The greatest trick the DWP ever pulled was convincing the poor benefits don't exist

From precarious work to precarious benefits to precarious unpaid work...

A personal perspective on workfare and the benefits lottery - something which has caused me no end of stress of late.

I’ve just got back from the Jobcentre. My advisor – Linda -was flanked by a blank-faced, near-mute young man, consciously trying to not look bored while fidgeting restlessly on his office chair in such a way that indicated a sore, sedentary behind.

“He’s here on work experience,” Linda offered by way of explanation, evoking Basil Fawlty’s timelessly desperate “he’s from Barcelona!” quip as she did so.

“Workfare?” I nodded an acknowledgement at him and his eyebrows rose by way of affirmation.

Linda’s desk was littered with papers offering Workfare positions (they call it GBW: Get Britain Working): one at Tesco Express, stacking shelves for 8 weeks for benefits, another customer service position at an unidentified place that apparently only offered travel expenses, and so on. The hapless soul who was supposed to believe he was gaining “work experience” listening to me bicker with Linda about my own (un)employment situation later got his own back on the Jobcentre though, jamming the printer during a menial task and briefly shattering Linda’s affected calm, patient, tough-love exterior.

As I walked out, reincorporated into the BTW (Back to Work) scheme, I considered both my plight and that of the yawning guy gazing into middle distance next to advisor Linda. We’re both delicately perched on the jolting benefits wagon, prone to being thrown over the edge at any time. And despite all the grand talk of change and all the pompous, right-wing rhetoric, unemployment continues to rise, especially amongst the young and women, while even the DWP accepts that Workfare doesn’t really ‘Get Britain Working’.

What caught my eye, however, was a new statistical peak that was recorded in “the number of people working part-time who want full-time jobs”. I’ve been working on and off at a language college since October, with scant, intermittent hours and no promises made from one Monday to the next. In the past, agricultural labourers would organise their toil cyclically, reaping, sowing and harvesting according to the number of daylight hours and the time of year, and it’s a process I – and an increasing number of colleagues – find myself replicating. High season in EFL is in July and August, supplemented by brief periods of activity around Easter and New Year. Much of the rest of the year, many EFL teachers scrape by, working second jobs (often in completely unrelated fields), teaching private students (the most unreliable income one can ever find) and – increasingly – signing on.

This, of course, is perfectly legal: DWP regulations state that you can continue to sign on as long as you’re working less than 16 hours a week. However, if you do choose this route, then I feel I must warn you that it’s a dog’s life, since it contrives to combine the existentially pointless charade of the Jobcentre-coordinated job search (the last job I took via their site turned out to be an intensely odd, unsettling position in which I was required to teach a subject in which I had no background at a postgraduate level to seemingly non-existent students) with the relentless pressures and responsibilities of wage labour.

If only it were that easy...

Mornings are spent handling working life stresses and pressures: inspections, complaints, unpaid overtime, fatigue, and so on, before the ever-more-ubiquitous signing on dates, doubled in length by the confusing pile of paperwork you have to wade through in order to legally ‘declare’ your working hours. Forms ask meaninglessly inflexible questions which you “must answer”, such as “how many hours do you work on average per month?” (is ‘casualisation’ honestly as alien a word to the DWP as it is for the TUC?), while the advisor simultaneously asks you if you’ve considered call centre work. And, before you can even turn up your educated, aspirant nose, he’s already clicked it and added the tagged code to the job type you’re required to pursue while you work 15 hours a week.

Of course, the humiliations and frustrations of signing on will not be new to most readers (not anyone who’s ever claimed, anyway), but what becomes increasingly apparent with the arrival of Workfare, the vindictive Atos assessments that have forced the terminally ill back into work and even the flummoxing reforms of housing benefit law, is the wilful complication of benefits as both a punitive measure and a deterrent.

We are familiar with the concept of state violence as being random in order to ensure the widest diffusion of fear of its power. Many of us will have stood in front of police lines, watching boots and batons swing, sometimes at an obviously combative target, but we are most dismayed when they hit out – as they often do - at a confused, scared bystander. Similarly, benefits law conspires to hit the needy and the conscientious objector alike - that they may both consider means other than state subsidy, regardless of their lifestyle, motivations and potential - and it does so by de-regularising regulation. In short, no one knows what the rules are anymore, and this mystification serves to manipulate people out of their benefits.

Claiming JSA while working, for example, can be compared to one long game of Chinese Whispers. I appeared to be the first person to do so in my last advisor’s experience, since he had to fumble around for the correct forms and was unable to answer any of my questions. “That’ll be decided by Belfast,” he tells me when I ask if the JSA I’ve claimed while working will be recuperated by the Job Centre at a later date (Belfast is the location of the headquarters of the Benefits Delivery Office, where any enquiry about your benefits money must be directed, in case you were wondering). Needless to say, it was pretty essential that I knew whether my pay would later be deducted. But when I phoned Belfast, they sent me back to my regional BDO, who then told me it was to be determined by an individual ‘DM’ (decision-maker).

