Dundee, Sanction City, or, as I have called my home town since September, 19th, the People’s Republic.*
At the end of a week where IDS, corporate murderer, has issued manufactured statements by imaginary claimants extolling the virtues of his social cleansing program, I’d like to share my, fortunately short lived, experience at the sharp end of this marvellous system he runs.
I used to think I was well aware of how claimants were being dealt with by staff at my local “job centre” but, still had a personal opinion that these stories were the worst ones and possibly numbered only a small percentage of actual experiences. Until, that is, I had the misfortune of being laid off earlier this year and had to deal with these people myself…
I would certainly not consider myself to being a person who knows or understands the “system” having only had the necessity to go to this odious place on 2 previous occasions. Once, in the early 1990s when I was young (an eye opener for sure!) and more recently in 2009 (bouncers on the doors…). But, my post No, Tory run experience gave me a first hand understanding of why so many folk can fall foul of these (un)civil servants. Or indeed, agree to undertake a seemingly impossible number of job applications each week just to be able to qualify for continued payment of taxes which are rightfully theirs in the first place.
The first thing I needed to do, so I thought, was to visit the place and get my claim started which was what was required previously. The dreaded “Friday phone call” had me in no doubt about that, and, having the weekend to feel sorry for myself, I set off to the buroo to get the ball rolling…
So, first thing Monday morning, having done the school run, I went down to start my claim and from there on in, my fear and loathing of this place just went from bad to worse.
Upon arrival, I was met by a “greeter” who asked about my purpose for appearing. “Well” I replied, “I was laid off on Friday there, so I’ll need to sort out some kind of social security claim”.
“You don’t do that here.”
“I’m sorry I thought this was where jobseekers came for that kind of thing, so where exactly DO you do this then?”
“Do you have a computer?”
“I’m not sure that’s any of your business madam, what I don’t have is a job, which is why I’m here…”
It was about this moment in my conversation that 2 rather large men wearing G4S uniforms approached and asked the lovely lady if everything was okay.
“I’d like to start a claim” I repeated, “although, I’m not exactly being helped here. You know, to have some of the taxes I’ve paid over the years returned to me until such time as I am in gainful employment once more?” And then, a wee lightbulb went off in my head, having been involved in the #indyref and having seen documented evidence of how much corporate tax evasion costs this “country” in comparison to the amount of benefit fraud and the lopsided approach to both by DWP in terms of staff numbers (over 3000 staff working on benefit fraud, barely 300 on corporate tax evasion).
So I addressed the G4S guys once more, “You know the taxes you pay from your salary every week, month or whatever? Well, your employer, friend of the tories, paid less tax on £2Bn worth of contracts than I have off my meagre weekly pay. Yet, here I am, getting grief for asking how to get some back. That’s a 2 with 9 zeros after it, I was lucky to make a 2 with 4 zeros last year. I’m willing to listen to any debate you may have to offer as to why this is considered fair and ethical, but, as I am NOT behaving inappropriately or using industrial language, unless you can offer me the advice required to make a claim, I’d suggest you both allow this civil servant to DO the job that all our taxes help to pay her to do.” They exchanged a look, before deciding that I obviously wasn’t a threat and left me with Ms Happy to continue our original conversation.
“In answer to your previous question, I DO indeed have access to a computer at home. Am I required to go online to do this nowadays?”
“That’s how it’s done now” and she handed me a couple of leaflets, one of which had all the information I required to go back home and start my claim.
“You know, most people don’t like Monday mornings but I’m pretty sure MY Monday, without a job is a far worse start to the week than you’re currently having. I don’t have any public facing experience myself, but, wouldn’t both our days have gotten off to a better start had you not just informed me of this to begin with?”
And so, home I went… Not before bumping into some representatives of SUWN, a couple of whom we had become acquainted with during the #indyref days. They had pitched up outside the entrance and we all did a double take as I explained that I had been there due to sudden unemployment, stopped for a quick chat and left clutching more leaflets and information than had been proffered my way by the so called experts up the stairs.
I now had the wait to hear back from them, via SMS for my initial appointment with regards to starting my claim.
My appointment was for 11.50 the following day, and so, armed with all the required documents, I set off arriving 15 minutes early, as I expect most people would do in the event of any appointment. Whilst whiling away the minutes until my time came, I happened to observe someone else being asked why he was there so long only to hear him reply that he thought his time was 1045 and not 1145 as stated.
Although not anything to do with my own personal experience of the job centre, I feel this needs mentioned for the sake of fairness and to show that not everybody will have the same kind of experience I had, and to be kept in mind for future reference.
I finally met my claims advisor, who I’d love to name, as she was obviously one of the good ones, being both sympathetic to my situation and very professional in terms of how she did her job. I left feeling somewhat relieved that things had at least began to move forward, with my appointment card for my next time there marking me as one the many “great unwashed” as certain politicians and media outlets would have you believe.
One week and many job applications later, I had taken on the role of school run that every parent has to attend to whether in work or no. I went home, gathered the necessary documentation and set off for my “first” time signing on. Once again, although not until 0950, I turned up approximately 15 minutes early and took a seat to wait my turn.
