Saturday, 3 October 2015

My Experiences of Welfare

Written by Rob Ponsford

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation;
The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
The right of every family to a decent home;
The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
The right to a good education. 
All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.”

This was spoken by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in what he dubbed the second bill of rights and while it may seem odd to use an American President’s words when discussing welfare in this country, it serves to highlight a point.

So what do I know of welfare? In truth quite a bit, in my working life I have been unemployed a total of 4 times for various reasons and for different lengths of time from a few months, to 18 months. During these periods I have experienced various schemes designed to “help” the reality is of course that help is the furthest thing from the agenda.

During the 1980's there were schemes that provided training for the unemployed in fact my own father was able to obtain his HGV license through such an scheme and has never been unemployed since. In 2015 there is no such scheme, The Work Program consists of being handled by a third party organization (A4e, Prospects, Working Links) who in the first instant access how “job ready” you are.

The less job ready you are the more things will be done with you such as CV building workshops, mock interview and even work experience, things that may very well help. However to be classed as job ready and these third party organizations have very little to offer and in all honesty will wait around and wait until you find work and then claim credit for this to get paid.

As happened to me I had been on the hailed Work Program for 3 months and had been found work ready, had my CV assessed and had a few words changed here and there and then nothing. I had signed on with different agencies and as luck would have it I was offered a 4 month temp assignment.

My temp role ended up lasting considerable longer, however all good things must come to an end as did this job, so back to the job centre I went and having had several temp jobs over a number of years I made the decision that this time I would take nothing less than a job that would last at least 12 months to try and break the trap that had become temp work.

This led to my longest time unemployed, 18 months. So I would look for work and sign on and each fortnight my revolving door of “advisors” would ask is there anything we can do for you. Each time my response was well what can you offer me, can I get training for this or that?

The short answer was “No” the explanation was we are simply not funded to provide that sort of in depth training. Many people who have never had to sign on have asked me ‘well why wont they help you what advice did you get?’

It shocked them to discover that a Job Centre Advisor is actually classed as an Admin Officer, in other words they are administrators and that is what happens to you when you sign on. You are administered, your job seeking evidence is checked and verified and you may be given some specific tasks to do before next signing on.

As you may imagine its not very happy or positive place and you can be the most motivated person in the world, but after several months you become sapped of all positivity and depression will begin to set in and you become much more despondent.

Then, if you are unlucky you can get caught for being late to a Job Centre appointment or fail to attend a meeting you didn't know about because Job Centre mail goes out as second class mail and if it wasn't sent out at least four days in advance will not reach you in time.

Any of these things can result in sanctions, sanctions are of course taking away money from those who already have no money and this can last in extreme cases for 3 months or more. The idea is that a claimant signs a job seeking agreement and if that person is then determined not to have kept their part of the agreement then a sanction is the acceptable response.

The reality is two fold, Job Centre staff have a sanction target that they have to achieve and so the staff are put under pressure to sanction anyone who may have even only just breached their agreement. But of course the real issue is what does the person who has been sanctioned do for money, to pay for food, the electric and gas to be able to wash with hot water etc.

The answer has increasingly become Food Banks, charity groups who have taken to feeding the hungry of this country. That statement alone should make us all angry and disgusted, that this country rich as it is has people relying on charity to help feed themselves and their family, even more disgusting is a greater number of these people work some form of job.

Finally one of the worst things about being unemployed besides the obvious, is the perception others have of you, thanks to a media obsessed with benefit cheats (which accounts for a tiny fraction, indeed corporate fraud along with tax loopholes and avoidance is massive in comparison) you are also made to feel ashamed.

The number of people I spoke to when I was unemployed who believed I was getting a free ride, or who would say “if you got it so bad how come you have broadband and TV.”

This is a popular question among those who seem to hate and despise the unemployed of course the answer is very logical.

I haven't always been unemployed and I bought things when employed some of those things like broadband, are paid on a contract basis. As a side note it is now a requirement for all job seekers to have access to e-mail and a computer with internet access to actually job seek, it is no longer a luxury but an essential to the modern job seeker.