“So what has the DM decided? Can I talk to him?”

“No, sir, but I can send him an email...”

I still don’t know whether I’ll receive a letter through the post demanding my JSA back.

It’s a neat trick of the post-social contract state: convincing us that they’re cutting bureaucracy by stratifying and dividing every social body into a million jigsaw pieces. It facilitates the slow, silent descent of many of us between the cracks, leaving us reliant on the Kafka-esque role play between our advisor and anonymous chirps grunting between periods on hold during phone calls we’re not sure we can afford. And all the while, you constantly ask yourself: what if they do claim my month’s worth of pay from part-time work back? How will I pay my rent and my bills – fuck, how will I eat?

Moreover, true to form, every time I recount my situation to friends and acquaintances that are also caught in the benefits trap, I hear a thousand different stories. Discussions about material conditions on the dole are rendered almost worthless, since the anticipated nod of comprehension and empathy is more often than not usurped by the quizzical, confused frown. We’re all being told different things!

“No wait, they only recoup your pay if it goes above a certain figure...”

“Hang on, I thought they always recoup it...”

“Wait, you can sign on while you still work? I thought you couldn’t, what I heard anyway...”

“When I signed on while working, they took back all of my pay in one go and sent me a letter a month later...I was skint!”

“No, they take it back in stages...”

“I got away with it for a year then they chased me for the whole thing! So now I volunteer here for 3 hours a week, no point me getting paid if the Jobcentre will just take it away from me...”

“Fuck it, I don’t think I’ll bother with signing on, sounds too complicated...”

Repeat ad nauseam.

And it is this common thread which ties together all those who are reluctantly dependent on the state’s charity. The irrationality of British benefits law ensures that our lives are forever fragile, that we must always sweat from one day to the next. There is no benefit – neither personal nor social - to any of it, not for the Workfarer I saw trying to stay awake as he ‘assists’ a Jobcentre advisor, not for the cancer-stricken individual being brow-beaten back into work, and neither for the (albeit less unfortunate) young part-time, casualised worker trying to eke out a living while doing the splits between the workplace and the Jobcentre. Its objective rather, is to drive us out of their offices and off of their phone lines into isolation, via a combination of time-wasting, chastising Jobcentre ‘schemes’ and disorienting mazes of regulation.

Comments

Caiman del Barrio
Feb 28 2012 18:40

Sorry can't get the Youtube link to work, did everything I was supposed to... sad

working class s...
Feb 28 2012 18:47

fixed it!

jef costello
Feb 28 2012 18:58

So did I smile

Caiman del Barrio
Feb 28 2012 19:01

Thanks guys

communal_pie
Feb 28 2012 22:53

Truth is you need someone good at the JC to help. These people are often atomised and assigned to pointless shit duties, I only got someone good by fighting through the anonymous and individualised weird soft lounge bollocks atmosphere they build at JCs (this was muttered out loud by someone once in mare street JC to my never-ending amusement grin). I just went up to some bloke who looked nice enough once and who seemed nice with the people he served and said, after I'd been kept waiting for an extra 30mins for no apparent reason "could you help me out, I just want to sign on". It seemed to be fine for a while.. until he got sent upstairs and I had to deal with the same old girl who seems to insist on losing people's paperwork and spending ages searching for it! Cos what I did was just go up to him every time and ask the security bloke to give my stuff straight to this bloke who just sorted it out, without any extra hassle or waiting, well it lasted for a while at least.

nameorother
Feb 28 2012 22:54

When I go to the JC, they never offer me jobs now. I am on the fourth level of private service provider and I have complained about them all for forging documentation but nobody seems to think it unusual or a crime. My current provider has told me no to apply for jobs outside of my local bus district because they will not use the money they got from the government to cover travel expenses.
Best advice to date - lie on my cv, pretend I don't have any exam passes.

communal_pie
Feb 28 2012 22:56

Also, you can ask to see people such as the disability benefits advisor, who hopefully at your JC is a bit nicer than some of the other staff who are purely there to cause as much trouble as possible.

RedEd
Feb 28 2012 23:25

I'm on ESA (employment support allowance) and have heard that there is going to be an upper limit of two years. If that happens I'm not going to be able to meet the conditions of JSA if my mental health is as bad as it is now. So I'll have litteraly no income. Can anyone tell me what the situation is? Or point me in the direction of a place to find out? I would research this myself but it gives me panic attacks. (nice trap there: make sure the process for getting benefits is complicated and inaccesible enough that many disabled people can't cpmplete it!)

