A Life On Benefits
Some people believe that all benefit claimants are lazy bums that just want to take the easy option and sponge off of taxpayers. This describes a small percentage of claimants, but the majority do want to work.
My benefits story began when I was 17. I went on to higher education but I was hindered by the onset of insomnia (which turned out to be a precursor of depression.) I missed a sizable chunk of my lessons before I managed to acquire some sedatives. I went to college and explained the situation to 1 of my 2 A-Level biology tutors. She told me I would have to work really hard to catch up, which I was expecting and willing to do. I sat through her class with no problems. Then I attended the 2nd biology class of the week, with my other tutor. As soon as he entered the room and saw me sitting at a desk, he called me into his office. I couldn’t even get a word in, he launched into a furious verbal tirade that lasted minutes. I can no longer remember what he said, but he was abusive. I was then faced with the humiliating ordeal of returning to my desk for my possessions in front of the whole class. I could not get out fast enough! This experience put me off higher education for many years.
Shortly afterwards, I succumbed to full blown depression. Soon after that, I left home, moved into a sort of half-way house for young adults and began claiming Job Seekers Allowance.
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In those early days of claiming, there didn’t seem to be much structure to the benefits service and I kept falling through the cracks. I signed on every fortnight, collected my JSA and looked for jobs, but I wasn’t fit for work and I knew it. I kept telling job centre staff so, but they were useless. Almost every staff member I spoke to contradicted all of those I had conversed with before.
I was regularly sanctioned for missing my signing day, as short-term memory loss is a prevalent symptom of depression. I always explained why I was signing on a day or more late, but they weren’t interested. I filled out forms to appeal, but someone has to have died for them to consider it a legitimate excuse. Back then, however many days late you signed on, that was how many days late you were payed and how many days’ money you lost. I thought that was a fair system, (nowadays, if you sign on late, you’re lucky if you receive any benefits at all!) but it shouldn’t have applied to me as I had a genuine medical condition. I was young, naïve and without much life experience, so I knew nothing of getting sick notes from doctors.
At the age of 18, I became homeless. This began around 2 years of “sofa surfing.” The Council refused to do anything for me and, because of my depression, I did not have the motivation to persevere with harassing them. It is my honest opinion that I fell into the wrong gender and ethnicity categories to fulfil their criteria. I eventually discovered an organisation called SOVA and was assigned a mentor. My mentor went with me to the housing office and I was given a flat straight away.
It took a few years for somebody to inform me that I was on the wrong benefit as you have to be fit for work to claim JSA. I eventually saw a doctor who diagnosed me with depression and anxiety. I received a sick note and claimed incapacity benefit for a few years. I’ve tried antidepressants and they don’t work for me.
When I had been suffering from depression for around a decade, I met my partner. My mental health and emotional wellbeing gradually improved, as she made me feel that I had a reason to live. I declared myself fit for work and went back on JSA.
By this time, the influx of uncontrolled immigration had been in full flow for many years. There were too many unskilled workers in the country and not enough jobs to go round. This also had the knock-on effect of lowering wages to the point where families struggle to live on them. The situation has only worsened in the decade since.
Not having a work history gave me a distinct disadvantage when attempting to gain employment. So did having a history of mental health problems. I rarely even got an interview.
Every now and then, I was forced to take a mandatory “course” where I had to practise looking for jobs, applying for them and updating my CV. Seriously, how many times do you need to be taught how to update your CV? All the tutors disagree about how a CV should be laid out and worded anyway, so all it does is cause confusion after the first couple of times. I always told them that I had no relevant qualifications, no experience and no references. I needed to do a proper course that led to a widely recognised qualification. I was always told that there weren’t any.
In my mid-twenties, I faced my phobia of college and enquired about available courses. I wasn’t picky, I just wanted to learn anything that would be of use when applying for vacancies. I was told that their places were for 16-18 year olds, which I took to mean “We’re ageist and you’re too old.” I later found out that had I began a full-time course, I would have lost all my income anyway. JSA is only for people who are taking steps to find work. So what is endeavouring to gain a qualification if it’s not taking steps to find work?
