Background to an Open Letter to IDS … meet The Work Programme!
Over the past year I have blogged about some of the things that I have encountered in “the system” as an unemployed person; but all that I have already revealed pales into insignificance beside the experience I have had recently on “The Work Programme”; I will write about that today and then go on to explain why Iain Duncan Smith (IDS) has put flawed measures in place and why his latest plans are even further flawed.
The Work Programme
So for 12 months I have gone along to the Jobcentre each fortnight and for some additional appointments with my adviser. After an initial rocky starts we have built up positive relationships. After 12 months however, whilst I still sign on every fortnight I also have to attend the Work Programme. This involves a bus ride (yippee) of over an hour in each direction; leaving early so that I don’t miss the connecting bus services and going to Arbroath. Frequency is still not settled and they do pay the bus fare – so that is UK tax payer’s money (£7 per appointment) being spent on me travelling for between 2 and 4 hours to attend an appointment with my new adviser. I have to keep that money on one side form my benefit and then reclaim it each meeting. So here is what I have experienced:
This was made efficiently by telephone from a central office and I received reasonable information about what I needed to take with me; however I had a telephone interrogation including an equal opportunities questionnaire ( I got hopeful at that point that maybe they would have had a preponderance of me’s recently and I might be excused so as to keep their client equality right … no it didn’t work! so why so an equalities evaluation in the first place?)
I e-mailed my CV and an example covering letter to my new adviser as instructed and got a reply that she had to go to head office so I would meet her colleague. I had been warned that they are useless at keeping appointments and then sanction people’s benefits! So my first appointment is at 09:30 and that means leaving home at 07:30 and travelling by the college bus and arriving 45 minutes early. The office only opens at 09:00 but it was a cold morning so I was not wandering around outdoors.
09:02 I entered Reception – what a shock to the system! The Reception Desk was not prepared for visitors; the woman pushed a new sheet onto the prongs of the binder instead of punching holes in it. Scribbled something out and wrote something in its place before thrusting it acreoss the desk at me. I signed in and explained that I was there to see A but she had told me I would actually see B.
I took a seat and a Manager floated out of the kitchen to demand to know the whereabouts of the teabags. The woman at the desk directed her to a cupboard but no apparently there were none there. By now several other staff were assisting in the tea bag search accompanied by the manager proclaiming “but I cannot have coffee or I will get migraine …”. I was sitting there in disbelief at this point – Victor Meldrew looked calm by comparison!
I was called through by B who promptly disappeared. I walked in the general direction looking through doors and found her located in a cupboard – no I am not joking – it might be labelled interview room but it is a cupboard! Without any introduction and whilst I balanced everything on my knees whilst I sat on a chair which was propping the door open, B launched into reading some PowerPoint slides which I could read on her screen. She sat with her back to me reading about 20 slides before she turned to me and said “oh those were really interesting I have never seen them before” (reminder in my former job I delivered half day training sessions without ‘reading’ the slides).
Next she asked for my CV and sample letter; I advised I had e-mailed them to A already. Then she went through a form with me providing answers. Next she excused herself to pop out and explain to a young girl that she had to write her CV on the paper so that B could type it for her (and the girl couldn’t be shown how to type her own CV? get IT skills at the same time – be enabled?). B returned and gave me a form to fill in; floated off a again, returned and had a chat with a colleague hanging her coat up outside the cupboard door. Collected the handwritten CV then came back and started asking me other questions whilst I was still filling the form in.
Something was mentioned about appointments and I decided to let her know that I had been warned that they were not good at keeping appointments but that I was and kept a professional standard online calendar so would be at every appointment when I should be. I cannot remember what she said next which sparked me telling her that I was not impressed from the reception arrival and wait, through having slides read to me, sitting in a cupboard with the door open while we discuss my personal data and receiving such frankly appalling customer service. I told B that I deliver very high customer service standards and expect to be treated as a valued customer. B’s response? “would you like me to close the door?”
Next she did a “Better Off in Work Calculation” BOWC. I had been asked to complete a proforma and take it with me but she just asked me that answers as she filled in the form – I could have completed the form myself since it is in the public domain. She advised me that I would be £22 worse off if I worked part time but £122 better off if I worked full time. I asked why she hadn’t included my mortgage in the calculation … the form doesn’t include for it although it does include for rent! so that was a waste of time then!
The appointment took about half an hour (the original information advised to allow 2 hours) and then I had to stand and wait 15 minutes for the Receptionist to return from the bank so I could get my bus fare refunded.
