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


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