Sunday, June 17, 2007

Having My Geldof Moment

I offer the following tale by way of apology for my recent absence from the blogosphere (such as it is). Moreover, one of the policy areas that will be up for discussion at Brighton will be the Jobcentre network and how we can make it best serve its users and society as a whole. In anticipation of that debate, I thought it might be useful to share my ongoing experience with the benefits system, not least since we must be able to do something better than the absurdity I’ve had to endure.

To start us off, there is the mere feat of getting your application onto the system. For fear of sounding parochial, I find that the best way for me to convey a large amount of information to a corporate body for a particular purpose is for me to fill out a form. What’s more, if that corporate body is a government that can’t find it’s computerised butt with both hands, I’m very much in favour of that form being a piece of paper.

With that in mind, I headed to my local (well, I say local, it’s actually an eight mile trip into Cardiff, then two miles out in a different direction and away from the two city centre Jobcentres that would be easier for me to get to) Jobcentre. They insisted that I phone a call centre in Bridgend. Unbowed, I went the next day and tried again; they asked a different question, did give me a paper form, but it turned out to be the wrong form. On the third day, I got the phone number again, started losing the will to live and gave in.

The phone call that followed ranks amongst the more surreal of my life, largely because nine-tenths of the “form” is comprised of tick-box question to which my answer (as a single white male under the age of 25) is pretty much always no. So I’m standing there for forty minutes basically regurgitating the Cheese Shop Sketch. What’s more, the arrangement does lead to a real human voice having to ask you whether you’re receiving compensation payments for time spent as a prisoner of war, and much as that human might well assume that someone born in 1982 would not be receiving such payments, as cogs in the machine they must ask the question, no matter how much it insults both their intelligence and yours.

Having completed the “form”, an interview is arranged for presentation of documents, negotiation of jobseeker’s agreement, etc. Having made the phone call on a Thursday, the interview is booked, and then confirmed by letter, for 2pm the following Wednesday at Alexandra House (i.e. my Jobcentre in Cardiff West). So far, all well and good.

At this point, a lesson in Jobcentre design practice. With Jobcentre Plus, a standard interior design has been established, all open plan and pine and metal. At the front is a welcome “desk”, i.e. a podium-type arrangement with a sign hanging limply above it. This desk is manned, if you are lucky, by a member of Jobcentre staff, but more likely by the Group 4 Securicor employee on door guard duty.

So I arrive in good time for my interview and approach said Group 4 man, who takes a look at the hallowed list and finds my name to be missing. He retreats into the open plan area and confers with a member of staff and her computer and then returns with the news; I do have an interview booked, but it’s at 2:20pm at Caradog House (i.e. one of the Jobcentres in Cardiff Central). He then claims that I have plenty of time and moves on to the next customer.

Two trains later, I arrive at Caradog House at 2:40pm and am fortunate to get an actual member of staff. She informs me that the interview was misbooked, but that the other Jobcentre should have recognised that and fitted me in; if I’d had a member of staff, maybe, but I got Group 4 instead. Moreover, my actual interviewer has moved on to her next subject because I was late and she’s fully booked. They do at least head to the computer system to get me a new appointment, but it is for a week on Friday.

So I go to that interview, now some two-and-a-bit weeks removed from the forms, and all seems well enough. But then the vexed question of payment comes up and the response is;

“Well, you sign next Friday and the payment should reach you the following Wednesday.”

“What about the backlog caused by your mistakes?”

“You’ll get it backdated then.”

“And what am I meant to do in the meantime to, you know, survive?”

“Apply for a crisis loan.”

And lo, having had my crisis caused by them, I have to waste my time filling out another form over the phone (cue more references to Wensleydale) and then travel into Cardiff again (Bus fare £3.20) to pick up my giro which just about sustains me until I’m finally paid, a month after the original application.

Now for me, it’s not actually that great a problem; I’m young and single. But for people with families, having enforced cash flow crises like this must harm their chances of getting back to work early, something we know is vital to getting people back to work at all. Between Jobseekers and the scandal of tax credits, we must show that we can make things better (as I am sure we can) for the millions of people suffering from these problems.

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