Jobcentre Plus new Q&A revealed …

Some intense investigative reporting on my part has resulted in my having something to do other than play string with Chaplin – and in unearthing the latest questionnaire used by Jobcentre Plus advisers.

This Q&A will be used at each and every interview unemployed workers attend in the hope that they will finally collapse, demoralised and exhausted, and choose to sign off rather than face the repetitive, humiliating process over and over again. What happens to them then is of no concern.

A Jobcentre Plus unofficial, completely imaginary, spokesperson said: “When addressing the needs of customers facing deferred success and cashflow challenges, it sometimes makes sense to clarify your process using a flowchart.

“Using a customer service process flow chart can help advisers deal with customers in a way that represents Jobcentre Plus’ overall customer service outlook while, at the same time, avoiding customer intimacy or, heaven forbid, making eye contact with the employment-challenged.

“Going forward we hope that they will finally collapse, demoralised and exhausted, and choose to sign off rather than face this repetitive, humiliating process over and over again.

“What happens to them then is of no concern to us and any discussion about the validity of this flowchart will result in our effective, and government-backed, use of blamestorming.”

  • If you’re due to sign on remember this is how they think – even if the more wily ones don’t follow the Q&A openly …

Scroungers of the world unite …

The media repeatedly demonizes the unemployed, failing to show the reality of joblessness … now a survey shows that the nation is turning on the vulnerable in times of financial trouble, placing the blame at the feet of the poor.

A new survey from the National Centre for Social Research shows Brits as a small-minded, individualistic, mean-spirited bunch who think the needy should be left to rot.

In reality though more people are giving to charity – Brits who usually show generosity to those in need now respond to the poor and the unemployed in this way because they’re seriously, intentionally ill-informed.

The Daily Mail is, of course, full of glee at this news stating: “Britain turns to conservative values as recession bites: We want the State to stay out of our lives and sympathy for benefit claimants has evaporated.”

The media and politicians need to show the reality of the struggle to find work and to live on unemployment benefits so the results of the social attitudes survey can be taken more seriously.

  • 26% think poverty is due to “laziness” or “lack of willpower”.
  • 63% blame workless parents for children living in poverty
  • 54% think benefits payments are too high and discourage people from finding work
  • 75% recognise that the gap between rich and poor is too large but only 35% think the government should step in to redistribute wealth

In the mid-90s when we could all afford futons and focaccias those who thought the poor were lazy was just 15% and in 1983 those who thought benefits were too high was just 35%.

It is not a coincidence that people’s opinions are changing. It is convenient to blame the jobless for their situation and people are not given accurate information to truly understand life on the dole.

Thatcher said in the 80s – during mass unemployment – that there was no such thing as poverty, it was just that people didn’t know how to budget properly: Edwina Currie has been repeating this cruel dismissal of the poor rather than accept that government cuts are failing and unemployment is rising.

Today Eamonn Butler of the Adam Smith Institute says of those interviewed,

“They don’t want to see their taxes rising anymore and they also become less tolerant of people who are on benefits but not actually actively seeking work.

“When times are good and everybody’s well off you can afford to overlook that but I think now people are much more critical of folk who are on benefits and not actually doing something positive to get themselves off benefits.”

At risk of repeating myself:

When claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance you MUST prove you are actively seeking work at a fortnightly meeting or risk losing benefits. You sign a Jobseekers’ agreement to which you must adhere or you will lose benefits and have, literally, no income at all.

Jobseekers’ Allowance is just £67.50 per week – and the unemployed have no other income and are not allowed to work while claiming this.

Perhaps this is why the queues for food parcels are lengthening – with those facing delayed benefits, job losses, domestic violence, low income and homelessness among people in need.

Owen Jones, author of Chavs The Demonization of the Working Class, quite rightly responded,

“There aren’t enough jobs to go around. There’s over 2.6 million unemployed, there’s another million on Incapacity Benefit the government want to push into work – and there’s less than half a million vacancies.”

Less than half a million vacancies. Unemployment – and long-term unemployment – is inevitable while there are not enough jobs to go around.

There are 68 journalism jobs advertised on the Guardian jobs pages today; 39 on journalism.co.uk and Hold the Front Page has 14.

At my last Jobcentre Plus meeting I told my adviser I was now looking for jobs in book shops.

“I’ve no experience of sales,” I told him, “But I do know about books.”

