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GISSA JOBCENTRE

18-09-2006

Bungling and bureaucracy just about sums up Lynne Hawthorne's experience of job hunting since she was made redundant a few months ago. It's enough to make you pine for the days of Yosser Hughes.

At the end of August, I was made redundant after being in teaching for ten years, the last three as an assistant head teacher. To forcibly leave a place in which you loved working - however challenging - is tough. There is the problem of self-esteem to contend with, the trauma of being informed you are ‘no longer required' and then there are the financial worries.

Although I have registered with supply teaching agencies and am waiting for work, I decided that I didn't really want to carry on teaching and wanted to try my hand at something else. Until that elusive ‘something else' turns up, I need to pay the bills, so I contacted the Job Centre. To those of you who have experienced this, what I am about to discuss will come as no surprise, but to those of you fortunate enough to have avoided it, I hope it enlightens.

I left work with very little information on what to do to claim unemployment benefit, so I rang a number of an enquiry line I was given. “I don't normally do one-to-one's, ”said the bloke on the end of the phone.

When pushed, he told me to talk to the Job Centre as soon as possible to “get the paperwork started before you're unemployed.” However, he wasn't sure which Job Centre I needed, so promised to find out and ring me back. Two weeks later, I'm still waiting..

In the meantime, I called one of two places he'd suggested. “Oh no, you don't talk to us direct, you contact the Call Centre,” said the woman answering the first. So I did and it was, thankfully, one of the few call centres left in this country. “Oh no, we can't talk to you until you're actually unemployed,” replied another woman. “Ring back Friday.”

So I did. “Now this will be a two-part interview. We'll take some details now and then someone will ring you back on Monday.”

"Why?" I asked. "What do you mean 'why'? That's how it's done."

"Why?" I asked again, because I was that sort of kid. "Because that's the system. Now this is a standard statement, but because you have specified your mobile number for contacting you, I must ask you to remember to switch it on and keep it fully charged. If, for any reason, we do not get you the first time, you are entitled to a second call."

Now previous to this blinding bit of patronising logic, we had had a brief conversation about my lack of success in finding another job. “Well, you do know how to go dressed for an interview, don't you? You know you have to be smart? Some young girls think they have to wear short skirts and low cut tops with their boobs hanging out, but you don't, you know.” Quite. Having already established my position in school and the fact that I am in my forties, I didn't know whether to be insulted or flattered by that advice. In the end, I was just disgusted and was left muttering about Mrs. Pankhurst and women chaining themselves to railing for nothing.

Monday's call came to my fully-charged mobile. I was helping out with the re-stocking of my local charity shop where I volunteer. Unfortunately, the only quiet place to talk was the toilet, so I apologize now if the strange echo puzzled the operative! This conversation, lasting nearly 17 minutes, was unremarkable except for the booking of my appointment. “Now the person you've got to ask for is the initial ‘C'. Got that? And the surname L-Y-O-N-S.” So now we're on to a wind-up, right?

Well, no, actually. This person really does exist. I can't say I'm happy about it, but it's true. After an arduous journey by bus of 50 minutes to travel 2 miles, I arrived for my appointment - although I had actually been given one time on the‘phone and a different time by letter.

I looked for Reception and was greeted by a seething mass of bodies in an open-plan office, where nothing was private and everyone looked depressed. I asked a burly security guard for Reception. “This is it,” he said, waving a hand dismissively at a podium. “We're having a lot of trouble with the call centre. You should complain. Can I have your name?”. Finally got checked in with a Financial Advisor.

Now how you can advise on money people don't have is a bit of a mystery, but I needn't have worried: all she did was check the form I had completed over the ‘phone. Which was wrong. And the computer had filled in its own bits. “How much will I get?” I asked. “Oh, we can't tell you that,” she replied. “When will I get paid?” I asked. “Oh, we can't tell you that. You have to be processed.” George Orwell, you were right, mate.

By this time, I am sinking into despondency and begin to look round at the others in the room. All of human life was there - the acne-ridden, track suited, cap-wearing chavs; the tarty girls who hadn't heeded the advice on how to go dressed for an interview; the middle-aged men who'd expected to work out their time in factories and were now lost because there's no industry left; the women in their late fifties whose clerical and secretarial work has been replaced by technology or been shipped abroad. And people like me: professionals who thought they had a job for life, a career that was of benefit to society but had been replaced by something younger and cheaper.

A commotion disrupted my wallowing. A young girl, obviously at the end of her tether, was trying to get some help. She was getting louder and crying and asking what she was supposed to do with no money coming in. The reaction of the Job Centre staff was fascinating, if not horrifying. The two security guards (whom I later discovered are called ‘floorwalkers'. I tried to erase Captain Peacock from Are You Being Served? from my mind and failed) headed towards her in a pincer movement and other senior staff marched in her direction too and she was ushered away. Others sat frozen at their terminals, mouths open and staring.

"Perhaps she just wanted a shout," said one matronly advisor in an attempt to gloss over the situation. "Oh, I'm sorry. You were making a joke," said another. "I didn't let you finish, did I?"

Then I was called to see my Personal Advisor, a Uriah Heep handwringer-type who explained we had to fill in a form. “What job title are you looking for?” she asked. “I have no idea,” I replied. “Well, we can't fill in a claim form without some specific job titles,” she said. “How do I know what I want to do? I want to do something different,” I said. “You have to be specific,” she maintained. Actually, you have to be specific three times. After a rant about not wanting to be put in neat boxes, I asked where the support and guidance I had been promised in this interview was. “Oh no, we don't do that. We just fill in your form and you have to agree and sign it.” Oh, God!

I had to agree to be willing to travel for 60 minutes to get to work for the first three months and for 90 minutes after that. I had to agree to look for jobs of 40 hours per week when most jobs are now offering 37 and I had to agree the particular days I would look in particular newspapers. “It's what the government says you have to do,” she said ominously.

I reverted to asking for help in finding work. “We don't do that, but there are agencies which do. I'll call them up on the screen. Look, there's one over the road," she said. It had closed down. So we tried one next door. “But it says you have to be under Level 2,” I pointed out, “and I have two degrees.”

"Oh, I've never noticed that before," she said and then spent five minutes trying to find the correct 'phone number. It would have been quicker to nip round. She arranged an appointment. "What am I going to get in that appointment?" I asked. "Oh, we don't deal with that. You'll have to go on Monday and find out," she said. "You're booked in for an IAG." (Information, advice and guidance, apparently. I nipped next door to ask.)

I came out of that building like a bat out of hell, for that's what it felt like. Now I believe in the egalitarian approach where everyone is treated the same, but in the Job Centre world it appears that everyone is treated as a moron. Ok, so some of the ‘clients' are, but not everybody is. We have our feelings, we have our pride, we have our intelligence and our qualifications and experience, yet we are treated like cattle - just another punter to get through before the end of the day, a production-line of life's rejects.

Ok, so spending your days filling in forms and having perfunctory conversations with an endless stream of people isn't exciting and sometimes clients get vocal or physical, but it doesn't have to be like that. What about dignity and respect? What about treating claimants like individuals and ‘real' people instead of with suspicion?

The thought of having to go through that process every two weeks is filling me with dread, but one positive has come out of it: I now can't wait for the ‘phone to ring offering my first supply teaching assignment. Suddenly, facing a class of thirty kids is looking a lot less daunting than facing the Job Centre and I never thought I'd say that!

So maybe I am going to be alright, but what about all those other disillusioned and disappointed people I left behind in there? When is their fully-charged mobile going to ring? When are they going to be effectively informed, advised and guided?

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