A personal contact got me a part-time job as a cleaner with ISS Facility Services, cleaning in schools. I did not enjoy it and ended up no better off financially, as about the same amount I earned was taken off my benefits, but I did it for something to put on my CV and a reference. After about 3 months, I was asked to do extra shifts. The cleaners at TGI Friday were on holiday and their temporary replacements had resigned from ISS. I repeatedly explained to them that I could not do more than 16 hours unless I did around 30 hours, as I would lose all my benefits. I was insistently ensured that the firm would make it worth my while. I eventually caved in and started doing 1 week’s work cleaning early in the mornings at TGI Friday.
During this week, the local area was heavily flooded due to a massive amount of rain. We had to take all the furniture outside and scrub it, scour the lower parts of the walls and wash all parts of the bar, restaurant and kitchens that had been submerged. We had to deal with the awfully flooded toilets practically in darkness, as the power was out, with tiles falling off the walls. It was horrible. We all worked really hard and got the business back up and running. But despite all their promises, my employers betrayed me. They refused to pay me enough to recoup my loss of benefits. I protested so they sacked me. I did not even acquire a reference.
As I had had some construction training while I was still at school and enjoyed it, I decided to attempt a vocation doing it. I briefly attended sessions with a company called Macro to gain my CSCS card, which allowed me to work on building sites.
I found and made contact with an organisation named Business In The Community and participated in their Business Action Against Homelessness program. Though I was no longer homeless, they were able to accommodate me because I had been before. This program included a little “ready for work training” (which was nothing new to me) and a 2 week voluntary placement. I chose a role with George Wimpey, labouring on a site called The Carriages. The first week wasn’t very hands on, but then the groundworkers invited me to work with them. I jumped at the chance and worked harder than half of the paid workforce. I even managed to get my placement extended by another 2 weeks, to double my on-site experience.
In the last few days, I was told I was being given a job by the groundworks company. This rumour was prolific all over the site, I had everyone approaching me and saying “You’ve got a job, haven’t you?” Alas, there was no job. It was somebody’s sick idea of a practical joke, which somewhat demoralised me. I finished my placement and attended the group debriefing style session. Shortly afterwards, the foreman who had accepted me into the role and been responsible for me ceased working on that site and I again didn’t get a reference.
As I was still jobless after a while, BITC decided to bend their rules and allow me to participate in their program a second time. As I had already done a fruitless placement in the construction industry, I opted to try something different. I did a 2 week placement with Carillion facilitating the running of another firm’s offices. I enjoyed the variety of it, as it included numerous activities including working in the mail room, responding to office staff’s requests and general maintenance. I once again worked really hard, attempting to carry out tasks before they were asked of me. Not long after I had finished repeating the BAAH program, I had been chasing up my reference as I had tried to from George Wimpey, but was again told that my temporary superior was no longer in the same job. I even tried getting hold of his second in command, but she also didn’t work for Carillion anymore, so I failed to get a reference yet again.
I visited building sites all over Sheffield asking if there was any work going. They all gave me the same answer: all site staff are recruited through agencies. I registered with several agencies but waiting for a phone call with an offer of work was like waiting for Christmas.
I did labour on a few building sites, but it wasn’t a regular occurrence. The problem with agency work was that when they did phone out of the blue, they told me to be at a location early the next morning. This was not enough notice for me, as I had to find out what buses went there and scrape together the fare. This was long before I was on the internet so Googlemaps was not an option. They also offered only 1 or 2 weeks of solid work, which affected my benefits. When you start a new claim, you have to wait 3 weeks for 1 week’s money. Job Centre staff will tell you that if you work for a fortnight, you can do a “rapid reclaim”, but people often find out afterwards that they are ineligible for some reason. Many jobless have come to the conclusion that it’s not worth taking the risk of temporary work.
I looked into an organisation called Wheels To Work. They boasted of renting scooters out cheaply to clients who struggled to get to work. It was another dead end for me. I was informed that to qualify for their scheme, I had to have 6 months of work at the same place guaranteed. This was a ridiculous policy, as someone whose place of work changes every 1 or 2 weeks needs their own transport more than a worker whose job is static.
