Friday, 3 January 2014

The Tories want to help strivers? Like Hell they do!

There is a lot of talk coming from the Government saying that they want to ‘make work pay’ and help strivers get on but their talk is just that – talk, hot air and no substance.  You may think that this is nothing but me taking the opportunity to slag off the Tories again with no real evidence to back up my comments; however, I can relate a personal experience that proves the Tories to be all hot air and flatulence when talking about wanting to help people on sickness benefits back into work.

As regular readers will be aware, I am a benefit claimant.  I have been migrated onto Employment Support Allowance (ESA) as a member of the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) and, as such, have to attend work-focused interviews every three months or so with a view to getting into some kind of work related activity.  My first interview was cancelled because the Disability Work Advisor was on sick leave – oh the irony!  I was waiting for a letter informing me of my next appointment date when I found a teacher training course at a local college that might help me up-skill, get a better qualification and might open up a new avenue for employment opportunities.

On the advice of the Employment Specialist that I was working with from my local mental health trust, I approached the college with a view to getting further information about the course and was invited by the course tutor to go for an informal chat on 12th December.  I was fully prepared with everything I could possibly need to show the tutor so that I could secure myself a place on the course which begins on 8th January.

I immediately booked an appointment with the Disability Work Advisor at the Jobcentre Plus (JCP) to try to access the funding that is available to help people such as myself pay for training or courses that can help improve my employment chances.  I was given a date of 19th December.  I was informed that I should bring as much information about the course and the associated cost to the JCP interview.

The interview on 12th December could not have gone better.  The tutor and I seemed to get along well enough and, thanks to the voluntary work I have done in the past, I was able to impress the gentleman with my knowledge and enthusiasm for the course and the possible career it could lead too.  He believed that my experience with writing and delivering course content at Anglia Ruskin University would stand me in good stead and, despite my confession that I had not got the funding to pay for the course at the time, the tutor offered me an unconditional place on the course.  The tutor even gave me a copy of the form offering me the place on the course to help me get the funding from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)  I was sent home with a pre-course task to perform – a short essay about what I thought the role and responsibilities of a teacher are.

I let the elation of the successful interview at the college wash over me for a couple of days before I set about writing the short essay and e-mailing it to the tutor on 15th December.  Surprisingly, I received a very quick response and it was as glowing a piece of feedback as I could have hoped for given I was making a lot of assumptions on what would be considered the ‘correct’ answer.  He wrote:

This is an excellent warm up for the course, Miles, to the extent that I think you well be able to use much of it in your start to Task One in January.

You have already identified key issues, such as the teacher as facilitator, the important role of assessment, the need to focus on potential, the central role of CVPD and the key principle that it is the learner who is the most important in the whole process.

You also submitted it more than a week ahead of schedule, which all bodes really well!

Very well done - I shall add a few comments to printed off copy and return this to you in the first session.

I do hope the funding works out for you.

All the best

The only obstacle to me being able to attend the course was getting the funding to pay for it so I set about collecting the evidence I needed to take to the JCP interview.  I collated the information on the course I was given at the college interview, the prospectus, the course costs information, the form offering me the unconditional place on the course and the feedback I received from the tutor to the pre-course essay I sent him.  I collected the copious work I had done for the university to prove that I was already performing the duties for which I now wanted formal training and printed out some information from the Welfare Reform Act 2012 that I felt would seal the deal for my application for funding.

On the 19th December, I went to the JCP interview with an optimism that I rarely allow myself to have.  I believed that, as I was doing what the Tories wanted of me, I would almost be assured of the funding as I was showing that I was a striver.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.

I sat across from the advisor, not the person who would usually be handling my case because she had only just returned to work, but a similarly mobility-challenged person and I laid out all my information on the course and associated costs thinking that it would be an open and shut case.  The advisor was indeed impressed with the amount of supporting paperwork I had brought and then told me that it was not enough.  You see, dear reader, no one had told me that I had to take evidence of potential jobs that I could go for if I was successful in completing the course.  The phrase “guaranteed jobs” was used and quickly replaced by the phrase “potential jobs” when I pointed out that there is no such thing as a guaranteed job at the moment regardless of the type of employment and that, therefore, providing evidence of ‘guaranteed jobs’ would be impossible.  I also pointed out that the qualification was only the first step on the teacher training ladder and that there would be very few prospects for work with such a low level teaching qualification but that it would be my highest qualification should I get it, making my employability that much better.

He seemed to be genuinely upset at having to give me the bad news but his hands were tied and he was empathetic when I became upset when he told me that I probably would not get the funding in time anyway.  Apparently it takes up to two months to get a decision about funding a course because the decision makers are in Chelmsford and with the Christmas and New Year period coming up, they would not have time to see if they could source the training elsewhere for cheaper.  I pointed out that there were no other providers of the course I was trying to get the funding for and at £350 the training course was good value for money.  He replied that the Government has a list of providers who the decision makers would have to check through first.  I countered that statement with the fact that the Welfare Reform Act 2012 states that relevant work preparation requirements included “participating in training” and did not specify that the training had to come from Government/DWP approved providers.

He stated that I would have to go away and get the information on potential jobs to strengthen my case for the funding and then wait the two months for a decision, even though that meant that I would lose my place on the course and I may not get another chance, because £350 is “a lot of money”.  I had to laugh at that statement, coming from a member of staff of a department led by Iain Duncan Smith who has pissed over £40 million up the wall on a computer system that does not work.

Although apologetic and empathising with my plight, the advisor had to tell me that I would not be getting the funding I needed from the DWP and I left the jobcentre thinking to myself that I should not have even bothered.

You would think that, if the Government really does want to help strivers, there would be a system for fast-tracking claims for small amounts of funding so that people who want to improve their employment prospects can do so.  Yes, the Government cannot be seen to be throwing money at people but, if a person has gone out and found themselves a course or some training at a relatively low cost, has evidence that they have a guaranteed place on the course and shown some aptitude for the training, surely it would be to the advantage of the DWP to provide the decision and the funding quickly.

To make people jump through hoops to get even a small amount of funding is counterproductive as, in my case, I could have lost the opportunity of taking the place I had been offered and, therefore, ruined my chances of up-skilling and opening up better prospects for future employment.  Without the qualification I may obtain if I am successful in the course, I am unlikely to have many options for jobs and, therefore, less chance of getting a job that will enable me to sign off of benefits and start paying into the system that I am relying on at the moment.  Of course, there is no guarantee that things will improve if I get the qualification but things certainly will not get any better if I do not.

I do not like being on benefits.  I doubt anyone on benefits likes being reliant on State assistance.  Being on benefits, however, does not mean that one does not strive for a better life.  It seems that most of the British public believe that benefit claimants are ‘skivers’ and ‘scroungers’ when most of us are actually strivers; it is just that the system is designed in such a way that when opportunities arise for those of us who can take advantage of them, the system fails us, turning its back on the strivers amongst us and then branding us ‘skivers’.

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