Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Welfare and society muppetry in Blair's Britain

47,000 words of bunkum duly submitted end of last week, I've spent this week trying to get some temporary work and in the meantime have been duly dispatched to the Job Centre to apply for job seeker's allowance.

The job seeker's allowance process has proved to be an exercise in bureaucratic muppetry par excellence, although I admit to being biased by the disillusioned, cynical and politically firey lady giving me an assessment (she was leaving at the end of the week). She spent 10 minutes doing the paperwork and a further 50 minutes discussing employment politics in Europe. In the best spirit of investigative journalism, I will recount some of the best examples of muppetry below.

a) The end of the job seeker's allowance booklet reads:

"Sometimes we may pay too much money into the account and you may be overpaid.

If this is because of the way the system works for payments directly into an account, we have the right to recover any money you are not entitled to."

But, you'll be happy to know, the government will warn the poor, impoverished s*d living hand-to-mouth before trying to reclaim the money Billy or Bernadette Unemployed has already accidently spent on paying council tax, or rent or food:

'We will contact you first if we propose to recovery [typo] any money'

Overpayment has been a problem with tax credits and you'd have thought the government would have learnt by now. If you give very poor people money they shouldn't have and it's your fault then you should TRY TO BE MORE COMPETENT IN FUTURE AND PAY THEM CORRECTLY instead of taking the money back... MUPPETS!

b) The culture of the job centre is that the unemployed are expected to be free (as in 'having nothing more worthwhile to do than attend the job centre') at least 40 hours a week. This is due to fraud. If they didn't set utterly inflexible appointments then people might be working several days a week. But there's a point at which you really feel they need to sit down and rethink the system to limit financial loss per claim instead of introducing more and more hoops into the existing system. This is because if you employ someone, you have to provide information about them to the government. This means that most full-time employees could not apply fraudulently for JSA since they would be registered as employed. If they were doing work that wasn't being disclosed to the government, then making them come in once a fortnight isn't going to stop them fraudulently claiming benefit because they can probably arrange that work around their job centre visit. So why does Billy Unemployed attending the job centre reduce fraud? Was there a reason why unemployed people had to be physically present in the job centre, which has now been negated by automatic bank payments and the internet? Or is the idea that accessing any government help should be as difficult and intrusive as possible so that only the desperate will bother? Is this the right way to filter claimants? The more regulations and paperwork, the more difficulty the most confused and vulnerable will have and the more people needed to process the paperwork. Should we really have a tax credits system with a manual an inch and a half thick? (apparently). Surely it costs the same to accidently give some people extra money as it is to employ a whole bunch of government employees to ensure they don't?

c) Not incomprehensibly given the sheer amount of information required to make a claim, there is a backlog of claims awaiting processing of three weeks to a month. So Billy Unemployed is expected to routinely attend the job centre for the first month... with no income. It costs me £6 each time I make a trip to the job centre. Billy Unemployed doesn't have enough savings to live on because if he did, he wouldn't be able to claim JSA. Further, Billy Unemployed has to be available to attend an interview within 48 hours which means if Billy Unemployed doesn't have a phone he has to keep going somewhere that does have a phone pretty much everyday. This will probably mean his next door neighbour but could theoretically mean a payphone or a trip to the job centre, again funded with fresh air for the first month.

d) At the back of the job seeking booklet it is written that 'we aim to provide a high standard of customer service'. But inflexible appointments are not part of a customer service ethos. Just think if you ordered a washing machine and they told you they were going to deliver it at 10 am on a Saturday and they didn't care that you were on holiday. It's not a work ethos either because job seeker's allowance isn't a job. You're being paid to look for a job, not to attend the job centre. You could also see JSA as a public service - working people are paying taxes for benefits they may need in the future.

