Dingwall Road deadbeat: nine months unemployed in Croydon

By - Wednesday 29th January, 2014

Is the Jobcentre harming those looking for work? Liz Sheppard-Jones has spent 9 months watching her partner trying to navigate through the benefits maze

Image taken by Lydia and used under Creative Commons license.

In April 2013 my partner was made redundant from a job he loved.

As deputy editor of a national sports magazine he’d known that profits were falling. Print journalism is in long-term decline and the web gives fans effortless access to news, pictures and a community of fellow-enthusiasts. For thousands, the choice between a weekly walk to the newsagent or a quick ‘like’ on a Facebook page is a no-brainer.

Two of his team had already been made redundant in a seemingly endless cost-cutting process. He believed the magazine was cut to the bone. Then they came for him.

Involuntary redundancy is a shock and a loss. Any job is more than the ability to pay bills, vital as that is – employment brings camaraderie and the welcome sense of something constructive to do. Then there’s the big emotional stuff: work makes us the mum who takes her daughter shopping for the prom dress, the son who treats his parents to a meal on an important wedding anniversary. Freud may have barked up the wrong tree about everyone wanting a penis, but he had a point about love and work as the two essentials of human fulfilment.

My partner was passionate about the sport his magazine reports, and for sixteen years had been fortunate enough to make a living from his passion. It was going to leave a big hole.

Well-qualified, experienced and professionally-connected, I reassured myself my partner was an elite jobseeker

Our mortgage is insured against redundancy and to claim this protection he was required to join 7,840 other claimants signing on at central Croydon Jobcentre in Dingwall Road. Croydon is one of three London boroughs which have seen the largest falls in unemployment in the last 12 months – although the growth of zero-hours contracts and high numbers in part-time work who need full-time hours mean I give that news only a cautious welcome. Nevertheless, well-qualified, experienced and professionally-connected, I reassured myself my partner was an elite jobseeker.

Every fortnight he reported to be quizzed about what he’d done since last time to find work. He also had to bring written proof that he’d applied for 15 jobs – and that’s a lot, even in a booming economy. That’s where the problems started.

After being told that certain documentation would not be required, he would later discover on arrival that actually, it was. After this happened more than once, he always took a sheaf of paperwork with him. It was the beginning of his suspicion the Jobcentre ‘advisers’ were there to catch him out.

It was the beginning of his suspicion the Jobcentre ‘advisers’ were there to catch him out.

Dingwall Road sends out news of suitable vacancies to each claimant – the difficulty is their definition of ‘suitable’. Expecting people to do whatever they can is reasonable and my partner wasn’t picky – he wanted a job. However, for a journalist to apply for work as a train driver – and this was listed – is a sensible use neither of his time nor that of the rail company’s HR department. But with the threat of punishment (‘benefit sanctions’, meaning cuts or stoppage) for failing to meet your fortnightly quota hanging over you – what are you supposed to do? Wasting time chasing hopelessly unsuitable positions just to hit the target frustrated him more and more, as it did others he spoke to at the Jobcentre.

Image taken by weegeebored and used under Creative Commons license.

Tough-minded and resilient, my partner was annoyed rather than intimidated when asked if he was trying hard enough. But as time passed his conviction grew that the record sheet he had to complete each fortnight was more than a box-ticking exercise – it was designed to trip him.

In reality, within a few weeks of redundancy he’d taken on the unpaid role of news editor of a sports website. Tasked with sourcing three breaking stories per day, he was seated at the table each morning before I left for work, hunting his stories down. He knew it was crucial to stay connected to his field and opportunities within it – which was why he was also active on social media every day. None of this, however, counted for anything as far as the record sheet was concerned.

According to The Trussell Trust 43% of referrals to UK food banks now come from people whose benefits have been cut or stopped completely following failure to comply with requirements.

My big worry was his age. Although employers would understand the value of his experience, in these straitened times he might just look like a luxury they couldn’t afford. That scared me and I knew it scared him too. We talked about it, but he was doing everything he could. We kept the conversation brief.