“I’ll keep my eye out for you,” he said, with a supportive smile. “But in reality a lot of bookshops are struggling and closing.”

People are unemployed because the economy is failing and there are not enough jobs and too little being done to create them. As the government fails to act on unemployment the numbers losing their livelihoods increases every day:

News yesterday revealed:

Further news today reveals:

  • With a workforce of 1.6m people, local government is England’s biggest employer but its 353 councils have already cut 145,000 staff in the last year – and a new report says more cuts are coming.
  • Kraft Foods plans to cut 200 jobs at three of its sites in Birmingham.
  • Up to 220 jobs could go at a company that makes replacement joints in Wiltshire.
  • The number of permanent job placements fell at its fastest rate in November since July 2009, according to the Recruitment and Employment Confederation. A survey of 400 recruitment firms showed that unemployment will continue to rise in December and January.
  • British Airways said it will take on 50% fewer staff

Meanwhile Midland News Association, which publishes the Express and Star and Shropshire Star, has told staff it is looking for up to 50 voluntary redundancies from next month on top of 90 redundancies announced at the Wolverhampton and Telford-based titles earlier this year which saw overall headcount reduced by a tenth.

Further job losses are possible at Trinity Mirror as restructuring takes place at Scottish titles but the company is not confirming any details as yet.

Those civilian support staff, council and factory workers – and journalists – are not to blame for their job loss and won’t be to blame for the poverty they could be plunged into.

As a nation we need to consider who is really at fault.

Jobs I’ve applied for this fortnight: 18

Jobs I’m qualified and experienced for: 4

Little bit of history repeating …

The gap between the rich and poor is hurtling towards Victorian levels, the High Pay Commission tells us. The BBC reports “its study lists a 12-point plan to stop ‘high pay creating inequalities last seen in the Victorian era’”.

This comes as no surprise to most. It’s also not the only comparison: old Tories dominated politics, for the most part, between 1885 and 1906; Cameron’s intention to use philanthropic intervention rather than state aid makes even more chilling reading when seen as part of his long-term thinking regarding the workers of this country; unemployed workers are still told to get a job, any job, dismissed as lazy as we were by many Victorians; and food parcels are being given to the jobless who are not given the financial help they need and deserve.

But we know of Victorian poverty, don’t we? We’ve been taught it in school: it is way back when, another world, unrecognisable to the iPod carrying, Starbucks drinking, McDonald’s eating generation.

Not really. Forget the Winter of Discontent we’re re-tracing the steps of our Victorian ancestors.

As the tents go up we can recall, perhaps, the Trafalgar Square demonstration of November 1887 during which politically-motivated violence led to moral panic: police and soldiers were called in to stop the demonstration but a crowd estimated at 10,000 gathered  – with East London meeting West London in an event seen as a focus of the class struggle.

Or perhaps we can recall the London Dock Strike of 1889 which saw the unions grow among workers and brought attention to the problem of poverty and, with it, public sympathy.

Or the Matchworkers’ Strike of 1888 when workers reacted angrily to the sacking of a colleague, the poor working conditions, fourteen-hour work days, poor pay, excessive fines, and the health complications of working with white phosphorous.

In just eight days this country will see workers from at least 26 unions – around three million workers – walk out. Demonstrations will take place across the country as workers fight against government demands for them to pay more into their pensions, work for longer and retire with less.

Meanwhile, the average chief executive in the UK earns £3,740,000 compared to the average worker earning £25, 900 – 145 times more. The High Pay Commission says this is not sustainable.

Asa Briggs analysed Victorians writing about cities back in 1963 and, of those depicting Manchester, said: “As early as the 1780s writers were describing a “growing gulf” between rich and poor.”

Benjamin Disreali wrote in Sybil (The Two Nations) published in 1845: “Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by different breeding, are fed by different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws … THE RICH AND THE POOR.”

And Friedrich Engels wondered in 1844 what would become of Manchester’s “populous millions who owned nothing and consumed today what they made yesterday […] those who are daily becoming more and more aware of their power and pressing more and more strongly for their share of the social advantages.”

It is impossible not to make the distinct comparison between Victorian workers and workers now as we face the same economic inequalities, the same political upheaval and watch as the poor face homelessness, joblessness and poverty while the rich who caused this global crisis sit pretty … earning 145 times more despite their failure.

