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Tuesday 15th
posted by Morning Star in Features

The treatment that many benefit claimants get meted out is cruel and unnecessary, writes CHARLOTTE HUGHES

WE often talk about how society has changed, but fail to notice the subtle changes that occur. 

Life is busy for most of us and by the time we notice it’s usually because of a cumulative amount of changes that build up into eventual massive changes. 

I started my adult life in the late 1980s after attending college. I was lucky enough to be able to bounce from job to job with not much problem. If I wanted to look for a job I would go to my local jobcentre.

There there would be rows and rows of jobs all categorised into different sections. I would choose a job, wait in a queue and see the next available adviser who would give me further details and even phone the company where the job vacancy existed and arrange an interview. 

Mostly I was treated with respect and I got to know the different advisers. There was an air of opportunity and a chance that maybe, just maybe, you could improve your situation. Anyone was allowed access to the jobcentre. You weren’t stopped at the door and you weren’t questioned. It was the way it should be. But all that has changed. Now an unemployed person is met with a totally different situation. A jobcentre is now a place of secrecy. There are no jobs advertised and, as one adviser said to me, “We aren’t here to help you look for work. Thats not our job.”

Gone are any job-searching opportunities except the computers that the advisers expect you to use. Some might argue that this is reasonable, that we now live in a digital age and everyone can use a computer. They couldn’t be further from the truth. Computer literacy isn’t a skill that many claimants have. Both younger and older claimants struggle with this. And they fail to take into account disabilities that can prevent computer use. Buying a computer costs money.

Libraries that offer computer use at either a very low cost or free are shutting down at an alarming rate. Libraries used to offer computer literacy classes and one-to-one tuition. Sadly due to lack of resources and funding these are becoming harder to access — in some areas impossible. 

When a claimant starts to claim either jobseeker’s allowance or universal credit, they are told that they have to open a universal jobmatch account. There, they are told they can find and apply for jobs. This system is digital, and claimants are told that they have to search for jobs for 35 hours a week on this site.

However it has already been proven to be inefficient and filled with flaws, not to mention that it is virtually impossible to use when you struggle to access a computer and don’t know how to use one. If you don’t complete this task you will be sanctioned.

It’s a hard, cold system that fails to understand the requirements of different people with different abilities. This is an increasing problem, and I see it every week while helping claimants outside Ashton-Under-Lyne jobcentre. I talk to two men every week who collect a food parcel from us. Both are sanctioned long term, but both still have to job search. 

They used to use the local library and did this efficiently and had made friends there. They knew the staff and it made the task a bit easier because they felt welcome. 

For reasons known only by their advisers they were told that they can no longer use the library. Instead they had to come and attend the jobcentre every day to search for work on their computers. I must stress that there was no valid reason for this. They had not failed to complete their job searches correctly in the past, and they had been sanctioned for not attending an appointment that they never received notice of. So now they are feeling overwhelmed and stressed. They feel that they are being watched all the time, and they probably aren’t too far from the truth. I feel this system isn’t much different from the workhouse system.

People only approached the workhouse when desperate and had nothing, as a last resort. Upon entering the workhouse you were separated from everyone and everything that you knew and loved. You were made to wear a uniform and had to complete very hard labour, a punishment for being poor. Businesses profited from this.

Inmates knew that if they stayed there for long enough they would die. It wouldn’t be a short death like it would have been on the streets, but a long drawn out death and a hard one. In my eyes the workhouse is now the new DWP system created by the government. No-one finds the need to access the system unless they are desperate.

Once in the system you become separated from others due to poverty. Social circles that you might have been among drift away. So do colleagues from work. Your clothes become tatty. Buying new clothes is near impossible and you become reliant on the charity of others. 

Hard labour now comprises of the constant job searches, workfare and the work programme. Once again history repeats itself and businesses profit from this but the poor don’t. Many die a long drawn out death trying extremely hard to keep the system happy, to not upset their adviser and, in many cases, are told to ignore their medical conditions and to look for full-time work. 

The stress and inability to fill all of these requirements affects a claimant’s physical and mental health immensely.  And, as seen in the film I, Daniel Blake, it is responsible for the deaths of many vulnerable people. I spoke to a woman recently who had to travel all the way from Wales every week to help her disabled brother. He failed his employment support allowance medical and had tried to claim jobseeker’s allowance but he is too ill. He has type one diabetes, has a serious heart problem, ulcers on his foot and other severe diabetes-related illnesses. He has no income, and would have died as a result of having no food and no electricity to keep his insulin cold. He also has no ability to leave his house. He’s appealing his failed ESA medical, but his sister has to travel from Wales on his behalf to do so, and also to provide food for him. I gave him a food parcel, but while speaking to his sister I noted the comparisons to life in Victorian times. A time when the poor were considered worthless.

We really need to challenge this, and to openly challenge it more. The release of the  film I, Daniel Blake has opened up the conversation, but we need to do much, much more.

Tackling this inhumane system has to become a priority, and I do feel that it has to become a Labour Party priority. They are the opposition, the voice of the working class. While I will continue to write, campaign and help people outside Ashton-Under-Lyne jobcentre, the public listen but my voice is only small. We need to feel more support, we would like to see more challenges towards this system. We need to see change.