Choccy
Feb 28 2012 23:25

I signed on about 6 times for an average of probably a week and even that was a pain in the ass. Anything longer and I'd have gone FULL SHOP MENTAL, in the jobshop. The bureaucratic maze you describe is clearly designed to put people off even bothering to claim what they're actually entitled too. Fucking wankers.

flaneur
Feb 28 2012 23:39

RedEd, I was on the ESA and they booted me off after that daft assessment. I know that the Citizen's Advice Bureau took on people's claims and won in the vast majority of cases so they'd be a good place to go to.

communal_pie
Feb 29 2012 01:51

70% of appeals against ESA and most other benefits that have that evil WCA (work capability assessment) are upheld. Get advice from good groups such as those listed on here and appeal (IIRC Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty are a good source).

If you've been booted off before, apply again and get that appeal through, do it as the money itself is more than petty pathetic JSA. I mean obviously it should be really.

It's insulting that JSA has been increased by £2 a week, what kind of planet do these people live n where they honestly think that makes a difference to anyone.

Def
Feb 29 2012 03:02

Thank fuck I managed to find a full time job before being sent off to workfare. I was only unemployed for a couple of months, the time was characterised by a crushing sense of worthlessness and absence of dignity. It's bullshit that living for any amount of time on benefits is easy living, I barely had enough to even look for work properly, and the Jobcenter was no help. Luckily for me, I did well in an interview, having aquired some good people skills throughout my employment history.

georgestapleton
Feb 29 2012 14:37

Just to say I think this is a really good article.

S-J
Feb 29 2012 15:16

I was about to go to the JC to see about JSA to suplement my 14 hours work a week, but now I'm wondering if I really want to put up with all their shit... This nasty rhetoric of calling people out as 'spongers' and implying that anyone who tries to apply for benefits must be a 'benefit theif' seems to be all over the place right now - I even caught an 'anarchist' mate of mine saying that the idea of Workfare wasn't so bad in principle the other night. All the while the state carries on slashing away at the only safety nets we have left, driving up unemployment for the sake of the economy and lining the pockets of the rich... it's enough to make you sick!

soc
Feb 29 2012 15:53

I can feel for you, as I went through similar bullshit not so long ago. I'm known for complete lack of patience in "official" matters. I have my experience with the Mare str. JC: I signed up for JSA as I lost my job a month before. I showed up regularly to prove my efforts to search for job, but the JSA just couldn't make it to my bank account. After one and a half month, I was completely broke. I burst in to the JSA office to find out why on Earth I have not given any money. My advisor showed me the computer that they approved it. So where's the money then? "Maybe tomorrow it's gonna be there." It wasn't so I had to apply for cash advance. They gave me 40 pounds! Ok, I said, doesn't matter, the money comes soon. It didn't. I was so wrecked by then coz this day-to-day worries, that I couldn't make myself to go the JC any more. I was trying to convince my previous boss that maybe he would need some things done, so that he could pay me. I was rather busy with that when I got a letter that they shut down my JSA, because I didn't show up. Well, actually I got a letter about this after a fucking month of the dating of the letter, and it was from the Housing Benefit Office, because they actually got a letter from the JC, that they shut my JSA down, so therefore they decided to shut my housing benefit down too. The housing benefit letter was dated on the 27th of November, the letter arrived just right after Christmas. I couldn't make myself go to the JC anymore, so I tried to negotiate at the Hackney Council, that I have a little income, but this income was stretched over a long time... (well, I had an income of £1200 over six month as I could get some money from my previous boss over fixing some errors in his product from home, sometimes I couldn't even afford to heat the room as the little money for the electricity I needed the time at my computer). They weren't convinced. I was visiting the council twice a weak, filling the same fucking forms and some random ones, with essays to clarify my material conditions and they just kept refusing it with the most stupid explanation (missing bank statement over my 6 months. You can only ask for 3 month in the branch. that's what I presented previously. OK then, request one from the bank... the statement came 6 weeks later.)

Many times I went through the idea of committing suicide, or just go fucking nutts, burn down the fucking hackney council along with the JC and and get in to jail as they probably would give me food at least and perhaps sufficient heating. When I saw a policeman I was playing with the idea of just going over there, give a unexpected big fucking slap, and let my self get in to custody. Not once I was just crying and shouting in my self, in my otherwise lifeless room, out of impotency in the face of the incompetency and confusion. Some friends were keeping me sane over this period, but I lost many: being so fragile and exposed to every mistake what an council administration do made me completely unstable and unable to stop whining about the same shit over and over, without resolution, and I have a great anxiety over meeting with my friends as I didn't want to show up in this mental state (random outbursts and stuff).

