Thursday, 20 August 2009

Rooksmoor's Guide to Conducting Job Interviews

While the internet is littered with advice on how to perform at job interviews, there seems to be very little advice to those actually running the interviews. As regular readers of this blog will know, in my career I have experienced numerous examples of very poor interviewing. A key problem is that many employers think there is nothing to it and most I have encountered never give any training to their staff on how to conduct interviews. Even more common is that there seems to be no discussion between the Human Resources department and interviewers before the interview takes place, so often the interviewers are working under serious misapprehensions or with out-of-date information about how their company actually recruits. Especially in a recession as at the moment, companies forget that interviewees are also making a judgement. One employer was stunned recently when I refused to attend an interview because the whole set-up seemed amateur and based on 'The X Factor' auditions rather than business practice. They seemed highly offended, forgetting that I was making a judgement too and had no desire to work for a company that behaves in such an amateur way from my first contact with them. Companies, of course, will whine, 'well this is how we've always done it' or 'this is the current trend' or 'it's the only way it can be done' or even more deluded, 'it's the best way to do it'. What they forget is that a poor process leads to poor output and the people they recruit will not be the best for the job and may be very dissatisfied, while better and more suited recruits go to their rivals.

It has been suggested that I set up a consultancy or training for companies in how to conduct interviews. Such services are out there but too few companies make use of them. Here I am going to give my advice for free. I emphasise it is a personal opinion grounded in my experiences over the past 20 years rather than on research. However, I do hope that someone pays attention for the sake of their company and their potential staff.

Have Realistic Expectations
This partly goes back to the original job advertisement. Far too companies now advertise posts that even just a few years ago would have crossed 2-4 jobs. I asked an interviewer recently to outline the kind of career path he would have envisaged anyone taking to get the very wide ranging skill set he was demanding. Of course, he could not do that. Too often companies forget that employees live in the real world not in some fantasy ideal. Even people who have clear career objectives are not able to get the posts or training to entirely match them. Certainly it is difficult to change career every 3-5 years simply to get a completely new skill set and even if you do then you would later be told your other skills were out-of-date or that as an employee you are too inconsistent. Yet many posts would have to have had you follow such a tortuous path to pick up that range of skills. Remember candidates come from the real world and anyone who tells you they have been down 3-4 career paths is lying or is approaching retirement.

Do not have 'make weight' candidates. I know some companies expect short lists of a certain length, but you have to stand up and say, 'we have invited all the suitable candidates'. In some cases that will be one person. It your short list is too long, then run a second round of interviews and tasks, but never, never bother with inviting people that you have no intention of ever giving the job to. It wastes your time and money, especially when your company pays expenses; it wastes the candidate's time and breed discontent among them. They will go off and bad mouth your company. I had attended three interviews at a particular company over the years. The last one was followed by them telling me that I had stood no chance of getting the job despite interviewing well; I had just been invited to make up the numbers. I told them that they were fools to have done this and utter idiots to have told me they had done so. I have never applied to that company again and tell anyone who considers it to stay clear of them. I know I am not a big voice in the industry, but perhaps they have lost good candidates because they treated me as disposable. I trust we are past the days when organisations, particularly schools, would advertise posts that did not actually exist in order to 'see what is out there' like some kind of research project about the current availability of candidates and their calibre. If you want to know that, do some proper research, do not play with people. It wastes time and effort on your part and breeds bad blood among people who may be who you really want in the future.

Have realistic expectations in the interview itself. Interviews seem to be getting shorter and shorter. Despite the increasingly complex job descriptions (20-30 requirements, often even more are not unusual) the time for the interview is getting shorter. There is really no point having a 20-minute interview and even 30 minutes is tight. These days companies shave 10-15 minutes off the interview for a presentation, though in many cases have no real idea what they want from the presentation. You need a decent 45 minutes for an interview, with the presentation, if you feel you must have one, on top. You can probably see five candidates in a day. Given that a decent 'short' list is 4-6 candidates, that is fine. Start early and you can do it.

If you have 30 requirements for the job you need to allow time for the interviewee to talk to you at least a decent amount of them. Otherwise, what was the point of including those in the specifications? Of course, most companies can reduce the requirements for a job by about 35-50%, sometimes more, so going from 20 requirements down to, say, 10-12. That is still a lot to talk about, but is actually more realistic. In almost every job I apply for there is repetition and overlap between the different requirements. Despite employers emphasising the need for prioritisation in your work, they seem utterly incapable of doing that themselves. Thus, on the specification you too often get a list of every minute task you might do on the job and it is then turned into a requirement in which the candudate must have experience. It is incredibly unlikely that unless I am actually already in the job you are offering me that I can match all of that. What you need is someone who can turn their hand to those tasks even if they have not done those precise things before.

Do not expect an answer to the impossible. Recently I was asked how I would address a particular lack in training among a particular set of workers. There are three standard approaches to this and I suggested all three in turn and advised a hybrid model. However, the interviewer rejected each method in turn saying her workers did not have the time to access any of the methods. Yet, she continued to demand that I provide a solution. I kept persisting with different balances of the methods and all the innovations I could think of, but she remained dissatisfied. She wanted skills to be got into the workers with no time and no facilities to do it and seemed indignant that I could not provide the answer. I had to hold my hands up and say it was impossible. This was the time when I realised that even if I got the job working for that company would be a nightmare as they expect the impossible. Sometimes this develops because the candidate, though usually knowledgeable about your business because of their preparation, does not know about the behind closed doors peculiarities of your company, bear that in mind when you judge their answer. However, certainly do not present impossible situations unless you want to gauge whether the candidates to recognise they are impossible. We are not talking about unpleasant solutions like redundancy or cutbacks, we are talking about things that are impossible within the constraints you have laid down. Either alter the constraints or give up on your desired objective otherwise you and your staff will all end up dissatisfied. To distort a phrase, only very few can work miracles; the impossible remains impossible.

Knowing What You Are Looking For
This follows on from the elements raised above. It is made tough for interviewers by the fact they are expected to find an impossible person. The very detail of the specification often masks actually the kind of person that is truly being sought. The clearest case of this came up when I was actually on an interview panel. The post was as assistant to a leading manager and the candidates, all bar one female, varied between very submissive people who would have been great in a servant/personal assistant way across to people who could immediately stand in for the manager for whatever reason; a real lieutenant. It was only at the stage of looking at the different candidates after the interview that the question of what the manager actually wanted or needed from this spectrum came up. She said she wanted a lieutenant and that was what we gave her. In fact, she was lying to herself. What she wanted was a servant someone who would have no initiative but do everything she asked without question. Instead she got a very experienced woman with lots of initiative and her own ideas and of course friction quickly developed and within a year this woman was gone. Actually thinking through the kind of person you need and actually looking for them in the interview is vital for getting the correct person for the job. Of course, many interviewers are hamstrung by the specifications, which are often poorly thought out themselves. However, have an idea of what the job actually entails and what type of person is needed before you start the interviews.

If It Is Important, Get To It As Soon As You Can
This comes back to the shortness of interviews these days and the range of requirements. To me it seems that too many interview panels seem to start asking unimportant questions first and because they only have 20 minutes run out of time to get to the important ones. As noted above, prioritisation on interview panels is often poor. The fact that the interviewers spend so long on the mundane stuff, they are left in a position in which they cannot truly judge the candidate which makes all the effort on detailed specifications a waste of time. Again, not really knowing what kind of person they want does not help with prioritising the questions to be asked.

I was angered recently when I was told after an interview that as interviewee, I should have moved it on to the important topics far faster. I thought I had done. However, it is not the role of the interviewee to dictate what is asked, that is up to the interviewers. If, as an interviewer, you ask a question, the candidate will naturally assume it is important and seek to answer it as best they can. Do not expect them to be able to second guess your agenda. Interviewers drive the interview and should not abdicate control to the candidates and certainly not expect them to be psychic and know which paths you want to go down. If you want certain information and it is important to you ask for it and ask for it immediately. Interviewers, have confidence in what you want to find out and go out and find it; drive the interview not leave it languishing between you and the candidate as very, very few candidates will take control. If they do, they will have seen how inadequate you are and will have a lower opinion of your company.

