I don’t know how many of you have read Jared Diamond’s work, but in his fine treatise “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”, a main tenant of the gentleman’s work focuses on(perhaps I should have said ‘talks about issues around’) observations that the collapse of seemingly viable, complex civilisations – Maya, early Norse Northern Atlantic colonies in Iceland and Newfoundland and Easter Island – were immediately preceded by those same societies having to manufacture increasingly Byzantine, labyrinthine (and any other ‘thine’ you care to mention as long as its bizarrely complicated), solutions to the problems caused by each societies’ own existence. In the case of the Easter Islanders, not much is known about the causes of collapse, just that they went from a flourishing agricultural society capable of carving and erecting huge statues to a cannibalistic group wondering what went wrong as they chopped down the last tree for firewood. My own theory is that they decided to tackle the problems of survival on this tiny Pacific Island by opening a Jobcentre Plus.
Recent contacts with the Jobcentre have been immensely complex and have involved so many of their staff, from call centres in Newcastle, the Six Counties, Liverpool and Hull, that my current ‘six degrees of separation’ (AKA the Kevin Bacon game) score must now be reduced down to three or four degrees. The issue at hand at the moment is whether I qualify for Job Seekers Allowance or not. I undoubtedly am seeking a job, so no problem there, and conversely I am undoubtedly unemployed and in sufficient need of money that I’ve signed up for the YouGov website – a British Government scheme whereby you answer on-line surveys and get paid £1.00 for each completed survey. Of course, I adopt a completely different persona for each survey I complete. I’m either a vegetarian Australian or a Green Oil tycoon, so I try to keep my anarcho-syndicalist credentials alive but the money just keeps rolling in.
The debate on my receipt of Job Seekers Allowance involves the Reciprocal Agreement between the UK and Canada. In short, if I qualify in Canada for EI, this qualification should transfer to the UK and I get paid JSA, at the princely rate of £50.00 per week. The historical background of this agreement, clearly, is that the British Empire ruled Canada for a time and murdered many of its indigenous people, so it’s a kind of Danegeld. Strangely, the British also murdered the French Canadians in their millions as well, but Quebec is excepted from this scheme.
Unfortunately, it appears that for the cyborgs, processing a claim involving Reciprocal Agreements is tantamount to approaching a Magnetical Imageometer Resonatorister machine. An MRI whatitsname thingy-magig is the fiendish instrument that Nel and other boffins power up every morning as they enter their mountain top laboratory- lots of coils, and test tubes and big power breakers to throw, accompanied by diabolical laughter and the unkempting of hair. Within the vicinity of MRI’s, the cyborgs central processing units shut down, transistors blow and smoke issues impressively from unlikely areas. Consequently, any claim involving RA is just too much for the Jobcentre Plus to handle. The result, for me, is that when I received my badly printed Decision, it informed me that I would not qualify for dole because I had not made enough National Insurance Contributions in 2005. RA was not mentioned. Careless of me not to have made contributions to the English National Insurance Scheme, my only excuse being that I was in Canada. I resolve to sort this mess out.
I call the phone box in Ulan Bator, and it is answered first time (!!!!!!!!!!!), by someone who sounds rather cold. Inexplicably, and demonstrating either the impressive optimism of the human spirit, or my own stupidity, my hopes soar – an answer, I anticipate. I explain my problem – namely that I think there has been a mistake processing my claim, and it should have been reviewed under Reciprocal Agreements (RA). Silence. Then a faint crash. “Hello, is anybody there…?”. The line comes alive again with a different voice, stronger, obviously a more robust Series II model “Hello, Claims Section Leader, can I help you? ”. Claims Section Leader deals with the thorny subject of RA swiftly “We cannot answer your question, all we can do is look at your claim and tell you what decision has been made”. I venture that this is exactly the same information that the badly printed letter gave me, and if thats all she can do, there's not much point in us talking. Claims Section Leader agrees. An impasse has arisen, if impasses can arise. This impasse may have been manufactured though. I’m really hesitant now, but I enquire, doggedly, if I can talk to anyone who can give me any information at all? (Hope, by the way, has now buggered off to join Time, who is sunning herself on a beach (the place Time usually retreats to when it realises you are wasting its sole saleable commodity).) Claims Section Leader reluctantly informs me that it can pass my enquiry onto Decisions Sections Leader. These are the units that made the Decision. Can I telephone them myself? No, that’s not allowed. Decisions call you, the customer. Usually within 24 hours. So, I pass my phone number on to Claims Section Leader, who suddenly becomes human and chimes “Good luck with that!”
