Having become unemployed at the end of July following the completion of the funding stream and project that had in the main paid my salary, I feel like I am existing in a parallel universe. All of a sudden I have become some kind of second-rate citizen.
Your many previous years of hard work become irrelevant, and every time a government minister accusingly uses the phrase ‘hard-working people and families’, it feels like a stinging barb has been fired into your body, even though you know that you are doing everything you can to seek that elusive new job.
Managing Queen’s Mill: a wide-ranging and rewarding role
For the past four years I was the programme and centre manager at the iconic Queen’s Mill, an historic flour mill with over 1,100 years of history that is the home of Castleford Heritage Trust. The mill has been significantly renovated over the last eight years, creating spaces for community, cultural, heritage and business use with a wide range of exciting tenants.
Whilst my job specification was – shall we say – extremely wide, one of my key roles was the sourcing, overseeing and monitoring of a large programme of events, exhibitions, performances and an extensive range of community activities and groups. I have enjoyed every single minute of this role and I hope I’ve been able to bring pleasure, learning and fun to people’s lives.
One of the great joys was working with the amazing creatives across the full spectrum of the arts. I so miss this, as well as the small staff team and numerous volunteers who give of their time so generously.
Supporting the community through the pandemic
For the last two or more years there was another very important element to my role. During the early days of the Covid pandemic, Queen’s Mill became a support hub working in conjunction with the local authority and voluntary sector partners arranging food bank deliveries, prescription collections, a community library and much more.
This led to us eventually becoming a ‘Help at the Hubs’ centre, working with a series of partners in trying to alleviate the worst of the financial problems that people had suffered from during the pandemic. Little did I realise that their situation was potentially going to deteriorate rapidly with the current financial crisis. This situation brought me into regular contact with those in need of help, some in quite desperate need.
Experiencing the problem from the other side
I am ashamed to say that occasionally the thought went through my head: ‘How on earth is that person living like that?’ or ‘Why don’t they do something about it?’, often without me knowing their full circumstances or background. It is something I am not proud of, and little did I know that I would eventually find myself in very much the same circumstances.
The truth is, to find yourself unemployed in the midst of the current crisis is a scary, unpredictable situation over which you seem to have little control, even if you consider yourself quite capable and knowledgeable.
There is much spoken by politicians from all sides, and far more written on social media by all and sundry, about unemployment and universal credit. I thought that it would be useful – and also quite cathartic – for me to outline here my journey from 1 August to date.
25 August: unemployed
The first thing I did was to become the proverbial ostrich and bury my head deeply into the sand, believing my own publicity that I would very quickly find another post. How wrong can you be?
It was not until 25 August that I actually made a claim under universal credit. Even though I had supported hundreds of people who were claiming this and other benefits, and even worked with good friends who relied on it to top up what were very limited incomes, I was still embarrassed to do so. I won’t make that mistake again.
Anyway, the claim was made online. For me, it wasn’t too much of an ordeal, but for many I would imagine it would be a nightmare. One thing I have learned over the past two years is how many people don’t have access to a smartphone or tablet or Wi-Fi in their own homes.
I have come across numerous cases where people go to shopping centres, libraries or even pubs just to be able to access the internet. Many of these people have very little in the way of digital skills, which is a problem when completing online forms and even more so when trying to apply for jobs, which in themselves often require a reasonable level of computer literacy.
There are of course the usual suspects who believe that these are all lies and that the unemployed all have top-of-the-range mobile phones and tablets. After some 18 months of processing supermarket vouchers for people who have neither, nor necessarily the aptitude to use them in the first place, I can confirm this is not the case. And it shocked me.
I suspected the issue would be with older people only, but that is far from true. Many were still using the old Nokia style phones which is fine for calls and texts but not for anything else. The whole process of claiming any benefits or other extras is extremely daunting for many people, it really is.
