Credit us with a little common sense: The flawed logic of Universal Credit
Anyone who has followed my work over the years will know that it is rare for me to write about serious subjects. My background is in entertainment journalism and promotion. I run an alternative comedy website. I write music reviews. That kind of thing.
Of course, I have touched on delicate matters – my interviews have included frank and honest confessions about drug addiction, cancer battles, and losing a loved one in a truly brutal manner. I’ve filmed the story of a mother whose child inexplicably tries to eat anything and everything he can, and who required his own special bedroom to be built with non-edible surfaces.
Oh, I’ve ‘dabbled’, alright, but it is fair to say my work has been primarily focused on shouting out about television, film, print, music and web-based stuff that deserves more attention. Hell, you can tell from the photo to the right, here, that I’ve hardly been focusing on reality these last few years.
As such, I hope you’ll allow me this rare excursion into not only writing in the first person, but in tackling a subject which increasing numbers will be coming up against in the years to come: Universal Credit. Intended to merge the six main existing means tested benefits and tax credits in the United Kingdom into one monthly payment, the scheme was announced by Iain Duncan Smith in 2010, and was unleashed onto the general public across the North West as a trial back in 2013.
For most of this period, I was blissfully unaware of such proceedings. After six years in retail, including four in management positions, I’d elected in late 2009 to finally get back to studying, and work towards a degree. My passion for journalism, which had been fuelled by very promising college grades (including an extra A-Level in Film Studies that I completed in six months, doing both years of the course and their exams contemporary with one another), had declined. I was clocking into a job I hated, in a town I hated, for a company I hated, with what little prospects I had for promotion having dwindled away. What had started as a temporary placement to help a problematic store through a difficult period had resulted in three different managers, one of whom was sacked (another was sacked not long after I left), and a couple of charges of theft against employees. I’d been made to stay for two years as a constant, and I was soon tarnished with the reputation of the troubled environment. I simply had to get out.
So I did – eventually finding myself a part time supervisor job with a less frenetic company. By the time they fell to administration, I was already almost a year into my degree in Journalism and Broadcasting. I finished that in 2013: the only person on my course to make it out with First Class Honours. By then, I was working part time in a phone shop, and running my own website, which was bigger than ever. I figured it wouldn’t be too long before I got my big break.
Except journalism is a dying artform, and like much of the creative industry in this Tory-led age of ‘prosperity’, it isn’t what you know, but who you know. Now, I know a lot of high profile comedians and actors, but none of them were exactly in a position to give me a job. I wouldn’t have asked either, as my morals would have taken a bashing from the sheer nepotism of it all. Though a few did try to hook me up with people, and I was very grateful to them for that, I just had to keep at it, and try my hardest to find my way through. I volunteered my services to a brilliant fringe theatre festival to keep my oar in, and gain valuable experience and contacts. Soon, I found that I enjoyed promoting theatre almost as much as I enjoyed writing about comedy, and this opened up another direction I could potentially take myself in.
However, the stresses of balancing all of this with my retail work was dragging me down. The phone company – once a happy environment where the customer came first – had begun its transformation into a more cut-throat, number-crunching environment. Targets were less malleable, more essential to staying in employment, and it took its toll on me. After some time off, I found the situation had gotten even worse, so I elected to leave in December, using up my remaining holiday time to keep me technically employed until early January.
And this, dear readers, is where Universal Credit kicks in. I’d been ‘on the dole’ three times in my life, only ever for a few weeks at a time. The first was when I left college and was looking for my first job. The second was when my job running a record store branch collapsed due to administration. My final run came when the position I took to get out of the retail-store-from-hell I talked about earlier fell through. It was easy enough to understand: I’d fill in a little book every week with the list of jobs I applied for, and they’d not even bother to look at it at the fortnightly appointments to hand over a pittance. I just kept looking for work, as someone who hates being unemployed, and filled the book in just in case I got caught out.
Suddenly, I was faced with what, on the surface, appeared to be a better system. After the slight rigmarole of filling in a form online to get an appointment to book an appointment to discuss work, I started transferring my already existing search records (I keep an Excel spreadsheet, just in case) into their online system. The rules dictated I must spend 39 hours a week looking for work, and show evidence of that when required.