It concerns me that welfare is a system that assumes all people are fraudsters regardless of how long they've been claiming a benefit and which fails to treats service users as customers. A good example of treating adults as naughty children I will refer to as jobpoint muppetry. Inside the job centre there are touch screen 'jobpoints' which access adverts posted at the job centre. They have no access to the internet. There are a series of free telephones for people to ring employers about adverts posted at the job centre. The job seekers agreement requires job seekers to attend the job centre 10 minutes early for their fortnightly appointment in order to use said jobpoints. My advisor told me that I had to be visibly using the jobpoints before the appointment. She agreed this was stupid. It's stupid for several reasons:

1. If someone is making no effort to look for work, 10 minutes prattling about at a touch screen is going to make not a hint of a difference. There are 20160 minutes in a fortnight. If job hunting is happening for 10 minutes, and the job seeker is spending the remaining 20150 watching day-time TV then... well, frankly darling, you're p****g against the wind.

2. If you are looking for work then the last place you want to look is the job centre. This is because only 15 - 20 % of positions are advertised (random job seeking statistic). Further, because people claiming job seekers allowance have to demonstrate they have applied for a couple of jobs a week, jobs advertised at the job centre will have far more applicants per job than other jobs. Since you are spending at least some of 20150 minutes job hunting then the 10 minutes you're spending playing with the jobpoint is an elaborate social charade that is wasting both your time and the advisors in the job centre.

3. When you are looking for jobs then the most useful thing you should have access to is... the internet. You might want to look at local newspapers online, or send e-mails or register with recruitment agencies. None of these can you do from jobpoints. So if you don't have the internet at home then you've got to go to a public library and use a public phone booth or your mobile phone outside.

4. Jobpoints are easier for non-computery types to use than windows, and it would take up advisor's time tutoring people in the use of the internet if they had computers and not jobpoints. But this kinda misses the point. If people can't use the internet or a computer then it limits the type of work they can do and their ability to job search. So spending 10 minutes loitering about a bank of internet terminals helping Billy Unemployed learn how to use a scroll bar is... erm, helping him have a better chance of getting work. Which is kinda what the job centre is there for.

So unless you're *seen* to be looking for a job with someone looking over your shoulder then there's no expectation that you might actually be looking for jobs on your own. Why can't the government trust that someone can work out a good time to go to a jobpoint all by themselves... after all, if they can't, there isn't much hope for them in a job. And, more ironically, since most good job seeking occurs outside the job centre then time spent pretending you're job seeking for 10 minutes is actually time you could have spent somewhere else looking for a job.

Some people are cradle to grave managed by the government. They may be in care. They may be long-term unemployed. If the government constantly treats people like children, and potential criminals then you are unlikely to create people with any dignity and self-respect who can make mature decisions. It sucks and it's sadly symptomatic of the way this government works in every aspect of society - from ID cards to obesity.


  • At 8:47 pm , Anonymous David Duff said...

    Talking of OPM (Other People's Money) - er, you were talking about that, weren't you? - when is your grubby little Party going to give back all that stolen dosh? Gladstone is spinning in his grave!

  • At 9:33 pm , Blogger Bishop Hill said...

    There is a theory that once people start hitting the world of work, their views become more right wing. Perhaps your reactions to the benefits office is the start of this? ;-)

    Just think, in a few years you might sound like David Duff.

  • At 8:01 am , Blogger Femme de Resistance said...

    No. My views started becoming more right-wing upon meeting LibertyCat who has been a uniformly terrible influence upon me ;)

    I thought I was a Marxist when I worked during my Gap Year - when you are working in low-paid, temporary employment you realise just how many people are taking advantage of desperate people in the most shameless way possible. I later decided that Marxists believed the revolution was possible and not just a nice idea. Then I decided that posh people and people with problems too and we should probably stop picking on them specifically.

    I have nothing against the people in the benefits office. The lady who I was chatting to was very sparky, intelligent and disillusioned. She felt she was a flexible person forced into the thankless task of applying muppetrously inflexible rules sent from on-high with no regards to people's individual circumstances (hence, why she was leaving at the end of the week). I'm sure she's not alone. Needless to say, people encountering this system react badly.

