Planes, trains and automobiles …

I’m down the rabbit hole. I’ve survived my own farce of Canterbury Tales proportions. I’m starring in a surreal director’s cut of Planes, Trains and Automobiles. And I’m running out of caffeine.

Did you know the government has stopped the Travel to Interview Scheme? This is a scheme intended to help people with fares to job interviews. Well, they have. If you’re wily, however, and manage a bit of ducking and diving, it turns out they will pay your fares. Or so they say.

I was told I couldn’t get help with travel expenses to interview. Then I was told I could only get coach travel across the country in search of work. Next I was told I would get train fares. Finally, I was told I was entitled to mileage. I stayed home on the settee and missed the interview.

So, I did what I do, I wrote to my MP and to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, oh, and to the Shadow Secretary of State too. I think the reality of unemployment for skilled workers is something they should be made aware of before we all kick off and start smashing shop windows.

I wrote:

With two degrees and over 20 years experience as a journalist and lecturer, I’m qualified and experienced enough to apply for a whole range of jobs – but jobs are few and far between. So, as Iain Duncan Smith suggested, I search for jobs outside my home city. I never expected, though, that his comment “get on the bus” was to be taken so literally.

I was offered an interview in Canterbury – and I was told on calling Job Centre Plus that jobseekers are entitled only to coach travel: this meant a 21-hour round journey starting at Manchester coach station at 03.50. I would arrive after nine-and-a-half hours on National Express, with little time to get to the site, where I would be expected to give a presentation and 40 minute interview.

“Best wishes, IDS”

I was then assured, however, that this was an error and I would get train travel. In fact, I was told that it would be ridiculous to expect people to only travel by coach.

The prospective employer, meanwhile, assured me I was a very strong candidate and urged me to attend, after I had explained my situation. An offer quickly followed to reimburse all funds, including overnight accommodation. I sent this email from the employer to Job Centre Plus, stating: “will pay for train travel and an overnight stay … on submission of receipts.”

Job Centre Plus responded again, this time not offering coach travel or train fares but instead offering mileage totalling £133.50 and asserting, “We do not pay for overnight accommodation”. No one asked if I could drive or had a car, let alone gave me the chance to explain that I have taken my car off the road because I can no longer afford insurance, petrol and road tax.

Job Centre Plus’s ultimate reply was: “accommodation can only be paid for if the journey to and from the interview cannot be completed on the same day.”

So I called the employer and told them I couldn’t attend. They were as astounded by the farce created by Job Centre Plus as I was.

The reality, if we are looking work outside our home towns, is having to experience something akin to The Canterbury Tales. It would seem a 21-hour journey by coach or a 530-mile round trip by car is acceptable for those of us forced to seek work because of a global economic crisis not of our making.

It costs approximately £600 per month in housing benefit, council tax and unemployment benefit for me to remain a jobseeker. Money for travel to a job interview might  just have put a stop to this – and it was made clear that Job Centre Plus would have got that money back.

I fail to understand how workers willing, although not keen perhaps, to leave their friends and home cities behind can do so when they can’t afford to get to the interview – or are expected to arrive looking like something the cat dragged in. Or indeed how the generosity of prospective employers could be disregarded.

My only remaining hope is I won’t be expected to “get on my bike” because I don’t have one and can’t ride one.”

I eventually received a reply from Iain Duncan Smith stating: “There are no records to show that [this claimant] has asked Job Centre Plus about any financial assistance that may be available to cover costs of travelling to and from interviews.”

I will give IDS the benefit of the doubt and assume he has not yet seen the above letter. I will await his reply and, of course, let you know what he says.

I will also let you know what he says about people having to live on £67.50 a week tomorrow …

What I have: Six tea bags to last me as many days

What I don’t have: Enough bus fare to get me to Job Centre Plus for signing on and back

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