Uncertainty, depression and drift are bad enough without acute financial hardship, and it is my privilege that my partner’s unemployment did not threaten us with homelessness, foodlessness or poverty. That would be unimaginably worse. Since nothing maddens me more than privilege unconscious of itself, I held this thought tightly.

After nine months, through his professional networking, my partner got wind of a job that inspired him. On the case within minutes, he was instantly selected for interview. On January 16th he nailed it.

So our story has a happy ending, but this has been a troubling experience. The government’s own statistics show that benefit fraud is miniscule, representing just 1% of a total annual welfare budget of £166.8 million, the largest part of which pays for pensions. The Jobcentre isn’t a place you’d go if you had a choice. Respect to the Dingwall Road far-from-deadbeats – every man and woman of them.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • George Harfleet

    Good ending to this stressful event.
    I sincerely hope that all goes well in the new job.

  • blath8@googlemail.com

    Having had similar experience, my partner didn’t bother to sign on the second time he was made redundant, preferring to dedicate his time to full-time job hunting in his area of expertise. Similar to your partner, he was well qualified, oodles of expertise and some good connections. Working with agencies, trawling papers and online, it still took nearly 10 months to secure a position. Agencies can be very slippery and present the same job several times with different job titles, and sometimes you’re not sure that they’ve even put your CV forward for a position. CV’s are often scanned by computers now so if you don’t have the right buzz words in the right place, it won’t even be seen by a person. So what about all those years of experience? They never get to be seen.
    Another bugbear is that my partner doesn’t have a degree. If he had gone down this route 25 years ago (at general college going age) then anything that he would have learned about computers/technology would be completely and utterly useless in today’s world. So his experience is what would have been much more beneficial to any employer, yet his CV’s weren’t even submitted because he didn’t have a degree …..

    • lizsheppardjourno

      Hi there – so many people have been telling me about these kinds of issues since this piece came out and it’s clear that the way Jobcentres deal with unemployed professionals is extremely flawed.

      There’s also been debate recently about ‘life-expired’ qualifications (which seems in due course to be all of them except for the most general and I’d argue therefore most useless in career terms – such as my English degree). You’re right – any qualification delivering specific technical/IT skill is going to be out-of-date in time – often in a pretty short time – but we are asking young people to in-debt themselves for many years past the actual value of the course in order to gain these qualifications. And yet it’s clear from your partner’s experience that the value of the course is there…..just because a box is ticked. If it’s not, your talents go to waste.

      None of this seems like the way to create a skills-driven IT-literate workforce and a thriving 21st economy.

  • http://www.pearshapedcomedy.com Anthony Miller

    “Since nothing maddens me more than privilege unconscious of itself, I held this thought tightly”

    Yes, because all the inequality in the world is due to privileged people who dont know they are privileged. The Bullingdon Club of course have no idea they are privileged. If only the left wing were to go around in sackcloth and ashed all their days then the Bullingdon would start to question the £3,500 cost of their uniform. “Ah,” they would say, “we are privileged. If only someone had pointed this out before we would have addressed it. If only someone in an ivory tower had pointed out that we live in an ivory tower sooner then we could have swapped ivory towers.

  • Jules

    I actually had a fairly positive experience at the Dingwall Road job
    centre – much better than I was expecting. I too would class myself as
    ‘professional’ and although it took me just over 7 months to find a new
    job, I never felt pressured or that they were trying to catch me out. I
    had to apply for 5 jobs a week, which I found easy to keep to (although
    obviously there are some fields with more jobs than others). Also, I
    didn’t have to apply for jobs outside my field and the advisers I met
    with all seemed nice!

    On the flip side, I did feel that the some of the systems could be improved – mountains of paperwork to get through and about 5 letters in the post every time
    something changed. And information about some of the ‘other’ benefits
    unemployed folk are entitled to wasn’t forthcoming. It was only by
    chance that I discovered that if you’ve been unemployed for over 3
    months you’re entitled to half price tram and bus travel, and when
    you’ve been out of work for over 6 months you can get half price
    National Rail. Both of these continue when you get a job if your
    discount card hasn’t expired, which has been very useful for my Zone 1-5
    travelcard into central London, especially when waiting for that first
    pay cheque!