I came away every week feeling furious about being belittled. Photo: Getty
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Every time I visit the job centre, the staff treat me like a subhuman

Arriving at a JobCentre to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance, I felt like I’d fallen into the pages of Kafka’s The Trial. I was expected to navigate a complicated system while being treated with endless suspicion.

After three months of freelancing and looking for work and essentially living on less than £30 a week, I decided that the only sensible thing to do was to sign on and collect Job Seeker’s Allowance.

Claiming benefits wasn’t a position I wanted to find myself in, but I wasn’t making enough money writing to support myself. I’d taken the very first job I was offered after completing my MA, it was completely unsuited to me and I was desperately ill and unhappy. The company agreed to allow me to work from home on a “freelance” basis. Being naïve, I didn’t ask for the agreement in writing, and after a couple of months, they stopped replying to my emails and the work dried up. The money I’d saved from working full time in the office dried up. I wanted to be in journalism, but there was no chance of me raising the money to move to London, where the media resides, to intern for free at a newspaper until I was maybe offered a staff job at some unspecified point in the future. Jobseeker's Allowance seemed to be my best bet until I found something that I could do, and which had at least something to do with the two very expensive degrees I’d spent four years of my life studying for.

Despite living in the centre of Manchester, two minutes from Piccadilly train station, the nearest job centre was miles away, in a part of Salford I’d never visited before. I arrived for my initial assessment after a 55-minute walk. They refused to let me use the toilet or have a glass of water - basic amenities in a public building.

Throughout the process, I felt like I’d fallen into the pages of Kafka’s The Trial. The process of receiving a benefit seemed to be peppered with vague and arbitrary rules that no one explained, and my treatment at the job centre made me wonder if I’d committed an imaginary crime. A small excerpt, on the subject of travel costs to the job centre and whether or not they are able to reimburse you:

Advisor: We don’t pay your travel on sign-on days, just when you come for advisor meetings.

Me: Why is that?

Advisor: Well it’s because you HAVE to come in for sign-on day or you don’t get any money, but we’d just PREFER you to come in for your advisor meetings.

Me: So I could do my advisor meetings over the phone?

Advisor: No, you have to come in for you advisor meetings.

Me: So what’s the difference between advisor meetings and sign-on days?

Advisor: We don’t pay your travel on sign-on days.

Me: Right. 

Recently, I spoke to Lee Healey, the managing director of IncomeMAX, an organisation that helps people to maximise their income and improve their financial situation. Healey says that “most people ‘stumble’ on to the benefits they receive without truly understanding why they receive them, how they are worked out or exactly what their responsibilities for claiming are. The letters benefits claimants receive are also really complex which don't help. It is also worth remembering that most people claim benefits at a very difficult stage in their life; unemployment, sickness, retirement, disability, separation, children coming along, bereavement etc. I think that most people ‘get there in the end’ through a combination of looking online, talking to friends and family, getting advice and talking to the relevant government departments but it isn't easy and many miss out on their full entitlement. Billions of benefits go unclaimed every year.”

On each visit to the job centre, there were more members of the security team in the building than claimants. Three uniformed G4S employees manned the door. There were more security guards than in a club or in front of a particularly troublesome pub when there’s a football match on. I was instructed to sit down on a bench and wait, with a member of the G4S security team hovering behind me, as though I required some kind of supervision. I wondered if they’d been told that smiling was not permitted, and if the advisors had been briefed to speak to claimants in comically slow voices. It was as if they’d decided that anyone claiming benefits must be either monumentally stupid or a criminal, or some unfortunate mixture of the two.

I saw advisors taking personal phone calls at their desks on more than one occasion when people were waiting to see them and the job centre was unusually busy. My advisor cancelled my claim by accident because she “didn’t really use computers”. I also heard a member of staff telling someone who had called the job centre, clearly distressed, that nothing could be done and they should try a food bank.  I was aggressively reprimanded for “wandering around” by an intimidating member of the security team after being told to go through into the next room by an advisor. 

Neil Bateman, a welfare rights advisor, describes the punitive atmosphere of some job centres as entirely deliberate. “I know ex-DWP staff who have been admonished by managers for spending time giving advice. Some DWP staff get a perverse sense of achievement by being unpleasant to claimants," he says. "It's truly disgusting and one only has to hear some of the office banter to know what is going on.”

The portrayal of benefit claimants in the right-wing press seemed to link very closely to how I and many, many others have been treated at job centres around the country. Both experts I spoke to described this portrayal by the government and certain sections of the media as “completely unacceptable” and they believe it is based on biased views largely lacking in real evidence. Lee Healey notes that “support for Jobseeker's is under 8 per cent of total welfare spend so it’s ridiculous that unemployed people are portrayed in the media as undeserving of support and a drain on public resources”.

The toxic blend of a highly complex benefits system, unhelpful advisors and the coalition government’s ideological approach to sanctions means that it’s very easy to lose your benefit altogether, and not even be aware of the reason why. Lee Healey sees the sanctions as an attack on the most vulnerable people. “Jobseeker's and ESA claimants will generally be on the very lowest incomes; literally receiving a top up to take their income to a government set 'amount they need to live on' - when this 'top up' is sanctioned, by benefits being stopped or reduced it hits claimants hard. In many cases it will leave claimants with no money”. In the last two years, over 2 million people have had their benefits stopped through the coalition government’s sanction regime.

As someone who has spent 40 years working with claimants referred through voluntary organisations, Neil Bateman now spends more time “sorting out stupid and nasty benefit decisions and they take ages to resolve”. Lee Healey reports helping 13,000 households this year, a 50 per cent increase on last year, and says that the demand for his services is growing. 

I came away every week feeling furious about being belittled again by staff members who seemed to hold only distaste for me. On entering the job centre, my qualifications, internships, published achievements and public speaking successes were wiped away. I was basically a sub-human who couldn’t be trusted to use the toilet or have a glass of water or sit on a bench without someone in uniform standing over me. These small experiences serve to illustrate the hostile and mistrustful atmosphere of the job centre and the disrespect with which claimants are treated.

My job centre experiences are not unique, nor are they particularly extreme. Benefit sanctions, the unnecessary complexity of the system and the behaviour of some job centre employees are harming some of the most vulnerable members of society. Between March 2013 and March 2014, there was a 580 per cent rise in sanctions against chronically ill and disabled people. More than one million people received food parcels from Trussell Trust food banks last year. Benefit sanctions were used to ‘massage’ unemployment figures, as the coalition government conveniently excluded around 500,000 people on JSA from their statistics. Those people effectively did not exist, purely for the purpose of making a political point. It is essential that we, as a society, rediscover our compassion because something is very wrong here.

Harriet Williamson is a freelance journalist and full-time copywriter. She blogs about feminism, fashion and mental health, and tweets @harriepw.

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage