What It's Like to 'Sign On'

15/12/2011 22:51 GMT | Updated 14/02/2012 10:12 GMT

The first thing that struck me when I got to the Job Centre to sign on for the first time was how busy the place was - the queue was out of the door. It is easy to read the rising unemployment figures without really understanding them. When you actually go to sign on, you understand them. Once I got inside the Job Centre, there were not enough seats for everyone to sit down on. As I overheard one member of staff apologetically tell his client, "sorry about the delay, I'm being bombarded from left, right and centre."

In a recent survey conducted in 23 countries by the BBC World Service, unemployment was rated as the world's "fastest-rising worry", with unemployment mentioned by 18% of respondents, six times the number of people who had mentioned it two years ago previously.

Yet in Britain, at least, there is evidence that attitudes towards the unemployed are hardening. Another poll, the British Social Attitudes Survey, found a significant decline in support for the poor and unemployed. 63% of the 3,000 people who were questioned argued that child poverty was as a result of parents who "don't want to work", while 54% of people believed that unemployment benefit - at £67 a week - is too high, up from 35% in 1983.

The idea that we live in a nation of "undeserving" poor and benefit "scroungers" - long peddled by the right-wing press - is seemingly becoming the dominant perception of the unemployed in Britain. However, when you actually go to sign on, you often get a very different impression.

There are clearly a number of problems with the way the unemployed are currently helped to get back into work in this country. At the moment, with unemployment at 2.64 million now at its highest levels since 1994, Job Centres are being stretched to breaking point. If the government is serious about helping people get back into work, they are going to have to double the number of staff and vastly increase the hours Job Centres stay open for. There simply aren't enough hours in a nine to five day for staff to even attempt to cater adequately for needs of each individual claimant that walks through the door.

Another issue is sheer range of people who are affected by unemployment. When I go to sign on there are young people straight out of school, pregnant women, older men in suits, people who don't speak English as a first language, people with learning difficulties and those, like me, who have just come out of higher education. It is little wonder, then, that the advice you receive often seems totally irrelevant to the particular position that you find yourself in. The advisor I spoke to was shocked when I listed my nine GCSEs, while the man in the 'CV clinic' I attended told me I should 'tone it down' if I wanted to get a job.

The impression you get from people inside the Job Centre is not that they are 'scrounging' off the state. You get a sense that people are desperate. The process of signing on at least in part contributes to this desperation. When I first went to sign on I was given an appointment but spent two hours waiting for it, time I could have spent actively seeking work. The room is hot and stuffy, there are signs everywhere telling you violence will not be accepted, and burly security guards walk around staring at you. If you aren't demoralised when you arrive at the Job Centre, you certainly are by the time you leave it.

One of the consequences of the lack of space in Job Centres is a lack of privacy. You sit and wait to see an advisor just feet away from someone else's advisory meeting, and as a result you cannot help but hear the sense of desperation in people's voices. One person I sat next to spoke of their attempts to get a job with his head literally in his hands.

There is an unwritten law amongst people who are signing on that you don't acknowledge each other's presence. You wait in silence, read the paper, get your phone out, but you don't speak to one another, or even make eye contact. I think this because of the stigma attached to being unemployed. I have only been signing on for two weeks, but already I can feel the process affecting my self-confidence. The really bad news in this week's unemployment figures was the rise in the number of people who are long-term unemployed. Even in the absence of much help from the government, like most people in the Job Centre, I'm doing my best get out of there as soon as possible.