Sunday, 17 May 2015

Life On The Dole

I finally got a letter recently confirming my registration as an ‘approved casual worker’ where I can work with children who have had ‘difficult’ childhoods and struggle with their behaviour.

Notwithstanding the joy at being paid to do something that I enjoy there is an even more existential reason for celebrating.

Anyone unfortunate enough to be unemployed and/or on ‘benefits’ will be able to identify; those that have no experience of being in such a degrading situation will, perhaps, have their eyes opened to how the system works.

Let me first say by paradox that it is not degrading per se to actually BE unemployed. However, the treatment meted out to me (and I can only share my experience) was, for me, both degrading and humiliating.

Some background: I have worked for (at the time) the world’s biggest corporation (American Home Products) which owned such brands as Anadin, Anne French, 3 in 1, and Preparation H (yes, that one!). I was, for want of a better expression, a salesman.

I then worked for Allied Breweries, a local catering company and then for Guinness GB (which became Diageo) for almost 10 years. Latterly I was responsible for the Guinness Irish Pub Concept in GB and represented the company in Boston, USA presenting the findings of a study we did in conjunction with the University of Geneva. 

I bought a country pub (the lease of) which was sold at the end of 2005. So far, so very whatever. I only mention this to ensure viewers of ‘Benefits Street’ or Daily Mail readers that I am no long-term ‘scrounger’. 


I returned to Scotland in 2007, after a period of unemployment, (just as my sister was emigrating) to be near my ailing mum who was displaying worrying signs of dementia. My mum died in 2010.

These are only a tiny window into my ‘life on the dole’ experiences.

-      Having separated from my wife in early 2006 (living separately in rented accommodation) I was informed by Job Centre Plus after a year of red tape that I did not qualify for any benefits as I was officially still married and my wife had a job. I also had some savings (from pub sale) and therefore did not qualify for any support. I used what I had and sold possessions to get by.

-      Moving to Scotland, I was told I did not qualify for a council home as I had ‘voluntarily’ made myself homeless – actually, I could no longer afford my rent, didn’t want to get evicted or in debt and needed to be near my mum. So, I couch surfed. After a while I got a council flat.

-      I was denied any support whilst caring for my mum who at times didn’t even know who I was. All my ‘dole’ money went on bills and petrol for taking her out and when she ended up in a secure hospital ward going to visit. Friends gave me food. Eventually, I could no longer afford a car.

-      I sold my car and self-published my book.

-      My heating system at home was ‘so old and outdated’ according to gas engineers who came to service it that out of my £72 a week around £50 went on gas and electric. I went to bed in my coat and woolly beanie. The council finally updated my heating system (which is fantastic and much cheaper now) but in the process damaged carpets. I now have no carpets as there was no budget to replace them or redecorate the plastering where the fire used to be; minor inconvenience I know but these things all affect one’s psychological wellbeing.

-      I often waited around the bin outside the local chip shop to grab any throw-away food. Eventually the bin was removed and so a source of food for me. Friends, again, gave me food, although often I would eat only once or twice a week.

-      I had to walk the (roughly) eight-mile round-trip to the Job Centre as I live in Kinghorn and it is in Kirkcaldy. I was once asked to leave and stand outside the Job Centre as I was 20 minutes early for ‘signing-on’. A month or so later I was given a verbal warning (and told my benefits would be stopped) because I was 5 minutes late.

-      The cheap boots I got once cut my heels so badly one day that I had to walk home barefoot.

-      When my mum died she was to be buried on a Tuesday whilst I was to ‘sign-on’ the next day. I asked if I could be excused from coming in the day after my mum’s funeral. The request was refused as ‘the funeral’s not on that day; it’s the day before’. With my phone on silent, but vibrating furiously in my pocket, I watched my mum’s coffin disappear through the crematorium’s stage curtain; it was Job Centre Plus reminding me I had to come in tomorrow as I had been refused leave of absence and that if I didn’t attend I would be sanctioned.