“Are you Paul” a lady asked me after a few minutes of waiting. “Yes” I replied, standing up, thinking it was probably my turn next. “You can’t sit there” I was told, when, in fact, I was already standing and so, I looked around and saw only a couple of other people sitting across the office. “And where should I be sitting?” I asked, only to be told “You’ll have to go away, you’re too early.”
Mindful of the poor chap seated alongside me the previous week, I enquired as to why being prompt could possibly have an adverse affect on the smooth running of an appointment based system, pointed out it was -2 degrees Celcius outside, I had no job and my taxes contributed to the tropical heat wafting throughout the building and that I had no intention of paying twice for parking. After some umming and awwing, “I suppose we can get you a computer for now then” to which my reply was “I’m actually in possession of one already, thank you” which was met with a stare I’d not had since the days of actually being a naughty schoolboy. “You’ll have to look for a job while you wait”. “Fair enough”, said I, “let’s get started then,” at which point I was taken over to a small IT suite and plonked down in front of a PC.
Setting this up for me took a few more minutes after which I was asked if I had any questions. “Is there any way I can formally complain about my treatment by the staff here, particularly the fact that you have referred to me as a customer when it’s apparent to me that you are neither selling anything or have anything that I would willingly be here for in the first place? Can I have your name please?” I asked the nice lady who had previously told me to bugger off. “And that of your manager too, just in case when my time comes up I’m am asked as to why it’s 0951 and I was SUPPOSED to be here for 0950 and I DO know how easy it seems to fall foul of these things nowadays.” She didn’t answer at all, but went across to confer with someone else before returning and informing me that I could be seen 5 minutes earlier than stated, maybe! This must have left me about 90 seconds to continue my frantic search for further employment.
I was called over, as promised a few minutes early from my seconds long job search, (with hindsight, probably to shut me up and get me out the place before anything else could happen) and was met by a man in a suit. At first glance, I suspected he might be a manager, and readied myself for some further verbal jousting, mindful of the fact that even venting your frustrations loudly or using sweary words in this place can result in a wee chat with Tayside’s finest. Or even if you don’t. The irony of this is, that you still have the right to remain silent with the police until you have a witness present but DWP would deny you this right if they could get away with it. But I digress…
After a mutual exchange of pleasantries he told me he’d heard about my experience so far, even agreeing that he wouldn’t wish to be called a customer if it was him sitting where I was. He also made mention of the fact this was my first time signing on to which I replied “dinnae hink eh’ll forget this like”. I was to sign my nom de plume on the super duper wee plastic pen thingy on the fantastic, futuristic, wee screen thingy, but it wisnae working. I broke the awkward silence “This’ll be that £300M that IDS wasted tae soart oot yir IT system then? Dis this mean we kin dae it auld skale likes? Or dae they no let yis hae pens and paper nowadays?” He went for a form and returned, wi a bit o a grin aboot him and handed me a biro. “Some hings nivir go oot o fashion, aye?” as I signed and returned the form and pen to a smiling guy and swiftly exited the building, avoiding eye contact with absolutely everyone before lighting a panic fag the second my feet hit the pavement outside the buroo.
Fear and loathing at the buroo seems to sum that place up. Why do you feel paranoid, or guilty or stressed in any way when it’s signing on day? They cannae be training staff tae be like that, kin they? One more time for me and I had managed to find a job. What was the pay? NMW: in other words, as little as is legally possible, the government can make up the rest through tax credits. That’ll be the tax credits the tories are cutting to pay for some mair bombs then. I’m no really feeling better together myself, but… Still, it was better than the buroo and I could still keep looking and barely 2 weeks later, I had an interview for another job.
The interview, not the job, was to take place in the jobcentre. Oh, JOY! I rocked up to the place bedecked in Interview Suit 2 and took the lift to the floor I had went to sign on. I hadn’t even got through the door before being greeted, cheerily, with a “can I help you”. I stated my business and she said she’d go and find out where these interviews were taking place, saying she thought they were on another floor of the building. And right enough, I had to go somewhere else but just as I’m leaving hear the words “good luck, sir!”
Everybody was very nice and polite to me, each time getting my hackles up just that wee bit maire that, by the time I got to the office for the interview, I was incandescent at the difference in treatment I was receiving today from my more recent visits. So much so that I knew I’d probably blow the interview. Which I promptly did. I exited in the same brief, stealthy way, previously used straight into the welcoming, open arms of SUWN who had changed days and times in order to keep the buroo on thir taes and regaled them this tale. Those guys do more as volunteers than half the well paid staff up the stairs and ADVOCACY IS NOT A CRIME.
If there’s ever to be a next time for me to have to go there, I think I should wear Interview Suit 1, an Armani charity shop suit that cost much less than any of thae gadgie claes eh wore they last times eh wis doon there. If they dinnae treat me any better than the last time I had to go doon there, at least I’ll look good for the court the next day…..
*Individual experiences may vary!
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