With claims for Universal Credit totalling 1 million as a result of the Coronavirus crisis, Luke Penston remembers his past experience of the benefits system years ago, which started off badly but soon improved thanks to the help of the Wheatsheaf Trust charity.
If you have never set foot inside one of Britain’s many Jobcentres, consider yourself fortunate and pray you’ll never have to. Being a benefits claimant in Britain carries a great social stigma that gradually drags you into a mire of self-loathing.
Take it from someone who was stuck on the dole straight out of college: claiming benefits is an exercise in cyclical failure; the failure to pay your rent, the failure to land a simple job and the failure to register on the human radar.
The current benefits system is wholly inefficient and as good as broken. When someone scrapes their way into a part-time, temporary, minimum wage job, it’s hailed as a triumph and proof that the system works. Meanwhile, thousands are stuck weathering barrages of copy-pasted rejections. I am enraged every time a politician celebrates ‘record-low unemployment’. The job is not done until everyone is in employment.
Not to mention that official unemployment figures are inaccurate and do not take into account ‘hidden unemployment’, a glossed-over category consisting of jobless people who are not active job-seekers. It also encompasses the ‘underemployed’, people working jobs they are over-skilled or overqualified for.
A recent study by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) and Centre for Cities revealed that, when hidden unemployment is taken into account, unemployment rates across the north of England almost quadruple compared to previous estimates. Within the study’s revised estimates, Liverpool has the highest unemployment rate in the country with 19.77%, only 5.76% of which is acknowledged by the government.
In recent years, the implementation of Universal Credit has brought much overdue jeering upon the benefits system and the politicians responsible for it. The media was swept with heart-rending stories of families who couldn’t make ends meet on the newly adjusted pay-outs. It turned into a back-and-forth between a furious media and Tories refusing to revert to the old benefits schemes.
As unjust as sub-standard pay-outs and misleading government figures are, I am concerned that criticism has been deflected away from our Jobcentres and the disgraceful attitudes found therein. In my experience, a Jobcentre is not a place where you receive help and advice – it’s the gatekeeper to your next benefits pay-out, which executes its job with ruthless emotional detachment. For me, signing on with the Jobcentre each week was not some pleasant chat or a constructive discussion of job-seeking strategy, it was a thirty-minute trance in which I would go on auto-pilot, blocking out as much vile stimuli as possible.
My stomach would sink long before I even set foot in the Jobcentre each Thursday. My diminished sense of self-worth would tell me to head in the opposite direction after getting off the bus. My father’s echoing words would tell me to give them a piece of my mind as I walked through the door. Yet, my mouth would be incessantly and undeservedly courteous, no matter how I was treated.
Within the first few seconds of entering, I would be faced with guards who wanted to know if I had an appointment; I was a potential intruder. Then I would sit in one of the waiting areas, sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for over half an hour; I was someone whose time was worthless. Finally, I would sit down with one of the centre’s advisers, who would demand to see extensive written proof of my recent job searching; I was a potential benefits cheat – a scrounger, a pitiless fraud – rather than a struggling young man trying to break into a seemingly impenetrable job market.
Their clockwork demands for job-seeking proof might have been more tolerable if the IT system and the advisers there to explain it weren’t so mediocre at their jobs. But honestly, I consider myself lucky to have been swept up in the transition between old and new IT systems, as the lack of staff training was exploitable. Whenever an adviser complained that I wasn’t doing enough by their standards, I simply pointed out an item amongst the litany of centre procedures that were not up to my standards. Most often I singled out their exhausting habit of throwing claimants from one adviser to another, forcing you to explain your personal issues and requirements to yet another ill-equipped snob.
I don’t mind admitting that I played them at their own game because, plain and simple, I am not a fraudster. Never was. I was beaten down, told that it didn’t matter how many qualifications I had. In fact, it turned out my qualifications were making it harder for me to get a job as anyone running apprenticeships dismissed me as ‘over-qualified’. I was made to pursue any source of income, no matter how unsuitable it was to my skill set, interests or personality. I slavishly scraped the bottom of job boards and still couldn’t get a job. All the while, my mental health suffered at the grind of job searching day-in, day-out.
On that topic, my Jobcentre’s record on mental health support was non-existent. Across Scotland, the unemployed remain the largest group of suicide victims by a wide margin. And yet, not once did anyone working within the Department for Work and Pensions ask me if I was alright bearing such immense social and economic pressure. Rather, I listened to constant threats levelled at myself and other claimants, that their rules on job-seeking had to be obeyed lest they sanction our benefits, all the while ignorant of the psychological impacts on us. While I was never suicidal myself, I did lapse into depression many times while claiming benefits, becoming extremely pessimistic and quite unpleasant to be around.