At first, like a sixteen year old prospective “datee”, I check the answering machine every single time I return to the apartment, even if I’ve only been to the laundry room (our on-going battle with Steven Hall, (neighbour, and author of the excellent novel Raw Shark Texts) to obtain washing machine time from the solitary, broken machine in these apartments, is the stuff of legend and possible subject of another tale). As the days go on, I check the phone’s connections, check the batteries, call the Talking Clock (a British Institution, occasionally the subject of ferocious debate in Parliament) to make sure the phone is working, but five days later, Decisions still have not called. Like my putative datee, I’m embarrassed and annoyed. And like my sixteen year old, I plan my revenge.
My plan is to hit them with their own weapons, namely a badly photocopied piece of paper and a letter written in excruciating Plain English. Admittedly, these are not WMD’s – certain countries would be embarrassed to call this a proportionate response, and the Irish part of me fantasises about the six-pack, but I do have other things to do. Like attend an interview at the Natural History Museum. I decide therefore to delay my revenge until my next signing date, and focus on the welcome horizon of potentially being in a state of post-worklessness.
And on that note, ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to the Travel to Interview Scheme(TIS). TIS is the British Government’s assistance programme for people who are in a state of worklessness (on the dole) who may require financial assistance (money) perchance they happen upon an jobseekers opportunity (interview) in a far away place while receiving help and advice (signing a badly photocopied form every two weeks) from Jobcentre customer service officers (cyborgs) in returning to the workforce (being forced into a crappy minimum wage job because times up on your 28 weeks of below subsistence benefits). Let me further introduce you to the 38 page guidelines on issuing travel warrants, the product of TIS, which can be found at:
These guidelines, however, although available via the National Archives, are not generally available to any jobseeker (work shy lay-about) wishing to take advantage of this scheme. Instead, there is a buried reference on the Jobcentre Plus website – precisely one sentence, which advises a jobseeker to contact the Jobcentre if they want to know more about this scheme. So being in the position of worklessness, and having been unexpectedly thrown a lifeline in the form of an opportunity in London, but still desperate for help I again contacted the Jobcentre this week “for more information”, and was ultimately amazed by the response.
I head down to the Jobcentre for an appointment to discuss the TIS and possibly get some help with the journey (Friday train tickets in the UK from Hull to London are £125.00– God Bless privatization and its endless efficiency!) The conduct and the outcome of the interview blow my preconceptions (and possibly future blogs) out of the water. Friendly, helpful, pleasant. Chatty, vibrant, vivacious. Encouraging, witty, devastatingly charming. Intelligent, accommodating, supportive. I'm not describing myself here, but Danielle, my human customer services officer. And "Yes, we'll pay for the ticket. Good luck". I am astonished by this contrast with my other encounters. What possible reason could be behind this volte-face? I’m still reeling, when Danielle, reveals all “The best part is, if you get this job, you won’t have to come here anymore”.
I clutch my travel warrant – free train ticket, yippee! – preciously, checking repeatedly that its secure about my person, like Tracy Helmick Taylor heading for a plane journey, and bicycle away to meet Nel. I don’t really care that the only time the cyborgs have been helpful is when they sense that you may no longer be a blight on New Labour’s economic miracle, I’m off to London. I consider taking one of the cats and wonder if I could do a better job as mayor of London than Ken Livingstone. I also wonder whether the excelllent Mr Diamond really had to travel to Easter Island to uncover examples of civilization boggling complexity. He probably could have just signed on for the dole.