Once, I was offered a labouring role at City School. Though I didn’t have bus fare or know what bus to catch, I wanted to work so I decided it was within walking distance. It was a week’s work, starting and ending in mid-week. It took me an hour to walk it there and an hour to walk it back (and I don’t walk slowly), with hours of hard work in between. It was exhausting! I was relieved to have a weekend in the middle, I honestly don’t think I could have coped with an uninterrupted week. I vowed never to walk to and from a physically demanding job again.
I also registered with an agency for football stewarding. It was only a couple of hours’ work a week, but at this point I was desperate for a reference and I hoped to see Sheffield Wednesday play for free, which would have compensated me a little. The agency seemed keen to hire me, as I was a member of St John Ambulance between the ages of 15 and 18, so I had many times provided voluntary first aid cover at both Hillsborough and Bramall Lane, as well as many other public venues.
After months of sporadically calling at the agency to ask about stewarding and repeatedly being told that they would “give me a match soon”, I finally got the call with 2 matches left of the season. They offered me stewarding at Sheffield United’s ground. (There went my compensation!) I stewarded at the Blades’ penultimate and final games. After the latter, all the stewards were gathered into 1 stand for an announcement by our supervisors. We were told that the law was changing. From the start of the next season, stewarding would be illegal without an SIA licence. The stewarding company were willing to fund our training, but we would have to buy the badge ourselves at a cost of £400 each. Where was I supposed to get £400 from? So my stewarding career came to an abrupt end after only 2 shifts, which was not enough to gain a reference.
Once in my late twenties, when my time for the mandatory “course” came around again, the Job Centre staff offered me an alternative option. Instead of repeating the usual uselessness, I could learn a construction trade at Llite. I chose bricklaying as that was the trade I most enjoyed learning towards the end of my schooldays. Unfortunately, the course was only for 13 weeks, which was not long enough to pass enough units to gain a full qualification. Around half way through, I was given the opportunity to spend my last few weeks working voluntarily for Cashin Construction. I was told the owner often recruited his professional staff in this way. I suggested that I should stay at Llite to complete as many units as I could, but I was told that I wouldn’t need them if Mark Cashin took me on.
I served my remaining weeks enthusiastically working mainly on 1 site, but sometimes on another. I even stayed behind to help the boss after his payed employees went home 1 day. He said he would employ me for “the next job”. The 13 week period expired before our build was finished so I was not permitted to stay any longer. As I didn’t want the CEO to forget about me, I went to the Job Centre and wangled a Work Trial, which allowed me to work an extra 2 weeks for free. The completion of the construction project was delayed so I still had to leave before the next one was initiated. He told me he would contact me when the time came.
I waited a little while, then I phoned him regularly for months, only ever resulting with unanswered ringing. When he eventually did answer, he said “What happened to you?” His tone suggested he’d expected me to contact him, which I had been attempting to do, but that was not what he had said. He told me they’d already started the next job, but he’d take me on for the next one. After that, I phoned him many times and only ever got a repeat of that answer. In the end, I gave up and asked him merely for a reference. He agreed to oblige, but I expect any potential employers would give up trying to contact him before long.
I also seized an opportunity to train for a fork lift licence with Hargreaves. I passed the test with 1 of the best scores the instructor had ever seen and qualified to drive counterbalance forklifts. As this happened, all the forklift jobs miraculously seemed to dry up. I searched high and low to no avail. After 3 years, the validity of my licence expired. Lo and behold! Forklift vacancies just as miraculously seemed to be abundant.
In my early thirties, my partner and I moved into her new flat, because I couldn’t get the Council to carry out repairs and fit central heating in mine. I got her pregnant, but sadly she had a miscarriage. This hit us both really hard and my depression struck again, though it took me months to realise it as I was so focused on my partner and her feelings. I stayed on JSA though and carried on looking for a job, but by now I had lost hope of getting one.
We were treated appallingly by the Job Centre. After the procedure to remove the inanimate foetus from her womb, a doctor told us that she needed complete rest and that I should not leave her alone. But I had to sign on. I worriedly walked for an hour to attend our signing on appointment. I explained the situation but the staff didn’t care. I argued, but they forced me to take a slip of paper for her to sign. I took another hour to walk home, got my partner to sign it, then had to walk to the Job Centre and back again. Altogether, she was alone for nearly 5 hours. So much for doctor’s orders!
