South of England (TFC) – The ‘Flexible’ New Deal, Britain’s Workfare Programme was launched in 2009. Six years later, the word ‘flexible’ has been replaced by words like “mandatory,” “conditionality” and “sanctions” as the Coalition government attempts to claw the UK back from post recession misery.
Two years ago, Layla, a single mother of one, was selected to go to a conflict zone as a voluntary human rights observer, and underwent rigorous training for the role, alongside her job as a support worker.
Returning from two stints documenting human rights violations and publishing articles as an independent photo journalist, she returned to UK soil exhausted, unemployed and broke. With a CV of new skills and having burnt out from 20 years working in the social care system, Layla knew she needed a career change, and would need support from the UK benefits system as a temporary measure before launching her next move.
After making an online application for Job Seekers Allowance (a weekly payment of £72.40 paid by the Department for Work and Pensions),she was called within 24 hours and given an appointment to attend her local job centre the next day.
A brief and amicable meeting followed, and Layla smiled to herself at how simple it all was. She was just wondering what all the fuss was about when the assistant swiftly told her that she would need to be at the Job Centre at 9am on Monday morning for a Group Information session, which could take up to 90 minutes. Layla asked why a group and what the session was about. She was told that it was far easier to speak to people all at once, and that the session would explain what was expected of her in order to receive her Job Seekers Allowance.
Along with 9 other job seekers, Layla’s session was held in a stuffy room, around a table full of leaflets advertising job fairs, and involved a Power Point presentation. Referring to the group as customers, the DWP facilitator explained the session should take 30 minutes, and, in a tone which implied receipt of a gift or reward, they would all finish by being given an appointment to see their Job Coach for the first time.
The group was told that, from the minute they clicked the button to claim JSA, they had entered into a “conditionality” agreement with the DWP, and that they may hear the word “mandatory” and “sanctions” a lot during the session. It seemed to Layla that the main point of the session was to explain what “sanctions” are and how people can avoid them.
Layla was told she must upload her PUBLIC CV as soon as possible to the Universal Job Match site. The government website would then pick up things from it and issue job alerts based on her unique skills. She began dreaming of her perfect match and all of the upcoming opportunities, where she would be paid to document from the front line as a photojournalist or reporter.
She was brought sharply back into the room by the facilitator making sure the group understood it was mandatory they upload their CVs before their first appointment with their Job Coaches.
Layla was told that her money could be stopped during any period from 4 weeks up to 3 years if she refused to take employment, failed to attend appointments, failed to demonstrate that she is actively seeking work, failed to undertake activities directed by her work coach or failed to attend appointments or training.
The work plan
Layla stared blankly at a paper booklet handed to her, which she was told must be kept up to date with her efforts at looking for work. She flicked through the primary school age directions:
I will..(what I am going to do, including how, when and where) .
What I did and what was the result: (bring in any evidence to show what you have been doing to look for work).
She was told that, at her initial interview, they would look at her Work Plan and ‘’see how well she was doing,’’ and that, ‘’if she was doing everything right’’ and they were ‘’happy with what she was doing,’’ she may be lucky enough to be put on a ‘self managed job search.’ It was explained in order to be considered for this privilege that she must make sure she fills in her Work Plan. ”Or I will have to get on the phone to you right away,” said the facilitator sternly.
Having agreed that she would do everything “reasonable in her circumstances to find work and would apply for all suitable vacancies,” Layla found herself daydreaming about the word “suitable.” She wondered who defined it in this instance and what it actually meant.
When she was told that her work coach would help “draw out her strengths and skills,” she felt hopeful. “I want to write. I want to work in human rights. I am interested in non violence, in people, in politics, in injustice. I want to write about all these things. These are my strengths and my skills. Maybe they can help me find work in these areas she wondered,” looking out of the window.
It was explained that she cannot refuse a job if it meets the National Minimum Wage requirement and that if she does, her benefits could be stopped for up to 13 weeks.
The Claimant Commitment
Layla stared at a sheet of paper, which said, ‘My Claimant Commitment’ at the top. She was told to bring it to her Job Coach appointment and that it is a legal working agreement between her and the DWP. Questions asked her to finish the sentences such as “the types of work I am most likely to get are… I believe this because…My qualifications are…My employment strengths and skills are… My experience is…My circumstances are…”
On the reverse side of the form she committed to: 1. check newspaper job vacancy sections of those jobs I can do 2. ask family friends and former colleagues about vacancies and apply to those I can do 3. respond promptly to contacts and notifications from employers and jobsites and 4. register with and maintain contact with recruitment agencies.
“Finally we expect you to do all you can to be looking for work each week. Successful job hunting can take up as much time as a full time job. I was on JSA and my job hunting was full time.’’ said the facilitator. Layla wondered if she was told to say that.
A member of the group inquired about the 7 day waiting period in which people are not entitled to money for the first week after they have made claim. ”I can’t answer that.” said the facilitator, ”we are just here to do what they tell us to do. You will have to ask Mr Cameron about that, but, if you ask me, it is all about saving money.’’
Layla’s mind had drifted again and she was back documenting human rights violations in far off lands of oppression. Again, she was disturbed by the facilitator making sure she understood that if she wasn’t prepared to do what had been outlined during the session, she could be required to attend the Job Centre every day or be put on mandatory work experience.
She nodded to show her understanding, knowing she is happy to work unpaid as she has done many times before, but that it will not be the System that dictates where she does it.
The number claiming Job Seekers Allowance in the UK currently stands at 791,200 with the Universal Jobmatch system monitoring people’s online job searching activity and sanctioning those not meeting the targets. Many claim having no understanding of why they were sanctioned or receiving an explanation for it. There have been spates of suicides as a result of benefit sanctions and stories of people doing DIY dentistry to avoid NHS bills. With thousands using foodbanks and being forced into poverty and ill health, the most vulnerable are the ones hit by the coalition government’s drastic austerity measures in what has become the biggest shake up of the welfare system the UK has seen in 60 years.