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Hillsborough Justice campaign - Remember the 96.

Thursday, 29 March 2007

Bike training

I'm training for a longish bike ride right now. Some pictures of our environs follow. Also check out Circles, the previous post, my latest encounter with the English benefit system.
Bike Training


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.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Quarterly Report

The photo album is a snapshot of some of the stuff that's happened since we arrived here. I won't make this post overlong, so just a quick update on what we're up to and where we are during the year. I've included details I know of some of you guys. Please feel free to post your schedule - maybe a few people's locations will overlap and can hook-up.

Nel: Gave first talk in Liverpool yesterday, went very well. She's off to Edinburgh in July for a conference and off top Italy in late August for ECVP conference, then over to Canada, also in August. In the meantime, she might be going to NOva Scotia to work on our house, but given her work schedule, maybe not.

Martin: Cycle ride Round Cheshire (May 5 - 7th). Nova Scotia early July to fix up house and sell. I'll be in London, Ontario sometime this year, but do'nt know when, for my court case.

Joanie: Marathon in Scotland in August/ September - Joanie maybe can post the correct dates as I'm hoping to hook up with her.

Carl and Tracy : Idaho in July.

Margaret, Sal, Jane and sundry other Large's: Brittany in July.

Various England March 2007

Thursday, 15 March 2007

My first signing

Time has flown since my last post, and lots has happened, including two job interviews for me as a teacher of "How to bang nails into wood" (imminent and very looming), Nel's got to go to Italy for a conference(poor thing), and Liverpool have made it through to the last eight of the European Cup. All of which pre-amble leads on to further introduction ,namely to say that Nel's disappearance from these pages is not due to anything more sinister than that she's preparing a talk for presentation in Liverpool next week, and is very busy. Nel's been rehearsing the talk in our office at night while I 've been watching dreadful television. Knowing that this is a pretty stressful time - her first talk in the UK, and endlessly vigilant for the wellbeing of my best friend, I have half an ear and a quarter of an eye on Castaway (don't ask), and four sixteenths of my attention on the mumblings coming from the office , on guard in case Nel needs anything. Do'nt be completely decieved by this ceaseless devotion to my life partner of twenty plus years - at least fifteen thirty seconds of the rest of me is a typical man and hopes that she'll get frustrated by the whole endeavour, give it up as a bad job and decide to sneak out to the local pub for a quick pint. Unfortunately for me, and for the information for those of you who never have witnessed Nel in full pursuit of a goal or emporer penguins marching across Antartica, single-minded concentration and determination are only vague linguistic approximations when it comes to the aforementioned creatures pursuit of said goal - the true effect is much more primal than "single-minded".

Still and all, like the true Catholic I am, I keep waiting for something that's never going to happen, and am all alert when I keep hearing "allo", "allo" coming from Nel's lair. I rush in when I hear this, suspecting that madness has overcome her and she's greeting invisible guests. I have the phone and I know she's alone, so who is she talking to? After this has happened for about the fourth time, Nel's getting visibly upset with the constant interruptions, but I'm still concerned, so I lurk outside her door,earwigging, and the truth is revealed (although I question whether truth gets revealed or just lies low and reveals itself, often at awkward moments). Nel is, in fact, a brain scientist and has been struggling over a section of her talk which describes several areas of the brain. One of these areas is called LO. Fortunately for me, and devotees of shaggy dog stories, LO is'nt (I do'nt think) an area that deals with language recognition. After I understand this, another marital crisis is averted and Nel goes back to mumbling, blissfully frustrated by her task.

I successfully completed my claim at the dole office and guided my career councillor through the options available to me. After I had explained to "Mike" (it was'nt the original cyborg after all, alas), what a Further Education Lecturer did, and explained the process of qualification needed for this career, we quickly assessed his career options. It appears that with Mike's qualifications and career record, the 730-2 NVQ Lecturer in Further Education qualification may be useful in furtherance of his aim of becoming a "Life Consultant", because presentations skills are emphasized. Even if this does'nt work out for Mike, he'll be ok, because his job is secure due to the continuing press of the great unwashed and unemployed, so we decided he should just go for it, and approach his employers about working part-time while he studies. Mike was really enthused by the end of the meeting, and I left feeling pretty sure that he'd be making that vital first step towards his new career that afternoon. I got my new signing date and went home.

A final note this week on language and website madness. While trawling the internet researching possible job options, I came across a word which ought to join "wellness", "stakeholder", and the use of the phrase "issues around", in the Plain English Hall of Shame. The word, which I have to copy and paste because I cannot bear to type it myself appears on the 'renewal' website thus:

Worklessness is a less familiar term than unemployment to describe those without work. It is used to describe all those who are out of work but who would like a job. Definitions of worklessness include: unemployed claimants; those who are actively out of work and looking for a job; and those who are economically inactive.

As for the website madness, I have joined the madness. My website, which is being edited and written at this very moment, is an attempt to get my portfolio on line. It is an attempt to address my issues around worklessness, and I would request stakeholders or any interested parties to view it and provide feedback.

