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My experience at Wembley Job centre
I am 47 years old and have never claimed a penny in benefits in my life. I have worked since I was 17 only taking 6 months maternity leave for each of my 2 children.
When I was made redundant on 6th July 2008, the last thing on my mind was signing on for job seekers allowance. However as time went on and it was clear I was not going to be able to get another job that easily I realised I would have to claim job seekers allowance in order to help us pay the bills and eat each month. I first registered my claim on or around the 9th September. I called the free phone number to register the claim and I found them very helpful and efficient. (or so I thought at the time) They made me an appointment to see an advisor at Wembley Job centre on 17th September.
As I walked into the building in St Johns Road, Wembley, I immediately felt very uncomfortable. It is a very large building full of empty space. There are 2 floors and it is not at all clear when you walk in which floor you want. Anyway, I found my way to the correct place and told a very unfriendly, unsmiling person that I had an appointment. I was told to take a seat and someone would call me. After about 10 minutes a lady called me. She did not introduce herself to me, tell me what she was doing or explain the process of claiming to me. I was feeling very uncomfortable. This interview only lasted about 5 minutes, she just printed out the information that I gave when I registered my claim and asked to see my passport (which she made a copy of). She asked me to sign to say the information she had was correct. I was then told to go and wait in a different area for someone else to call me. Again, no one explained what was going on or what the next person was going to do. After sitting very uncomfortably again for about another 5 minutes (which seemed like 60!), I get called. Again, the man did not introduce himself, smile or explain what he was doing. I later learned that he was an advisor drawing up my "job seekers agreement". He had a script and boxes to fill on the screen and he was not able to deviate from that at all. He asked me to tell him my qualifications. By that I automatically assumed he wanted to know what experience I had and what type of job I was looking for. I was wrong. I was rudely interrupted when I started telling him about my experience. He said he wanted to know what GCSE's I got a school. If he had paid the slightest bit to attention to the person who he was talking to he would have realised that I did not take GCSE's, they were O levels in my day. Having got over that hurdle he came to the bit about "do you speak any other languages". I answered that I didn't. He then went on to ask if I spoke Guajarati. Again, I answered "no". He then went on to say "you live in Wembley, so you must speak Guajarati". By this time I was getting very distressed at the conversation. I found his comments were not amusing but very racist. I was nervous and so I just said nothing at this point. Then he got onto the type of job and salary I was looking for. He informed me that I had 12 weeks to find a job of my choosing, after that if I wanted to continue to receive the allowance I must apply for and take any job they suggest even if it is at the minimum wage. He also said that I have to be prepared to travel within 1 ½ hours of my home. I told him that would not be possible as I would not get home in time to collect my son from the after school club but he was not interested. By this time I was very upset. He then came onto the last part of the job seekers agreement, which was my signing on day and time. I was informed that it would be every 2 weeks on a Monday at 3.50pm. I told him I couldn't come at that time of day as I had to collect my son from school at 4.00pm. He said the times were selected at random and there was nothing he could do about it. I would just have to get someone else to collect my son as it was only every 2 weeks. I did explain that I didn't know anyone who would do it and whilst I was working I paid for child care but as I was not earning I couldn't do that. Again, he wasn't interested.
Eventually I came out of my first encounter with Wembley job centre. I was shaking and almost in tears.