Avoid Gimmicks And Hobbyhorses
There are fashions in interviews, in application forms and in CVs. Too often people lacking confidence in their interviewing or being confident but incompetent, adhere to fashions. In the early 2000s they would reject a candidate simply because they chose not to use Powerpoint. Now, there is a backlash and they want them to use other means. At the end of the day, in fact, it does not matter what media the candidate uses (they can always be easily trained in it), it is about how they present their ideas and, above all, though many interviewers forget this, what they are actually saying. To reject people because they adopt a particular approach, is actually discriminatory, though most interviewers do not realise this. Different countries and cultures have different approaches. In China oral presentations with reference to printed text is a norm. In New Zealand family or clan members will attend an interview and make a statement on behalf of the candidate. People coming for jobs in the UK will have to fit with the UK model, but then do no shove a whole other layer of expectations on top, that you actually cannot articulate yourself very well and have little idea why they are or are not important to the job you are interviewing for. Too many interviewers turn emphemeral fashion into some serious requirement, whereas, in fact, a year down the line people will be doing something different and you will have recruited someone who is good in the moment but no good for the duration. Look beyond current fashions to real skills and communication.

The same thing applies to hobbyhorses. All of us have an aspect of our work that we find particularly interesting, but we need to rein this in otherwise it can really distort an interview. I was on a panel with a woman who always questioned candidates about what time management software they used and put great store by their answers even if was not part of the job specifications. Of course, it gave no indication as to how skilled the candidate actually was at time management and she forgot that in a short time the software would be obsolete. Even worse was an interviewer who I faced six times. It became apparent that she decided on the suitability of the candidate before the interview. She separated the world into those who were 'born' (her word) to the role and the rest. She had no faith in training of any kind. If she felt you were among the elect you would get the job otherwise you stood no chance as I eventually realised. This was in the early 2000s and even then she should have been questioned about her approach because it goes against having job specifications as she often ruled out people who matched them very well. However, as we all know, once people reach certain seniority they are untouchable. Her approach meant recruiting a dozen people, a number of whom were probably not best suited to the job they were given, but to her intuition appeared to be 'born' to it.

It is human nature to fall back on assumptions and prejudices, but you can really do your company a disfavour if you let them rule your decision making as an interviewer. Go back to the specification and focus on what it is asking for and try to judge candidates on that basis not how you take to them or because they comply with something that just you think is important: no one factor makes a candidate suitable or unsuitable.

Obviously I have touched on a lot of what needs to be done mentally before an interview, especially in determining the kind of person you are really looking for, unprejudiced by your own personal quirks. However, one thing that a lot of interview panels fall down on, is in the practical arrangement of the interview. I could do a whole posting just on this, but will try to stick to a couple of examples.

In the first case, the toilets near the interview rooms was being decorated and I had to be taken down a number of floors to find one and even the interviewer found it difficult getting passed all the workers. I poured a glass of water to find all the cups were cracked. The noise of the workers constantly disrupted the interview. Clearly this was major work and the interview should have been held elsewhere or on a different day. No-one had checked and they had not even checked the water glasses. It suggested the company was rather slapdash.

Recently an interview I attended was delayed by an hour because none of the interview panel knew how to operate the laptop or data projector that they were expecting candidates to use. This was appalling. Either they should have practised beforehand or had technical support on standby to help out. Issues do arise, but they should never delay an interview by an hour. Given that the job had a computer element to it, I did wonder about the competence in that field of the staff I would be working under if they were unable to activate what is basic equipment.

Possibly the worst interview I attended had a screen for presentations at the far end of a 8 metre long table. The interviewers were arranged in an arc so that they could face the screen. Not being a fan of Powerpoint I had opted not to use it (which was actually what lost me the job they told me later), but was expected to be interviewed with one interviewer sitting behind my left shoulder, one beside me and only one slightly in front of me to the left. I accept there is a transition between the presentation stage and the interview and am happy to move to a different seat, but clear the interview had been set up with no thought for what would happen after the presentation was over, despite the fact that the interview stage lasted 30 minutes to 10 minutes of presentation. I had to twist my neck to see two of the interviewers; that is discriminatory as with some disabilities I would have been unable to do that. The lead interviewer was far more nervous than me and described herself as being her colleague. Clearly she needed more practise. Given that this was at the company that later treated me as a 'make weight' candidate maybe it should have been no surprise that the whole thing appeared so amateur.

As an interviewer, you expect your candidates to arrive thoroughly prepared, that goes for you too. Often the interview is the first time that people get to really meet your company. Do not make yourselves look like a bunch of amateurs who do not know what they want or even how to use basic equipment. No-one is compelled to take a job with you; the best candidates can always go somewhere else, even in a recession, so make a good impression. A good impression comes from good preparation. Do not simply walk into an interview, rather, beforehand, meet with the other members of the panel, check the room and equipment yourself and know where everything is and how it all works. Poor quality interviewers only recruit poor quality employees.

Know About Recruitment At Your Company
This is an extension of my advice about preparing, but is something I have noticed so often it is worthwhile having a separate section. Often interview panels have a member of the Human Resources department included, which is good, but too often even these people seem ill-informed about very common questions interviewees are going to ask. Many interviewees are going to ask about pay, leave, conditions, relocation expenses, child care, etc., so before you are part of an interview panel make sure you know the up-to-date information on this. It is no good to say refer to a website, because on that information the candidate may be judging whether they want the job or not. As they may be offered the job while on the journey home, they need to know now not later in order to make that judgement. For my last job I was offered £4000 in relocation expenses at the interview, but because of caveats which were apparently on the website (though I was unable to find them despite a thorough search) this was reduced to £500 and left me in a financial position that I had not got out of even months after having worked for the company.

The other thing that has struck me is that many interviewers have in their mind a whole string of assumptions about how their company recruits people that are either out-of-date or simply wrong. There was a phases in the early 2000s when more online applications were available, and many companies assumed that because they had a pdf you could print out, that that equated to an 'online' application, whereas in fact it translated to an application form that you had to fill in by hand as you would have done back in the 1990s. Yet, interviewer after interviewer seemed surprised by hand completed forms assuming their application process was now 'online' without asking what that actually meant.

The worst case happened recently when an interviewer expressed surprise at the application form I had used to apply for a job. It had been the one applicants were directed to and clearly was the correct one as I never would have been shortlisted otherwise. However, she felt it was lacking certain information and it was clear she had not spoken to Human Resources at all about what sort of forms they were using and whether the elicit the information the interviewer was felt necessary.

This continued. In feedback, the interviewer revealed that not finding a declaration from me saying I did not have a criminal record spent much of the interview trying to find this out so missed out on the really important questions. Aside from the obvious questions about obsessing over this in the interview (the job is in fact open to people with criminal records) when she could have got the information later and not asking about it directly, she had failed to realise, or bothered to find out, that all such declarations go direct to Human Resources, not the interviewers. Hence, she was questioning indirectly about something that her company had received and had gone to the correct people for the procedures in place.  Thus, she effectively rendered the interview a waste of time, all because she had not bothered to find out how her company actually recruits people.

Assist The Candidates
I arrived at the company to be told that I could not park on the site and should drive into the city 5Km away and catch a bus back to the site. I had never been to the city before and though I had navigated my way to the site, I had no idea about the bus services or the car parks and given that the interview was forty minutes away probably would not have made it back in time. I managed to persuade a security guard to let me park. I had not been warned about any of this beforehand. Partly this kind of careless attitude stems for a kind of machismo: that if the candidates cannot parachute on to the site and abseil down to the interview room, or the equivalent, then they are no good. However, the message it gives in fact is, that you cannot even be bothered to think through what a candidate needs to go through to reach your interview. Organise parking for candidates, or if that is not possible, tell them where they can find it, where they can get food, taxis and so on. They are often strangers to your location so help them out, it is not difficult. You can even produce a standardised information sheet you send to all candidates or put it up on your website.