Thursday, 8 March 2007

More madness

Well after the adventures described in Website madness, I thought it would be unkind to leave the tale incomplete - who was it said "A start, a middle and an end". As it turns out, my previous post was only the start, this missive represents the early middle, and the end is some way off.

Chosen career number one, Adult Education Lecturer, is in a state of suspension. I have applied for, and been accepted on a course starting in September that is designed to convert my experience into teaching qualifications. The Little Yellow Application form has worked its magic, and I am also at the end of a shortlist to actually get some work if a position becomes available. I should add that the phrase "shortlist" in a country of 60 million people is oxymoronic.

Chosen career number two, Home Inspector, is also in a state of suspension, although this career choice is cryogenically frozen until someone discovers a cure, rather than just a year or two off. This is due to a combination of our finances, and possibilities of the next UK government messing with the Home Inspector scheme, thus making any contemplation of investing in this training the least sensible idea we've had since Nel and I attended dance classes and agreed that the man (i.e. me) should lead.

The conclusion is that I actually now will be returning to the building site (at least metaphorically if not an actual building site), as soon as possible, because we need money. Having taken several days to have a magnificent sulk about this "should have been obvious" necessity, I also decided to register for the English version of EI. The Englsih version was known as Unemployment Benefit (UB), but is now the friendlier sounding Job Seekers Allowance (JSA).

NOTE: Some countries have Reciprocal Agreements (RA). These agreements allow a person who has contributied to the EI scheme (EI CONTS) in Canada (CAN)to transfer these EI CONTS to the UK National Insurance Scheme (UKNIS) and get paid JSA money. It can be expressed as follows:

EI CONTS/CAN * (RA + UKNIS) = $$$ where $$$ = JSA and EI CONTS = loads.

Applying for JSA means revisiting the website of my old friend, JOBCENTRE PLUS. Undeterred by my previous experience I log-on, thinking "Dishing out benefits is their specialist area, this will be a snip". Alas, as the bard quoth, the plans of mice and men "aft gang awry". It looks promising at first, as I scroll to the page that says "How to claim benefit".

This page describes quite a few things - how the "expert staff can help you find a job", how I might need to meet a personal advisor if I want to claim Maternity Allowance and that I can find out about the NEW DEAL (Tony Blair's brainchild) at the Jobcentre, but frankly it is scant on detail on "How to claim benefit". Almost bereft, actually, but I do divine crucial information, namely that I should phone my local Jobcentre in Hull. At this stage I would like to invite any Canadian readers to take part in an experiment which will not cost them a penny, although it may cost them a little time. The experiment is to locate the Jobcentre in Hull, and try to telephone them. The results are amazingly consistent, regardless of whether you call during opening hours or not. In an effort to reduce unemployment statistics, the office has developed the simple but effective ploy of not answering the phone. Ever.

Having managed a workforce of fishermen on the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia I'm not about to be deterred by this transparent tactic, so I bicycle down to the JC PLus office to find out more. Being back in the UK means that I remove both wheels, lock them to the bike rack(making sure that it IS firmly embedded in concrete), remove the seat, panniers, lights, water bottle holder and water bottle and give a pound to a nearby youth to "mind me bike". Twenty five minutes after arriving at the JCPlus Office, I'm ready to enter. Inside the office, a burly Pinkerton security guard denies me access ("No entrance without an appointment, sir"), but gives me a badly photocopied piece of paper. It strikes me that badly photocopied pieces of paper are a developing theme in the UK, and maybe I could get work as a photocopier saleman. I also wonder why he bothered saying "Sir" when he really meant "Workshy scrounger". No time for pondering though, because the paper gives me a freephone number, which I am invited to utilize in order to further my claim. At last! The Holy GRAIL!!

The phone call to process my claim actually took an hour, and was either semi-automated, or I was talking to a cyborg. Two days later, I recieved a fourteen page booklet, which I am now thinking about completing, featuring the same questions as the cyborg asked, plus a few bonus questions. One of these bonus questions is "Have you come to the UK from Montserrat after 1995 because of the volcanic activity?". Page 5 features the question "Are you being held in custody until a trial?". I answer NO to both these questions, especially the second one, which I think is a trick question, designed to snare dumb criminals, because I realise that if I had been held in custody and then escaped, my first instinct probably would'nt be to go straight to the dole office. Also, if I had stopped to claim benefit during my flight from British justice, any chance of showing a clean pair of heels to the pursuing cops would be have been badly impaired by the three day wait for the form, not to mention the traceable phone call.

Later tonight, I might take this form down the pub, and fill it out over a few quiet pints. I'm promised an interview on Friday to review my claim with a special Careers Advisor. Part of me wants the Careers Advisor I am to see, to be the person I was trying to get information from last week. My accent is still, regretably, a commentable rarity round here, and I have no doubt that person would remember me. I'm now convinced that she's a kind of "tough love" genius and her apparent uselessness of last week was actually a complex initiative test. By getting this interview, I think I've passed, at least the first part that test. I hope she's impressed, I certainly am, by which I mean that my dealings with British bureaucracy so far, have certainly made an impression on me.