My problems with the Job Centre began again the week after I'd completed work experience; by some miracle I'd been permitted to go on it and they'd offered me payment for a weekly train ticket to the location. Unfortunately, as the whole situation was sorted at the last minute, I wasn't able to get to a ticket office to enquire about a weekly ticket while it was open - I tried at the weekend, but it was closed. My trains to work experience were during hours where the office wasn't open, and so I had to pay for a separate ticket each day, which cost me an extra £50. I briefly considered asking to claim this money back, then realised it would probably be a pointless and time-consuming affair, involving me getting the blame for not getting hold of a weekly ticket.
I received a letter in the post informing me that I had agreed to repay any money the job centre had given me for work experience if it had not been used for the purpose intended. Had I? I don't recall having that conversation. All I recall is walking into the job centre the day after I'd been told I couldn't go on work experience because it didn't fit with their regulations and asking the woman who deals with placements if she could sort the situation out. She'd told me she was just about to call the newspaper I was due to work at when I walked in. Somehow I don't think having a chat with a colleague by the printer counts as making a phone call for a customer.
The letter then went on to tell me I had not provided proof of purchase for my travel expenses and I had to do this within the next seven days. The letter was dated two days previously, so that gave me five days. Apparently if I don't do this, I won't receive any further financial support of this sort from them.
Fortunately I had proof of 4 out of 5 days' worth of train tickets still in my purse (the other day, I'd had my tickets eaten by the ticket barriers). The tickets I had, however, added up to more than what I'd been given for travel expenses. So I'll be giving the job centre that proof when I go in next week, and I imagine I'll be told off for not obtaining a weekly train ticket, despite the fact that I was unable to access the ticket office due to the fact that I'd only been given the funds at the last minute.
The minute I sat down with a work coach the following week (my assigned work coach is apparently never in when I am, which seems to defeat the point of her being assigned to me) I was told the benefits system is changing. Instead of fortnightly payments, they will now be monthly. As a result of this, I was being referred to a three hour workshop on money management.
Was I asked if I would benefit from a money management workshop? No. Was I given a choice in the matter? The letter I was handed that told me in big bold letters that if I failed to attend, my benefits might be affected, informed me that I wasn't. Attached to the letter was a flyer about the workshop. "Be fantastic with your finances! Be magnificent with your money! Be brilliant with your budgeting!" Apparently the fact I've been managing my own money since the age of 17 doesn't factor into the equation, and the only concern this woman had was filling a quota for a workshop by handing out poorly printed flyers filled with patronising alliteration.
I considered arguing with the work coach, but I doubted she'd have any knowledge on the subject, so I decided to call the Job Centre Plus number I'd been given on the back of the letter. When I called, I was given a number of options. One of them was targeted towards benefit enquiries. I pressed that option, and was given an automated message telling me to call another number about my benefit payments before being disconnected.
Bear in mind that the Job Centre numbers are chargeable by your service provider, so if you're not on much money and need to ask for help, you're going to be spending your benefits on a helpline. Now, if I was given useful information, I might not mind having to pay for it. But this was not to be the case.
I called the number I'd been given, and this one put me through to a call queue. So the number I'd been given on the letter was useless. After ten minutes of listening to tinny classical music, I was put through to a bored-sounding woman.
"Hi, I'm just calling about a money management workshop I've been referred to, I'm just asking if it's mandatory as I wasn't asked if I needed it?"
Immediately, I was told: "Yes, it will be classed as mandatory."
Now, I imagine this woman would expect me to hang up after being told that. But I wasn't going to give up that easily.
"OK, could I ask why, as I wasn't actually asked if I would benefit from three hours of money management and I don't believe I would?"
The woman paused for a minute. "Hold on a sec, I'm just going to ask a colleague if it is mandatory, let me put you on hold."
Oh, OK, so it might not be mandatory, and if I want to find out the truth, I have to keep probing? Nice.
A minute or so later, the woman came back. "Hi, we don't actually know if it is mandatory, you'll have to ask your work coach."
"But I was given this number on my letter about the workshop to call if I had any enquiries."
"Yeah, sorry, you'll have to ask your work coach, alright, thanks, bye."
All this woman had done was try to fob me off, then put me on hold, ask her colleague next to her if a workshop was mandatory, they'd gone "Dunno," and that's all she'd been able to tell me. Did she make any effort whatsoever to find out the information for me? No. Did she care? Not likely.
I'm astounded that a service that claims to provide help for people getting into work will argue with you about whether you can go on a work experience placement, give you money at the last minute so you have to pay extra for travel, send you letters telling you you've been told things that you were given no warning of whatsoever, shove you onto workshops that will be of no use to you without even asking if you need them, and provide a helpline that charges you money to be told by someone that they don't know the answer to something.
Now I'm facing going back to the Job Centre on Monday to sign on, and having to ask again if the workshop is compulsory. I'll give them my proof of travel to the work experience, and hope they don't find a reason to blame me for not getting the weekly ticket they wanted me to get - bearing in mind I'm not asking them for extra money to pay back what I had to pay on top of it. Ultimately, I could end up sitting in a three hour workshop designed to "help me develop my money skills." What I'd much prefer is for some of the job centre staff to sit in a three hour workshop designed to help them develop their customer service skills.