The following day I got an e-mail making a second appointment with A for two weeks later in the late morning to do a basic skills assessment.
I set off my my next appointment and an hour before the appointment got a phone call to say the meeting was cancelled. I told the Receptionist I was already on the bus and was about to say I would call in to collect my bus fare but was told to go to the appointment anyway and they would get me to do a job search. I arrived and havign signed in I was sat in a room and given a literacy and numeracy tests to complete. To give you an example of the level the first numeracy question was:
8 + _______ = 8
I completed the numeracy test (having protested to the Receptionist) and was part way through the literacy test when B arrived, sat down and started asking me questions and then two women brought in a box and deliberated about where to put it. At no time was I asked if I had a disability or condition such as Dyslexia.
B told me that A was off sick with her diabetes – not something she should have revealed to me! B interrogated me about my job searching (most of which I had already told her at the previous meeting) and finally asked me to e-mail her when I apply for a job so she can see what to search for when doing job searches on my behalf. She told me that Work Programme expectations of how far I will travel for work are less strict than the Jobcentre; I observed that since I still have to comply with the Jobseekers agreement that I have to go by the Jobcentre’s criteria and not those of the Work Programme. Again I collected my bus fare while the Receptionist whined to me that she would now have to mark my tests.
Finally meet my Adviser – third appointment
A week later I was back again and this time A was available. I was greeted by the Receptionist saying “Oh you were right you know – you got 100% on both tests”. I sat down in the open office with A and she mentioned the tests. I advised her that I had undertaken a similar test online form the same supplier and it recommended that I study at level 2. I had done some investigation to find out that was probably not even secondary education level, whereas I have studied and got certificates to show it at levels 4, 6 and 7. She said everyone had to do the test otherwise it wasn’t fair.
I suggested it was totally fair and appropriate to look at people’s certificates and make a judgement that if they have studied at degree and postgraduate level, and indeed if the person has competently completed the Work Programme forms, then the box could be ticked without needing to demean them with a literacy and numeracy test. Further I suggested that this would allow them to target and signpost help for those that needed it, She tried to blame the Jobcentre by saying that the Jobcentre reports that 60% of the unemployed do not have adequate levels of literacy and numeracy; here’s a novel idea – don’t wait a year to identify that and we might help people more effectively and reduce the burden on the public purse?
There then followed a discussion about my job goals based on the e-mail I had sent explaining why telling B the jobs I applied for wouldn’t help her do effective searches when I search for every job within 20 miles of my home. I explained that I don’t have job goals since ideally I want to start a business. We then discussed my volunteering and A thought she might get me to do a session for some of her clients on volunteering, health and exercise. At least she hasn’t insisted I go on a placement to a charity shop; everyone else I have spoken to that has been to Work Programme with that team has been shoved into a work placement as a volunteer at a charity shop and then been advised to keep doing it as a volunteer after the placement is over.
Again the appointment was less than 30 minutes. I came away with the next two appointments in my diary and despite watching me put them in my calendar A wanted to print out two two page letters for me – eventually I persuaded her it was a waste of paper and ink and she e-mailed them to me. The correspondence they use is set up on such a very basic template and that combined with their poor standards of customer service make me feel that they are not sufficiently skilled or qualified to do the jobs they do.
A’s professional opinion was that if I am not getting interviews that my CV is too wordy. I pointed out that the CV she has seen is the version the Jobcentre sent me on training to do and it is missing significant information to reduce the words. A was adamant that my CV is preventing me getting interviews until I observed that 90% of the jobs I apply for are on an application form and they never see my Cv and each form is completed from scratch and tailored to the person spec and job description (because I have received training in how to read and understand those documents). The reality is that many of the jobs at the level I was at in my career have either been automated or have been moved to less skilled staff to save money – I have an example of this from my job searches and it was the subject of an article in the UK mainstream media recently.
I have two more appointments with that team and then I get passed to another team – so that is £35 of taxpayers money for my bus fares just to get me set up on their system and then the staff salaries. By the time I add waiting time because the appointments do not sync with my bus journeys each appointment is best part of a day away from job searching and completing applications.
That money will have achieved nothing other than justifying the employment of incompetent people … yet IDS thinks it is an essential step to reducing long term unemployment! Over the Christmas period I caught sight of this article in the press which outlines IDS’s next step … tomorrow I will address the flaws in the plans he outlines.