Archive for March, 2014

More Lies From Osborne


I’m not remotely taken in by George Osborne’s recent statement that he wants full employment. It’s a soundbite, nothing more. He isn’t going to pursue any worthwhile policy that would promote it. Official unemployment may indeed have fallen, but the numbers still don’t add up: 2.5 million unemployed chasing 500,000 vacancies, and that’s just the national average. The local picture will be far worse than that in the north of England. Let us not forget that it was another Tory chancellor – the odious Norman Lamont – who once said that high unemployment was a price well worth paying for getting inflation down. Substitute defecit reduction (with an undelcared policy of further enriching the rich and big business) for inflation and it’s clear nothing has changed.


Stoke Council Concerned Over Inexperienced Benefit Staff


I understand that the leadership of Stoke-on-Trent City Council (by which I mean the elected ones, not Vanguard’s Representative On Earth) are concerned that the benefits department has so many inexperienced staff. Well, my heart bleeds, I don’t think. This is an entirely self-inflicted wound. People like me who left last year did not do so lightly. Why would so many choose (nay, queue up) to leave what was a good public sector employer during a recession? (It may not officially be a recession any more, but up here it still feels like one). Half the assessment staff (yes half) left because they felt they had no other choice, had been forced into it by a bullying and uncaring management.

The reasons I left were bound up with all this. As a result of the changes to the job – making it largely face-to-face – people like me who preferred to work in the back office were left with a stark choice by management: adapt or fuck off. So a lot of us fucked off, fed up with being badly treated. I didn’t want to leave the council, but the stresses of the changes caused my depression to return and to require a steadily increasing dose of medication to combat it. I made three visits to Occupational Health in my last two years there, and their recommendations were always ignored by management. Adapt or fuck off. Every day, I would wake up and dread going in. I hated it. If I hadn’t left, I would have remained ill and the illness would almost certainly have got worse. Even though the job I went to turned out to be shit, I still managed to kick the medication. This would have been impossible if I had remained at Stoke.

So I would say this to the leaders. While I admit that I don’t envy your having to make savage cuts (who would want to go into public service to do that?) the loss of so many experienced benefit assessors happened on your watch. If you had taken a closer interest in the welfare of your staff and not allowed a bullying management culture to take root, this would probably not have happened.

Stoke-on-Trent Benefit Manager Resigns over Unpaid Council Tax


The Sentinel recently reported that interim benefit manager at Stoke City Council, Arlene Cowan, was under investigation for unpaid Council Tax. She apparently owes money to two councils in London, and recovery procedures got as far as arrest warrants being issued. It appears that Stoke were unaware of this when she was appointed. Well well.

I will declare an interest here. I had some dealings with this person when I worked there and disliked her. I have now heard that she has left her job at Stoke. This all seems rather too quick and easy to me. I would have expected her to have been suspended while the allegations were investigated, and had they been confirmed, to have possibly faced dismissal or other disciplinary action. That is what would have happened to any “normal” employee, especially a non-manager. I say this as I have long believed that managers can get away with far more, a different rule seems to apply to them. I have heard of several cases over the years of managers being accused of something and doing a deal to leave quietly in return for a good reference. The Sentinel report is brief and the Council have refused to comment. I do have to wonder about the basis on which Ms Cowan left. Was such a deal done here? I think we have a right to know. If the Council Tax arrears should have been declared to Stoke prior to appointment, and it’s true that they were not, then this surely raises questions about probity.


Diary of a Benefit Striver #5: Universal Job Match


One of the conditions of claiming Job Seekers Allowance is that you have to use the government’s Universal Job Match system. This is run by online recruitment firm Monster. The system is fine in theory but I quickly discovered it has several shortcomings. If you believe the DWP’s propaganda, it is an invaluable tool to help the unemployed find work. I have always found “help” to be non-existent and that UJM is only used to monitor claimants. Thanks to the internet, there are more resources available these days, but UJM is probably the worst. When I started using it, it allowed you to store a CV but no covering letter: this was only changed this year; there were numerous ads with no employer name (listed as “company confidential”); and even more for catalogue distributors.

If a company advertising a vacancy won’t disclose its name, that suggests something dodgy: a bona fide employer would surely have no problem saying who they are. I won’t apply for these on principle. How far do you think a job seeker would get saying this:

“I’d like to apply for this job please”

“Certainly sir, what’s your name?”

“That’s confidential”!!

The catalogue distributor vacancies are little more than pyramid selling scams, requiring a hefty fee to be paid upfront and no guaranteed wage.

It’s also clear that vacancy ads are not properly vetted. A job for a woman to work as a prostitute in a massage parlour was recently on the site and was only removed when the press got hold of it. There have even been ads for hitmen and mafia couriers! I saw another for an “Administartion Assistant”, which required “attention to detail”, something the advert placer clearly lacks.

