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.

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.