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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

A Case Study in the Bureaucracy of Unemployment Benefits

Saturday, January 30, 2010

This is a true story about how the jobseekers' benefits system is counter-productively bureaucratic. 

Steve is 35 years old. He had been in work since leaving college, gradually moving up to a pretty good position in a computer firm, in a full time post. However, he did not get on well with some of the office politics, and so when his daughter started school eighteen months ago, and his wife returned to work, Steve decided to resign from his post, hoping to find some part time work that would fit in with caring for his child. Longer term, he hoped that the career break would allow him to switch from a career in computers, to one in the environmental sector.

In the meantime, Steve took up voluntary work, firstly with the British Trust of Conservation Volunteers, and then subsequently in a local Wildlife Trust. Steve's skills were an asset to both charities, and he became a contracted volunteer officer, still unpaid but in charge of supervising other volunteers. This is a common route into paid employment in the environmental sector (it is the route, in fact, that my partner, who works for BTCV and who told me this story, took after leaving university).

Lo and behold, last week and at short notice, a one-year post with the Green Space project, run by the same Wildlife Trust, came up. It was part-funded by the Department for Work and Pensions, and was intended specifically to be filled by someone who was long-term unemployed. Steve seemed the ideal candidate. He went into the Wildlife Trust office for a chat, rather than an interview, since they already knew full well that he would be ideal for the post, and suitably experienced.

Steve then phoned the Job Centre in order to get them to fulfil the relevant paperwork. After hanging on the phone for an hour or so, and speaking to several different people, all of who told him, wrongly, that he needed to contact the Wildlife Trust (which he had already done) he was referred to the Department of Work and Pensions. Later that day, they put a call through to the Wildlife Trust. Steve was not eligible for the job, they said, because he had not been claiming Jobseeker's Allowance for a year.

This was true. When Steve had left his post, he had opted not to claim Jobseeker's, because it was his decision to quit work for family reasons, and because he thought that he had a good chance of attaining paid employment again soon. Steve did not want to burden the state by demanding money to support himself.

And this was his failing: Steve had refused to become a statistic. He had, quite handily from the government's point of view, kept the unemployment figures one person lower than they would otherwise have been - and this must be true for many thousands of people who are not in employment, but who choose not to claim benefits. Nevertheless, he had been unemployed, as his voluntary records at the two charities could testify. He did want a new career, and this new job was his lucky break. Although work in charitable organisations tends to be project based and short term, invariably charities find a way to keep on their best staff, even if it means shuffling them onto different projects.

Instead, because Steve was not a statistic, Steve will continue to be without paid work. He may well decide to claim Jobseeker's Allowance, costing the taxpayer more - if he does not find a paid job soon - than it would have cost for the taxpayer to part-fund this one year post which would likely have led to ongoing employment. Steve was, understandably, devastated to have been a phone call and bureaucratic piece of paper away from employment. The Wildlife Trust were angry, too, because they will now probably have to fill this position through recruiting outside, rather than taking on an existing volunteer. Everyone is a loser in this circumstance; and it illustrates neatly but unfortunately the absurdity of unemployment and the way the system is skewed bureaucratically. It fails to see that unemployment happens to people, not statistics.

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Posted by Alistair at 8:34 am


Anonymous Joe Pritchard said...

This is pretty widespread; I've worked freelance all my life and am staggered at how the state seems to work very hard to make life difficult for anyone who chooses not to 'sign on' and claim benefits.

I'm involved in a couple of third sector projects myself, and have seen this happen more than once.

1:08 pm  

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