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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.