from a job centre

what it's like to work in an inner city job centre

Friday, December 01, 2006

Better Off Calculations

We have a meeting this morning, so we all sit in a circle. I am next to my vast colleague who is wearing a pink jumper and matching sparkly scarf. 'How nice you look,' the manager of our section tells her encouragingly. 'That colour really suits you, you look like a model.' That statement would have been true if three more words had been added: 'Of a hippotomus.'

Pleasantries over, we get down to business. We have been ordered to promote Better Off Calculations to our customers, and that is what we are going to do from now on. What are Better Off Calculations? BOC, as we call it, is a computer programme which aims to show our customers that they are better off in work than when living on benefits. You put in details of their expenditure, such as rent and council tax, then put in the amount of benefit they receive, (including things like housing benefit which pays their rent for them) then the amount of money they can earn, and the programme works out if they are better off going to work, or remaining on benefits. It also takes into account the cost of child care, and knows how much council tax is paid in various London boroughs. (Clever stuff).

But should there actually be a choice? Surely, if someone is well enough to go to work, and sees a job they can do they should be made to take it, or have their benefits stopped? Or am I the only person who thinks this?

However, we are to offer this service to every customer we see, and not only to those who have a particular job in mind. The form we are given to be filled in by all asks them how much they think they could earn, and how many hours they would like to work. (Not a particularly good idea).

My first customer today is a single parent with two children. I give her the form and try to explain what BOCs actually are. I'm not sure if she understands, because throughout my explanation she only stares at me open-mouthed. (When I first encountered this stare I thought I had sprouted another head, but now I'm used to it). But she does make an effort at filling in the form, and when she hands it back to me I see that she wants to work for twenty hours per week, and earn between £25,000.00 and £30,000.00 per annum. So would I, and so would half the country. This from a twenty-three year old woman who has no qualifications and has never had a job in her life (she was pregnant when she left school). I ask her what job she thinks she could do that would give her that money and those hours, but receive only the open-mouthed stare in return. So I do the BOC, print it off and hand it to her. At least she can write her shopping list on the back.

Then comes another customer who has never worked, a forty-three year old man with a mental illness. I'll say only that he was abused by members of his family, because, believe me, you don't want to know any more. He would like to go to work, but sadly accepts that he probably never will. I don't do a BOC for him, it would be cruel. He tells me that he has been to visit his father in prison at the weekend, and his father refused to see him, which upset him. Neither the father or anyone else in the family ever really wanted him, except to use him, sometimes literally, as a punch bag, but he can't accept it, saying only that they must have been 'sick' to do what they did to him. I make no comment on this, as I think otherwise. The description evil b......s comes to mind.

The next BOC goes to an obese woman in her thirties who is suffering from various medical conditions. With high dudgeon, she tells me that she recently consulted a doctor privately (paid for by her sister) who told her that her painful backache could be cured if she lost some weight. Trying not to laugh, I give her the BOC form. This woman has only ever worked as a cleaner, and with her disability benefits she'd hardly be any better off if she worked, which is fine for her as she clearly doesn't intend to. While filling in the form, she tells me how much she misses her own country, Brazil, but I doubt if she'll ever go back there - she knows when she's on to a good thing.

I keep on handing out BOCs for the rest of the day, as do my colleagues, and I get quite adept at doing them, but they don't cause anybody to rush out and get a job. However, we have achieved our target, of them, and earned some Brownie points. BOCs could actually be quite useful, but only if someone had a specific job in mind with a known wage. Then, they would know with certainty how much better off they would be, (or not) and could make plans accordingly. Meanwhile, targets are, as always, the most important thing.


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