Welfare and society muppetry in Blair's Britain
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.