Thursday, 14 February 2013


Not in employment, education or training? What are we going to do about teenagers and young adults who are sitting on their thumbs, literally waiting for the other shoe to drop?

Off to Hackney Community College then, where I find a modern campus sharing space with Victorian brick buildings, an NHS presence, a bright cafeteria and young people scurrying from one class to another, intent on their studies, yet nervous about being too cool for school. It was ever thus.

The College offers training in everything from Brickwork to Sciences, Mastic to Asphalt, Hospitality, Fashion and Textiles. If there ever was a college rooting for its pupils to learn something, be it poetry or the practicalities of life, this must be it.

Many of the students are in the traditional 16-18 year age band I associate with finishing secondary education but a lot more are under 25's and older, trying to get qualifications that they did not get the first time round.

What surprises me is that the number one problem for young people gaining qualifications while signing on for work in Hackney is this. The different agencies often don't work together to keep these pupils in education, training or employment. Au contraire. They work against each other.

Some case studies then, not specifically linked to Hackney Community College. Just war stories of kids I have seen recently.

Yasmin was in care, but now she studies Beauty and Therapy while she looks for a job. Stop sneering when you read that.  It gets her out of her flat, she goes to classes and meets people her age, it gives her confidence. Yasmin will surprise us all one day, she has a feisty gleam in her eye.  In the meantime she might paint some mighty cool nails and earn a salary. She sparkles.

Yasmin is allowed to claim  Housing Benefit while studying  part time -up to 16 hours a week in the benefit rules. The college knows that, which is why her course involves 14 hours a week of classes and guided learning.

Sadly, those funding the college define a full time course as more than 13 hours a week of classes, and guided learning. So the letter the college give her to give to Housing Benefit says that she is on a full time course. Thus her rent has not been paid for a year and she is going to be evicted next Tuesday. This teenager is frantic with worry.

We apply  to Court  at the very last minute, and yet again it is just enough, just in time. A year's rent is deposited into her landlord's coffers. She's not going onto the street this time.

Joelle plugs away 15 hours a week on a catering  course while she looks for work. She takes some computer classes, looks on the internet and send off her CV's, but the truth is that with youth unemployment rates sky high she has had very little interest so far. She hopes that by acquiring qualifications she will improve her prospects. Surely she's doing exactly the right thing?

Perhaps the Job Centre is frustrated because she has not yet got a job after six months signing on. Their targets must look bad. Out of the blue it calls her and tells her she has to sign on on Wednesday, during her classes. If she attends class she will lose her Job Seekers Allowance- and the Job Centre can tick a box by lowering its claimant count. If she leaves class to sign on, she will be fail her class and have to drop out of education. Then she will have no employment, no education or training ("NEETS").

After another six months on the dole the Job Centre may have the bright idea of sending Joelle on a training course to improve her back to work skills. It will only last a few weeks, she will be told again how to write a CV, and she will not get the qualification that employers require, but hey, the Job Centre can tick another box that says it supported her by parking her on what is for her a junk course.

The Student Welfare Officers at Hackney Community College are a deeply impressive bunch. They know the problems the students face, the insecurities and stigma heaped on students without jobs. The three advisers share 1.6 full time posts, but all are legally qualified to give OISC approved immigration advice (far more rigorously policed than any other professional qualification with accreditation exams every 3 years- suck that up all you doctors and stockbrokers). They know what's wrong - but lack the resources to battle a bureaucratic avalanche.

The Law Centre laid off one in five jobs at Christmas. I could blow our trumpet and say that, with more than 100 years of accumulated legal experience of advice giving among our staff, we can ride to the rescue, and stop what is being done to young people by pen pushers. I would be lying.

The truth is that in April there will will be no legal aid for immigration or benefit cases for young people, or anyone for that matter. Fractions of posts like Student Welfare Officers and Law Centre and  CAB advisers will dwindle away. Last year Kenneth Clarke said that the arguments being made to protect Legal Aid were those of pigs to the trough.

Legal Aid rates had been frozen for a decade, then we got a 10% cut. Then they cut most of what we could do at any rate. Some trough. Nice one Ken.