Perhaps the Jobcentre’s cardinal sin, and simultaneously its greatest mercy, was its frequent attempts to shunt their coaching duties onto other organisations. Though it didn’t come miraculously on the first attempt, this policy ultimately proved my salvation from the centre’s ignominious trappings.
In 2017, the Jobcentre spontaneously remembered that they had a contact from Learndirect who frequently came in to advertise the group’s youth support programme. I’d been a claimant for around a year by the time the centre put me in touch with them. At the first meeting with Learndirect, all the staff were very courteous and tried their best to keep affairs relaxed and dissipate a mass of pent-up tension. They insisted that before they could offer me coaching, I would have to complete some basic tests of linguistic, mathematical and professional competency. I completed these, even though they were clearly designed for school drop-outs, not college graduates. And then I never heard from them again. It took a few weeks for the news to reach my ears, but the firm had its funding withdrawn and carried out mass lay-offs. Naturally, I informed the Jobcentre of this development and the operative responded with a shrug of the shoulders.
The second, more fruitful referral the centre gave me came just as out of the blue as the first. During one of their ‘group sessions’ (a bundling of a dozen appointments due to lack of on-hand staff), an adviser noted that I was looking for work in the IT sector and offered to forward my details to a local charity that was running a work experience scheme with IBM. I didn’t get a place on that scheme, and I soon gave up hope on working in IT, but I didn’t walk away empty-handed. The (now defunct) charity, Wheatsheaf Trust, offered me help via their youth support initiative.
Immediately upon taking up their offer, I found night and day differences in Wheatsheaf’s coaching practices: compassion, understanding, empathy and a willingness to devote as much time as humanly possible to a person’s problems. The greatest and simplest thing that my coach offered was an ear when I was having a bad week. She would sit with absolute patience and allow me to rant extensively. Once all the bile was off my chest, she would then ask me what course of action I would like to take. I found this a crucial difference between Wheatsheaf and the Jobcentre: allowing the claimant to decide what issues to focus on and whether their mental health warranted a little break from job searching. I believe it is thanks to their relaxed and flexible approach that I avoided having many breakdowns.
The list of other areas of support that the charity offered me was quite vast: coaching appointments as often as I deemed necessary and travel reimbursements as often as they could afford; tech support; co-job searching, making the affair less tedious and lonesome; and workshops on employability skills, CV and cover letter writing and interview techniques.
The full extent of Wheatsheaf’s support went far beyond just job coaching. Their ethos is not to help someone get into a job as quickly as possible so they can stop sponging off the state, rather they aim to support the unemployed so that they can fully cope with their situation. For example: when I first started coaching, I didn’t have my own bank account, so my coach helped me to gather information on the many banks out there and to decide which was best for me.
Another pressing personal issue that the Jobcentre overlooked was my anxiety, which made it difficult for me to approach companies for work. My coach at Wheatsheaf offered her own time to walk about the town, point out potential openings and give me the emotional support that I needed to approach people and ask after those openings. That day, I applied for my first bout of work experience: volunteering at a Cancer Research store.
Beyond the needs to obtain a job, maintain mental wellness and feel financially secure, my coach also recognised that I had many creative skills that were going to waste, atrophying even, as I spent all my time looking for a quick-entry, low-paying position in the retail industry. She invited me to join a small creative arts workshop that she had formed with a few other young people she coached. I looked forward to sitting down once a fortnight with five similarly-minded youths to put aside our job-seeking frustrations and talk with passion and giddiness about the arts and pop culture.
Our coach set us the task of producing something creative, whatever we wanted and whatever best suited our skills. Between us there was a wide variation of talent that otherwise was going to waste, with me writing poems and the others crafting everything from comic strips to fantasy artwork to short stories. On one occasion, our coach suggested we visit the local art galleries as a group to draw inspiration for our projects. We had to fill out paperwork afterwards in order to wrap it in the context of transferable skills but we didn’t mind. Just setting ourselves the time to get out in the fresh air and discuss and indulge in the various arts that we knew we wanted to pursue made us jubilant.
Working with Wheatsheaf brought some light back into the darkest, most depressing period of my life. I am incredibly grateful for it. However, all the coaching, interview prep and volunteering in the world couldn’t change the state of England’s job market. After a year and a half of unemployment, I felt that I was wasting my time and my youth waiting for an opportunity that would never arrive. I elected to apply to university, believing that my passion and skill for writing, mixed with my affinity for academia, would enable me to finally start a career. During the interim, I had to continue job-searching in order to keep my benefits, but my coach helped me to organise my time efficiently between this and my university application.
Going to university allowed me to end that chapter of unemployment but I admit to fearing that it may be repeated. Maybe I will come out of education again and face the same brick wall: the benefits system that exists only to demoralise and silence complaints whilst it ushers you into the most pitiful zero-hours contract it can find. If I do, however, I will have the knowledge needed to avoid despairing: there is help out there available to the most disadvantaged members of society, given by people who truly give a damn.