Monday, 20 September 2010

Job Centre

Counsellor training should include a mandatory trip to the Job Centre, not as an observing group but as individuals going in on their own, sitting in the waiting area, using one of the job search computers, experiencing. Very few counsellors will find themselves on the receiving end of the Job Centre and yet we train on those people who can’t afford to pay for counselling – largely the unemployed. Read the following for a vague idea of the experience.

Job centres have changed from the filthy, vicious halls of humiliation they were, spit guards protecting ill-trained people from the frustration of those they shamed. The proposal that spit guards be removed was greeted with howls of fury and fear from those civil servants who believed claimants were wild beasts. Strangely enough when the spit guards went the spitting stopped because the civil servants started behaving better.

Now, the physical environment isn’t bad at all: pleasant, open surroundings, staff with name badges happy to point you in the right direction and help when you’re kept waiting for your appointment. (If the claimant is late for their appointment they will be treated punitively. If the staff are running behind time it doesn’t matter.) But there are always people there who should not be. The levels of florid mental illness can be extreme. Confused shouting, attempting to comply, failing. Wandering weepers, being gently led outside. The staff have learned to treat these people gently because confrontation swiftly leads to often catastrophic (and entirely avoidable) violence. On one occasion, a demonstration of a peace pipe ceremony which brought out all kinds of staff outrage about indoor smoking.

People this confused or distressed are not suitable for work, they are probably entitled to much higher levels of benefit and certainly mental health input but because they haven’t accessed the appropriate service they just keep getting put through the unemployment system. Being unwell, they will miss appointments and get their benefits cut to £40 a week adding to their distress. Only when they become dangerous to others will they be given access to the mental health system.

Job Centre staff get 5 weeks training which evidently contains no discussion on not abusing power. Most are perfectly pleasant, happy to have a quick conversation about how optimistic you are. Never, ever be anything other than optimistic. Being realistic about your poor education, your inability to speak English, your depression simply switches on the disapproval. There are always one or two staff, very well dressed and with what they believe to be a professional manner, who make a point of being unpleasant. They’re bullies. The only way to get past them is to optimistically agree that you’re not doing enough, accept their banal advice and not point out that there is no ‘w’ in ‘counsellor.’

Job Centres do not exist to help anyone find a job. They are processing centres for the correct distribution of state benefits for the unemployed. As long as you go through the processes you will continue to get benefit. If you step out of the process you will lose entitlement. Getting a job is not the point, being processed is.

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