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26 February 2015

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

By Gary Boyd

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.

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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.