Now working part-time, volunteers part-time. Cares what happens to UK society full-time
Last week I attended the work programme for the first time this year. My part-time Xmas work ended in January so I signed back on – but I was feeling anxious. For over a year now whenever I attend any place associated with DWP I have found myself struggling. The voice inside my head starts to shout and I often start physically shaking. It’s ridiculous and frustrating but sometimes I cannot write my own signature as I struggle to hold a pen. This has been going on since my benefit sanction in December 2013.
A few things have changed since I last attended the work programme; there is a new manager, fewer staff and they have moved into a new building. The place is small with six computers available. Staff desks are mingled between the spaces available to ‘clients’. The old manager filled the walls with quotes meant to motivate, but this new manager has removed most of them and replaced with job-related statistics and oversized job adverts. It feels like a sales room.
Big signs tell everyone that 10 people got a job last month with 3 already this month – a further 23 attended interviews in January and 11 had already been this month. All of this is designed to ramp up the pressure. For anyone who is slightly older and familiar with the culture of sales surrounding Kirby vacuum cleaners, you will have a good idea of what it is meant to be like. The only difference being there are sanctions instead of custard pies for not reaching a target.
On this day the room was full. 12 people noisily sat around the six computers – all under 25 – completing what looked like a test of some sort. The kitchen is where the older cohort were milling around waiting to be seen for one-to-one meetings and/or the group session I was attending. Back in the main room there were people sat round a big table and others on desks reading papers or filling in forms/applications. The new manager was bouncing around encouraging this and that. The contrast between that and my quiet, lone space at home made it all thoroughly annoying and disconcerting. I wanted out of there as soon as possible.
On the far side of the room is a desk where you sign in and out. Standing next to it was Mark (not his real name). Mark has a learning disability but I don’t know what type. When I was growing up and in school we would have (mean-spiritedly) called him slow. However, he is far from that when you talk to him about subjects he cares about, such as birds or county cricket. He is a great big giant of a man, 6′ foot 4″, barrel-chested with shoes the size of Cornwall. He always wears a smile that implies he is in on a joke that you are not and he is always friendly – with that enviable skill of always remembering your name. Whenever I see him he is also full of energy and enthusiasm.
On this day though I was not particularly prepared for him and did the best I could to ignore him. He was a distraction I did not need. He called out my name and I said hello, but quickly walked away to the space prepared for the group session. As bad luck would have it he was also doing the group session, so I couldn’t avoid him. A few minutes later with everyone gathered up and ready to start we did our session. I could write a whole other post on the wrong-headedness of running 45 minute group sessions on topics such as building self-esteem and time management, but for this post lets just say it was basic and not very useful.
The session started with us defining confidence and writing down ways in which we could improve it. We were broken up into three groups, with one given responsibility to write everything down on a large piece of paper. Mark always wants this job and nobody tends to argue as most have very little interest in what we are here to do. In fact, most feel similar to me in that they just wanted to go home.
Mark cannot spell and found the subject difficult to comprehend, so much of his groups time was taken up with spelling out words and explaining things to him. For the other groups it was a distraction. The woman in charge did the best she could helping him, but clearly she was unprepared for his needs. Mark also has a tendency to shout out completely wrong answers simply to bring attention to himself. Sometimes he does it to be funny, but today nobody was in a laughing mood and it just felt he was trying our patience.
With such a short session, having a difficult man in the group combined with a complex subject (that requires much more time than 45 minutes, in any circumstance), meant that even less got done than normal. I felt annoyed and angry – for the inconvenience of having to get a bus into town, for having to get up early, for breaking my routine, for forcing me to wear a coat I don’t particularly like and that doesn’t fit very well… for making me leave the safety of my flat. Of course, on reflection I am being unreasonable and I am a little ashamed, but the truth is depression is an unreasonable illness and for the remaining time I sat in the work programme offices feeling cross that Mark, this annoying time sponge, had wasted my morning.
Shortly after the session ended I was called in to talk to my adviser. She seemed quite happy with what I had been doing and seemed oblivious to my bad mood. She suggested a couple of jobs to apply for and asked how things were going more generally, but didn’t really wait for an answer. She suggested I do more volunteering and promised to email what was available. I told her I had put my name down to do some odd days at Somerset Wildlife Trust. A few minutes later and I was free to leave. There were no free computers so I took a banana from the fruit bowl in the kitchen and made a dash for the exit.
As soon as I was outside I could feel my mood lifting. The bus home wasn’t for a while so I had time to kill. I need a new computer so I did a bit of browsing at Maplins. On my way back I saw Mark sitting on a bench, looking down in the dumps. I thought he had been crying but I wasn’t sure. It turned out he was upset that nobody wanted to talk to him and he thought we didn’t like him. I must admit I didn’t want to sit with him. I knew if I did I would have to get the later bus home but reluctantly I stayed and chatted for a bit. It turns out that Mark lives largely on his own apart from his family, and doesn’t have many friends. The only times he gets to speak to people are when he comes to the jobcentre or goes to the work programme, which he does once a week. He used to go to his local library to listen to audio books and music, but stopped when it closed. He doesn’t use a computer and doesn’t understand the internet. His situation sounded quite sad and it’s not surprising he is lonely.
We went for a cup of tea and he got out his CV. It was basic but it showed that he had been in work most of his adult life. Mark has only ever had one type of job collecting trolleys from shop car parks. His favourite place was working at Sainsbury’s because close by lived a pair of falcons that he enjoyed watching. He said he used to go to the county cricket – sometimes just to watch them train – but hadn’t had any money for a while so couldn’t afford it. I got the impression that his benefit had been stopped but he didn’t know and was vague, so I didn’t push the subject.
After we had finished and I’d left to catch the bus I asked myself who is responsible for people like Mark. The work programme staff are clearly not trained to deal with his needs and jobcentre plus are cutting the number of staff trained to support the needs of the disabled, so who is left to support him? In Mark’s case it seems to be largely left up to other jobseekers. However, on that day nobody was interested. It is not hard to understand why. The conditionality placed on jobseeker’s allowance puts pressure on individuals to complete tasks which many, including me, find quite hard. This causes stress and for many it is too much. Mental ill-health is quite common although it is hard to say for sure how many are suffering with it on JSA. When you add low self-esteem to the mix who wants to take on the added responsibility, albeit just for a morning, of helping, or indeed just being supportive to a chap with a disability?
The problem Mark has is he is not disabled enough, so he sits in limbo. I have encountered similar people who are homeless – not disabled enough to get support from social services – but too disabled to cope with managing their bills and looking after a home, so they end up homeless on the street. Mark told me he had been homeless a few times. His bedsit was found for him through the efforts of staff at a local homeless shelter, but he said it was cramp and he wanted to leave.
I wonder how many more Mark’s there are living in the UK, not getting the support they need to live a decent life. Discriminated against by the state and by society to boot. I hear all the time about how disabled people are being badly treated. Mark is just one example, and not a particularly extreme example either. When we write about the problems of the welfare state and how it has stopped being the safety net we need it to be, the examples we use normally don’t include people like Mark, but he is exactly the sort of person it should be supporting. He deserves better. Sadly, I let him down last week.
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