While my story of this period was a sort of happy ending as I could find a job at the very moment when I asked my mother to send money for tickets back to Hungary, I suffered from this period even longer: When I terminated my housing benefit claim (which they haven't paid to my landlord at all basically and the landlord was ready to throw me out to the streets), I started to get letters that I owe THEM with almost two thousand pounds. After some painful process, I thought the whole thing was settled. I just moved out from my previous flat when I got a call from a bailiff that they going to evict me from the place on the behalf of the Hackney Council as I owe them £700! And you know what? I could not resist any more, I couldn't through this whole mess again, so I just paid. For the sake of my mental heath. Un-fucking-believable.

Schizo Stroller
Mar 14 2012 21:21

For those wondering about signing on for JSA when working low hours, one benefit is it makes it easier to claim housing benefit top up and council tax benefit.

Here's a good website: entitled to

re ESA the two year thing is to do with re-testing, not a maximum time span.

Here's a stat from 2010: £16 billion of benefits are unclaimed a year. And yes some of the stats that are used to indicate the numbers of people who earn less working than those claiming benefits include figures using people who don't claim their fair share to increase the numbers.

Caiman del Barrio
Mar 15 2012 13:30

Thanks Schizo that's pretty informative. Unfortunately my LHA have told me I'm ineligible for housing benefits cos I'm subletting.

For the record, I've had way more stress during my last 2 visits to JCP. They suspended my JSA for having an inadequate jobsearch, basically cos my advisor spotted me filling it in while waiting for her. I wrote on the form that I'd worked for 15 hrs the week before and therefore couldn't be expected to undertake a complete jobsearch but she said that wasn't a valid reason, before wandering off to a colleague to show her in rather confused bewilderment.

So I had a massive go at her and accused her of doing it for personal reasons and cos she was in a bad mood. She didn't know how to take that, other than sending me on a massive wild goose chase of obsfucation and bureaucracy. Her patronising tone was unreal, every question I asked (and I am genuinely confused by all of this) was responded to with "well obviously...".

The whole thing is bizarre: I had to sign on late anyway cos of work and i think they looked poorly on that so I actually found myself organising cover for today so I could go in on my normal day. They also seem to want me to be prepared to quit my current job if something more permanent/fulltime in different sector came up.

shug
Mar 15 2012 16:33

Good blog CDB. The benefit system is so Kafkaesque that even the DWP staff struggle to understand it – and the advantage this gives to the state is clear. It’s worth being careful about just seeing the DWP staff as the enemy though. Every JC has its share of jobsworths and lickspittles, but most staff are just trying to survive and hold down a job, while seeing their pay, conditions and pensions hammered. Speaking to DWP staff on the picket line at the last national day of action, we in ECAP found they, like all public service staff, are increasingly being squeezed by target-setting apparatchiks, while they see their work being spun off to private providers (A4E, Ingeus etc) who pay far lower wages and offer far poorer job conditions and protection. It’s in the state’s interest to create a ‘them and us’ mentality; it’s in our interest to challenge this. In work/out of work we’re all being hammered by the same class and for the same reasons.

BRIAN1986
Mar 15 2012 16:44

Agree with above

Caiman del Barrio
Mar 15 2012 17:06
shug wrote:
It’s worth being careful about just seeing the DWP staff as the enemy though. Every JC has its share of jobsworths and lickspittles, but most staff are just trying to survive and hold down a job, while seeing their pay, conditions and pensions hammered. Speaking to DWP staff on the picket line at the last national day of action, we in ECAP found they, like all public service staff, are increasingly being squeezed by target-setting apparatchiks, while they see their work being spun off to private providers (A4E, Ingeus etc) who pay far lower wages and offer far poorer job conditions and protection. It’s in the state’s interest to create a ‘them and us’ mentality; it’s in our interest to challenge this. In work/out of work we’re all being hammered by the same class and for the same reasons.

Yes I agree in principle, and SLSF visited the picket line at the very same Job Centre on N30, where we spoke to the hi vis-wearing union reps (both managers, FWIW) and the security guards (in the PCS, but unaware of a strike!).

However, I don't think it's always as simple as saying "they're all working class really". I mean, I'm tempted to agree, but I don't think this sort of reductionism is absolute (after all, we do allow for exceptions such as cops, prison officers, etc). So the question is at what point can/could/will a Job Centre advisor start to betray his/her class? I mean, an SWP organiser at our last Workfare demo shot down any talk of picketing the Job Centre cos the PCS had passed a resolution condemning Workfare. The fact that union members are still referring claimants to the programme wasn't even an issue.

Anecdotally, my current advisor is a Team Leader and there's a certain arrogant derision in her tone which reminds me very much of a cop and in many ways, she has more power to ruin my life than a cop does.

Caiman del Barrio
Sep 11 2012 13:21