Some of the activists giving out advise on benefit sanctions
When I first got the idea for Barnet Housing Action Group to hold a protest outside the job centre in Wood Green – it was for very personal reasons; my daughter had moved into the hostel at the Y.M.C.A. and I had got to know a few of the young people there that she was friendly with and felt immense sympathy for the way they were being victimised at the job centre due to their youth and consequent lack of experience at jumping through hoops with those in authority. Also, when I looked up the statistics it seemed that the amount of sanctions handed out were very high compared with other job centres in the area.
Wow – were my eyes opened to what is going on in our society!!!! I am shocked, appalled and frankly enraged!
Myself and Tayieba Shaa arrived at exactly 5 to 9 and began to set up our banner ‘no sanctions – no targets’ and stack all the leaflets we had brought with us from Unite the Union on advice for when your sanctioned, advice around the Bedroom Tax and MIPIM in neat little piles ready for distribution. Immediately a security guard came out and asked us what we were doing – before we had the chance to go in and politely explain – which was our intention. He was obviously not happy about us being there and almost immediately a police car turned up. A very cheery, friendly officer who said he approved of what we were doing and told us he was more than happy for us to be there when we assured him there wasn’t going to be any trouble.
I then went in and explained to security that we were going to be delivering a letter to the manager of the centre and asked what the managers name was so that we could address the letter accordingly, but he said he didn’t know and would go and find out. In the meantime a woman showed up in severe distress because she was not having her claim processed and there was lots of mistakes being made and she had children but had only had a £15 payment put into her account. It was decided that Tayieba would accompany her in order to advocate on her behalf – something we had not expected to be doing when we planned the protest but the woman was so distressed it was obvious she needed help and she was grateful that it was on offer.
However when they went in to the interview the floor manager – called Heather – was not happy for Tayieba to stay and became very hostile and intimidating and the woman became fearful that she was going to be penalised because of Tayieba’s presence and so ended up asking her to leave. The floor manager – Heather – then rushed down to the front door at the end of the interview and demanded to see what notes Tayieba had written whilst she had been present, refused to give us her surname or job title and very aggressively stated that her name had ‘better not be used in any context’ – (hence the hash tag #heatherwhoareyou ? on Barnet Housing groups facebook account of the day).
More activists began to join us and Channel 5 also who had heard about our protest and had their own leaflets to distribute about a programme that they are making in the direct opposite vein of ‘benefits street ‘ about the poverty that people on benefits are living in. Claimants started trooping in and out of the job centre, and our protest became a busy hive of productivity. The response we got from those signing on was that of real interest and gratitude. The Unite leaflets are very specific in describing what to do and what your rights are and many people we spoke with were unaware of their rights and were not being told of their rights by the staff in the job centre and were being sanctioned that day for all sorts of seemingly – to all of us – petty, unnecessary reasons.
Reverend Paul Nichols of Tax Payers Against Poverty arrived with information about the Wednesbury Principles and as arranged we together went into the job centre to present the leaflet to the manager. No one seemed to know, or they were unwilling to disclose who the manager was and as I went back outside, myself and a Unite union rep began to film the conversation that the Reverend was having with the security about Tayieba not being allowed in to advocate – which is completely lawful and within the claimants rights – only to have our phones very aggressively snatched from our hands by a security guard.
This was all starting to feel like a ridiculous farce when low and behold the bloody Chief Inspector turns up! I really do wonder if every serious crime in wood green warrants a visit from the Chief Inspector? Or is it just peaceful protests at the job centre?
The Inspector proceeded to question us about our intentions, who was responsible for the welfare of the protesters – blaa blaa – in a very hostile and accusatory tone – despite the fact that we informed him that we were the victims that had been assaulted and had our phones snatched! Eventually he went inside to speak with #heatherwhoareyou? and the Reverend.
At one point I thought maybe he’d decided to stay for bed and breakfast he was in there so long – whilst, outside, the doors were taken off automatic opening and claimants could only enter after standing in the door and signalling to security inside – however we were refused admittance carte blanche!
When he eventually reappeared he informed the Reverend that as it was a G4S building #heatherwhoareyou was within her rights to refuse us entry, refuse to allow claimants to have advocates and to refuse to give us her name – though this is when we discovered she was the floor manager, and she made a small concession – that the Reverend would be allowed to enter and advocate for claimants! Much as I’m sure our Reverend Paul is a true man of God unfortunately he is not omnipresent and is not able to advocate for every claimant needing support at wood green job centre, so that offer was not really tenable and just added to the farcical circumstances of the day.
Powerlessness and degradation
The sense of powerlessness and degradation that the claimants were being put through has haunted me since that day. Imp articular an older Somalian gentleman who came out and had been sanctioned for 2 weeks and just looked absolutely devastated – he truly looked like a broken man – and kept showing me his form and saying he had been job searching – it was all written down – but they sanctioned him never-the-less – more because of the fact that his English was very limited and therefore made him an easy target, I suspect, than any thing to do with his lack of job searches!
The last two of us left around 3 o clock , it was getting very cold and I was feeling emotionally drained. We had given out 203 advice leaflets. The security gathered around the locked door and watched us pack up – keen to check that we were really going, then as we were walking away one of them came out and asked me for a leaflet – maybe after what he sees going on in there he is wise and wants to ensure he is correctly informed should the time come he finds himself in the same position – without a job and practically having to beg for benefits !!
I gave them a friendly wave and shouted
“Bye for now, don’t worry, we’ll be back, you can bet your sanction on it!”