Friday, 12 June 2009

Who Said You Could Have A Free Ride.

It's very easy to be caught in a cycle of unemployment, depression, and unsettled housing, particularly in the face of unsympathetic bureaucracy, as Jane Canning can attest

Jane Canning

Jane Canning: 'My recent job centre interviews have been extremely traumatic, and brought back all the feelings of hopelessness and despair of the 70s and 80s'

I am a single mother and I suffer from depression. I haven't worked since the 1980s. I have been on income support for 20 years, but as a result of the reform to welfare benefits, I have just been moved to jobseeker's allowance. This has caused me even more financial hardship and made my depression worse.

Last week, I discovered I have not received a single payment of jobseeker's allowance since 12 February. If it hadn't been for a small sum of disturbance money received from my last dreadful housing situation, I would actually be starving by now.

I feel lethargic and alienated. It's as though we have returned to the 70s and 80s situation – the signing-on places may have been spruced up a bit but the old atmosphere has crept back. The jobs that pay a reasonable living wage, the ones that won't cause more problems than they solve, are few and far between. They are mainly for those with experience.

I have been summoned to the job centre a number of times over the past couple of years in order to "prepare" me for being put back on the job market, accompanied by an "attend or lose your benefits'" ultimatum, directed at single parents whose kids have reached a certain age.

I'm not someone who has never worked. Up to my mid-20s, from the age of 15, I had several jobs, when employment was plentiful, but decided to get an education, taking O-levels one year, A-levels the next, then a combined honours degree in French and sociology, with a year of philosophy, completing this in 1988, aged 34. Expecting my degree to open up a whole new future was a big mistake. Graduate unemployment was rising fast and ageism was rife, especially in the accountancy profession I was applying for. I ended up lowering my sights and looking for more menial work. I could have papered the wall with rejection notices from that period.

I took a number of those back-to-work courses, which had the main purpose of doctoring unemployment figures to make successive governments look good. Finally, rather than be out of work, I took a job at the end of the 80s, as a temp, which I was wrongly advised to accept by the housing benefit office. This led to me being evicted in 1989 for earning less money for a 40-hour week than I had been on benefits, rendering me unable to pay the poll tax on the private flat I had escaped to from domestic violence.

My recent job centre interviews have been extremely traumatic, and brought back all the feelings of hopelessness and despair of the 70s and 80s. At the time of my interview in January I was due to attend the latest government conference on anti-social behaviour and was invited to train for the voluntary position of community crimefighter – ironic if the government so wants to return me to paid employment. I was made to feel that all my voluntary efforts, and campaigning, have been without value, and that I am a burden on the taxpayer (which I never asked to be in the first place). If I wanted to continue to take voluntary positions I should sign off and starve. I pointed out that society is as dependent on its voluntary workforce as on its paid one and without volunteers, the taxpayer would be paying more for the services they carry out.

I was finally rehoused at the end of 2007 on the grounds of harrassment. I am 54 and have a decent home for the first time in years. It's the first decent house my youngest son, 15, has ever known. If I take paid employment now, and my health fails, I might not have been working long enough to be entitled to sick pay, and am terrified of losing my home again.

The single parent ends up the scapegoat for all society's ills and this is unfair. I have three highly accomplished children. The real problem is in housing. Single parents tend to be housed on sink estates among the criminal element of society, thereby becoming easy prey to those around.

I do understand the anger felt by the employed at working for not much more than you get on benefits. I've been in that situation too once. But this initiative is not going to hit the scroungers as they know the system far better than the victims of unemployment.

I have learned to deal with my depression myself, without tablets, resulting in me having a rather eccentric lifestyle. I am borderline agoraphobic so won't leave the house unless absolutely necessary. I am a virtual recluse, in fact who must, it seems, spend the rest of my days applying for jobs I have no chance of getting, and reporting every two weeks to verify my incompetence not only to third parties, but to myself. On a scale of one to 10, my confidence level is now zero. I feel I am unemployable, rather than just unemployed.

I have a number of questions still outstanding:

• Why is my claim being dealt with by three different job centres?

• Why do I have to sign on almost three miles away, when there is another job centre on my doorstep?

• Why can I not claim bus fares back for this, when we are receiving what is considered to be the minimum amount to live on, yet those fares amount to £6.40 per month?

• I was told I cannot claim bus fares as I am category P and not category T. What are these categories?

• Why is voluntary work considered inappropriate when it could actually be a real solution for the jobless?

• Why, when my son's school situation required me to be absent for a week, was I made to sign copies of a holiday form, even though I insisted it was not a holiday? • Why don't the government have a public thinktank to look into this, instead of just bringing out new measures which have not been properly thought out?

• And why can't they just say "Here's a job. Start tomorrow on a trial basis" instead of putting us through hell? If these jobs really existed they would be able to do that and it would be more humane than what they

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