My experience working in a job centre call centre as it transitioned from taking Income Support claims to pursuing people on Employment and Support allowance; looking for any reason to remove their benefits.
I became employed by the Department for Work and Pensions in July 2014 as part of an apprenticeship scheme that saw hundreds of people hired across the country. I initially had reservations about applying for the job as I have serious concerns about how the DWP carries out its business; however, being unemployed at the time, application was mandatory. Initially the job was to take inbound telephony claims for Income Support and Jobseekers Allowance.
During the period of training and first few months I managed to calm my conscience. My training providers talked about how we would be helping people, who were often vulnerable, in their time of need. I was even able to bend the rules a little to help as much as I could. I once spent about an hour helping one woman who was struggling with intense anxiety. Anxiety that was only exacerbated by being declared fit for work during a benefits reassessment. She cried through the entire call.
Despite this I kept hearing snippets of the attitude that many staff members held. People were willing, even excited at the chance to end calls and refuse to take claims. They subtly, but surely made it clear they felt the claimants were beneath them and not to be trusted.
About two months into my contract the entire contact centre got called into a meeting. A bunch of suits told us of exciting times to come, the end of the drudgery of taking claims. We were transferred to a small but growing part of the DWP. The group made outbound calls to people claiming various benefits. The purpose of these calls was to use information gleaned from other government departments to try to find reasons to remove people’s benefits.
The response of my colleagues worried and distressed me. There was excitement and anticipation. They couldn’t wait to get stuck in and take money back from the scroungers. The particular scroungers we were tasked with chasing were sick people, ESA claimants.
A month had to pass before we were due to start the training for the new job. I tried to tell myself I would help whoever I could, that I had bills to pay so I had to do the job. But the feeling of disgust at what I would have to do would not go away. I began applying for other jobs.
I discussed my fears with my manager, I told her that only 0.7% of money spent on benefits is lost to fraud, I told her amount of money withheld from deserving claimants dwarfs the money lost to fraud, I told her I thought it was abhorrent that we would accuse poor sick people of fraud. She told me to suck it up.
I got much the same from other colleagues I talked to. “Who cares they deserve it.”
Finally the first day of training came. I saw first-hand the people who would be my bosses and the mentality they held. In a speech that lasted over an hour the head of the department spouted ideological bullshit, the crowd lapped it up.
She told us that, since its creation, her department had saved enough money to buy an entire new hospital (Or fund tax cuts for the rich I thought).
She told us how the work of one of her team had ended up on Saints and Scroungers, and if we worked hard enough we could too. (She thought appearing on that disgusting show was a good thing!)
She told us how people were often scared off benefits after receiving a phone call even though no fault could be found.
She told us how members of her team rarely took their full holiday entitlement; they loved hounding the benefit scroungers more than they loved a vacation.
I quit the next day.
We must challenge the prevailing attitude that has taken hold of our Job Centres . The presumption of guilt must end, to the assumption of idleness must end, and the ideological dogma ruling our Job Centres must end. These people are supposed to provide a social security, instead they only serve to provide social ostraczation.
Perhaps this is too much to ask. Not long ago I bumped into a former colleague, he described his new job to me as “Giving bums and hobos a hard time.” Apparently he thought this would help them to “Sort their lives out.”