The story below was sent to UnemployedNet by a jobseeker who was unhappy with the service she received from her local jobcentre.
She was made to sign a blank jobseeker's agreement in a session with others who were also made to do the same thing.
The agreement is an important document for unemployed people; it acts as a contract between them and their jobcentre, and any failure to meet its conditions can lead to benefits being taken away.
Other jobseekers will not be surprised that her complaint about this breach of decent practice was met with a flat denial that it took place.
Longer-term readers will remember UnemployedNet's reports on sanctions targets in the spring; despite official rejections that targets existed an internal Department for Work and Pensions report found that, in some areas, they had been used, meaning a higher likelihood that people would have their benefits removed just to satisfy managers.
As this jobseeker's story shows, those who do not know what they are signing up to are more likely to break their 'agreements', and have their benefits taken away as a result.
The new practice may be a way of setting people up to fail, to find a way of making it easier to remove their benefits.
The UK already has some of the lowest benefits in Europe, and entrenching poverty further by taking them away is a terrible outcome for those who only want to get work.
'If someone put a blank piece of paper in front of you and asked you to sign it, what would you do?
At the least you'd ask what it is -
It's an agreement.
But it's blank - what would I be agreeing to?
Oh, don't worry about that; we can talk that over later. Just sign.
This is actually what happened when I went to sign on, with a room full of other people, for a new claim, at my local Jobcentre. We were each given a clipboard with the relevant documents on and while one advisor took our passports one by one to be photocopied, another asked us to read over our claim information to check that it was right, then asked us to put our insurance number on our Jobseekers' agreement and sign it.
I asked why we were being asked to sign a blank agreement, and the man said not to worry, we would talk through the agreement with our advisor at the next appointment. No-one else seemed bothered, and I'm not inclined to start a big debate, trying to persuade the other claimants, as well as the advisor, that it's a wrong thing to do, so I signed it and told myself I would do something about it afterwards.
Why was I concerned? Quite likely, everyone will, at their next interview, agree to conditions, such as 'I will phone X number of employers/ Apply in writing fro X number of jobs, and there will be no problems.
But what if they don't agree, and think the demands are unfair? They can't take away the signature. At best, the advisor would have to tear up the agreement and start again; at worst, the claimant could be in danger of losing benefits. At best, there was no point in having the agreement signed before the details were added; at worst it is surely a legal nonsense to have an agreement signed, then have to debate what the claimant is agreeing to.
My next appointment wasn't with my actual advisor, but with someone else. My jobseeker agreement never came up, and I can't remember what the appointment was actually for. (By this time, I had emailed the manager of the North London area with my complaint.)
When I did see my advisor, he still didn't bring up the matter of my agreement and was happy for me to sign my fortnightly declaration and go. I asked him about the agreement, and he showed it to me on the computer screen. No-one had discussed it with me at any point and the requirements were already filled in. When I looked closely, I was sure it was the same agreement I had had the previous summer. (I didn't remember having negotiated that one either, except that I had apparently agreed to apply for 12 jobs a week. I am a teacher/supply teacher and I had argued that it takes quite a long time to apply for a teaching job and that 12 a week was unmanageable. She had told me that I should read things before I sign them, but she did reduce the 12 to 3. She then gave me something else to sign and I read it thoroughly, much to her annoyance. After that we got along fine).
My current advisor then told me that it was now 'illegal' to stipulate how many times a claimant should e.g. write for a job, and pointless as most people apply online, and he deleted the entries. So now, apparently, I had no agreement. We also got along fine after this, but I thought his manner was a bit odd. I felt sure that my complaint had got back to the people working in the Jobcentre.
I don't want to get any worker into trouble. The whole thing may have been pretty innocently done, but if so, it was for reasons I cannot fathom.
What reason could anyone give for getting claimants to sign their Jobseekers agreements before they have agreed to the targets? It doesn't save time, or make things simpler.
I know also that the advisors are given targets from above and are under pressure to fulfill them. I can't be sure that this wasn't an attempt to pressure claimants, in turn, to be bound to unreasonable targets for seeking work, and to risk being thrown off the benefits programme.
If, after my email, I had been told that it was a mistake by a Jobcentre employee - that it wouldn't happen again,- I would have been satisfied. But I asked for such an assurance and was told that it didn't happen, so I am not reassured at all.
I have responded to this by writing to the Director General assuring him that it did happen, and have always copied in my MP. The DG has six months to respond. I just want to know that unemployed people are not being treated in this way anywhere. As if there aren't enough things to worry about.
I would love to hear if anyone else has been asked to sign a blank agreement, and what people's views are. Has there been a change in the rules/ law regarding targets on agreements?'