A few days later after I had had chance to think about what happened; I called to ask if I could change my signing on time as I had no one to collect my son from school. The person I spoke to was very helpful and after I explained the whole situation he said I should come in and speak to the manager to make a complaint. He made me an appointment for 1.50 on 22nd September. When I arrived there was no record of my appointment. I waited 20 minutes whilst they found out who I should be seeing. Eventually I was called by a very nice lady who said she had been asked to see me to go over my job seekers agreement and re- arrange my signing on time. She was very sympathetic and agreed that it was unreasonable to expect me to come to sign on at the time I had to collect my son from school. She also revised the travelling time to within 30 minutes rather than the 1 ½ hours previously. This was all fine except for the fact that I had said I wanted to make a complaint about the person I saw previously. I wanted to complain about his racist comment and his unreasonable requests. I also wanted to complain about his attitude. The lady agreed with me and said she would put notes on my file but I had to make an appointment to see the manager. I said I thought that is what I was here for and I couldn't keep coming back. She then said she would give the manager the notes and ask her to call me. There was no call back or acknowledgement of my complaint until I went there on 6th October for my normal signing on. When I got there I was told to go upstairs to see someone. I went upstairs and told the receptionist I was told to come here for an appointment he said no one could see me as my appointment was 9.40 and it was now 10.00. I pointed out that 10.00 was my normal signing on time and I was told to come up to see someone. Eventually, again after about 10 minutes the manager came out to see me. She asked me to go into her office. She was very apologetic about the receptionist and about the fact that she hadn't contacted me. She asked me to tell her again about what happened on my first appointment. Again, she was very apologetic admitted his comments were inappropriate and said it was being investigated". She said unfortunately, the staff have a habit of treating everyone the same and not as an individual and admitted there was a training issue. When I left the job centre after this meeting I did feel rather relieved. My next signing on was rather uneventful and relatively quick, except I said I would like to start my own business and could they offer me any advise. I was told that I have to be claiming job seekers allowance for a minimum of 13 weeks, then I get a review appointment and I can discuss it then. You obviously can't do anything to help your self inside these 13 weeks! However, this was not to last. Two weeks last at my next session the advisor I saw said I had filled out my job search sheet incorrectly and if I couldn't do it right "I was just wasting his time." I apologised for any mistakes and for wasting his time and corrected the search as he wanted it. On the 3rd November, I started doing some unpaid work for someone I knew from my last employment. He was setting up a business and wanted me to help him. If the business took off he would offer me a paid position and back pay me anything owing. When I went to the Job centre to sign on on the 17th November, I informed the person I saw of my unpaid work. He said I needed to complete a job and earnings form and that they would wonder why I was doing unpaid work. I explained that I was doing it with a view to a permanent job and also because you meet other people and you never know what it might lead to. Whichever way it worked out it was better than just saying at home. He also said if I could do unpaid work then they may want me to work where they choose. I really couldn't see why but I was trying to stay calm and not be upset. When I looked at the form I realised it was all about how many hours you are working and how much you are being paid. I told him again I was not being paid. He said it is still the correct form. I then asked him for an AB1 form as I needed it for a mortgage insurance policy I have. He said he didn't have one as the job seeker brought it in themselves, he only knew how to stamp them. He suggested I asked at reception. Reception not only had a stock of the forms they said each customer services agent should have them and know how to fill them in. Anyway, the girl on reception kindly completed it for me and stamped it as requested. As I didn't understand how to complete this job and earnings form I had been given, I called the head office in Belfast. They told me the form was incorrect and all I needed was a letter from my employer to say what I was doing and that he wasn't paying me. So I filled out the form as best I could, just writing "unpaid" in all the places they wanted to know how much I was earning and took it back along with a letter from my employer to my next session. My next signing on day was 1st December. I duly handed in my job search. He told me that I had an appointment for my 13 week review on 18th December at 9.40. Then I told him again about the unpaid work and handed him the letter and the form telling him what Belfast had said. He went away to ask advise. Then another man came over and said Belfast was wrong I did need to complete the form. I told him I had done so the best I could but as I wasn't earning anything I couldn't declare my wages. He asked me to take a seat in the waiting area. After about 10 minutes he came to me and said "you have to come back at 11.30 today". (It was 10.30 at this time) When I asked what for he just said to discuss various things they weren't happy about. I said I couldn't come back today as I had other appointments. He said I had no choice and then asked me what my other appointments were. He refused to tell me why I had to come back anyway. I said I assume it is because you don't like me doing unpaid work, however I told you about it two weeks ago so why was it not mentioned then. He refused to answer any questions just insisted I came back. During the time I was arguing with him a security guard was standing next to him. I am 4ft 11 and the man I was talking to was over 6ft. exactly why did he need the security guard next to him? Except maybe to intimidate me? I then insisted on seeing a manager. He said he was a manager. I said I would like to see another manager. He said she was