Many people believe the unemployed get it easy, in reality an unemployed person doesn't have any pride, we are fully aware of the perception that a lot of people have and you ask most unemployed people if they would rather be working or signing on?

They will say working, the perception many want to stay on benefits is total utter rubbish, spouted by people who have never been unemployed or “know someone who has it easy.”

Before we had the welfare state this country had a monstrous place known as the workhouse, the idea was that those who were unemployed and sick should be made out to be like criminals and feel ashamed and then they would never ever want to go back.

This country got rid of the workhouse but in recent years something from that period has returned and that is shame, the unemployed are shamed and made to feel less than a person with programs like benefit street, and the government pushing mandatory voluntary work schemes (yes you read that right) for big corporations. Today in 2015 the disabled and the unemployed are made to feel ashamed are paid well below what anyone would consider the bare minimum to survive on.

Increasingly we are told that the protection from being unemployed can be taken away or have increasingly ridiculous tasks to complete to maintain their benefit. In 2015 the spectre of the workhouse remains as it seems the current attitude is it is better to shame as this motivates.

Anyone who has felt shame will know it isn't a motivator. So perhaps now my quote at the beginning makes more sense, for during the second world war an American President who had led his country through a depression knew things must change and that new certain rights had become a must.

What has followed in America has been an erosion of these rights, and sadly in this country we are now following suit. Do I have ideas of how welfare could be reformed (real reform not IDS ideological Victorian vision of it)? I do and in the coming weeks I hope to share them in blogs.

But for now I leave you with my experiences.     

Rob Ponsford is a member of Plymouth Green Party and a Green Left supporter 

1 comment:

  1. Great timing on the publication of this as Tory Party Conference starts this week and we will have further encores of 'benefit scrounger' stories while Iain Duncan Smith is not challenged about claimant deaths.

    I'll just pick up on two points for now. One is about the benefits of the 1980's schemes, and the other is about fraud undertaken by companies rather than claimants.

    Point 1: In the early to mid-1980's as a matter of service user involvement and learning by doing at an Inner London Education Authority funded Community Edcation Centre, I went from being a member of a creative writing group to a community publishing development worker in a Community Wok Programme placement in my 32nd year that was administered by London Union of Youth Clubs.
        In that placement I had excellent support from LUYC placement co-ordinator Julai Utting while a sense of self-martyrdom linked to excessive gratitutde for being given an opportunity even when that opportunity was tosome extent supporting a centre worker who was out of her depths and keen to offload responsibilities, as well as what I wanted to happen for the group..
    That problem was highlighed at the initial project set-up meeting where my line manager Leena had enthused about the scope for me on the placement. Julia responded: "We've heard a lot from Leena about 'what Alan could do' on the placement. But what does Alan have to say about it all?"
         Of course, the financial destruction of Inner London Education Authority etc did not help my future prospects in such a role.
    Point 2: Fraud by 'helping you back to work' companies:
    Since the 1980's, the covert focus of jobcentre-funded training and Mass Higher Education has become massaging the numbers of people Not in Employment, Education or Training with less funding per student/claimant going into giving actual support for students and claimants. Against that backdrop it is important to consider what the claimant brings with them in determining the 'value' of what a work programme company contributes to their jobsearch success or otherwise. Kate Belgrave | Talking with people dealing with public sector cuts reports:
       "Angela Smith is a woman with a Master’s degree and a long history of working in policy and disability support. She also has cerebral palsy and uses an electric wheelchair to get around. I’ve been accompanying Angela to her compulsory fortnightly Wembley jobcentre signons and meetings with the Reed Partnership, her work programme provider in Harrow....
        "Angela has a new job. She got it without any help whatsoever from the jobcentre or the Reed Parntership. She found the job advertisement, filled in the application form, went to the interview and got through.
        "She did the whole thing entirely by herself. But that hasn’t stopped the work programme provider from trying to claim the result for itself...."

        More at More work programme provider shamelessness…