On the day the Mother turned 18, while she was still at college, something extraordinary happened, something that would change her life, albeit in a fairly mediocre way. On that fateful day she took her first step into a new and exciting world, the world of the Dole. On the 17th of March she officially became an adult, which meant she could finally claim Unemployment Benefit. That small amount of money in the form of a giro got her through college and a fair amount of Diamond White and Special Brew to
The whole process was pretty simple back then; you turned up, signed on and two days later you got your giro. Happy days! Thinking about it all now made her feel quite melancholy. Christ, she could almost hear The Smiths playing as she reminisced about her youth. Although back then she was living on a pittance and for most of that time was penniless, she was also responsibility-less and bill-less too.
Things were very different in her world now, as well as in the magical world of the Job Centre. What was then called Unemployment Benefit had metamorphosed into Job Seekers Allowance. Later still it changed into Universal Credit. This new name bordered on fictitious really as it implied that it was paid universally. You’d be forgiven for thinking that it was given to every unemployed soul that applied for it and yet this couldn’t be further from the truth. The bottom line was that hardly anyone seemed to qualify for it. It would be far more accurate to call it restricted credit or elusive credit.
With the summer holidays fast approaching, and no income for six weeks, she had little choice but to apply for benefits. All she had to do was fill out a couple of simple forms online; how long could that possibly take? The answer turned out to be somewhere between six hours and 1000 years.
The first few questions were easy to answer: no, she wasn’t blind and she hadn’t recently left the armed forces. She didn’t own several properties in Marbella or anywhere else for that matter. She typed in her name, address, her qualifications, her work history, her medical history and her date of birth. Then there were codes and passwords to be inputted and then some more questions. This was followed by a phone call to the jobcentre, a quick cup of tea and then even more questions.
She put down as much as she could including her name, passport number, where she lived, how long she’d lived there, who she lived with, who she cared for, who she didn’t care for, what kind of job she wanted, what kind of job she didn’t want, her ethnicity, sexual preference, her social standing, political persuasion, and her favourite David Bowie track.
After the intrusive questions came more money questions. Did she have any stocks and shares? Was she getting a widow’s pension? Did she have several million pounds resting in an offshore account in the Cayman Islands? She almost ticked yes for this one just for a laugh!
The questions were often complicated and confusing but they were nothing compared to one of the new features of the benefits system: now, to support your claim, you had to scan in all of your personal documents. This sounded simple, it should have been simple; it wasn’t. The task turned out to be so complex it could have been a challenge on the Krypton Factor. First of all, she had to locate her passport. Luckily, she knew precisely where it would be; it would be somewhere safe. She checked the kitchen drawer. Then she checked the box of ‘important stuff’ in her bedroom. After that, she checked everywhere else.
For the next 45 minutes the Mother went through every drawer, every box and every file looking for the bloody thing. She found the kids’ birth certificates, a letter from an ex-boyfriend, even an unspent Homebase voucher, but no passport. Another half an hour rummaging through the house and she finally found it, on the bloody bookshelf. It was tucked between the ominously named ‘Corpse Bridge’ and a Cultural Theory book she’d never even read. It turned out that her prediction was correct; it WAS somewhere safe it was just somewhere stupid as well.
After three and a half hours, several cups of tea, and a fag which she’d unearthed in the drawer, she was done. It wasn’t finished by any stretch but she’d dredged up and typed out all she could without losing her sanity, plus she’d run out of teabags. She’d have to ask the Dole about the other questions at next week’s interview but for now she had done quite enough. She turned her computer off, closed her eyes and gradually slipped into a self-induced coma.
One thing that hadn’t changed at the Job Centre was the initial interview. You always had to turn up early for your appointment but they always saw you late. By the time she was called, she was bursting for the toilet and starting to get twitchy. The lady at the new claims desk took the Mother through another online form. Next, she outlined her responsibilities as a job seeker. After that came a very serious talk about sanctions. This was a bit weird as the Mother had always associated sanctions with South Africa and Apartheid. In a nutshell, a sanction was a kind of punishment. It meant a member of staff dipping into the Universal Credit guide book and finding some spurious reason to deduct money from your benefit. This enabled the state to pay you less than the minimum you needed to live on. In some cases, and one of those cases was sitting in the booth next to the Mother, that meant losing an entire week’s money. Jesus Christ thought the Mother, Willian Beveridge must be turning in his grave.
After all of the forms were finished, the lady explained to the Mother that she would need to sign on every Monday to prove she was looking for work. “Every week!” exclaimed the Mother, in an octave slightly higher than she’d intended.
The prospect of having to go through this charade so frequently made the blood drain from her face. It was beyond inconvenient. She began to explain that on the following Monday she would be at her mum’s house in Stevenage. The reason for this temporary relocation was straight forward enough. If she found any temporary work, her mum could look after her children while she was busy earning some much-needed cash. For the first time since she sat down opposite this lady, her eyes left the screen and she gave The Mother a hard stare.
“Do you mean you are unable to sign on, and therefore you are not available for work? Is that what you are saying?”
“No, the Mother retorted, “No, that’s the exact opposite of what I am saying. Are we speaking different languages here?”
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 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