In most businesses now, people travel hundreds of kilometres for an interview. They often need to have accommodation when they arrive and need to know where they can get dinner on a Sunday night or how far the site is from the railway station. Companies insist you book 7 days ahead for rail tickets if they are going to pay expenses and yet they inform you of the interview only 2-5 days beforehand. This is again discriminatory, as anyone with religious or care commitments might find it impossible to re-arrange their lives to fit your sudden decision to see them at such short notice. It is not being tough to demand all this from candidates, it is simply callous.

Of course, we can all find out about towns using the internet, but it is far better if we are given a list of places to stay, even if you can book them for us, using local contacts. One company did this for me and paid the bill so easing the processing as I did not have to reclaim expenses. If you want to attract good candidates you need to ease their journey to and from your interview. This is also helped by having a clear schedule and not like the 'X Factor' company, not giving any indication of when the candidate will be interviewed. To do that is again discriminatory. People with certain health conditions need to know when they can take medication or when they should/can eat and certain religions need prayer at certain times of the day. Too many companies plough ahead with an attitude of 'put up and shut up' again failing to realise how poorly it reflects on them.

Some companies seem incredulous when I ask who is on the interview panel. Some people let you know as a matter of course, others see it as an intrusion into confidential information. However, the UK is not a big country and when you start talking about specific roles in particular industries, then you quickly narrow down the range of people working in that area. It cuts both ways, I do not want to be interviewed by someone I made a harassment complaint against and you do not want me being interviewed by a friend of mine on the panel. Again, schools provided some of the worst examples of this tricksy behaviour, with headteachers dissembling throughout the day as an ordinary teacher taking the candidate around only later to reveal who they really were and using any candid information they had picked up during the day against the candidate. Again, I hope such behaviour is dead. For me, knowing the backgrounds of the people interviewing me, what knowledge they have, and their outlook on things is important. Companies often have details of their leading employees on websites but then, ironically, are suddenly offended if you ask who will be on your actual interview panel.

Pay expenses. Out of your company budget, some travelling and accommodation expenses are minimal, but to candidates, especially those who are currently unemployed, they can be very important. Again, they signal how much you do or do not care about the candidate. It is no point saying that you give wonderful salaries and benefits packages if you cannot pay out a hundred pounds for a person coming to interview. Either you want them to attend and you pay for them to attend or you do not want them. Do not give out the signal you only half want them by not paying expenses or they can easily turn to a company that makes it clear they are truly in with a chance of a job.

Give feedback. The ironic thing about the bad practices I have mentioned here is that everyone who carries them out has been a candidate at some time themselves, yet, still behave in a way they would have loathed to have experienced themselves. Again, it is part of machismo of business that was introduced in the 1980s that generally you do not tell people if they have been shortlisted or not, they simply say, if you have not heard in two or four or even six weeks, assume you have not been selected. Think how you would feel left in limbo for six weeks about a post, your life is on hold. The same applies when waiting to hear if you have got the job after the interview.  Usually after 24 hours you can guess you have not got the job, though this is not always the case, I have been offered a job over a week after the interview took place.  I accept I might have not been the first choice, but to be left assuming I had failed was not fair.  Companies complain it is too expensive to write to anyone, but in these days of emails being effectively free to companies, it can be done simply and in bulk. Even getting a generic email saying you have not been short listed is better than never getting anything.

When it comes to the people you actually interview, there is no excuse for not providing a formal letter outlining that they failed to get the job. You only have to do this for 4-5 people or less. If the candidate was good enough that you invited them for interview they are worthy of getting a proper response. Many companies do not give feedback on interviews, but that suggests that their interview procedures were unsound and that they are embarrassed to reveal that they simply gave the job to someone they knew or almost picked them at random (which actually often happens given the failings in the actual interviews detailed above). Eliminate that feeling that you made your decision arbitrarily, give feedback, refer to the specifications.

Give the candidates some faith that they are not simply entering a lottery if they apply for a job with you, but that they have been part of a professional process. Of course, that does mean you have to have had a professional process in place, but if you have followed my guidance above, you should have done. I have been interviewed by one company for six posts, another for three posts and my last employer for four posts, so there is a good chance that a candidate will come back to you for other vacancies. They need to know if they are wasting their time in applying again and they want to know how to improve their chances in the future. Again, this helps you get better candidates (especially if this one just missed out or would be ideal for another role) and also discourage truly unsuitable people from applying again, so saving you time processing their future applications.

Overall, when setting up and conducting interviews bear in mind two principles. 1) How do I want my company appear to someone visiting it? 2) What is it like to be interviewed and how can I make that a good experience for the candidate? In this way you will not show to candidates a company which is disorganised, unskilled or callous, but one that knows what it is about and what it wants and treats its (potential) employees with consideration. Do that and you will not only save embarrassment for yourself, your colleagues and your company but it will also enable you to secure the best candidate.

P.P. 19/04/2011
Since originally writing this posting, I have had numerous other interviews and consequently have come across another thing that about a third of the companies which have interviewed me since 2009 have made.  This is to assign the calling of people to interview (usually by email) to someone who is about to go on leave.  In these cases, I email back to the invitation to interview only to have an 'Out of Office' automated response telling me that the person is now on leave for one or two weeks; in the worst cases not returning until the interview has taken place.

Do Not Have People Acting As Points Of Contact Just Before They Go On Leave
I imagine that companies see calling people to interview as a minor activity that can be left to someone in the time they have before they go on holiday.  However, for the interviewee it means the one point of contact you have been given with the company is immediately broken.  Often the 'Out of Office' advises you to contact a colleague of the person on leave.  I have tried that on many occasions only to find these alternatives have no idea that there is even an interview being carried out.  Why is this important?  Well, there is a lot to find out before you come to an interview.  I know companies think that they provide all the necessary information for the interview straight off or that it can be found on their websites.  This is, in fact, rarely the case.

Many companies believe there is information on their websites, which is actually not there.  They also seem to assume that outsiders can access internal documentation, but often you run up against a section requiring a password.  In addition, there is a difference between showing a map with car parks on it and being able to know if by, say, 1pm when the interviewee needs to arrive all of these car parks will be full.  As companies set more bizarre tasks for the interviewees, they often fully understand what the task entails, but it is not always as clear to the candidates.  I accept that some companies see this as a task in itself, but it is good to have clarity on the principles I have outlined above.  One example recently was that I was told I would be discussing a case study.  However, it was not clear whether I should provide the case study myself or whether it would be one given at the interview.

Another issue is that at times you will need to try and adjust the date or time of the interview.  Companies seem to work at the two extremes.  Some will have no alteration of the time or day they send you (unless a problem develops at their end when they will be happy to keep you waiting for hours beyond the scheduled time) or they interview people on different days to fit in.  On three occasions in recent months I have been called to two interviews on the same day.  This happens because interviews predominantly happen on a Tuesday with the next popular day being Friday.  This means that the days for interviews is very limited.  I am quite lucky in that I get called to interview for every three applications I make and this should show that a number of companies value my skills and experience, especially as I have usually beaten off 65-95 other people even to get to the interview.  Thus, I have had to rush hundreds of kilometres between interviews.  Unfortunately now in 2011, the willingness to modify an interview time for even 30 minutes seems to have gone and a 'take it or leave it' mentality has been adopted.  I guess this is because there are so many potential candidates now available.  However, ironically, it means that companies might not be seeing the best candidates, the ones a number of companies are interested in.

A consequence of all of this is that you need to be able to talk to/email someone almost immediately once you have been invited to interview.  I accept that some companies have no interest in helping the interviewees; they think they are doing them a big favour just by calling them.  However, a good company will make sure that the point of contact with interviewees will not disappear off on holiday the moment they have sent out the invitations and be ready to either respond to queries or at least pass them on to the relevant person.