Quite how this was expected to be proven is up for debate – particularly as their online site has a 250-character limit ‘Acitivity’ box for you to tell them what you’ve done that day. With no actual guidelines from anyone, I decided to treat this a little bit like a serious version of Twitter: giving regular bursts of my activities five days a week. I never timed myself – some weeks I may have done more than 39 hours, some perhaps less, but overall, I was working pretty solidly on trying to find work. Where I had once been applying for three or four jobs a week during my previous employment, I was suddenly applying for seven or eight a day.
The online job sites make this a lot easier than you’d think. Most of them upload your CV and cover letter, which only need slight tweaks for the position at hand before you hit the ‘APPLY’ button. Anything with more relevance to my actual career usually required more effort – a fully blown application form, or an online submission questionnaire. I wasn’t being picky, either. At one point, I even went for an interview with a solicitors, who spent most of the hour I was with them dissecting the notion that someone who has spent all these years writing about entertainment would actually WANT to write for a legal firm. They were right, of course, but what could I do? This was my ‘job’ now: to apply for whatever I could to get back into work, and be willing to take whatever was on offer. Besides, I know I could have aced that job if it had been given to me.
It must be said that, at this point, there’s no care for what you’re actually doing from the system designed to look after your jobsearch. The Activity you post on site is glanced over with as little care as the old fill-in books used to be, and while all the advisors I saw were nice, polite and no doubt lovely people, you can’t help but feel like a burden on their time. They’re just ticking you off the list, waiting for the next one to come in. It’s hardly Paulyne from The League of Gentlemen, but things haven’t got that much better just yet.
Nevertheless, as Sheila Hancock was fond of saying in a classic episode of Doctor Who: “Happiness will prevail”. Last year, I’d gone for an interview with a theatre, and almost got the job. That wasn’t too outside the norm – I went to many interviews and almost got them, including ones with massively prestigious companies in the heart of London’s theatre network. I kept coming in second best, because another candidate had more practical office experience than self-starter I. Yet with this particular role, though this was still the case, they remembered me. Suddenly an opportunity arose for ten weeks work with them, which would give me the very experience I was lacking. Truly the proverbial cherry on my cv cake.
It may even lead to permanent employment afterwards. It’s too early to say, but a role may open up, which I can apply for, and provided no-one amazing turns up to do it better than I can, and I don’t screw up these ten weeks, I’m in with a shot. I’m optimistic, if not expectant, and either way I’m incredibly grateful someone is willing to give me this opportunity, because I’d previously impressed them.
But back to Universal Credit. The day after the job was offered to me, I visited the job centre for my fortnightly meeting, which they have the absolute cheek to call ‘Interventions’, as if being unemployed was an addiction. I was congratulated, but told I had to ring the action line to cancel my claim once I had the job confirmed in writing, and interestingly to keep looking for work in the meantime. Confirmation took a few more days, but when it arrived, I called them immediately. It is at this point that things started to go tits-up.
My claim, I was told over the phone, was put into ‘pending’. I didn’t need to do anything further, except attend my last appointment as it was already booked in and the man on the other end of the line was unable to cancel it “for some reason”. Still, after confirming I didn’t need to do anything else now, I resigned myself to the fact that, in two weeks, I’d be starting this new job and, for a few months at least, my worries were over. I began concentrating on getting back into the swing of things – working regular ‘shifts’ at home in front of the computer, on various projects of my own. I had a lot of comedy to promote, as suddenly the people we featured on site were seemingly everywhere. I also had to research my new employers, knowing I only had a week of ‘training’ before the handbrake was off, and I would had to drive my own path. Though I’d balanced a part-time job, my degree and my website for three years, my last full time job ended in December 2009, so I had to get ready, or fall down at the first hurdle.
Oh, but there was that pointless pesky appointment still to attend. In the middle of writing up an interview I’d conducted to promote a top notch BBC comedy starting next week, I had to stop what I was doing, and walk down to the job centre, to sit there for fifteen minutes and do nothing. Even the guy on the phone had apologised for the pointlessness of the appointment, but the system would not let him get rid of it.
As I sat down, the assistant logged into my account, and found no ‘Activity’ for ten days. Shock, shock, horror, horror, shock, shock, horror! Here was a man who, having been more active in their activity documenting than many people probably manage in a year, suddenly wasn’t applying for jobs. Here was a man who, despite having applied for 45 jobs in three weeks, wasn’t applying for jobs. Wait a minute: here was a man who HAD A JOB.
