There was a brief but noisy discussion about the weekly signing on arrangement and another member of staff appeared. Unlike her colleague she preferred to stand rather than sitting down, looming over the Mother. “Is there a problem, madam?” “Is that a rhetorical question?” she replied
It wasn’t really a question at all; it was a warning. The Mother knew that if she got too many warnings they would add up to a sanction. Like collecting stamps on a loyalty card for a free coffee, but in a negative way. You have to choose your battles and this was one the Mother was never going to win. Through gritted teeth, she agreed to the weekly rendezvous.
Next, the Mother had to fill in another form; again, the first few questions were relatively easy but then came a tricky one, and she reads this one out loud:
“How far are you prepared to travel to work?” The Mother looked at the lady behind the desk, but she was giving nothing away, her lips might as well have been glued together with Bostik. Not even a little fucking clue. “I’ll put 20 miles, shall I?” laughed the Mother.
Not a word, she didn’t even crack a smile. She’d been in interviews with the police that were less intimidating than this. The ‘sanctioned’ man next to her however, did laugh. Hoorah thought the Mother, at least I’ve made someone happy and my trip has served some kind of purpose. A purpose other than a futile attempt to claim a tiny amount of money from the public purse. A purse that in the current climate seemed to be more fiercely guarded than Downing Street.
Next question: “How many hours a day are you prepared to work?” she read out loud. The Mother paused to think about this one and this time the lady did speak, although rather abruptly: “It’s a simple enough question……just be honest!”
Just be honest, Jesus, that was the last thing you should do. Be honest at the dole office? Well, you might as well start writing out your ‘hungry and homeless’ sign there and then, borrow their pen while you’re there. It wasn’t that she wanted to lie or should even need to. She was unemployed and had no savings, but that wasn’t enough, not today, not anymore. If it ever was. The Mother was living through punitive times. If you were poor it was your own fault and the system was now set up to find any excuse they could not to pay you. It wasn’t quite Dickens’s country yet but they were heading in that direction.
“Can we head the other way, driver? We’re going in the wrong direction!” “Sorry, Madam, this bus is destined for the filthy slums of London Town, there’s no going back now.” “Oh Christ, can I get off then.” “Oh no, Luv, no one’s getting off, this isn’t a stopper, were all bound headlong into our demise.”
The Mother was on the final stretch of her new claims interview at the jobcentre. The whole experience was like being on Mastermind except the questions were harder and it was more nerve-racking. Still, it must be almost over she thought as she read out the 195th question. “How many hours a day are you prepared to work?” the Mother read. Cautiously picking up the pen and again looking at the iron lady for guidance “Eight hours a day.” she said nervously, adding, “Is that OK? Is that right?” “There are no right and wrong answers,” replied the woman without any note of sarcasm. Like hell there ain’t, thought Mother.
The Mother glanced around the Universal Credit showroom and noticed how different things were now. Firstly, the office was bigger. There were clean comfy chairs and nice carpets too. There were no cards dotted around the place advertising the latest jobs; everything could be done by computer now from the comfort of your own home if your home was indeed comfy. But now there were six security guards working in the jobcentre when before there was only one. It was a far cry from the noisy, crowded, dirty dole office the Mother remembered from her youth, but was it any better?
In this modern, clean and hi-tech office staff scrutinized people’s job searches in microscopic detail. Nervous, poverty-stricken individuals had to prove beyond doubt that they were looking for work. They had to look in the right places, for the right jobs, for the right amount of time. They had to attend any course that staff suggested and they had to jump through government-designed hoops to get their benefits. Claimants were required to apply for any shit, poorly paid job as the staff saw fit. The Mother thought she would rather get a job cleaning toilets than come here again. But then she would have to join the virtual queue of desperate people already in line for the part-time, minimum-wage toilet cleaning job.
After putting in her claim for Universal Credit the Mother left the Job Centre and entered a kind of twilight zone. This strange and depressing world was a kind of purgatory; a subterranean land inhabited by thousands of unfortunate people all desperately waiting to see if they’d get any benefits. Life down in the catacombs revolved around endless phone calls, being put on hold, being put through to the wrong number then more waiting, checking your bank account then visiting the jobcentre again and again. All these events were peppered with frustration, humiliation, tears and, if you were lucky, handouts from your family.
After three weeks of waiting, a letter dropped through her letterbox telling her that she was not entitled to benefit. The reason given for this decision was that she was only looking for temporary work over the summer. She had to be honest, it was a big blow, but not an unexpected one.
Luckily on the day that she’d applied for benefit, she’d also applied for a credit card. It was almost as though she’d foreseen this day. Unlike her benefit form, there weren’t several thousand questions to answer. There was also no grueling interview to get through. There was also another plus: when she’d finished the online form for a credit card, she didn’t feel like her heart and soul had been ripped out and put in a spin dryer. She did, however, feel that she was now about to plunge herself into debt just to get through the summer holidays. Swings and roundabouts ay, swings and roundabouts!