26 August: proving my identity
On 26 August, the day after making an online claim, I had a telephone interview in order to confirm my identity. This was followed by uploading my house tenancy agreement and council tax and utility bills to prove my housing costs. This was to become a major problem and one which is still ongoing.
27 August: entering the online benefits world
Yet another telephone interview, this time on a Saturday. You begin to think at this stage that your life is never going to be your own again. The interview, though, was quick and helpful and I have to be honest and say that throughout the last few weeks everyone who I have dealt with has been extremely helpful and pleasant.
Once your claim has been accepted, you’re given an online account, which according to the government is used to:
- keep a record of the things you’ve done to prepare or look for work
- send messages to your work coach and read messages they send you
- report a change of circumstances
- record childcare costs
- provide details about a health condition or disability
- see how much your universal credit payments are
- check what you have agreed to do in your Claimant Commitment
I’m not sure how this works for those without access to equipment or Wi-Fi or those who are not computer literate.
I was also informed that my first payment would be several weeks away. There appears to be a five-week gap from making a claim to receiving the first payment. An advance is offered but I would imagine for some people repaying this out of their universal credit only adds to their financial and other worries and problems.
31 August: visiting the job centre
The first of my weekly visits to the job centre began on 31 August. Once again, my regular contact there is very friendly, helpful and reassuring. She has been able to point me in several directions including working with the local authority and the Reed employment agency. At present I have several online and 1-1 sessions booked with them.
A major drawback to the system is the length of time it takes to be informed how much you will be paid. It wasn’t until nearly the end of September that I was told how much I’d get on 3 October. And to say that came as a bit of a shock is probably the understatement of the year.
There are two things you probably need to know. The first is that I am in receipt of a pension from a previous employment which totals around £430 per month. Despite having paid into it for years it is classed as capital not income and is therefore deducted in full from any universal credit received. Had it been classed as income I would have been able to keep at least part of it.
The other pertinent fact is that I live in a privately rented three-bedroomed former council house – a semi-detached property – and pay £750 per month. I’m now 63 and, having divorced four years ago, I don’t anticipate being able to buy a property again. This is something that worries me. But when I moved here a year ago, it never entered my head that I wouldn’t be in the property for years to come.
Anyway, it transpires that the ‘Local Housing Allowance’ in my area limits the amount of universal credit I can receive as a single person to £394.98 a month. That is just enough to rent a room in a shared house in Wakefield if you’re lucky, but not much more. A two-bedroomed terraced house now fetches £625–£700 per month. The government’s limits bear no relationship to the reality of the situation.
After all this, I received the grand sum of £277.06 in universal credit. For all those who appear to think that universal credit is for many a lifestyle choice, for most people it most certainly isn’t.
Job hunting has been the most demoralising part of the entire process. I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that being 63 and having worked for more than 20 years in the voluntary, heritage and cultural sectors, has not put me in a good place.
One thing I have noticed is that, probably due to the pandemic and the recent transport disputes, many employers are stressing that potential employees must have reliable commutes (I don’t drive due to having suffered from epilepsy when younger) or be willing to relocate prior to taking up employment.
I have now applied for a dozen or more posts and, while I do have several others in the pipeline, so far I have sadly had no success.
A system of placing people into poverty that can happen to anyone
This is purely my personal situation and there are many, many thousands in far worse positions than me. However, if I can find myself in this position, anyone can.
I am hoping that my unemployment is a temporary situation and that normal service will be resumed soon. With regard to financial short-falls, I have a meeting scheduled with the Citizens Advice Bureau, as there may be a chance of a payment from the local authority. But even this so far short-lived struggle with the system has been draining and depressing. I can now truly empathise with those it was previously my job to help.
When you hear sections of this government talking about reducing benefits in real terms, this is not ‘weaning people off’ benefits; it is placing people firmly into poverty and even homelessness at a time of a cost-of-living and energy crisis, some of it as a result of this government’s own failings.
Let me send them a personal message, not just on behalf of myself but for the 4.8 million households who were relying on universal credit in some shape or form in November 2021: enough is enough.