Wednesday, 28 May 2008

New Ordeal

28/5/08 pm

I'm putting this post up on the hoof because sometimes we all need some time to wind down, and it's football tonight. And tonight I need time to wind down.

As if it's not enough to be taken away from the primary school where I'm volunteering (for health reasons my last profession as a musician has fallen apart so I'm trying to remotivate myself, get references - which you tend to lose when you're a self-employed musician - and develop reliable and consistent relationships with the children and the teachers), I now find myself on an ''opportunity''* forced on me by the job centre under menace of having my benefit suspended. I have to give up on the school and any good that might do me and attend a place in Woolwich in SE London 5 days a week for 2 weeks. My time is spent sending pointless speculative employment letters out to schools in the area.

Pointless, because schools tend to advertise jobs via their local council's websites anyway and pointless because it's the Whitsuntide half term, so there's nobody there to read my CV after it pops into the mailboxes of SE London schools. But rules is rules, and I have to apply for at least 10 jobs a day. Even though it's guaranteed to be a waste of time.

Anyhow, seeing that I'm losing 2 weeks of my life - and continuity with the children and the school - and seeing that the New Deal system is wilfully harming my job opportunities, I look to see what possible positive things I can claw back so that it's not all a complete demotivating waste of time. So, I was offered the opportunity of 'mentoring' on the bumf handed out by A4E - it stands for Action For Employment apparently.

So, after over a week of sending off pointless emails to people who are not there, it occurs to me that I haven't seen this fabled mentor, who might have been able to advise me about how to deal with the health issues that caused my unemployment and crucially affect my chances of ever working again. I find someone, a certain John Barber, and he asks what Job Centre I've been referred by. I say Deptford. And he says that they're not doing mentoring for Deptford.

According to A4E, Deptford Job Centre won't submit the LS2s - some kind of form, obviously - so they've decided to move the goalposts for people who come from Deptford and withdraw the mentoring service. Without telling anyone, of course. I had to squeeze that information out of them.

So, all in all, I'm caught in a battle between A4E and a certain err...she's not the most helpful person in the world...called Pauline Kazai (even the telephone number she gave me was on permanent no reply - I was only able to contact her because I spotted her name and number on a sheet on an A4E staff member's desk - and their desks are the only place we were able to make phone calls from) at Deptford Job Centre who is not the kind of person who has ever apologised to anyone in her life.

But what I do know is that they've taken me out of a situation where I had a chance of getting back on my own 2 feet, withdrawn the only possible means of gaining any help from the service I was forced to attend. It's out of my hands - it's a dispute between A4E and the Job Centre - but the result is a withdrawal of help from the poor claimant as punishment for their own dysfunctionality. And the taxpayer thinks this is to help us find work.

No, this is wasting public money and hurting the people it pretends to help.

29/5/08 am

Because I spent part of yesterday arguing with both A4E and the Job Centre advisor, there's going to be fallout, starting from today. A4E will be the quicker to react, the Job Centre will kick in next Monday

29/5/08 pm

Well, I was right on one count and wrong on one! First, because I'd named John Barber as the person who had told me that mentoring was not available for 'clients' from Deptford Job Centre to the New Deal advisor, Pauline Kazai, she must have contacted him and he was not best pleased that someone had 'gone over his head'.

'But you're over my head,' I replied.

He went on to say that I'd get mentoring when I was on the 13 week course (this is where they follow up the 2 week course with a 13 week course), and that I should come downstairs where a mentor would see to me. Cue Tracey, mentor, who'd been told to help me with job searching. She was in the middle of printing out a list of schools in the area. She had been told to help me with job searching, and that was what she was going to do. For two hours she looked for vacancies with me by my side. I ended up with one possible vacancy to apply for. I explained that I had no difficulty doing the job searching, but I had asked for access to the mentoring service because I needed help with health issues. And she replied that she was a mentor and she had been told to help me job search. I really have no idea why they had given me a form at the beginning that asked me to say in which field I judged I thought mentoring could be useful. Because my previous career had fallen apart because of health problems (severe arterial stenosis of the right kidney, failed procedure aimed at widening the constricted artery, hypertension even after daily medication with calcium channel antagonists, statins, ACE inhibitors, diuretics, capped with a recent addition to my symptoms of amaurosis fugax - which for non-medics translates as temporary blindness, in my case in the left eye). The medication plus the hypertension and temporary periods of blindness obviously affect the range of jobs I can perform, and that is why I ticked the 'help with health problems' box.

How naïve of me to think that it was a genuine option. Naïve too of the Gateway to Work trainer and adviser to think that it was an option too. Well, they're learning too.

Where I was wrong was where I predicted Pauline Kasai at the job centre to launch her counter attack on next Monday. When I got home, there was a handwritten compliments slip changing the time of my appointment with her from Monday to Friday afternoon - a time that she knows is when I am at school. So it looks like a deliberate attempt to interfere with me working as a volunteer at the school. This truly is despicable. A New Deal advisor taking me out of the school, where I am trying to get myself back into the jobs market, and then interrupting my work there. Deliberate or not the effect is to destabilise my attempts to get references and work-related experience. (And to interrupt the essential continuity with the children - it's to do with reliability, consistency and developing relations.)