Of course, the job had not started just yet. And there’s the rub. Despite having the contract, and the confirmed work offer, I wasn’t working yet. And despite being told in no uncertain terms over the phone that my claim was closed, but I’d be paid up until the day I started work, I was now being told that I’d broken the rules and wasn’t going to be eligible for credit. A colleague is called over as my incredulousness at the situation begins to become clear.
“Why would I apply for jobs,” I asked, “when I know I’m about to start one?”
“You have to keep applying until the day you start,” came the reply, “because that’s what you’ve agreed to do.”
After they panicked at my protestations and ran off to discuss the matter without me present for a few minutes, I was told that my new job – which has not been advertised, and offered solely to me because I can start work straight away, may fall through. That if it collapsed before I started work, I’d still be unemployed. That, to them, I’m unemployed now, and as such should be applying for work. This is in spite of my claim being closed over the phone, and having a definite contract for work starting next week.
I try to reason with them, to suggest that applying for jobs now, that I wouldn’t be able to take on due to my impending employment, would be a waste of not only my time, but those having to sift through applications. I suggest that, if I was given an interview, their system suggests I’d have to go along. They agree. But what would happen if I was then OFFERED that position? Would I have to say yes, or lose my credit? Even though I had a job I was already signed up to start? I even explained I’d already had one offer of an interview, but when I explained the situation to them, and told them I’d be more than willing to start at the end of April if that worked for them. Quite naturally, they declined, because they’re not mental.
Perhaps in part due to my logical deductions confusing the system plans mapped in their heads, and perhaps because even the lingering security guard had decided to move on by this point, knowing I wasn’t actually causing any trouble, they decided “on this occasion” to accept that I’ve spent the last two weeks preparing for work again, and that would count as my ‘Activity’. I’d get to keep my £77 per week, after all.
It was then noted that my next appointment would be in two weeks. On my ninth day of working a full time job. Surely this would be cancelled?
Their system said otherwise.
I protest that I was told the following appointments were cancelled over the phone, to which I was told that the only way to be certain of that was for ME to ring the helpline. The chargeable helpline, that would keep me on the phone for ten minutes at least to explain the situation. By this point, I’d given up, and resigned myself to do exactly that. It would, at least, give me the opportunity to baffle another government employee.
The reason I tell you all of this now is, as I hope this ‘blog’ of my exploits demonstrates: I’m not a scrounger. I work hard, and I gave up a well paying career to better myself, and do something more worthwhile. It’s not about the money, or I wouldn’t have run The Velvet Onion for five years without earning anything from it. I wouldn’t work for 24:7, who can’t pay me a penny, but I do so because I love the work, I love what they stand for, and I love them as human beings.
Getting this job at this theatre is a dream come true. Sure, it’s currently only for ten weeks, but who knows where it will lead? I’ll forever be grateful for the opportunity, and I know that I’ve been given it because those around me can see how hard I’ve been working to make something of myself, battling the odds as a now 30-year old working class Northerner in an industry primarily run by 40-something middle class Southerners looking for 20-something malleable types. I don’t fit the mould, but by gawd, I know what I believe in, and I’ve battled the black dog and financial ruin to get this far. I’m not giving up now.
And yet, today, I was made to feel like an inhuman statistic. A man who couldn’t be bothered to look for work, despite having found it! I was, to go back to Paulyne Campbell-Jones, a bit of “worthless dole scum”, because that’s how the system is configured. That’s how the staff in these places are MADE to see us. I’m just one of the great unwashed – though granted, I probably shouldn’t have gone in with my hoodie covered in cat hair, on that front. When Universal Credit was brought in, it was meant to signal a change in attitudes as well as logistics, but instead, it’s become a maze of catch-out points that are designed to penalise those who don’t want to be out of work, when nothing is being done about those who don’t care at all. Nothing is being done about the benefits cheats (of which I sadly, know of at least three in close proximity to me and mine), yet as soon as you make a logical assumption based on information you have been given, you’re pounced upon as a fraudster. After all, “You need to know that if you give false or incomplete information or fail to report changes in circumstances, Universal Credit payments may be stopped and you may be prosecuted or face financial penalty. Your call will be recorded for training and quality purposes.”
And above all else… just the notion of wasting people’s time applying for positions I know I can’t take up, is just bloody rude. But then, I guess that’s this government’s outlook in a nutshell, and hopefully I won’t have to go back onto this ridiculous system ever again.