Why I am no longer allowed benefits

23Aug09

It seems that journalists in my position are being punished by Job Centres for maximising their employability.

With the scramble for University Clearing places almost at a bitter end, as many as 40,000 disappointed would-be students are going to join the masses of graduates and redundancy victims in the slow grind of job hunting -not to mention all those who were on the Good Ship Jobless before we all hopped on for the ride. Most of them, I believe, will tide themselves over with a Jobseeker’s Allowance however with record numbers utilising the benefits system to keep their heads above water in such straitened times, the system is sinking under the weight.

Job Centre employees, much like any agency, work to targets. Having worked for a recruitment agency I understand the personal rewards in achieving targets however a Job Centre consultant’s targets are based more on the notion of getting people off benefits rather than finding people jobs.

What I find insulting and unjustified is the Job Centre’s policy on volunteer work. Volunteering is a means of maximising ones employability and keeping yourself in practice without being paid. Having clocked a fair amount of work experience over the last seven years I am in the habit of keeping gaps of unemployment plugged with unpaid work placements (travel to which can be very pricey). However this summer is the first time I have ever signed on, due to my family suffering much in the same way as everybody else due to the recession and needing every penny and every pound to keep petrol in the cars and food on the table.

On Thursday I went to the Job Centre as per normal and complied with the usual routine, I am after all a very polite and compliant civilian. Idle chit-chat with the consultant turned to her querying in a friendly manner if I had any stories on the go? I told her I was writing one or two but it’d be much nicer if I were ever paid for them. That was when the jaws snapped down on me.

You aren’t entitled to benefits if you are working.

In front of around twelve other Jobseekers I fought my corner. I am not being paid for them, nobody has arranged with me to write them, they are purely speculative, I have made no no arrangement with local publications, I am keeping my contacts fresh, I am keeping my hand in.

I remained seated while three consultants stood over me, patronisingly scolding me like in some horrible theatrical performance for the onlooking unemployed.

It is to protect you should somebody inquire if they saw your by-line, so you are employed then, we will have to do a background check to see if you are being paid (hah! Good luck trying to stiff me on that one!), and they repeated this over and over again.

But how is it helping me to find a job as a journalist if I can’t write or offer stories to the local media? Am I supposed to just sit on my hands while I job-hunt?

Its to protect you. What if somebody saw one of your articles and thought you were a benefits fraud?

Are you calling me a benefits fraud?

No reply.

The consultants started to fill in a form. A Declaration for me to produce completed in a fortnight. I noticed the ‘Am I employed’ box was ticked as was the ‘I am self employed’ box.

That’s not true. I am not employed, nor am I self employed. If I had any income at all from what I do I wouldn’t be here. I would like a new form to fill in myself.

No.

And so, frustrated, humiliated and shocked by the way I had been denied benefits which I feel I deserve having spent every waking moment I am not working on my Masters dissertation, writing and sending job applications and receiving letters which always start with “Dear Miss Brooke, Unfortunately due to the large number of applications….”

It was not the fact the whole unpleasant altercation took place before gawping strangers, nor that I was debating an opposition of three broken records – it is the injustice of being told I am somehow an enemy of the system and it is for my own good.

And so, because I am proffering written work to local publications (some of whom I have never so much as spoken to on the phone, the rest of whom I have no ‘arrangements’ with) I am:

  • Not going to receive two weeks or more of benefits depending on a ‘Decision Panel’ and their take on my Declaration
  • Unable to lawfully contact local publications regarding stories
  • Being told it is for my own good.

How? Nobody as yet has answered this.

I am not the sort of girl to roll over and drool. Nor am I the sort of girl to acquiesce with bullies and bureaucrats. If this shows up in my “background search” then I’m happy for it to be read. I have had three days to brew and so I can promise this was neither written in passion nor temper.

I am drafting a letter and have lodged a complaint (and a request for a new form). I believe this punishment to be a symptom of the overwrought benefits system, a symptom which should have been treated by the Government who neglected to provide for the thousands of internships and traineeships which have evaporated steadily throughout the year.  Working speculatively and enhancing employability without the backing or arrangement of an organisation or individual is not cheating the benefits terms and the wording in the Job Centre literature needs to be altered accordingly.

Watch this space. Unemployed journalists – take heed.

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2 Responses to “Why I am no longer allowed benefits”

  1. 1 thoughtsonapicture

    Rose, I think this is an incredibly brave blog and I have to tip my hat to you for writing it at this early stage in our respective professional lives.

    I could understand if your circumstances had been (or were to be) assessed on the amount of financial support you were receiving from your parents as per student loans, and some other benefits. Likewise, I appreciate that times are tough, financial resources are finite and that can impact on benefits policy, for example.

    But from your account above, it feels to me personally as though this decision has been taken with a flawed logic, which places the same financial value on unpaid work as on paid work.

    As anyone who is trying to pay off a loan or raise a family will well know, whilst people can (and do – I speak from experience) receive a great sense of professional fulfilment from unpaid work, the cold hard reality is that it does not put food on the table.

    Good luck with your appeal and please keep us updated on this x

  2. 2 Elizabeth

    Rose this exact thing happened to me. I am trying to forge a career in Public Relations which, like journalism, is no mean task, particuarly during a recession. I have participated in two unpaid work experience placements in an attempt to better my chances of becoming employed. As a result of my proactive attempts to develop my skills and employability I was told that I was no longer eligible to receive JSA because whilst I was doing volunteer work I was not ‘avaliable at all times for employment’. Excuse me but in the miraculous event that someone might deign to offer me a job,an army of wild horses could literally not stop me from being ‘avaliable’.

    But anyway, all payments were stopped and because I am unable to survive without JSA I was forced to quit my work experience and return to sitting at home, twiddling my thumbs and stagnating. Brilliant result JSA.

    The complete blind lack of logic and common sense demonstrated by the beaurocratic idiots at JSA leaves me speechless time and time again.


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