    Genuine, hard-working people (to coin the over-used political phrase. Or maybe I should use 'hard-working families') need hardship help occasionally. Twenty-somethings are a generation with a lot of hardship, the experience of many of my friends is that even the most educated, talented and articulate seem to spend time with very unstable employment circumstances and little money. In my part of the world, professional work is limited and 45 % of graduate jobs are in London. We seem to have a culture in which many of our grads flock to the major cities (predominantly London) and then spend years temping in the place they want to work as a professional, or working until they can fund an internship. This with a student loan and no savings. That's a whole other discussion.

    Likewise, there are whole crowds of people who have periods of impermanent, low-paid work and flit on and off JSA whilst being genuinely committed to work.

    I object to a system which regards everyone who turns up as a 'scrounger' or a potential fraudster who, without being frog-marched about like a naughty 10-year old, is desperate to watch daytime TV when, in fact, JSA is not very much money. I don't think this is a realistic description of 90 % of people. People who are long-term unemployed are in some cases simply unemployable, which isn't necessarily their fault. My dad informs me that when he were young in the grand age of manual labour, those people weren't unemployable. Unfortunately, because we are now increasingly a service not a manufacturing economy, being illiterate and brick-thick with big pecs doesn't cut it.

    There is always, sadly, a minority who get all the publicity. It's just a shame that the media don't try interviewing some of the temps I met last-time I worked - people who end up working odd months, need to keep signing on to JSA in order to make ends meet whilst waiting for their next contract and who, sadly, haven't made a break into permanent employment. These people aren't lazy - they're very hard-working because they're hoping the person at their next assignment will take them on. It's just in parts of UK there just isn't enough work and some people don't fancy/cut it as small business owners (which is fair enough).

  • At 10:31 am , Anonymous David Duff said...

    Now look here, 'my Lord Bishop', our hostess says it better than I could: "Then I decided that posh people and people with problems too and we should probably stop picking on them specifically", so stop picking on me!

    And let's stick to the real point, when are you il-Lib-non-Dems going to give back the stolen dosh?

    Or, if you intend hanging on to it will you please stop being so damned sanctimonius about everyone else.

  • At 10:37 am , Blogger Femme de Resistance said...

    "Then I decided that posh people and people with problems too and we should probably stop picking on them specifically"

    Typo - should read "*were* people with problems too". Again, the fault of LibertyCat ;)

  • At 7:41 pm , Blogger Bishop Hill said...

    Hi DD

    Actually I'm not a LibDem, I come here because I like the writing, and the chat is usually fairly polite.

    I don't object to your question although I thought it could have been put in a nicer way (although I must confess I'm guilty of worse on occasion).

    I was just intending to gently wind up you and FdR up. I guess it worked. :-)

  • At 7:46 pm , Blogger Bishop Hill said...


    Is it right that the unskilled are unemployable in the twenty-first century?

    I have spent many years working in manufacturing. The main problem from an HR point of view was always getting reliable staff - no shortage of applicants from the job centre, just couldn't get the ones who were willing to turn up for seven hours a day five days a week, and moreover be compos mentis when they were on site.

    Secondly there are still lots of unskilled jobs in areas like building, cleaning and so on. These are increasingly filled by immigrants because the locals won't do them. This suggests that the problem is the welfare system rather than unemployability.

  • At 7:43 am , Blogger Femme de Resistance said...

    Is it right that the unskilled are unemployable in the twenty-first century?

    I was always under the impression (erroneously maybe) that the number of unskilled jobs had declined to the point that there were far more UNRELIABLE unskilled people than people to fill the jobs IN MY AREA (crucial addition). I suspect it is very area-specific.

  • At 7:48 am , Blogger Femme de Resistance said...

    That should say unskilled manufacturing or agricultural jobs.

    There will always be an almost constant need for cleaners, etc.

  • At 2:01 pm , Blogger Planeshift said...

    Nail hit on the head.

