A baby, her mum and her grandmum go on a benefit claim foray. The baby is small, the mum is struggling a bit and a visit to Jobcentre Plus in her Inner London neighbourhood is not an enticing prospect – hence grandmum, for moral support. When they arrive, they learn that it’s National Customer Service Week. It says so on the wall.
There are two blocks of seats in the office. One is pretty much full with people waiting to be seen, the other, comfier, is completely empty. Grandmum has vitality to spare, but sometimes her legs give her pain. She isn’t the one who’s there to make a claim, so she sits down in the vacant block.
“I’m sorry, you can’t sit there,” one of the staff members says.
There are ranks of computers, where claimants can fill in forms for themselves. At least, they can try. At one terminal, a young man is struggling. He is Italian, the online words are in English. He asks for some help, but, this being National Customer Service Week, he is told none is available. Grandmum, who is good with these things, provides the help instead. Later, she jokes that she should seek a job doing it, as there seems to be a vacancy.
Mum, meanwhile, is being processed, not very tenderly. Baby is not in the best form today, which doesn’t help. Grandmum comes to the rescue again, but there’s only so much she can do. Mum learns that she might or might not qualify for this kind of help or that, and might or might not have the right documents with her today. So she might or might not want to see if she can get hold of this or that other kind, and might or might not want to come back another day. “Might not” is the hot favourite here, but also might not be an option.
Baby, mum and grandmum leave. Baby is happier now, but the grown-ups are discouraged and drained. They console themselves with the knowledge that their lives could be worse – much, much worse – than those of many fellow claimants and, quite possibly, those of the Jobcentre Plus staff too. Not everyone those staff have to deal with will be polite and long-suffering in spite of everything, not planning to be in the system for long, and diligently following the rules. Not every claimant will inspire sympathy. Some will prompt dislike and fear. Customer-facing staff have been known to use false names on their ID badges to conceal their identities.
None of this altered the fact that the benefit system did not seem to mum and grandmum to seem very well named. What is like when it isn’t National Customer Service Week?