Think about this: tax payers are paying for Job Centre Staff to actively harm someone's chance of finding work. Where on earth is the sense in that?


I went in for my last day (well, half-day – they don't do Friday afternoons) on 23/05/08 anxious not to lose my temper or do anything that might give A4E a pretext for kicking me off the course before I'd completed it. I arrived early, took a walk along the Thames to calm the nerves, and then kept my head down.

However, instead of sending out a string of speculative letters and CVs, I spent the most part of the morning looking for ways to get help. I searched through the pages on New Deal provisions, volunteer organisations but found nothing. In despair, I decided that I would call on MIND on the way home to see whether they could help me. I remembered that I'd seen a doctor almost a year ago about depression and she'd given me a hand out about them.

I'd never followed it up; instead, to get myself out of depression, I'd decided to start doing voluntary work as a means to getting myself remotivated. Eventually, the school I had written to gave me the chance to come in as a volunteer in October. It seemed to help: I was working voluntarily in a field I was interested in, my attendance and performance, my relationships with teachers and children could lead to references (a problem because I'd been self-employed before), I could demonstrate an active interest in the field of work I was looking for. It also took me away from the cycle of depression that had been menacing me.

Now, several months down the line, the forces that be had taken me out of my place of voluntary work and sent me on a course, undermining the very important continuity that I'd built up at the school. My jobcentre advisor knew that it would not help me in my attempt to find work, although I doubt whether she would accept that it was actively harming me – her approach was that I simply had to do it or lose benefit, irrespective of whether it harmed or helped. And A4E's Gateway to work people simply said that it was a problem I'd have to take up with the job centre. The mentoring that had been offered to me on day one had not materialised. Had been withdrawn, in fact. And when I complained, I was given help in an area that I did not need help in but denied help in the area I'd asked for help in. And the job centre had already started to destabilise my return to volunteering work by changing my appointment time to when I was meant to be in school.

So, faced with the prospect of continuing harassment from the job centre, future time wasted on further periods of enforced job search and interruptions to my attempt to get myself back on my own two feet, and not finding any possible source of help, a visit to MIND seemed just about the most logical thing to do.

And – typical – when I got there, the voice on the intercom said that there was no one there and that I would do better to phone up. So I didn't even get in the door.

It's conditions like these that lead people to giving up. The main problem though is that I'm not brave enough to commit suicide.


So I told the teacher whose class I was meant to be in on Friday that I couldn't be there because the Social Security have called me in. It ends up that I'm no use to him or the kids if I can't be reliable (unfortunately, for months, I had to leave his class - on Fridays - every fortnight to sign on. Eventually a helpful job centre employee told me that I could change my signing time so the disappearance problem vanished. Well, it's now back....). And it's true, I am no use to him if I'm being called away for job seekers interviews or being sent on 'courses' all the time. So, well done Ms Kazai, you've got me out of one class! What's your next trick?

What escapes me completely is what good all this is meant to do. I'm trying to get back into a working environment and they're trying to take me out of a working environment. I can understand those little hitlers wanting to break me, but what good will that do them? Is the aim to get me onto the sick? That's not going to save the government any money is it?

* apropos ''opportunity''...During a phone call between Kazai and myself at A4E, I referred to the 2 week séjour there as a course. No, I was told, it's not a course, it's a provision. (Presumably it's not a course because you don't learn anything there.) Later, when I went in to the follow up meeting - the one that definitively made Friday attendance at the school unworkable and which, curiously, Karzai didn't turn up to - another person dealt with me, and this person (Tracy or Tracey) reprised the title of the thing-that's-not-a-course without any prompting. They'd evidently discussed this case in detail before Kazai couldn't turn up. I had to point out that even Gateway to Work use the word ''course'' in their introductory material. Response: it doesn't matter what it's called. Fine, but don't contradict me when I use the GTW-adopted phrase.

Oh, and did I mention tea at A4E? Shortly after the first session the tutor, or advisor, or whatever gave us a break to have tea or coffee. So, down to the kitchens I wend. No tea bags. There's coffee but coffee can make me spikey. There's a notice on the wall explaining that on 18 December 2006 someone driven to distraction had blocked up a toilet with tea bags. (Note that this happened in 2006 so the person responsible will be long gone.) Temporarily mastering the art of serenity, I arrive the next day armed with a bag of extra strong Tetley's teabags. This worked for a day or so but then there was an A4E administrator who announced that someone (unknown, but staff) had overheard a conversation during which someone was alleged to have said that they were going to put bleach in the water supply. Outcome - because these people think in terms of outcomes - no more water dispensers and the kettles were removed. I've still got that bag of teabags now. A notice went up explaining that due to ''an attempt to poison the water supply'' bottled water and kettles has been removed from the kitchen. I don't know - how does an allegedly overheard threat to contaminate the water supply'' turn into an actual attempt to carry it out?