And when novelist and journalist Margaret Harkness’ wrote in A Manchester Shirtmaker, in 1890, “… it’s better to work for him than to walk about looking for work and finding nothing,” I consider my own traipse around employment agencies.

Now I intend to join demonstrations on November 30 with workers taking a stand against this appalling inequality … just as my ancestors did.

If you have to sign-on …

Trinity Mirror Midlands has started the festivities with a couple of newspaper closures and redundancies: the plan is to cut 38 editorial posts and close three titles while creating a regional production hub, regional features unit and merging specialists reporter roles.

Meanwhile the a survey by the Society of Editors reveals that editorial staff numbers have fallen by 29% since 2007 … suggestions for media bosses included, “fewer bean counters, more visionaries. Invest sensibly in products and staff. Radically reshape print publishing portfolio. Get on the front foot.”

I would personally suggest that while HackGate continues and it’s assumed that journalists have hearts two sizes too small that those without work take advantage and immediately cancel Christmas.

I’m no longer scouring the Fortnum and Mason website for a festive delivery of biscuits but wondering what exciting goodies will be on Lidl’s chuck-out shelf at the end of Christmas Eve. I’m searching for Christmas gifts of second-hand books and wonder what I have in my flat that I can hand over gift-wrapped.

This made me think about those about to sign-on, perhaps for the first time ever. This has to be the worst time of year to lose one’s job. I decided to provide something of a guide – with links to the information you are likely to need.

You can make a claim online from the comfort of your home, with a brew and a mince pie, feeling as if you’re applying for a credit card or a bank loan. This feeling will soon pass.

You will then be sent an invitation to interview at your nearest Jobcentre Plus. This will be a fairly civilised experience: do not expect it to be so again. You will explain what job you do, what qualifications you have, where you have worked previously (with the now obligatory joke about hacking phones if you mention a certain former Sunday tabloid). You could take along a CV to show them and this information can be put into the computer.

Please note: this is not the sort of interview where you are in control, asking questions, being charming and curious: this is you giving information to a robot who will type it and similar repeatedly all day. You could take a pen and notebook if it is too difficult to drop the habit: it might also be handy to help you remember the information delivered in monotone. It might also be entertaining to write in shorthand and unnerve them a little.

Also, do not expect privacy: the office is open plan with, for example, sections for interviews and for signing and you will be able to hear and be heard as claims are made.

You will be given reams of overly-complicated forms to complete – on dirty grey or vivid green and yellow paper, depending on that office’s backlog. Take your time with these forms: it’s a rigmarole but essential. Much of this information is also given by you verbally to your adviser.

You will read the signs saying “the job you want, the help you need”, do not be fooled by this but continue through the process without any emotion.

You will be given your little plastic pack containing your information: this identifies you the way your passport once did when you enjoyed your annual holiday or press trips. It contains your attendance arrangements: where you sing-on; when; your name; national insurance number; the first date you sign on; the next date you sign on; the day you sign on each fortnight; the time you sign on and the address of the job centre. It also has a strict warning that you must attend and not be late or you could lose your benefits.

Your Looking for Work booklet is in this pack also: you must write every job you apply for in this. You will first be told to do three things each week to show you are looking for work. This will then become a promise that you will apply for two or three jobs every week: if you are a journalist this is impossible so you will be expected to look for other types of work.

I would suggest you complete the Looking for Work booklet like this: where you found the job as one entry; when you completed and sent the application as a second entry and, should this happen, attending the interview as a third entry. You should also write in every time you talk to a former colleague about job opportunities; any networking events you attend; any emails you send looking for work from former employers; and on-spec CVs you send, and so on. You will be told that if you do not adhere to your Jobseekers’ Agreement you could lose your benefits.

After three months of looking for the jobs you want – be it journalist, juggler or juggernaut driver – you will be told you now have to look for anything. This is when you will be told which websites to search, which employment agencies to visit and, depending on the levels of compassion of your adviser, treated as if you’re a sponger: I went through three advisers before I found one who seems not to be the offspring of an angry pair of lizards. You will be reminded that if you do not adhere to your Jobseekers’ Agreement you could lose your benefits.

Your weekly payment of Jobseekers’ Allowance of £53.45 if you are under 25 and 67.50 if you are over 25 will be paid fortnightly into a bank account so open a new one specifically for benefits which can’t, for example, be eaten by your overdraft leaving you with nothing to live on. This is all the income the government will provide.

