. I LOVE you!” and gave me a hug. It made me feel special for a moment, so I said thank you. At that point he spotted the friend next to me and shouted “I love you!” and hugged him too, before working his way down the line. I will try to remember him like that, but I think it’s likely I will never forget what was done to him.

So the party conference season is here and once again our glorious leaders have come up with plans to help the poorest and most vulnerable in society. Help them to be poorer and more vulnerable that is.

Labour, those champions of the poor and oppressed, kicked things off with Ed Balls pledging to keep the Tory/Liberal imposed benefit cap, raise the state retirement age and scrap the winter fuel allowance (after all those old folk won’t need to heat their homes so much if they’re at work will they?). According to Jessica Elgot of the Huffington Post he also said they would “introduce limits on overall ‘structural’ welfare spending” (Huffington Post, 22/09/14). Presumably it was left to Ed Balls to announce these attacks on benefit claimants and pensioners so that the other Ed could ‘forget’ to mention them and play the good cop.

Commenting on Ed Balls conference speech Matthew Reed of the Children’s Society said policy “is about making choices and the shadow chancellor has made a choice – to look for savings by cutting help for children” (ibid) referring to the cuts to child benefit which the Labour party are refusing to reverse if they win the next election.

As awful as these plans are and as much as they are a slap in the face for many a prospective Labour voter it is, of course, still true that when it comes to kicking you when you’re down the Labour party are still amateurs. The warm up act over it was time for the headliners to appear on stage. Like some aging band playing to the faithful who have followed them since Woodstock the Tories got their show underway belting out old favourites like Class hatred, Tax cuts for the rich and, of course, Make the scroungers work. They’ve even had time to pen some new material like Iain Duncan Smith’s madcap Prepaid benefits cards. All much stronger stuff than Ed Miliband’s weak folky set which included My pal Diamara and I met this bloke down the pub.

OK I think the music festival analogy has gone far enough and it makes the Tories cooler than they are. The point is the Tories were playing to their audience and their audience are a really nasty selfish bunch. Exactly the right kind of people to put a plan for prepaid benefits cards to. Iain Duncan Smith presented the policy to the Conservative party conference by saying it was aimed at benefit claimants with “destructive habits” such as alcoholism, drug abuse or even debt (Guardian, 29/09/14). The reality is it was aimed at those voters, and MPs, thinking about defecting to another party. He claimed it would help them by making sure the money they got was spent on essentials like food. It went down very well in the hall but his apparent concern for those on benefits would be easier to believe if it wasn’t for the fact that his policies have pushed many of the people in question into debt and other problems. This is, after all, the same government minister who came up with the idea of paying housing benefit to claimants rather than directly to landlords. So on the one hand he wants to teach those on benefits responsibility, which is really insulting coming from a man who lives off the wealth of his wife’s family, by giving them their rent money to pay to their landlords but on the other hand they’re not to be trusted with their JSA.

The Tories weren’t finished with just one attack on benefits claimants. Oh no, there’s an election in a few months and they need to shore up their support in case that party of Mad Hatters (maybe that should be mad haters) to their right steal too many votes from them. So, just to assure the tory faithful that the nasty party still hates poor people as much as ever, George Osborne announced a freeze on benefits for 2 years.

When asked about this policy on the BBC, the Prime Minister said it was “a basic fairness” that benefits shouldn’t rise faster than wages. A typically Tory trick – deflect attention from the rising cost of living, and the government’s failure to do anything about it, by claiming someone is getting a free ride. The PM was then pressed on the issue of ‘fairness’ and asked if he thought it was fair for the poorest to pay off the deficit to which he responded that his government had made the rich pay their share. When asked to provide examples of this he pointed out stamp duty on expensive houses and the Chancellor’s pledge to make corporations like Google (which Osborne didn’t actually name you’re just supposed to guess who the tax dodgers are) pay the corporation tax they should be paying. What an insult! While freezing (in effect cutting) in and out of work benefits such as Jobseeker’s Allowance and Working Tax Credit this is all they can come up with?

The highest rate of stamp duty is currently 7% and is applied to homes that cost over £2million. That means is you buy a home that costs £2million you pay £140,000 in stamp duty. That’s a fairly hefty amount of tax. The problems with this approach to making the rich pay their ‘fair share’ of the deficit are that firstly – it’s avoidable, if you don’t want to pay that much don’t buy a house that costs £2million and if you don’t want to pay it at all just don’t buy a house; secondly – if people are buying houses that cost 2 or 3 million quid they can not only afford to pay that stamp duty but they’ve already had an income tax cut as well as a variety of other tax cuts; and thirdly – whether people are paying huge amounts on stamp duty or not that doesn’t change the potentially devastating effect a benefits freeze could have on people who can only dream of having the problem of paying £140,000 in stamp duty.

As for making Google et al pay corporation tax – how dare George Osborne even bring that up? They’ve been in power since 2010 and now they decide to do something about companies not paying tax. We already have a low level of corporation tax which companies choose to avoid paying and this government (and previous Labour governments) have chosen to tackle the issue with spectacular inactivity but we’re supposed to believe that if they’re re-elected they’ll sort out Google and make them pay their ‘fair share’. If they were serious about tackling tax dodging (by the wealthy) they’d have at least made a start – they haven’t.

One side issue here is that the above discussion of the Prime Minister’s comments is largely based on the 1 o’clock news on BBC1. In that programme the main thrust of the report was about the freeze on benefits but by the 6 o’clock news the same report had been changed to focus on the issue of an in/out referendum on EU membership. I’m not suggesting that the BBC were ‘got at’, far from it Cameron seemed even less comfortable with the questions on the EU referendum, but it does show that attacks on the poorest people in our society, attacks that will lead to deepening levels of poverty and quite possibly contribute to rising suicide levels among benefit claimants can’t even hold the media’s attention for a few hours.

So, there it is, the poorest pay more, benefit claimants are attacked again, claimants are once more linked with social problems like alcoholism and drug abuse (a classic IDS ploy to lessen any residual public sympathy for them) all while those who really could afford to pay off the deficit get an easy ride.

I said earlier that the audience the Tory ministers were playing to are a nasty selfish bunch – they are, and if you’re not convinced of that the fact that so many of them are looking for an even nastier party than the Tories should be proof enough. As for the Labour Party seem to want to ignore their own audience and please the Tory faithful instead.

In my first post in this blog ( 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 . 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 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 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: 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 ( 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.