Well fine, you decide.

Is it not absolutely bonkers that the Job Center no longer meets regularly with local groups to iron out stupidities like these? Do benefit rules that force young people training for employment off their courses and into a wasteland of inactivity help our economy in any way?  Is it right that Job Seekers can't study at community colleges to improve their prospects and get proper jobs?

Yet as long as one government agency can tick a box, frustrating what another agency is trying to achieve, it's all tickety boo.

It's all rather neat.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013


Alison had a heart attack and stopped working in the textile industry after 30 years.  Since Burberry closed its factory some time ago in East London, some might say this was a shrewd career decision. She can keep on claiming sickness benefits for the rest of her life- what a slacker!

After she had her second heart attack walking in the park following medical advice, she was refused disability benefits. With increasing disbelief her daughter argued with officials at the Department of Work and Pensions, with the medical assessors from ATOS, the French company with a multimillion pound government contract to administer tests for sickness benefits (and official sponsors of the Paralympics).

Finally they go to the Tribunal unrepresented, and after humiliating cross examination Alison’s Disability Living Allowance was grudgingly restored at reduced rates.

Some years later, after the insertion of two more stents into her heart, Allison renews her benefit claim and is awarded nil points. As her heart condition and general health gets worse, her benefit is slashed to zero. She must go back on the appeal merry-go-round.

Alastair comes from a far off land where learning to write the spoken language of your village in school can lead to imprisonment, beatings and torture. He and his family were repeatedly locked up. His brother died of a seizure before his eyes.

Years later Alastair has his papers and can live safely in London. Yet he hears voices, has trembling fits, is terrified to go out alone. He is stick thin. His eyes are haunted. He has been under the psychiatrist for ten years.

The ATOS medical examiner tells Alistair that there is nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with him. He must claim Jobseekers Allowance, and be sanctioned if he cannot go to the Job-Centre. He doesn’t tick the right boxes.

Which is where we come in.

Thanks to Legal Aid funding for Welfare Benefits cases, we are able to gather 60 pages of medical letters for Alistair.

We travel to the Tribunal and as we sit down I have rehearsed in my head the arguments, the case-law, the garnering of 15 points from the descriptors.

The descriptors are like a 17 alternate Chinese set menus- from menu A pick mobility- If you can’t walk get 15 points, if you can walk 50 metres get 6, go on to Menu B- do you lose your temper with strangers on a way that would make you unemployable? If you have another 6 points let’s talk about your hygiene- if you only wash sometimes another 3 points and you win!

Win the wooden spoon. Win 70  quid a week jumping at your shadows.

Without opening my mouth the Tribunal award Alastair 24 points, and recommend he should not be put on the appeal merry-go-round for another 18 months.

Thanks to Legal Aid funding I can spend some time with Alison (who is afraid of our lift) and with her daughter who has put her life on hold for years to care for her mother. I can tell the daughter is on the brink time and again, caring for her mother, arguing with corporate clods. She is a carer made faceless by our system.

On the day the lift at the Tribunal breaks down. Alison hauls herself to the second floor but she is grey faced and clammy. She takes the nitro spray for the chest pains.

The Tribunal is merciful or embarrassed, or clearly terrified of a damages claim, or a panel of clear eyed humans doing the job they have been given. I hardly open my mouth.

Alison’s Employment and Support Allowance is restored for a long time.
Alistair and Alison thank me, and I thank them.

Too many people are on sickness benefits. It seems to me that it is true that we shunt our sick and ill onto benefits when it is expedient to take them off  the  unemployment figures, then we kick them onto the  unemployment list when we cut the services that would help sick people into work.

On 1 April 2013 there will be no more Legal Aid for at least 99% of Welfare Benefits cases.
In the case of Alison and Alistair, we won’t  have Legal Aid any more.  We won’t be able to listen to anxious people with serious health conditions and help them say what they want to say,  that which helps them keep their dignity intact, and tell their story for themselves.

As I shut up shop, it seems absolutely heartless. I could say something more, but the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishing of Offenders Act has gagged me- we have no more funding.

No more Legal Aid for Gimps by law. Get used to this.