What not to expect:

What you can expect:

  • To be spoken to as if you never attended school no matter what your qualifications and experience
  • To have to complain about someone’s attitude towards you at some point
  • To be told to go on the job points every single time you arrive to sign-on
  • To give information to the adviser; this will simply tick their boxes not help you
  • To be given codes for searching for your job type on the government website (do not, though, expect it to throw up any jobs)
  • To be told to ask friends and family about work: this is explained to you as the way most people find jobs
  • To eventually be told to visit employment agencies: you are likely to be provided with a list

What to do:

  • Ask about help for the disabled. Forms should be available
  • Ask about emergency financial help
  • Ensure that if your illness, for example, is worse in the morning or afternoon your sign-on date is suitable for you as a reasonable adjustment to your needs
  • Dispute the decision if you are told you are not entitled to support
  • You will be advised to play down your qualifications but remember, if you do so on an application form, this is considered lying and you could, ultimately, lose your job. You will not be entitled to sign back on immediately
  • Look at this Beginner’s Guide To Benefits

It would seem, sadly, that the priority of Jobcentre Plus advisers is to get you off benefits to fudge statistics rather than find you the job you want. Before you go I would suggest you watch this harrowing video in which a whistleblower outlines how staff deliberately deny people benefits.

Do not be fooled: signing on is hard work. After three months of unemployment you will be moaned at more; after six months you will be considered long-term unemployed; after 18 months you will be sent on obligatory schemes such as New Deal intended to help you understand work but ultimately patronising you (and ticking those boxes). Here’s hoping your signing is a short-term experience.

Remember, you’re an out-of-work journalist through no fault of your own. Good luck.

My Jobseeker journey latest: I now have to go to Enterprise Club twice a week for a few weeks to complete a business plan (having initially been put in the wrong set). I could, perhaps gain, a qualification. I am concerned that tis will now cost me £6.80 in bus fares which is, let’s face it, almost two bottles of Sicilian red

Silver linings …

I’ve had a few days of being irritated by people. I’ve been insulted, clumsily manipulated, harassed and woken by early morning vacuuming. Not all of this took place at Jobcentre Plus. I decided to shut my front door, to ignore the human race for a while, which isn’t a luxury one has when working.

Asleep on the job

This got me thinking about the “up side” of unemployment. We all know the things we lose when we lose our jobs: a social life; ready access to heating and hot water; luxury food items; basic food items; a car; for some, a home; new clothes; buying anything frivolous at all; regular contact with other human beings; our self-respect whenever entering a Jobcentre Plus  … I could go on.

But, in a desperate attempt to be optimistic and positive, I thought very hard and found ten relatively good things about being unemployed:

  1. Being able to lie-in most days
  2. Not having a nagging boss
  3. Not having to stand at bus stops in cold weather or sit in rush hour traffic
  4. Pets getting our company all day (although we should ask Chaplin his opinion of this)
  5. Not having to rush an over-priced sandwich and coffee for lunch
  6. Not having to be involved in office politics
  7. Afternoon naps don’t have to be taken in the toilet
  8. All day access to social networking
  9. Going to bed at any time because there’s no set time to get up
  10. You get better at handling rejection

Newsquest are making more job cuts despite 40% profits. The BBC is making swingeing cuts including to local radio and regional current affairs programme which face 40% cuts.

Queuing to go to work

As many more public and private sector jobs in journalism face the axe – with austerity measures enforced or companies seeking to make bigger profits – many more journalists will be joining me at Jobcentre Plus.

So, many more will be seeking the positives of having their livelihood taken away through no fault of their own.

While this is, of course, horrific it could make the British public realise the essential work journalists do in investigating corruption, in scrutinising local councils and other organisations, in holding the police to account, in reporting on injustice – because this is what has and will be lost with repeated savage cuts.

It could make us re-evaluate our roles, consider our relationship with the mainstream media, perhaps offering a chance to report on what we want rather than what we are told sells newspapers and magazines.

It could also bring us many opportunities to join picket lines, meeting fellow journalists from all walks of life.

Every cloud, eh?

Plans for today: To apply for financial assistance from my energy company to pay my gas meter debt,  to write to all creditors telling them what’s what … and to try not be irritated by those who might steal Chaplin