NHS: Not Perfect But Far Better Than The US Model

Every day seems to bring another story of how the greed of corporations, many of which seemed to have secured a cartelised or a monopolistic position, is distorting the economy and society. The credit crunch was stimulated by corporate greed, but the high bonuses that leading members of Barclays Bank are receiving while so many of us are without work or are losing our houses, have shown, it is not they who are paying the price. The clearest flexing of corporate might in the world at present is the concerted oppositon by health insurance companies in the USA to prevent President Obama introducing a free health care service in the USA to cover the 46 million Americans who have no health cover. That represents about 1 in 6 Americans who lack access to any health care that is not charitable; it is equivalent to the population of Belgium, Spain and Poland put together and is more than the number of adults in the UK. In addition, as many people who buy health insurance in the USA find it does not cover them if they develop a serious illness nor for existing conditions. Unsurprisingly life expectancy is lower in the USA than the UK, there are fewer only 70% as many hospital beds per head of population and infant mortality (i.e. children under 5) is 9 per 1000 compared to 6 per 1000 in the UK. Out of a population of 304 million, that means over 910,000 more children die each year in the USA than would be the case if they had the UK system. This is despite the fact that the UK only spends 8.3% of its GDP (Gross Domestic Product) on healthcare compared to 16% in the USA, which suggests Americans are getting a more costly but less efficient service. In the UK, sometimes hospitals get overloaded but we do not have the situation as often occurs in the USA where an ambulance has to drive from hospital to hospital trying to find one that will take their uninsured patient. British hospitals need to have an increase in capacity and staffing, but never turn people away no matter what their nationality or background, simply because they lack the right insurance.

There are a number of sickening elements about the opposition to Obama's plans. One is that they are being portrayed on a moral basis. This is that somehow state control will lead to 'death panels' deciding when people have to die. This happens now de facto anyway, when families can no longer afford to fund keeping their relative alive. However, in the twisted US morality, ability to afford determining life expectancy is right, deciding on life expectancy depending on quality of life, is somehow wrong. The lie about 'death panelss' can be seen easily if you simply look at the fuss that has arisen in the UK about people even travelling to Switzerland for assisted suicide let alone any consideration of it being permissible in the UK. To conjure up this lie is just a scare tactic and to associate it with reference to British healthcare is offensive. Of course, Americans never consider any other country's viewpoint, so any indignation in the UK or Canada is dismissed as nothing.

The anti-public health care lobby in the USA has drawn support from the religious right who say they want freedom, whereas in fact they want to control people's lives far more than so-called 'big government' does, getting down to controlling their behaviour behind closed doors as well as in public. They lie and say public health care will lead to the elderly being advised every five years when they should end their lives. This is perverse fantasy dreamed up by companies wanting to kill any legislation that they feel would even minutely dent their income. To liken the NHS to approaches adopted by Hitler and Stalin offends not just British people now but also the memory of those who died opposing Hitler and Stalin, among them, Americans. Rick Joyner, a US pastor, has said that if Hitler and Stalin had had health care systems like the NHS it would have made it easier for them to kill millions of people. He forgets that they still killed millions of people and yet the NHS has kept millions of people from dying and suffering over its 61-year history. How patronising is that attitude to the people of the UK to think that we would sit by with a system that did us such harm for so long? Which plaent is Joyner referring to? Clearly not the one he is actually living on. These Americans are so arrogant that they somehow even seen decent, Christian Britons as imbeciles.

What gets me is that Obama's package is primarily aimed at those people who currently do not have health insurance, so why is it any concern of the companies that these people receive a service provided by the state? In that typical arrogant American way, they get offended even if anyone considers thinking differently to their assumptions. In addition, as the sub-prime mortgage fiasco proved, they always hope they can penetrate into those sectors of society not currently buying products from them, however risky or unsustainable such penetration is. Do they not understand that if these people could afford health insurance they would have bought it? They are offended that the state might provide a rival to them in getting health cover to these people, however remote the chance of them ever affording health insurance. US corporations, despite the anti-trust laws of the past, have become so used since the 1980s of having no limits to their activities that to see anything that intervenes in an area of the market, even one they are currently absent from, is an anathema to them.

The second sick thing about the opposition to health care proposals is how these people have attacked the public health care systems of the UK and Canada. Again, being Americans, they believe they have a right to make judgement over anyone else's system and yet not be judged themselves (refer back to my comments on the USA seeking exemption from war crimes laws). They portray the National Health Service (NHS) as somehow an evil system and inherently wrong in its philosophy and behaviour. Living in the UK, I know how clunky the NHS is. It is far from perfect, but ironically a lot of the problems it is currently facing, especially over hygeine in hospitals, stems from the situation created when the Thatcher government of the 1980s tried to move the service in the direction of the US model. If the internal market and competitive tendering for services, including cleaning, had not been introduced, then many more people would be alive today and the NHS would be in a better state. The reason why health in the general population is better in the UK than the USA is because of the NHS. It is not simply about treating people, it also does excellent work in preventative information too, to try to reduce the impact of the health challenges of modern living such as obesity, alcohol and tobacco consumption. The NHS is not perfect. I think it needs massively more funds. I would fund it to the extent that prescription charges introduce in 1950 could finally be scrapped and the care was free to everyone at point of use. The cap on National Insurance was taken off far too late. Everyone needs to pay towards the service and in accordance with their wealth. It is no argument to say that they will not use it. If the rich like they can see it as an insurance that their cleaner will not drop dead or that if they hit someone in their car while speeding, they will not get charged with murder because their victim will live.

I am glad that Gordon Brown, John Prescott, Lord Darzi and the trade union Unison are taking a strong stand against the Americans 'slagging off' (in Lord Mandelson's phrase) the NHS. I despise Mandelson, but am glad he is adding his weight to the defence of our health service. The maverick Conservative MP, Daniel Hannan, who feels that the NHS is an excessive burden on the UK, has a right to his opinion, but it is one that should be strongly contested, ridiculed even. The opposition to Obama's proposals is terrible, immoral and will lead to deaths. We cannot tell how many Americans have died unnecessarily because this opposition prevented Bill Clinton's 1993 health proposals being put into action, let alone the countless lives that have been blighted. This is about people's lives in exchange for profits, well not even that, in exchange for the imagination of profits that could be made and the fight to stop anyone involving themselves in that. Of course, Americans, especially on the extreme right, who feel under pressure now Bush have gone, feel they have the right to tell not only Americans but the whole world how to live. This leads to the deaths of not only Americans but people across the globe. The NHS is not perfect, but it is far, far better than the system the USA has. The American right profess to believe in God, but their god wants health care to be inaccessible to millions of people who will suffer as a result and prefers that people make bigger and bigger profits than care for others. Whoever their god is, he is not the God that millions of Americans and others believe in. Non-Americans need to stand up and tell Americans to stop using what we have done well as a weapon for their own perverse arguments. Britons are proud of the NHS and the vast majority want it improved not scrapped. Any American who falls ill in the UK can go to an NHS facility for emergency treatment, the reverse cannot be said of Britons in the USA. Of course, that does not matter to these opponents of Obama's proposals, they care about no-one, not even other Americans, just their potential to make money. May the NHS prosper and grow and be a model for decent, truly moral people to look to, rather than misuse as a tool for greedy objectives.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

'Now You're Unemployed, You Can Do ... Everything'

It seems mad that when you are unemployed you actually work harder than when in a job. Of course, in many occupations in the UK especially those based in offices, much of the time is spent not working but answering more or less important emails, going for coffee, sitting through meetings and so on. I have done jobs where you cannot slack so much, but even working in warehouses, there was time to linger emptying the bins, chatting with friends, playing games with damaged stock and even going to the toilet to read the newspaper and/or masturbate, the latter seemed to be the prime occupation of many of my colleagues.

Being unemployed, however, you are often under much more scrutiny than you would ever be in most jobs. I know in some jobs they expect you to account for every hour you spend there, but in many there is really little attention to what you get up to especially if you can manage to attain the overall target. Now, I have to outline every fortnight what I have been doing to find work. The job centre books appointments for you to turn up 20 minutes before you will actually be seen and this is to monitor what you do when at the job centre. I got into trouble on my first visit this time round because even though I had arrived when I was told I should and had informed the front desk, they had neglected to tell the case worker who then chastised me for not doing the 20 minutes of job seeking in the job centre that I was supposed to do, though in fact I had done it. Aside from this I have had to sign up to apply for 3 jobs per fortnight. I think this is unfair for me, as for many vacancies you simply send in a CV, for posts in my field you have to complete 5000 words of application, taking up to a day if you want to get it right. I have also had to say that I will visit various websites and read 'The Guardian' newspaper on a certain day.

I know many people will say that if you want money from the state you should be prepared to jump through hoops to get it. I know people who claim if you want any benefit you should be compelled to sell your car and television first, as if to prove you are deserving of aid. I have no opposition to the rules I am now under but am uneasy that there is an assumption that if I was not compelled to demonstrate I am looking for work I would simply not bother. The thirty applications I made in the run-up to my redundancy count for nothing. As is often repeated to us unemployed 'finding a job is a job in itself' and so it does take time, it does not happen instantaneously. However, trying tell the woman in my house this. This is something I know a lot of unemployed people encounter.

There is an assumption from housemates, partners, whoever, that now that you are unemployed, your life is utterly empty and that it must be filled with every domestic job possible. Often it even involves chasing up things that you soon find you cannot do because you are not the account holder. However, failure to do any of these tasks opens you up to being charged with being lazy, a portrayal you constantly battle against when unemployed but is particularly galling when it comes from people you share a house with. As I have noted before, I have always felt it was fair to split jobs in a house and I do not adhere to any gender division on this. I clean the bathroom and toilet, vacuum clean the house, make the beds, do all the washing up and buy the bulk of the groceries. Now I am unemployed this is apparently not enough and I now have to child mind, post parcels, tend to the garden and the laundry. The other morning I had to break off from all of this to actually apply for a job as I realised that I would have nothing to show the job centre when I turned up for my fortnightly interviews. However, my housemate has no understanding of the pressure I am under and I am simply seen, like so many unemployed people, as the free labourer she has now gained to make her life easier.

I have encountered this before even when one of four adult residents in a house. Suddenly the others find a free servant that they can criticise with impunity. Any complaints are responded to with the fact that you are lazy or not trying hard enough because apparently you sit around the house all day. Ironically for me I now work harder than when I had a job and in fact have far less time to look for vacancies and apply for them than when I was working. Of course, I cannot reveal this to the job centre as they would say I was unavailable for work and so not deserving of any benefit payments. So, I am trapped between two forces shaping my time and whipping me with the accusation that I am not trying hard enough. I have felt literally castrated by being made redundant. Men do find it hard when they lose their jobs and for me there is a real pain, a psychosomatic one I acknowledge, but uncomfortable all the same. I have no idea what the future holds even whether I can hold on to my house and this is not light stuff. Handling being unemployed and the daily humiliations that carries as well as lacking funds to alleviate the gloom, is tough enough, without being compelled to be an unpaid domestic servant beaten by the stick of accusations of me somehow being lazy. I can only fear that this will break me emotionally far faster than I expected and I will be unable to stir up any enthusiasm even if I get any more interviews, assuming, that is, that I can find some time between the next batch of chores in which to actually search and apply for some jobs.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

The Blank Face of Service Providers

These days what I am going to describe is such a common event that it seems weekly to fill consumer advice programmes on the radio and television and columns in the newspapers, without anything fundamentally changing. As this blog is about expelling thoughts and tensions from myself, I make no apology for running through the example that I have just had a brush with and added it to the millions of unheard cases that should be condemning so many service providers but they seem able to ignore with impunity.

The key problem of service provision in the UK is fixed contracts. They cover everything from rent to power and water to mobile phones and televisions and even services to those things such as mobile phone ring tone downloads. Of course, it is a given that if you can tie in a customer for a long period of time it is beneficial for your business. Their payments only marginally decline over time given the current low rate of inflation, but your cost per customer falls every month they are locked into you. The biggest cost to a company is the set-up so if you can spread that cost over a year, then it is better for you. We are supposed to be living in an era of consumer choice, but to a great degree this is a fantasy. There are numerous price comparison websites for all kinds of goods and services even telling you where you can get the best rate for your gas and electricity, but switching is made as hard as humanly possible.

Business over the past decade has recognised it can get away by having contracts that make it very hard for customers who want to leave. Again this stretches right from individual landlords right up to multi-national companies. Their ideal situation is when you are compelled to pay for a service you are no longer receiving. In my life I have been fortunate to encounter this only a few times, being expected to pay rent on a house even after other tenants had moved into it or it had been sold to someone else and to pay for a television service even when I had moved 190 Km away from the television to an area where the company does not provide a service. For a company this is an easy way to make money and if the customer simply stops paying you, well then, you hand it over to a debt-collection agency who wrecks the customer's credit rating and piles on additional charges. This is an excellent deterrent for the service providers who feel no guilt over taking money for no service. The story is such a common one of contemporary Britain that it must be known in every household. Yet what choice do we have? If we want energy to our houses, if we want to watch television, in many areas we have to sign up for such contracts, let alone if you simply want to rent a house. The options are limited and it is difficult to avoid getting locked in such a contract. Back in the 1980s this approach was reserved for time-share salesmen in Spanish resorts and was condemned in all quarters and yet by the 2000s such techniques have become mainstream for service companies.

The thing that makes it even harder is that when you try to leave a contract even when it is coming to an end you face a blank wall. You find you cannot get the numbers for the company to cancel your contract. There are numbers of how to set up an account and in some cases I have had to pretend to be starting a new account just to get into the system and then be re-routed to the correct number for cancelling. Call centre staff are robots. They are locked into a pattern which means they can take no initiative, they can only simply take you down paths that their bosses allow and often this does not include cancelling contracts. Feel sorry for them, they are simply the human extensions of a harsh machine. The companies want you to give up, to keep paying for a service you are not receiving, that is great for them. I have not seen any analysis, but I do wonder how many millions of pounds are paid each year by people for services they no longer want or, in fact, in many cases can no longer use. Think about it, if many service providers need this 'free' money, how bad is their business actually doing? Of course few bosses in the UK run businesses to be successful and to thrive, they simply run them in a half-hearted fashion to generate enough cash to drain off for their bonuses. Back in the 1980s they said the average British company lasted 40 years, these days the average must be a lot shorter. As figures around leakages from water pipes have shown yet again this year, you can make huge profits pretending to provide a service and in fact doing it very poorly. The UK economy rewards inefficiency and poor customer service very richly.

So, what is the recent case in my own life that has triggered off my complaint today? Well, back in the early 2000s the woman who now lives in my house bought a TiVo, which was one of the first hard drive video recorders. They came from the USA and apparently 32,000 units were sold. You had a subscription with the company which sent downloads over the telephone to permit you to know what programmes were coming on. It had some novel features that later systems have not included such as the 'wish list' which meant that the machine recorded all programmes, for example, featuring particular actors or comedians or movies by specific directors. TiVo faced increasing competition in the UK once the Sky+ system was introduced. From 2003 TiVo stopped supplying their set-top boxes in the UK but there is a vibrant owner community and second hand market. Ironically the technology developed by TiVo was taken up by Toshiba and Sony and Sky bought out TiVo's service side in the UK, partly to eliminate even its ailing rivalry to their own system. You do not have to look far on the internet to find people singing the praises of the TiVo system and even people who dumped Sky+ in favour of it. Of course, Sky has the clout and TiVo is dying in the UK, it is the case of VHS beating Betamax again, in the UK the worst system always seems to win out. Fortunately Freeview boxes now come with a hard drive and this is all that is stopping the UK having another monopoly based on poor service and less sophisticated equipment. Sky the child of tycoon and manipulator of countries' politics, Rupert Murdoch, is always the worst company to allow to have a monopoly.

Anyway, coming back to TiVo, now handled by Sky. The box belonging to the woman in my house was second hand when she bought it back in 2002 and had had constant use in the seven years since (even TiVo fans said it was one of the older ones with capacity a fifth of the later ones). So back in April it broke down entirely and rather than persist with it she switched to a recordable Freeview box supplied by BT. Then she tried to cancel the subscription with TiVo/Sky. The customer service number has been disconnected and even searching the internet repeatedly for numbers all she could find was ones that connected her to Sky (naturally there is no physical address you can write to). Of course, that should have been simple, but if you ring Sky about accounts you have to enter a Sky account number, which, of course, being a TiVo customer and not a Sky customer, she did not have so her calls never even got near a human. Sky had not thought to write to TiVo customers to tell them of the changes or how they could contact people about their accounts; not even, quite surprisingly, to suggest they switch to Sky+ perhaps because they knew no TiVo user would willingly make a switch to a worse system.

The woman then simply cut off her payments to TiVo hoping they would just terminate her contract. This is where the fixed contract problem kicks in. She no longer has a TiVo machine (I threw in on the municipal dump for her) and has not downloaded any of their services for three months; since the machine broke she has been unable to do so. However, Sky keep demanding the payment and this has run up payment-refusal charges by her bank to her. In addition, knowing that such companies ramp up debts for unpaid bills quickly and then send in nasty people to collect, she was terrified, desperately searching the internet for some clue as to how to cancel her contract. Finally today, by pestering Sky customer services down phone numbers that do not need you to enter a Sky account number she was able to get a TiVo phone number and finally after three months effort stop the contract (or she hopes she has, we will have to see if this the case). She has had to pay up for the three months' bills outstanding, which are paying for nothing as she has received nothing at all in that period from the company, plus the charges levied by the bank. Of course, having a blank face, making it impossible to contact them, works in Sky's favour. All over the country people are paying for services they are not receiving and cannot get out of. This may seem like ingenious business but in fact dents consumer confidence and simply fuels bad business practices.

If I was in Peter Mandelson's position, I would have brought forward a raft of consumer protection legislation. In fact I would go back to Margaret Beckett, back in 1997 when she became the first Secretary of State for Trade and Industry under Tony Blair (Mandelson briefly had the role in 1998 before it went to Stephen Byers) and say that New Labour, with its consumer-focused, modern party attitude of the era of service sector industry, needs proper protection, especially as back in the late 1990s new areas of trade notably via the internet were expanding. All companies should be compelled to make it easier to extract yourself from contracts. They should be compelled to have physical addresses you can write to, in order to do this. No company should be allowed to charge for a service that the user can no longer access. There should be a limit on all fixed-term contracts, such as you should be able to get out of any contract with 3 months' notice. I know rental contracts that even if you give immediate notice you want to leave the house, you will have to pay for a further 11 months for a house that you are no longer living in and most often has other tenants in it. This set of measures would have made a nice punchy package of legislation for the new government to show the people of Britain it was on their side. It is not revolutionary and actually would have encouraged good companies. Instead bad, nasty, greedy companies have been allowed to come to the fore and the blank face approach is a key weapon in their arsenal in squeezing every last drop from consumers in return for poor service and in fact, increasingly, often, for providing nothing at all.

Of course, this is not even a 'what if?', it is a fantasy, it was never going to happen. Blair only got into power with the backing of Rupert Murdoch and Murdoch's reward was to not to have to face any legislation that would have hampered the intimidationg business practices his company seems to relish. How close Blair and Murdoch were has often been revealed, for example:
Even as prime minister Blair was flying out to address Murdoch's News International as if he was a private citizen that you can hire for after dinner speeches rather than leader of a country. Do not even get me started on how Murdoch has more control over legislation in the UK than the average government minister:

You could tell that no minister under Blair would go anywhere near true consumer protection with such a businessman who loves underhand business approaches in such a strong position in regard to the British political scene. Thus, twelve years on, millions of UK citizens are suffering from being manhandled by service companies that feel it is fine to take money for services they are not providing and to make it so difficult for customers to escape from contracts. This is not going to change in the UK while politicians are so shackled to unscrupulous business people. Ironically Murdoch does not like David Cameron, because Cameron inherited his wealth rather than made it himself. Trapped between the interests of inherited wealth and wealth through hard-pressure techniques, the average British person is simply something to be squeezed into debt. On this basis there is no choice at all at the next election, neither of the leading parties will do anything to help you as a service consumer.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

The Death of Opportunity

Last month I put up an essay I had produced eight years ago about the political consensuses in Britain. However, I realised reading about the Alan Milburn report of last month into the restrictions on social mobility than a period of social consensus was coming to an end too. Of course even the concept of society took a bashing during the period of the Thatcher regime. However, ironically, Margaret Thatcher coming from a non-professional middle class background to becoming prime minister, like her successor John Major effectively from skilled working class to working in a bank, demonstrated that there was a degree of social mobility and a bank clerk could feasibly dream of holding the highest position in the UK. Contrast these to David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party who assumes he will be the next prime minister and Boris Johnson, Mayor of London; both attended the elite Eton school. These are the face of the Conservative Party as it enters the 2010s just as they could of been when it entered the 1930s.

Cameron has done nothing in his life except work for the Conservative Party, he does not even have the experience of business, the military or the media that many of his fellow Conservatives have done. Johnson is a moron, a poor quality journalist who is adept only at offending people. He has gained and retained positions just because of who he is and who he knows and seems incapable of actually showing any real ability in anything; even as a host of a comedy quiz he struggled. I do not think he should be unemployed and the electorate of London are free to elect who they could, but if he had not come from a wealthy family he never would have been in a position to even stand as a candidate let alone garner votes.

Perhaps, Tony Blair, former lawyer, began the move away from that trend, but I think it is behind the scenes that the changes to end the attitude of the 1960s-70s that people should rise as high as their abilities will allow, was really being killed. However, in the Blair years we did see the expansion of universities with the aim of 50% of 18 year olds attending them. In theory this would open up the routes especially into the professions for a broader swathe of the population, and, it was intended mean more capable people coming into public life in particular. The benefit was mainly for middle class children and working class participation after a brief rise has been static since about 2002 and with the decline in funding of lifelong education is likely to go in reverse in the next few years.

Of course the privileged have not sat still in terms of defending their interests. It was easy when only 6% of the population went to university, you could bar people from professions like medicine and the law by simply asking for a degree. Despite the success of the Open University the numbers were not sufficient to alter the balance of the intake into those areas. In fact there were other aspects happening in terms of equality for women and ethnic minorities if not for the majority of the population, i.e. working class people. Steps have been made, but if you compare the UK to many neighbouring states, most professions do not reflect the fact that 53% of the working population is female or that 17% of people in the UK are members of ethnic minorities. However, there were clear signs that even the Christian Democrat approach favoured by Blair was alarming the privileged.

All the writing about how universities should be distinguished from each other as of different ranks and people mourning the fact that in 1992 polytechnics became universities was one sign of this. Of course, many of the post-1992 universities are in a far better situation in the current economic crisis than their older rivals and just as some people now expect some UK universities to close (London Metropolitan after its fraud must be a leading candidate) others will be merged or taken over, probably by one of the stronger post-1992 universities. Other things such as dismissing of 'A' level results and the favouring of the baccaleauriate and places like University of Oxford discussing having entrance examinations again, seem like actions by the elite to reduce the pressure from the active middle class in trying to join them.

Milburn highlighted another way in which this is being done, through the use of internships. In some ways this is an extension of the policies adopted by fee-paying schools. They educate 7% of the population and yet provide 33% of MPs, 45% of civil servants, 70% of finance directors and 75% of judges. Of course, they would argue that that is because they can provide the best education and facilities, though if you go around the average fee-paying school you often find that is far from being the case and many of them are in out-of-date buildings with old equipment and old educational approaches. It is more the fact that even if they taught their pupils to do nothing except recite the complete works of Rudyard Kipling, the bulk of their pupils would get good jobs due to family connections.

In the 1990s noises were made about these privileges and the fact that how could such for-profit organisations be charities so such schools gave bursaries and in 2006 regulations were changed so that the Charities Commission could be stricter on for-profit schools who were not aiding the local community sufficiently. A couple have been criticised this year and one had the charitable status revoked. However, this misses a huge point, is that even a child who gets to such schools on a bursary will never be a proper part of the school. Their parents cannot pay for the ski trips, the instruments, the other lessons that are taken for granted, actively encouraged in such schools. There is superificial widening of access but if your parents do not have sufficient money your access will never be more than superficial.

Via a long route round, this brings me back to internships. There are a couple of issues going on with them. It is clear like almost all training for young people, employers use it to get cheap or free labour and in exchange give very minimal training. 'The Guardian' reported how even MPs are exploiting the system, like glamorous industries such as fashion, journalism and other media, they use the desire of the young people as a way to get cheap workers despite the fact that each has £104,000 year to spend on help which many of them use to employ family members. They save the government £5.3 million per year, but are selling young people false hope and exploiting them as badly as the worst modelling agencies.

To work for free costs money, especially if you are going to do it for a decent amount of time sufficient to gain real skills for work. This again relies on the family income, that your parents can support you through the period of internship. Yet, internships are now seen as vital for a decent job; US websites show that in the USA students are now expected to have completed two internships by the time they have graduated if they want to get a decent job. Internships are both exploitation and a new way of putting obstacles in the way of aspirational people from non-upper class backgrounds.

Privileged people would argue that the meritocracy fostered in the 1960s (originally used a pejorative term) has failed, given the state we are in. However, many of the problems we are facing notably in terms of the environment and the financial crisis have been fostered by greedy, privileged people with an inability to see beyond their own bank balances and their children they have raised purely through nepotism rather promoting people on ability. If you want to see the kind of damage such systems promote, look at the record of the British Army.

I have recently been reading about how in 1811 the Duke of Wellington's unwillingness to meet with the Portuguese commandant of Braga allowed the army under General Soult to escape capture by the British forces in Portugal. The commandant had come to tell Wellington of the potential escape route for Soult's forces along a Roman road, but Wellington would not meet him as he was deemed to be of too low class and the British general emphasised hierarchy. This meant 20,000 French troops escaped. Wellington was one of Britain's best generals. Others who came on through status and position were far worse. The fiasco of the retreat to Corunna in Spain in 1808, the retreat from Kabul in 1842, the bulk of the action in the Crimean War and certainly the logistical support, the same in fiascos of the Zulu Wars and the Anglo-Boer Wars in South Africa 1899-1902 let alone most activity on the Western Front in the First World War (and in fact I keep thinking of more examples, just look at the American War of Independence 1775-82 and the Fall of Singapore in 1942) you can see how foolish men ignorant of basic strategy, of the fighting machine they had under them, the requirements of an army, the ingenuity of their opponents and above all disregard for their soldiers meant the UK has a huge record of military fiascos that led to hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths and lengthened wars.

If, as Milburn reports, social mobility is declining in Britain there is a 'closed shop' culture in the professions which is not levelling off but increasing. After the shifts of the post-war era there was not an infinite capacity for people to always do better than their parents, but what is happening now is so many are doing far worse. The opportunities for intelligent, hard-working and innovative people are becoming fewer and when they come they come at such a huge financial costs in terms of student loans as to hamper the rest of that person's life. Despite all the bursaries and the access, university, feasibly is still only open to the children of the rich, certainly if it is not the last thing in their lives they can afford to aspire to do. The 'me first' culture fostered from the 1980s onwards is allowing the privileged to strengthen their position. Not for the first time do I feal we are trundling back to the 1930s with Baldwinian policies waiting in the wings to be introduced by David Cameron (though I am still not convinced he will win easily) and a social elite approach to opportunity that appears modelled on the one shown in 'Gosford Park' (2001), i.e. set in 1931 with people complaining that the unemployed would not take positions as domestic servants.

Some will see the greater egalitarianism of the 1960s-70s as an 'experiment' or a 'phase' that proved to them that it could not succeed, though seems to be doing pretty well in other countries. I know the USA has always had an imperfect system but being educated in the state system and working hard can still get you a lot further than in the UK, let alone if you look at France or other European states. Yes, there are inequalities, yes there is privilege, no, not everyone can become prime minister, but these discussions actually pivot on the lives of millions of individuals and whether they will ever get the chance to head the department they work in or whether they will be barred from that on some spurious grounds and have the boss's son with minimal experience put in over them. That is what these broad debates are about frustration is household after household, life after life.

As a society, we will never know the cost of the medicines that will not be developed, the efficiency of our economy and the running of our state that will be lost because so many young people have no hope. These days they cannot even aspire to be the same as their parents in their occupations, many millions will be poorer and less secure in their work than their parents ever were. The privileged love to see binge drinking, drug abuse, youth crime, the assigning of ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders) because it allows them to say that other classes do not deserve opportunity and so should not have the right to it. In fact shutting off opportunity in the way that is happening so actively now, simple rots society. There were always be criminals and the socially dysfunctional, but by shutting off any hope of a better future for whole swathes of the population you simply exacerbate the problem and bring unknown misery to millions. New Labour should have really smashed the 'glass ceiling' for social as well as gender, disability and ethnic equality, but instead it has overseen a hardening of these divisions and that is a legacy all of us are going to be dealing with for the next few decades.

P.P. 09/10/2009: New findings have revealed that students from independent schools are over-represented on 'vulnerable' (i.e. to having their departments closed) but economically important degree courses such as modern languages and engineering. Independent schools teach 7% of pupils in the UK but provide 28% students doing French degrees; 38% on Italian and 41% on Spanish degrees; 25% of students studying mechanical engineering, 26% on civil engineering and 38% on general engineering degree and 38% on medical degree courses; the 42% of independent pupils who make up the students doing economics cannot really be deemed to be in a valuable subject area given how much damage such people have done to the UK in the past two years.

These figures may be taken as an excuse to boost independent education, but what such a step neglects is that these are the kind of pupils who always went to university. These degree programmes often stretch over four years, for languages you have to go abroad for a year and engineering degrees often have a year in industry, so students need more money to complete the course than on other degree programmes. In addition, these figures show up the opportunities independent school pupils have at school and to travel before they even reach university; also that their parents are more likely to speak foreign languages and particularly to be doctors. What the figures show is that if you go to a comprehensive school or even a grammar school you stand little chance of moving into these subject areas. For the sake of the future of the UK more resources need to go into state schools otherwise it will continue to be the case that too much of British industry is driven by people who have come from a particularly narrow-minded mould, out of touch with the bulk of UK society. See:

P.P. 14/10/2009: The evidence that even attending university does not give you any greater benefits in terms of social mobility seems to keep on coming in. It also seems that the peak period of such opportunity, sometime in the early 2000s is now well passed without having made much of an impact on the social background of those in professional jobs. With the recession it is likely to worsen. It is easy to slip into seeing the recession as having been engineered by the elites to knock back what they saw as middle and even working class people becoming too 'uppity' and pressing into the jobs that were usually reserved for their children. Whether it was ever intentional or is just a by-product of what is happening, the elites can sit back and be happy that they are facing far less challenge from the lower classes than they would have done 5-10 years ago.

The BBC continues covering these issues: 70% of judges, 54% of CEOs, 54% of leading journalists and 51% of doctors went to independent schools which only educate 7% of the population. As anyone who has been round many independent schools knows they often are in worse conditions than children at a local comprehensive and often receive outdated teaching, but of course they do not have to try as hard as many of them will be guaranteed jobs and easy career progression simply because of who they know. I am heartened to see that 32% of MPs and 24% of vice-chancellors of universities went to independent schools, though this still means that indepedent school pupils are over-represented 3-5 times, this is better than 10 times over-represented. However, I do worry that the balance will get worse again meaning that even more than at present the bulk of us and our children will never stand a chance of holding a professional job certainly one that shapes the country even if we are capable of doing it. In our place will be incompetent people who simply got there because of who their family is and which school they went to. For the latest BBC coverage see:

P.P. 25/01/2010: Working for a company which seems to think it is normal that what is or not acceptable to say in any situation seems to be the privilege of affluent employees no matter what their standing within the context of the company, I am feeling the bite of the power of the privileged more sharply than I have for many years.  That aside, I noted the continued attempt, now that higher education takes in so much more of the population to try to draw divisions within it, down the line of old fashioned assumptions.  No-one, even the Million group which represents post-1992 universities seems willing to say that in some fields you stand more chance of getting a job with a degree from a newer university which properly engages with the subject than from a stuck-in-the-mud traditional one.  Now this snobbery is spreading to schools as well.

The government has resisted the rush by independent (i.e. fee-paying) schools to adopt the IGCSE in the place of the GSCE, so now people like the head of the elite Harrow School Barnaby Lenon is whining that poorer children are being lied to about their chances of having a decent career studying the standard qualifications that the bulk of schools still offer.  He refers to 'worthless qualifications' and inidicates that he feels educating the masses of young people will simply lead to circumstances like Weimar Germany or current day Zimbabwe, not realising that actually in those countries education qualifications were/are a rarity reserved for the elite.  So Lenon is equating mass education with dictatorship, rather what is in fact the case, it promotes democracy.  Of course, Lenon does not want to advance democracy and certainly not equality, he wants to keep education and the paths it opens restricted to those who have privilege already.  See:

It is clear that the privileged feel they are beginning to win the argument and with a few more pushes will be able not only to push back some of the increase in social mobility of the past decade but also push it back to before the 1960s changes in opportunity.  This will certainly come about if the Conservatives, no longer fronted by middle class people who worked their way up like Margaret Thatcher and John Major, but by people from the elite, notably David Cameron, win the next election.  The further shutting off of opportunity for thousands of young people is iniquitous and needs to be fought strongly.  This is not about struggling for greater opportunity for ordinary people, it is about maintaining the opportunity opened up over the past four decades and not allowing us to slide back to a situation of the 19th century in which people got a position because of who their father was, not because of any ability.  Returning to that means not only frustration for many thousands but also decay for the UK as a whole.

Monday, 3 August 2009

The New Face of 'Signing On'

To some degree despite my interest in a range of issues, this blog, like most, has also reflected developments in my life. It has had stuff about mean landlords and greedy councils and the travails of the employer who made me redundant on Friday. It has shown my continued failure at interviews and the poor way so many of them are organised anyway. Now, today I am officially unemployed for the first time since the Summer of 1993. I was interested to see how claiming unemployment benefit, now termed the Jobseekers' Allowance has changed. After being unemployed I actually ended up working in a job centre for over a year so saw the process from two sides. I left just as the final step of the evolution was proceeding. Even in the early 1990s job centres were different places to what was then called the DSS (Department of Social Security) offices where the 13 other benefits aside from unemployment benefit, were claimed. The job centre was open plan and had carpets; the DSS had bleak rooms with furniture fixed to the floor and staff behind thick glass.

I went to my local job centre today and found it similar to the one I had stopped working in 1994. The technology has advanced, there are touch screens to access things. You are welcomed at the door as if going into a branch of Pizza Hut. Then I found out that you do not make a claim, as the process is still known, physically, you have to telephone first and go through a 40-minute interview. I actually found this easier than tackling someone face-to-face, though I have that element later this week. The face-to-face interview is only for me to confirm that what has been written about me is accurate and for me to bring evidence for what I am saying. Unsurprisingly given the populist concern about immigrants and employment in the UK, there were lots of questions about my nationality, despite the fact they took my National Insurance number at the start. So, the experience was very much like it would be in any other service sector location, if I went to a chain restaurant or my building society. I suppose that should be unsurprising. Of course, a lot of it is not about appealing to claimants, but to employers. Employers tended to view job centres as places where the failures went and a location that they were unlikely to find suitable candidates. Low-paying employers, conversely, saw it as a location where they could pick up cheap workers. I remember the restaurant chain Fatty Arbuckles complaining in 1993 because it had had only 4 applicants for posts in its restaurant in the town where I worked. They went on the local radio station whining that locals were lazy and preferred to 'scrounge' than work, despite the highish level of unemployment with the early 1990s recession just coming to an end. The rate of pay they were offering was £2.14 per hour (worth about £3.14 now compared to the minimum wage of £5.73 per hour) and you would have had to work an hour to cover your bus fare in from many of the villages. So, job centres evolved to look more like employment agencies. I noted the other day that a high-level company I applied for asked if I had seen the vacancy at a job centre (or Job Centre Plus) to give it, its full title, which to me suggested that they had succeeded in winning over employers.

Of course, the bulk of people who claimed at job centres were never lazy. In periods of full employment in the 1960s only about 35-70,000 people remained unemployed and I imagine that if we had full employment now the figure would probably not top 150,000. The rest of people claiming want to work and try very hard to get a job. A lot of unemployment is always 'transitional' even in periods of relatively high unemployment, a lot of people are without work because they are between jobs rather than starting a long period with no work at all. Of course, the pattern varies greatly regionally, but people forget how much work is seasonal and needs workers who can move from it to something else. Of course, with the cost of living in the UK being so high compared to in neighbouring states, it is almost impossible to build up savings to tide people over this transitional phase and without unemployment benefit you would see real hardship. You see hardship as it is, no-one is going to get rich claiming benefit, despite the myths put around by lazy newspapers. No-one seems to go after the tax evaders. In my personal experience a tax dodger owes the state £4000, you would have to be claiming benefit for almost two years to come close to that level of money from the state. Somehow, if you manage to dodge taxes you are a folk hero; yet even those claiming benefit legitimately are too often still seen as pariahs.

Being unemployed does not mean you should be compelled to forget all dignity and totally abase yourself and work for pitiful wages, without rights or in poor conditions. Of course, that was the line of the Thatcherites, and I remember being told repeatedly in the late 1980s that people claiming benefits should not be permitted to have a television. There was a real strain of thinking that harked back to the sense of 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor. Benefit offices were very much like Nonconformist chapels in those days, set up to make people feel guilty for claiming anything and that they should be very grateful and humble for anything they did get; that they should give up everything of any light or pleasure in exchange for the small sums they received. I see some of this attitude amongst the public today, usually targetted at drug addicts and immigrants, but there are still the enduring myths that 'Jane Smith, she has five kids and the government pays her mortgage, she never even tries to find work'. These myths endure. Having worked in benefits offices and a tax office, I know that the state will cut off anyone getting anything they are not entitled to at a shot and will try to reclaim it immediately. Why do people think that if they are not getting a particular benefit other people are somehow getting it and far more generously than them? I suppose it is an element of human nature to always be envious, especially in Britain where moaning is a sport.

Given that we are returning to the high levels of unemployment we last saw in the 1980s, I hope people begin to realise this time, that the bulk of people who are unemployed hate the situation they are in. With companies laying off staff in their thousands, the majority of people in job centres will not be the durg addicts, but ordinary people, who given a quarter of a chance would be working. Losing your job dents your self respect. It leads to many sacrifices. This is bad enough without people telling you that you are lazy or are scrounging or stealing. There are lazy people, but as the weeks go by they become a smaller and smaller fraction of the millions out of work. Looking for a job, applying for jobs, attending interviews is time consuming and not without both financial and emotional costs. I hope that in part the approach of job centres in the late 2000s helps to normalise and certainly humanise the experience of being unemployed. People feel bad enough when without work, making them feel guilty simply reduces human dignity further and people who feel they have nothing either turn against society or turn against themselves and that is not what you need. The recession will come to an end. Despite the prophecies of the end of capitalism, it has been through worse situations than this. When it ends, do you want a workforce who have been so hammered while out of work that they have no self-respect, no initiative, no ambition? I know many employers like that, but that is one reason why we got into this mess in the first place.

No doubt, I will see how much I get made a pariah and how well I weather the burden of being unemployed. However, I must say the job centre approach prevailing currently, already is making me feel a bit better than it did back in the 1990s.