-      I was given a 13 week placement at a youth club café as ‘work experience’ whilst I also did an HNC Counselling part-time. I argued that I should be given ‘relevant’ work experience but was told if I did not attend I would be sanctioned.

-      I contacted a local foodbank and was told I lived in the ‘wrong’ postcode.

-      Throughout this whole sorry episode and for over three years I managed to do 3 years of voluntary work one night a week although I was ever careful as to who knew because I was often told at the Job Centre that if I was doing voluntary work I was not ‘actively seeking work’ and my benefits would cease.

-      After at time, I felt suicidal, was unkempt, isolationist, and could see no future. The Doctor diagnosed me ‘unfit for work’. I was sent to ATOS who disagreed. I appealed. And after about a year on reduced benefits my appeal was seen by three independent doctors and another professional (can’t remember what her job was) and was told that I was indeed unfit for work.

My long-winded ramble is purely to show how one’s mental state is affected by being unemployed even whilst truly wanting to be in work. And the thing is, my treatment is virtually ‘nothing’ compared to the way many people are being abused (not treated, for it is indeed abuse) on a daily basis.

I also aim to demonstrate that, nowadays, egged on by a compliant Right-Wing media, parts of society see those on benefits as sub-human and undeserving of help. 

It truly feels degrading and humiliating to be in such a position.

And people wonder why I get angry at politicians; why I abhor Westminster; and why it saddens me that people will vote for a Party as evil as the Conservatives and think that Labour (who brought in ATOS, remember) bear no responsibility either.

God forbid anyone reading this ends up unemployed. 

It is the single most degrading experience I have ever had.




  1. Well done, Geoff! Difficult circumstances dispassionately described. You have prompted me to contribute. I recognise a lot of the references in your recent experience, though I've been far less unlucky in my own, far less severe, plight.
    I've been an on-and-off claimant over the last couple of years, myself; and the experience is mystifying. The vagaries of the system are (at the very least) bizarre. Other readers might like to know that Geoff and I worked happily together for several years at Guinness, in the noughties; and, like him, I am not a long-term claimant - having worked pretty much full-time, without interruption for the past 30 years, since leaving University. I am now predominantly self-employed, when I can track down appropriate, gainful work opportunities. Self-employment is another highly complicating factor for the benefits system to try and deal with. My up-and-down income leads to much scratching of heads and sucking of teeth. In my longer income-less spells, sometimes I am allocated JSA; sometimes not ... depending on how the tax year timings and my recent paid assignments have fallen. I don't even bother to try and claim anything else. Sometimes I meet with a sympathetic adviser (most times, to be honest, in fact; although I do tend to get passed around a lot, like a hot 50+ potato) sometimes less so; and I only have to walk a few hundred yards around the corner, when required. I have been fairly lucky.
    I am, in many ways, luckier than Geoff. My 30 years of work have made me a home- and car-owner with savings. Quite rightly, that puts me somewhere near the bottom of the pile when it comes to hand-outs, despite my two dependent kids; and I have no complaints about that. I do, however, find my dealings with 'the authorities' quite Kafka-esque, at times; and my notebook pages, filled with overheard, and sometimes Orwellian, conversations from the Jobcentre might one day make an interesting series of short stories. Why are these sorts of discussions not held in private, rather than in an open-plan office environment? Does anybody know? While I sit on the mysteriously-sticky orange upholstery of the always over-crowded waiting areas, I sometimes genuinely expect to be (unexpectedly!) transformed into some sort of gigantic insect.
    If and when that happens, I will surely write and let you all know... if I can train my antennae to type.


    1. Thanks Des.

      You are, to be frank, one of the last people I can imagine even being in
      a 'dole centre' and that is meant solely as a compliment; and I daren't
      even wish to be a fly-on-the-wall whenever you have been or will be given
      your insect comment.

  2. You missed a lot of Shropshire!