    Here are another couple of idiocies from my own experience.

    1. I'm starting a new job next week, my previous one had finished at the start of august. 1st week of unemployment I applied for this job, 2 weeks later I get an interview. The interview happens to co-incide with signing on day, and is in another part of the country. I go to the job centre the day before to explain why I won't be attending. Clerk informs me that I should be "arranging my job interviews around my signing on day", noting that I'll have to attend at 9am the following day. I do so despite lack of sleep due to arriving home in the early hours of that morning, and spend 5 hours waiting before being seen which is followed by hours more form filling, photocopying letters of invite and train ticket receipts etc that prove I was away at the interview. Effectively I was penalised for having an interview.

    2. Day before next signing day, I get phone call informing me I am preferred candidate for the job, they will just wait for references before a formal offer. I inform the Job centre, and am told that as it isn't a formal offer yet I still have to demonstrate I am looking for work, nevertheless they note this in the computer.

    3. By the next singing day I have received formal offer and have a start date. It is still a few weeks away as I need time to find a place to live in the new area. I inform job centre I have job starting in 3 weeks. This is how the conversation follows:

    Clerk: “what have you done to look for work since you last signed?”
    Me: “I just told you: I have a new job starting in a few weeks”
    Clerk: “yes, but the system requires you to be actively seeking work”
    Me: “and I have been, if I wasn’t actively seeking work it would be unlikely I’d have a job starting in a few weeks”
    Clerk: “the job-seekers agreement requires you to have applied for more than one job in a fortnight.”
    Me: “right, so an employer is going to hire someone who will be leaving in a few weeks, not to mention the fact during those weeks I will have be looking for a flat/place to stay for my new job”
    Clerk: “you still have to have looked for work”
    Me: “this is absurd”
    Clerk: “I know, just make something up so I can put it onto the computer”

    This is just one example, and the whole system is unhelpful, bureaucratic and acts as a disincentive to find part time, temporary work or even do voluntary activities. The entire DSS and welfare state should be demolished, preferably with explosives whilst the senior management are still in the building, and replaced with a citizens basic income.

  • At 1:26 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    We should be honest about our unwillingness to pay benefits and simply lower the level of benefit paid to the long term unemployed rather than making it difficult to claim. Deliberate inefficiency is massively expensive and irritating as you have found out. Make being on benefits uncomfortable because of the amount, rather than the process.

  • At 2:08 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I agree that the system as it is at the moment is simply unfit for purpose. For example, all claiments, regardless of background are treated the same. However, different people have different needs so how is it possible to treat people fairly and in a constructive manner in order to get them back into work (which is where mosr job seekers actually want to be)

    For example, the needs of an umployed graduate or professional are going to be completely different from someone who is completely unqualified. You do not have to be a brain surgeon to wotk out that a graduate needs a different kind of service that best suits their needs. A graduate friend of mine was sent to one of the Employment Zones a while back and expressed a concern that the service did not seem very appropriate to his needs as a job seeking graduate. Rather than taking some time to explore the issues the "advisor" bluntly told my friend "not to be such a social snob." Later on my friend had a similar experience with the local job centre.

    This demonstrates an utter lack of thinking by those who run the system.

    A more creative approach is required. First individual needs of job seekers need to be assessed properly from day 1. Is the claiment professional, an inexperienced graduate or unqualified? If the client is a professional or a graduate then they need to be directed towards appropriate service provision for their needs. For example they should be directed towards a work experience program that will give them appropriate experience for the kind of work they are looking for. Someone without qualifications needs to be directed somewhere else.

    In return for the help the state gives you there do need to be certain conditions. These conditions need to protect against fraud or be helpful towards the client who is seeking work.

    People who are unemployed should be required to do some voluntary ork as a condition of claiming benefits. This keeps them in the habit of working and can provide up to date references. It is also good for the psycological well being of the claiment. The type of voluntary work is up to the claiment although help could be given to identify suitale voluntary employment.


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