It’s my third signing at the dole office, our twelfth week and the end of my second slump since we arrived on these shores. At the dole office, the atmosphere’s subtly changed, “You’re late, Mr Nickson” notes Mike when I arrive. Its all the fault of the damned bike rack. The original bike rack, star of my first journey to the dole office has been removed. My friend, the burly Pinkerton security guard, explained that it was because too many people were using it, causing congestion near the entrance. In place of the previous sturdy U-tubes, a device that looks like a prototype of the first artificial ski-jump has been plonked onto the pavement, further away from the door. Use of this contraption makes it impossible to lock anything more than a couple of spokes to the metal. Therefore I copy what everyone else has done, and lock my bike to the nearest piece of railing, tree or lamppost, right in the middle of the sidewalk. Bicycle secured and congestion assured I enter the dole office late.
My signing time is 12.25, and I arrive about 12.27. Mike is still interviewing a previous “customer", whose name is Nicholson – we’re dealt with alphabetically, and there’s nothing private about these interviews, so I know that Nicholson is married and has been unemployed for twelve weeks. I squeeze onto the tiny couch in the carpeted waiting area that has, in another breathtaking, unemployment-busting innovation replaced the open cowsheds of the eighties.
Mike gets me to sign my little form, then asks me what I’ve been doing to find work. I proudly show him the written evidence and the outcomes of the interviews I’ve had in the last two weeks. Mike asks me if I’m qualified as a carpenter, and I tell him that I have discovered that I need to update my qualifications via a test with the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), which I have applied for. My application is among the documents I have shown him. Mike, bringing all his training as a careers advisor into effect proudly declares “You’ll need a CTSC card then”. I agree, the CTSC card being the official card granted after a construction worker has had his or her qualifications verified, or tested by the CITB. Mike produces two poorly photocopied pieces of paper, which he tells me to sign. The first is an agreement that I will attend an Opportunity with an organisation called Learning Direct. This Opportunity requires me to attend a training session with Learning Direct, a consultancy, which will help me identify any training or qualifications I might need to help me re-enter the workforce. The second is an agreement that the benefit I receive may be suspended if I do not attend the Opportunity. I refer Mike to my application for the CITB test, which was issued by Learning Direct, and point out that I have already been in contact with them. I also point out that I am not receiving benefit at this time, and do'nt know if I will qualify.
One human characteristic is supposed to be an ability to learn. Especially when dealing with bureaucracy. One lesson I thought I’d learnt a long time ago is that when interfacing bureaucratic cyborgs, you should NEVER volunteer any information, NEVER ask questions and try to keep any interactions to an absolute minimum.
My seemingly insignificant utterances have broken these rules. Mike’s suspicions are raised and with his “Protector of the British Exchequer” hat firmly on his head, he changes tack with a swiftness that belies his otherwise sluggish fluorescent lit office-tan appearance. It appears he can smell a fraudulent claim a mile off, like a reef shark smelling blood and his gander is up. “Why haven’t you asked about your dole before now? – you’ve been signing on for 5 weeks”. I explain that I was told claims could take a little time, and mention something to the effect that the Jobcentre phone seemed to be on permanent re-direct to a small phone booth on the plains just outside Ulan Bator. “Claims normally only take a week”, Mike triumphantly tells me, “And most people would be in here asking where their money is by now”. His case is solid. “It’s a bit unusual you haven’t asked before now, have you been working in the last two weeks?” he asks, heavy with implication. “No, well yes, I mean – I’ve been looking for a job, that’s work is’nt it? ….”, I’m gasping for oxygen, and sense the need, and perhaps the opportunity to restore our relationship and perhaps now’s the time to ask “…can you tell me what the status of my claim is?”.
Mike, as my Customer Services Advisor, not only advises me on my career, but also administers my claim. He glances at large paper file with my name on it, and then the computer screen. A quick check of the paperwork again. “No, I’ve no idea. Claims usually take a week or so to process”. I push a little harder and ask if there’s any information on my claim that informs either of us. “No, nothing. Claims usually take about a week to process". This all has a familiar ring, but I can't resist "If I did, or was going to, qualify for benefit, how could we tell?". Mike admits that his computer screen would be the harbinger of a successful claim, and would be the first and last place any enquiry could be checked because its linked directly to "Newcastle Records". Eligibility and payments are assessed by automata anyway, and there's nothing humans can do to speed up the process. I ask him if there is, or ever was, any point making an enquiry if this is the case. Mike admits not. The interview is finished. "Anyway Mr Nickson, make sure you attend that Opportunity. And here’s a phone number you should use to enquire about the status of your claim.” I sign up for the Opportunity that I’d already signed up for, (only the Government version will require me to sit in a classroom for four hours and discover what I already know), and notice that the phone number Mike has given me to check on my claim is that of a small phone box just outside Ulan Bator.
Outside the dole office, the mood has changed all round, and Mike’s not the only one feeling grumpy. Spring in Hull has been ushered in by a uniform outbreak of greyness that feels a hundred years old. The consistent dampness of England, which has never really gone away, is emphasised by a series of news stories that also seem to be tired, unwelcome re-iterations of a theme - the English football teams’ dreadful failures in the European Championship, a British Prime Minister (out of ideas and out of time) claiming “world leadership” (this time in combating global warming), ill-advised military adventures and re-invented social blights – “hoodies”, ASBOS, WAGS,problems with the food chain, guns, bank card scams. There's a fin de siecle atmosphere to this country right now - perhaps its just that an election is close. If there was ever a time that the “vision thing” was needed it is now.