People queue outside a job centre in Bristol (Photo:Getty)
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I've had four years of using the Job Centre - and four years of incompetence

Using the Job Centre has exposed me to institutionalised bullying, poorly-chosen medical experts, and incompetence, says Gary Boyd. So I've decided to do something about it

I’ve been using the job centre for the past four years. I’ve had four years of incompetence. My life was put on hold as the job centre lost my forms and then denied all responsibility. I had to wait months for the money I needed to live and support my family. I applied for ESA because I have a lifelong congenital heart defect, anxiety and depression, and was assessed by lifting a box, bending my knees, and raising my arms above my head. This was done by a doctor, who - rather than knowing about heart conditions - was a cancer specialist.

I’ve had four years of discrimination and intimidation, with door staff who made me feel like I’d committed a crime simply by setting foot in the job centre. Door staff who have made me explain my illnesses and personal circumstances in front of crowds of strangers.

I’ve had four years of unhelpful advisors, who didn’t know how to help me in the one thing I really wanted them to help me with: to find a job. There weren’t even computers or phones that I could use to do it myself.

This is my experience of my local job centre in Great Yarmouth. But the story is similar for other job seekers across the country, as job centres come under fire for their attitudes towards the people that they are there to support.

It seems to me that in many cases job centres have mutated into places to guard benefits, rather than to help the jobless into work.

Those that use the job centres are often sick, and our illnesses have a barrier to work. Despite this, we are treated as criminals.

Our heavy reliance on them for survival tips the balance of power unhealthily towards those who run the centre.

In Yarmouth, we’ve had enough of the hostility of the job centre and the problems it creates. We’re taking action, for ourselves, in our community - that’s what Just Jobs is all about.

It’s made up of job centre users, working with Movement for Change to use the tools of community organising to make change happen.

We have worked tirelessly to try to find a solution. We have listened to the stories of hundreds of job centre users like ourselves, have spoken to councils, food banks and unions and have repeatedly requested meetings with the managers of our local job centre centre. Our requests have so far been refused.

When these meetings were refused, we took action, and delivered a letter from concerned people and organisations in our town, explaining the need for change - to the doorstep of the job centre. We were met half a dozen security guards threatening and intimidating us and refusing to let us even enter the building to hand it to the manager. Some people in our group had been so afraid of reprisals that they didn’t add their name to the letter - and from the response we were met with, maybe they were right.

This demonstrates the desperate position we are in. It is a Catch-22 situation - we need better treatment yet people fear to take the risk of demanding change, as it may result in losing the small amount of money we do have. 

We want a job centre which is open and accessible to all, with proper provision of services, which is locally accountable, empathetic, professional, respectful and inclusive.

We hope that by organising ourselves, we will change the way job centres are run. We hope that we can show that we are not the ‘lazy’ individuals we are often portrayed as.

We are people who want to work. Often the reason we can’t is due to illness. We need the support that job centres should be offering us to make it happen. We want to work and that is why we won’t be backing down.

Gary Boyd is a Job Centre user and Just Jobs campaigner with Movement for Change.

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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war