Tuesday, 18 February 2014


The Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols.

Nothing changes. This week the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols laid into the government for its welfare reforms which he branded a disgrace.

Britain's most senior Catholic accused the coalition of removing even the most basic safety net, leaving society's most vulnerable facing hunger and destitution.

Now, I've got no time for the Catholic Church - or any organised religion - but having watched the Archbishop on BBC news, I was impressed with what he had to say and the way he said it.

I've been very fortunate with my career. I've never claimed a penny in unemployment benefit - or any benefit - but just over five years ago I had the audacity to try to make a claim when I went to my local Jobcentre for the one and only time

Here's how it went . . .

My last day at work was August 31, 2008. My contract at a school had expired and I was looking forward to a break. I'm 52 and have been working since June 4, 1973, a week before my 17th birthday. I felt I'd earned a rest.

My plan was simple: I'd enjoy what was left of the lousy summer, go cycling for a week in the Alps and, when I got back, start looking for another job.

It wouldn't be hard to find one, would it? How wrong I was.

And last week, as unemployment soared to 1.82 million with worse to come, I was left to ponder how people of my generation, who have paid all their working lives into the State support system for the jobless, will cope when faced with the red tape, intrusion and abject humiliation dished out by that system, should they find themselves needing to use it.

The first job I applied for, I didn't get an interview or a reply. I contacted the firm and was told that I didn't meet all of the criteria.

I couldn't be bothered to argue. I was sure another job would come along any minute. But it didn't.

Several weeks later I spotted a vacancy at Hartlepool Borough Council for a press officer. It was just down the road from where I live and was part-time. Just what I was looking for. I spent a couple of days making sure my application was as good as it could be.
Once again I didn't even get a reply or an interview. Once again I didn't meet the criteria, I was told when I checked. They wanted someone with a professional qualification in journalism and I don't have one.

I've only been a sports editor, a chief sub-editor, an assistant editor, a deputy editor and the editor of my home-town newspaper, the Hartlepool Mail. Surely that sort of CV and work experience is worth more than a paper qualification? Apparently not.

By the middle of October, I was feeling pretty down when a friend asked me whether I'd started claiming dole. I'd never thought about it. I'd fully expected to have a job by now.

On the one hand, it was belittling and demeaning to go cap in hand to the State. On the other, I'd been paying tax for more than 35 years. Maybe it was time to get some of it back.

I typed 'UK unemployment benefit' into Google and entered the Government's website. How I wish I hadn't. If I was feeling depressed before, it was nothing to how I would feel once in 'the system'.

The website suggested I was entitled to Jobseekers Allowance for up to 26 weeks and I could make my claim by phone. This was great news. I'd been dreading having to set foot in a Jobcentre for the first time in my life.

I called 0800 055 6688. Minutes later, I was talking to a pleasant chap with a Liverpool accent.
Unfortunately, he had his job to do and any semblance of being a caring, compassionate human being had to be dropped as soon as he started asking me the dozens of seemingly irrelevant questions on his computer screen.

I wasn't expecting any sympathy. Just as well. I didn't get any. Just lots more questions about me, my wife, my children, my state of health, my nationality, whether I'd been abroad recently, and how much savings I had.

After what seemed like hours, the questions ended and he told me that my claim was now in 'the system'. So was I, and I'd be expected to attend a formal interview at Peterlee Jobcentre.

On a damp, grey, October day, I set off to find it, or Jobcentre Plus as they call them these days. Inside, there was an overwhelming stench of sweat, cheap booze, poverty and despair.

I was asked to take a seat. After a few minutes a smart, thirty something woman called me over to her desk. She asked a few questions before calling up a document on her computer.

She needed to go through all the questions I'd been asked by the Scouser. Then I was asked to return to my seat and wait for my second interview.

I was called over by another smartly dressed young woman. Once again it was the same auto-pilot set of questions. No genuine interest in me as a person, no concern about my personal situation, just more questions.

She had to fill in three potential areas of work for the job search she was going to conduct. I'm told that the workshy, feckless scroungers come up with all sorts of ambitious career goals so that they will never be matched to a job.

After 30 years' experience, journalism seemed like a good start. Having worked in education for just over two years that was also a logical choice.

I needed a third and joked that I'd done a bit of acting. Amazingly, acting went down as my third choice.

I was then asked how far I'd be prepared to travel to work. I suggested 30 miles as this would take in the conurbations of Teesside and Tyneside. The moment of truth came and my job adviser clicked 'search'.
And my 'perfect' job? A Polish translator based in Warrington - about 200 miles away, and I don't speak a word of Polish. The woman apologised.

More questions followed before I was told I'd be paid Jobseekers Allowance of £60.50 a week.

I'd have to report to the Jobcentre every two weeks to sign on. I'd be expected to arrive 20 minutes before my appointment and look through the available jobs. This was to prove I was trying to find work.

I was handed a plastic wallet with my documentation and shown the door.

Outside I was overwhelmed with a sense of despair, humiliation, anger and helplessness. I called my wife. Although I find it hard to believe now, I uttered: 'I feel like throwing myself under a bus.'

The 'system' that I had supported with tens of thousands of pounds over 35 years of work had treated me like a number. I felt cheap, dirty and worthless.

I decided never to set foot in that place again. I did a quick calculation: £60.50 a week for 26 weeks was just over £1,500. In return for that I'd be humiliated once every two weeks. They could stick their money. I decided to sell my old car instead.

A day or two later my phone rang. 'Margaret from the Jobcentre' wanted to know why I hadn't reported at 2.30pm to sign on. I was flabbergasted and angry.

Was it mandatory that I signed on? Was 'the system' like a pact with the devil? I said I'd changed my mind and wouldn't be bothering. Then came the final insult. I was told I'd have to return to the Jobcentre to sign off. I argued that it would be impossible to sign off when I hadn't signed on, but I was fighting a losing battle and put the phone down. I've never been back.

Unlike many of the people on the receiving end of the latest round of job cuts, I'm not desperate just yet. I'm one of the lucky ones. I have a few quid in savings and a wife who has a well-paid job. How long we can manage on one wage remains to be seen.

Anybody want to buy an old BMW? Offers close to £1,500 greatly appreciated.




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