Before I begin this blog post, a small… disclaimer? Statement of intent? I’m not certain what the correct phrase is.
When I explained to a third party that I was planning to document my experiences with the DWP and the new Universal Credit system it was suggested, quite sensibly, that I post my experiences anonymously. The DWP have apparently been known to sanction claimants based on the contents of their public blogs (although I have not had time to research this point myself yet) and therefore there may be risk to my income by allowing myself to be identified. I have decided against this for two main reasons:
- As a white, mostly able, heterosexual cis-male living in the UK, I have a lot of privilege. Part of that privilege is that my voice tends to be heard above those of people who do not fit all of those descriptors – people who are generally hit harder by governments like ours than people like me are. I do not want this privilege – I would rather our society was equal – but since society has given it to me I will use it to help those more vulnerable than me. If I anonymise I lose that advantage.
- I am not doing anything illegal and, provided that I provide documented evidence of my experiences, I am not doing anything slanderous or libellous either. I simply plan to tell the truth about my experiences – for good or for ill – and provide an insight into how our government is treating me as a jobseeker. If they treat me well, that will reported with every bit as much volume as if the opposite were true. I’m not out to witch-hunt2. I’m simply out to report.
Like a lot of people in the UK’s current economic climate, I am currently unemployed and looking for work. It should be noted that I am unemployed, in the strictest sense, by choice; in February of this year I quit a job that was both festering in the centre of a hideously toxic office culture and, as a result, doing tremendous harm to my physical and mental health. The decision to quit was the right one, and supported by my doctor – we both feared that if I stayed I would start drifting into self-harm – but financially, of course, it’s proving something of a problem.
For six months, and whilst supported by my father, I sank all of my time and effort into getting GeekPlanetOnline, the website and podcasting network that I run with Dave Probert, to support itself so that it wouldn’t go under and make countless talented people creatively homeless. We eventually succeeded in raising ongoing (and still hopefully short term) crowd funding via Patreon and then in August, after my own meagre savings had run out, I started looking in earnest for a full-time job.
Around that time I signed up for Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA), the primary – and in many cases only – benefit available to people looking for work. Whilst an often soul-crushing experience, signing on for JSA every fortnight was at least very straightforward; I had a booklet (maddeningly reminiscent of a school homework diary) which I would fill in every week, detailing what I was doing to look for work and how that was coming along, and a meeting to attend once per fortnight where a teacher my work coach would check my working discuss my progress and offer any advice I might require. There was little risk of sanction because like the vast majority of people on JSA I was doing everything that I could to find a job and the rules, whilst depressingly1 patronising, were at least reasonable.
I say “little risk of sanction”, incidentally, rather than “no risk of sanction” because let’s face it, we’ve all heard the documented horror stories of sanctions applied for the flimsiest and most ridiculous of reasons. And yes, horror stories, because if you’re being forced to visit a food bank in order to eat that’s pretty goddamned horrific, especially if you have a family. These things have happened, and they continue to happen.
On the 5th of October, after two months of searching, I started a new job. It was a temp-to-perm role in outer London, a two-hour door-to-door commute from my home which paid £13 per hour before tax and which cost me £400 per month in travel fees, but I took the job because A) it was a damned job and B) because even after overheads it paid a damned sight more than I was receiving from JSA. Unfortunately for me, two weeks after I’d started the member of staff that I had been replacing changed her mind about leaving and the company welcomed her back with open arms, leading to my temp-to-perm contract being cancelled rather unceremoniously and at ridiculously short notice (email on Saturday morning: “Don’t come in on Monday.”) and leaving me, once again, out of work. Like a lot of people in this situation, I immediately visited the JSA website and clicked through to “rapid reclaim”, and it was here that I first heard the phrase “Universal Credit”.
If you’re not aware – and I certainly wasn’t – Universal Credit is a new form of benefit which replaces six others – namely housing benefit, income support (IS), jobseekers allowance (JSA), employment and support allowance (ESA), child tax credit/working tax credit and budgeting loans/crisis loans. There’s a great explanation up on the Shelter website, which is certainly far friendlier than the official governmental website for the same. On the surface it seems like a good idea – it merges all of these benefits together and, in theory, ensures that you receive everything you’re entitled to even when you’re in work (because you remain on Universal Credit after employment and will be informed if you are due tax credits, etc.) – but the intent behind the whole initiative, as explained and reiterated several times by my work coach, is merely to “get tougher on claimants”. Because apparently (and again, this was confirmed by my work coach, Anna) Iain Duncan Smith’s DWP were genuinely concerned that they were being too soft.
The questions I was asked and the information I provided was very similar to my previous JSA claim, so I shrugged and got on with it. I was informed that I would be receiving a phone call to arrange an induction interview at my local Job Centre Plus to complete my application, and that phone call came the very next day. Yesterday (at time of writing) I attended that interview, and whilst the advisor who helped me was exceptionally lovely, what I learned there – and what I was required to sign – concerned me greatly. It was that experience and that knowledge which made me feel like my experience should be documented in real time; there are a lot of things about Universal Credit which I find problematic. Actually, there are a lot of things about Universal Credit that I find utterly terrifying.
In my next post, which I’ll be writing directly after this one, I’ll be documenting my initial appointment and the Claimant Commitment that I was required to sign. This should hopefully shed some light on why I feel that I should write these blogs in the first place.
- Yes, as somebody suffering from clinical depression I do mean that literally, not colloquially.
- Why would anybody hunt witches, anyway? I know a couple of witches. They’re lovely.