This evening, I sat down to watch ‘Dispatches’. Having both previously been civil servants, I was interested to see how Jobcentre Plus was being portrayed in the media.
What I watched was a one-sided witch-hunt without any consideration for why things may be as they are at Jobcentre Plus at the moment.
‘Dispatches’ interviewed two jobseekers: one who wrote his shopping list in his jobseeker diary and another who wrote emails to employers stating he did not want to work as he liked being on the dole. This was done to demonstrate that Jobcentre Plus staff did not check evidence. Why should Jobcentre Plus staff treat every jobseeker as a liar who needs to be investigated?
When I worked as an adviser, I treated people as I would like to be treated if I were in that position. Had I been on the other side of the desk, I certainly wouldn’t have been very happy if I’d been treated with suspicion. Most people who are unemployed do not want to be on benefits and will do everything they can to find another job – they don’t need staff checking up on them as if they are children who can’t be trusted.
Also, if you are determined to steal from the state, you will find a way. I know that I saw several people a week who knew how to play the system. They knew that as long as they could say they’d fulfilled the criteria on their Jobseeker Agreement, they would get their money.
The Jobseeker Agreement is a contract between the jobseeker and the state; it states the measures the jobseeker is willing to take in order to find employment. It may include actions like look on the internet three times a week, send out ten CVs and apply for two jobs. If the jobseeker fails to adhere to these conditions, their benefit can be stopped.
What Channel 4 seemed to forget is that the government is essentially paying the jobseekers to look for work. Jobcentre Plus is there to facilitate this and provide support where necessary but the jobseeker needs to tell the Jobcentre what help he/she needs. Some may need help with numeracy or literacy, others may want someone impartial to look at their CV. Jobcentre staff are not there to rewrite CVs – they are specifically told this. The Jobcentre I worked in had an external provider that offered that service and I presume that is the same elsewhere. We also had someone who provided assistance if a jobseeker was looking to become self-employed.
There were lots of people on the documentary who complained that they had little or no support from the Jobcentre and that the service wasn’t very good. Jobcentre staff are not psychic. In their interviews, they ask jobseekers if they feel they need any support or help. If the jobseeker doesn’t take responsibility for his/her development and speak up, how are the staff supposed to know? It would be wrong to assume that everyone on Jobseeker’s Allowance doesn’t know how to write a CV or a covering letter – and it would be a waste of money sending every jobseeker on a course that taught them things they already know. One size really doesn’t fit all.
In another scene, the Channel 4 reporter daubed paint on one of the jobseekers and took him in a van with a painter and decorator’s logo on to sign on. The jobseeker reported that he’d been asked why he was wearing paint-spattered overalls and that he’d told them he’d been painting. They’d allegedly asked “at home?” and he replied “yes”. Channel 4 took exception to this, saying Jobcentre staff should have asked if the jobseeker had been paid – why would they if he’d been painting his house? Again, ‘Dispatches’ seem to think that Jobcentre staff should be disbelieving of everyone that signs on.
As far as I’m concerned, the jobseekers themselves have a duty to be honest and, provided the Jobcentre staff ask them the pertinent questions, there is little else they can do.
When I worked for DWP, there was (and I believe there still is) a compliance form to fill in when you suspected someone of benefit fraud. This form then gets sent to the Compliance Team who investigate the person. This may take months to happen so just because the jobseeker wasn’t told there and then that his benefit would be stopped, it doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
However, thanks to government cutbacks, I’m aware that many compliance staff now work on the frontline, signing people, and therefore the rate of investigations being conducted are likely to be far less than in the past. It’s a vicious cycle that will cost the country millions of pounds: reduce the number of fraud investigators and you will get more people getting away with benefit fraud.
Since the arrival of the Coalition Government in 2010, civil servant jobs have been slashed due to the deficit. Staff have had their workload, and their targets doubled (some of them even trebled). They are still working the same amount of hours per week but they have so much more that they are expected to do. Jobcentre staff are humans, not robots. It appears that Channel 4 forgot that.
I think ‘Dispatches’ could have produced a far fairer programme had they gone into a Jobcentre office for a month and seen what staff are faced with on a day-to-day basis. There is negativity, verbal abuse and sometimes even violence. They deal with people who have substance abuse problems and people who have been moved from Employment and Support Allowance (formerly Incapacity Benefit) onto Jobseeker’s Allowance and need extra support due to a medical condition. There are people who feel they are entitled to a hand-out, and others who have an excuse why they can’t attend interviews and training or can’t work.
And when the office closes, they have mountains of paperwork to complete, new initiatives coming out every day and targets to hit. The Jobcentre staff are not the people who ‘Dispatches’ should have criticised, it’s the people who’ve cut these budgets who ought to be held accountable.