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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.