busy. As I was walking towards reception, I met the manager I had seen a few weeks ago. So I spoke to her. She was aware I was waiting to see someone and she said her colleague was just coming. Someone did come to see me a few minutes later. When I asked why I had to come back she said there were some questions with my job search. On one day I had written, I looked on the job centre plus website and there was nothing suitable, yet they found a job that they say was suitable. Except they wouldn't give me details. She re-arranged this appointment to the following day and agreed they would pay my travelling expenses as it wasn't my signing on day. Later that day she called me to rearrange the appointment to the Wednesday. I already had an appointment at the time she wanted me to come. Again she asked me what appointment I had. Now I had just about had enough, and I said "Please don't think I am being rude to you, but what I do in my own time is not your business." Eventually she called me back with a suitable time on the Wednesday and gave me the name of the person I was seeing. When I arrived there they had no record o my appointment and even though I told them who I was seeing they kept me waiting 20 minutes whilst they tried to find out about it. Eventually I was called by the person who I said I had the appointment with. She apologised but she had no record of the appointment and she had to get my records. She gave me a different form to fill in about my unpaid work and also asked me to complete a form for a detailed description of my job search for the last 2 weeks. In the job search I had provided them I had put down that I had applied for 2 jobs during this period. Somehow this wasn't good enough. I asked for some advice at this point as I wanted to start my own business. I was told that as soon as I start my own business I would have to come off job seekers allowance as it was only for those actively seeking employment. When I pointed out it may be a while until I make any money, I was told it may be possible to get a loan. I said it was not a loan I was interested in as I didn't want to get into debt. After a bit more pushing on my behalf, she said there was a course a Neasden job centre about starting up your own business and she would see if she could get me on it. She did call me the next day to confirm she had booked me a place on the course. I had to leave as I had only paid for car parking for 1 hour and as they had kept me waiting for 20 minutes I was running out of time. I agreed to complete the relevant forms and post them back to her. She agreed to call me and tell me about the course. Then I asked for my travel expenses. I was told I they would not pay car parking expenses, just public transport. I told her it was £4.50 to come by train or £1.50 in the car park. Again, she said they would have paid my train ticket. After a few minutes of arguing, she said they would pay for my parking if I produced my ticket. I had to explain it was a pay and display car park and as such I couldn't give them my ticket. Finally, she agreed to give me an expenses form and I would send in my ticket. Once again, I left the job centre demoralised and upset. The next day I received a letter from the compliance department of Willesden Job centre. It said there may be things that I haven't told them so I have to attend a meeting on 10th December. At this meeting I have to produce 1. Passport 2. Last 2 bank statements and building society books and statements 3. details of any other income I may have 4. Details of any other savings which I may have including ISA,PEP's shares, National Savings accounts, Premium Bonds. Income/Capitol bonds, Post Office accounts or any other accounts which I may have. 5. Tenancy agreement 6. Employment details.
At this point I was so upset. The letter implies I am trying to cheat and commit benefit fraud. I called Miss Brown, whose name was on the letter to enquire about this appointment, I was told it was "just a standard review". I asked if every single person who is claiming job seekers allowance has to attend these meetings after 12 weeks and she declined to comment by saying she "was just doing her job."
I felt I had been bullied and victimised by the Job centre ever since I started claiming my allowance and I was not prepared to deal with it any longer. I wrote a very strong letter of complaint to Sir Leigh Lewis, permanent secretary for the DWP and to Wembley Job centre and decided to put all my time into starting up a new business without the help of the job centre. I decided to come off the job seekers allowance and forfeit my mortgage insurance too. A few weeks after my letter, I had a call from the manager of Wembley Job centre, very apolpgetic and asked me to come for a meeting with her. At the meeting she told me that it was still possible to claim Job seekers allowance whilst starting up your own business as you are seeking employment for your self. I also found out it was possible to back date my original claim to the date I stopped work. She gave me a form to fill out for this. When I asked why I wasn;t told about this, she said they work from a script and unless you ask they wouldn't tell you.
Anyway, I am now once again signing on every 2 weeks, but with only one of 2 people who know who I am and have my notes. The last time I went there they couldn't have been nicer. Sir Lewis sent me a very nice letter back and I got the impression my complaint was delt with fro up high!
The summary is that the Job centre is not a nice place and the staff are of poor quality. But do not take their nonsence and make sure you complain if youare not satisfied!
Wow, what an ordeal, I'm so glad you had a happy resolution to it all! Although your experience does sound shocking, I have to admit I'm not surprised - I worked for the NHS for 15 years, which was a real eye-opener regarding government inefficiency, and am now disabled and having to be a patient of the NHS and an Incapacity Benefit recipient, and both of those situations have been a nightmare. At least I don't have to attend the benefits office, as I am housebound, but they've managed to lose just about every form or letter I've sent them so that I've had to keep re-writing and re-sending repeatedly, and as for the NHS 'care', well, similar to yourself, I had to complain to the Chief Executive and the Healthcare Commission in order to get anywhere regarding investigation and treatment! Good luck to you with your new business plans!