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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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt