The Return of the Circumlocution Office

In which The Author is being fucked around

My regular readers have probably come across a reference in this blog to the ‘Circumlocution Office.’ It’s a phrase coined by Charles Dickens, in Chapter 10 of his novel Little Dorrit (published between 1855 and 1857), to satirise the British Civil Service.
The Circumlocution Office was (as everybody knows without being told) the most important Department under Government. No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office. Its finger was in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart. It was equally impossible to do the plainest right and to undo the plainest wrong without the express authority of the Circumlocution Office. If another Gunpowder Plot had been discovered half an hour before the lighting of the match, nobody would have been justified in saving the parliament until there had been half a score of boards, half a bushel of minutes, several sacks of official memoranda, and a family-vault full of ungrammatical correspondence, on the part of the Circumlocution Office.
This glorious establishment had been early in the field, when the one sublime principle involving the difficult art of governing a country, was first distinctly revealed to statesmen. It had been foremost to study that bright revelation and to carry its shining influence through the whole of the official proceedings. Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving—HOW NOT TO DO IT.
Through this delicate perception, through the tact with which it invariably seized it, and through the genius with which it always acted on it, the Circumlocution Office had risen to overtop all the public departments; and the public condition had risen to be—what it was.
As you can probably imagine, Dickens continues in this vein for a couple of pages, but you get the general thrust of his argument. I’ve been using the term ‘Circumlocution Office’ for a couple of years now. In the Twenty-First Century, it seems that not only did Dickens nail the Victorian Civil Service precisely, but also predicted its development over the next century and a half.
My claim for Employment and Support Allowance ended abruptly on 19 September, so I was thrown back into the maesltrom of the Circumlocution Office the following Monday. After a surprisingly quick telephone conversation with a pleasant lady in Halifax, I was given an appointment at Aberdare JokeJobcentre on the Thursday morning. I went along, armed with the first instalments of my paperwork (see What a Waste) and after a brief interview with an adviser (sorry, coach) I was given a fresh appointment.
On Wednesday 1 October, I attended my new claimant interview as arranged. At the end, I was given my regular signing time: 9.30 a.m. every other Thursday. As I would ordinarily have signed on the following morning, my coach said she’d save me a second trip into Aberdare and signed me there and then. I asked her when I could expect a payment, as by the following week I’d be running on empty. She told me that my claim would be processed on Friday, and that I should receive my money the following Wednesday (8 October.)
Needless to say, on Wednesday morning I went the cashpoint and found a zero balance. Luckily for me, my £5.00 refund from TfL (see Straightforward (Part 94)), had gone into my account the previous day, and I’d spent that on topping up my electricity. Even so, that left me with no money at all. I decided to phone the DWP from a payphone using their free number, but when I got to the part where I could speak to someone, I had to call another number. I didn’t have credit on my phone, or change for the payphone, so I walked into Aberdare and called into the Jobcentre.
After about ten minutes, I was able to speak to a adviser coach downstairs. She made an internal call, and then I had to go upstairs to speak to someone else. She checked on my file, confirmed some basic information, and then sent an email – presumably to the mysterious Caerphilly Benefits Centre. She told me that I could expect a phone call within three hours, and that my money would be paid before the end of business that day. In the event, I received a text at just before 3.00 p.m., and when I checked my balance at 3.30 I was extremely relieved to find that my money had been transferred.
A week ago today, I called in to sign on, as arranged at my previous interview. It had even been written down for me by my coach, so I knew the exact date and time.

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I arrived about ten minutes early, so I sat and read the paper while I waited to be called. At about 9.45, when I still hasn’t heard my name, I queried it with a member of staff. She told me that I should have gone to the desk upstairs.
I made my way upstairs, and was spotted by Ellen, who used to look after my claim a couple of years ago. She was surprised to see me, and told me that she was expecting me the following morning. To prove it, she rather shamefacedly produced a letter from my file. It was dated the previous Friday (10 October), and presumably should have been posted that day. I laughed it off, saying that it was lucky I’d called in, and went on my way.
The following day, however, while I was waiting to be seen, I saw a steady stream of people coming and going. Almost without exception, their appointments had been rescheduled without prior notification. When I eventually got to the Library, I wrote a letter to the manager of the Jobcentre. I pointed out that had I missed my Friday appointment – through no fault of my own – I would have undoubtedly been ‘sanctioned’ and my money would have been stopped. After having heard similar stories from some other friends, I decided to send an email to our MP, Ann Clwyd. Ironically, her constituency office is directly above the Jobcentre, in Crown Buildings, so that she doesn’t even need to pick up the phone to speak to the manager.
This morning, I arrived for my scheduled appointment, in plenty of time as usual. Ed and Karen J. were there, and we chatted for a little while before Karen’s name was called. When Ed hadn’t been called, he queried it and it took a few minutes before his paperwork was unearthed.
By 11.35 my name still hadn’t been called. One of the staff members told me that she’d track down my file, and spent about five minutes going from desk to desk before calling me to her desk. She explained that I’d been given the wrong information, and that I wouldn’t be signing on until next Thursday. Therefore, I wouldn’t be needed next Friday, as I’d been told. You can see her alterations to my schedule for yourselves.

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It’s a good thing that I’m a generally laid-back kind of guy, with a warped sense of humour and extensive experience of customer-facing work. If I was one of the alcohol- and/or drug-fuelled stroppy bastards who frequent the Jokecentre, I daresay the outcome of my last three visits might have been very different. It’s hardly surprising that the building is manned by security guards from HM Government’s favourite private army, G4S. I can understand entirely why people would kick off in there, if they’d been fucked around in the way I’ve been fucked around over the past month.
As I said in my letter to the manager, paperwork used to go astray in Dillons/Waterstone’s from time to time. When it did, the worst case scenario was that a customer didn’t get a book. When there’s a SNAFU at the Jobcentre, it risks leaving vulnerable people destitute through no fault of their own.
It seems to me that the entire system needs to be overhauled, and dragged into the Third Millennium where the rest of us live. There’s no reason why appointments need to be made by letter. We’ve all got mobile phones and/or email addresses, which allow instant communication at a fraction of the cost of sending a letter. There’s no chance of a mobile phone call going astray in the system, either. We’re all expected to use modern technology in our job searches; it’s high time the gatekeepers of the Circumlocution Office got with the program too.
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