It was around this time that my physical health deteriorated. My asthma got worse and I started suffering with hay fever, eczema and muscle spasms in my back. I was forced to retire from physically demanding occupations such as labouring.
I repeatedly told Job Centre advisors that I badly needed to do a computer course, as IT skills are vital in most jobs these days. I was sent on a “course” at Castle College, which was mostly the same useless waste of time as usual, with the addition of 1 session of making structures out of raw spaghetti and marshmallows! To be fair, I did learn a few new things, like using emails, Googlemaps and the new Universal Job Match website.
Shortly after, I was again telling advisors that I need an IT course. I was told I could do one at Castle College. I specifically and in no uncertain terms asked “Is it a proper computer course, ‘cause they said that last time?” I was assured it was so I agreed to participate. I attended and found it to be exactly the same “course” again. Even the tutor couldn’t believe I was back! I was furious, but I didn’t dare decline to repeat it. After all my experience, I’m convinced that the establishment are committed to making claiming benefits harder, worsen the treatment received by claimants and use any tiny or flimsy excuse they can to deny payment. For this reason, even though I requested to do a course, I’m sure I would have been sanctioned if I hadn’t attended.
I wholeheartedly believe that the government try to put people off claiming benefit any way they can, as if they don’t understand that claimants need this money to survive. We do not live a life of luxury – if employed homeowners have to utilise food banks, imagine how we must struggle. Even if we attend our appointments on time, record an adequate amount of job search and jump through any other hoops they desire, they can still fail to pay us. For this reason, I daren’t use Direct Debit as it would put me in danger of incurring bank charges, which limits my internet options to expensive dongles. When we don’t get paid “accidentally”, we have to make an expensive phone call to remedy the situation, which is difficult to afford when we haven’t been paid. They also subtract any money we owe from our benefits until the debt is repaid. That sounds fair, but JSA is “the amount of money the law says you need to live on”, so any deductions cause us to get less than the law says we need.
Nearly 3 years ago, my partner did successfully give birth to our daughter, who we love very much and parent to the best of our abilities. It’s upsetting that we cannot provide for her as well as we’d like because we can’t get a job. We were treated appallingly again, having to start a new claim so we were without money when we needed it the most. In fact, we were not paid for about 3 months, despite often borrowing money to contact them by phone! We kept getting told that we would be payed, but this eventuality materialised far from punctually. We didn’t have much of a Christmas that year, finally getting paid in February.
Healthy Start are not much better. We received vouchers (which replaced milk tokens) automatically through the pregnancy and had a letter from them stating that we could claim more vouchers upon birth if we were getting child benefit. Nobody told us we could claim child tax credit. When we didn’t receive vouchers, I phoned Healthy Start and was told we had to claim child tax credit to be eligible for vouchers. I had the letter in front of me that contradicted this and argued with them. They said “That letter doesn’t matter” and refused even to alter their letters in future so more new parents are not cheated! I took the letter to the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, where an advisor had the same argument with them that I had had, with the same results. It seemed like Healthy Start wanted people to make the same mistake as us.
Last year, I discovered Reach Valley Online, which the Job Centre didn’t know about. (I’ve told them many times, but they probably still don’t know.) Their service is brilliant! A few minutes’ walk away from where I live, I sit weekly courses during term-time. I’ve completed ECDL level 1 and 2 for using Word, Powerpoint and Excel. I’ve passed units on using email, Facebook and the internet in general. I’ve even learned to replace components of hardware. This place has taught me more than I’d learned in the previous 20 years! I still don’t expect to get a job however, which is one of the many reasons I joined UKIP 10 months ago.
Since I joined, I’ve leafleted, canvassed and been a polling station teller in the Stoke by-election. I’ve leafleted in Doncaster, Grimsby and 2 areas of Sheffield. Now I write for Kipper Central. Surely these are not the actions of a lazy bum.
I could continue with other incidents and events, but I think I’ve gone on long enough. You’re probably bored. It’s been a little distressing to relive some of what I can remember, but I think my story needs to be told, to demonstrate to sceptics and cynics what life on benefits is really like. It’s no picnic and many of us do not do it by choice.