However, it gets worse. Recent investigations by Labour MP Frank Field, The Guardian and Channel 4 News have revealed that up to half of all vacancies on UJM are bogus or even fraudulent: multiple ads for the same job; ads failing to meet the DWP’s own guidelines; non-existent jobs. The DWP response to the allegations shows just how disconnected they are from reality: “The truth is that the vast majority of employers post genuine jobs, and we crack down on those who don’t play by the rules. We also regularly monitor the site and remove jobs that don’t meet our rules, such as duplicate advertisements or jobs for franchises.” This is yet another example of the incompetence of Iain Duncan Smith’s DWP.

Since these allegations were published, the DWP has removed 120,000 vacancies (about 1/5th of the total). I certainly haven’t seen any catalogue distributors for several weeks, but problems with the site remain. Claims have now surfaced that the DWP will be scrapping UJM in its current form when the contract with Monster ends in 2016, though they have denied this.

In the meantime, the unemployed are forced to use a flawed system that is there mainly to spy on them and which exposes them to the risk of fraud. The situation should never have been allowed to get this bad. Heads should roll. Starting with that liar, that incompetent fool Iain Duncan Smith. Fat chance.

Guardian reports:

Channel 4 News Investigation:

Reports of UJM being scrapped:

UJM spelling error

The Clifton Hall Tunnel Collapse 1953


Clifton Hall tunnel lay on the on the Patricroft-Molyneux Junction line, adjacent to Clifton station on the L&Y route to Bolton. It opened in 1850, promoted by the Liverpool & Manchester Railway mainly as an attempt to stymie a rival proposal. By the time of opening, control had passed to the LNWR and it was principally used to serve nearby collieries.

The tunnel – known locally as Black Harry – was 1298 yards long and was troublesome throughout its life. Eight shafts were sunk during construction, none of which were retained for ventilation and none of which were marked in the tunnel. It was bored through unstable ground, mostly clay and wet sand, which made it very wet in places and it was patched many times. After a small amount of mining subsidence, it was twice reinforced with steel ribs made from old rails, and these covered all but 282 yards of the tunnel’s length by 1926. It was in this section that the collapse occurred.

On 15th April 1953, a ganger noticed some bricks had fallen onto the tracks and that more were peeling from the roof. All traffic was stopped to allow repairs, and it was decided to use steel ribs to reinforce the damaged area. Over the next two weeks, further land movements were detected and cracks started to develop. On the 28th April at about 5.35 a.m., the tunnel roof failed directly beneath an old construction shaft. Witnesses in the street above (Temple Drive in Swinton) described a loud cracking noise underground, after which two houses (no’s 22 & 24) collapsed into the ground, killing all five people inside. The side wall of number 26 was also sheared off, but thankfully its occupants were rescued. This house, as well as number 20, was later demolished.

It was soon decided not to reopen the line as it had little traffic. Work to stabilise the tunnel began the day after, and was completed nine days after the collapse. Both sides of the roof fall were firmly packed with ashes, and the tunnel was then filled with colliery waste by the NCB. It was subsequently sealed and both entrances buried and landscaped. The line south of the tunnel was closed immediately and that to the north retained for colliery traffic until 1961.

The official enquiry found that the collapse was caused by “an inherent weakness in the construction of the tunnel”. When the old shaft was examined, rotting timbers were found amongst the wreckage. It was determined that these had been used to brace the shaft when it was filled in after the tunnel was built, and that over time they had corroded, increasing the stress on the walls of the shaft. When they gave way, the full load of the shaft was transferred to the tunnel roof. The enquiry also found that engineers had been hampered by the wartime loss of records relating to the tunnel, including the location of some old shafts.

This was not the last time the tunnel caused problems. In 2007, cracks appeared in a building used by Age Concern. Because of its condition, it was demolished. A few weeks later, a crater appeared next to Swinton Register Office, and the road was closed for several weeks while repairs were carried out. It was subsequently discovered that drilling had disturbed the fabric of the tunnel.

As for the rest of the line, it is traceable on Google Earth for about half a mile south of Clifton, close to the north portal of the tunnel. It becomes visible again south of the A580 and some of it has been turned into a footpath until it reaches Monton Road, not far north of the M602. Beyond there, the alignment has disappeared. On Temple Drive, there is still a gap in the houses, with only a couple of sheds now occupying the site.


Wikipedia (for the accident report), for a fuller explanation and photographs.
Lost Railways of Merseyside and Greater Manchester, Gordon Suggitt, Countryside Books

Diary of a Benefit Striver #4: Advisor Interview


Another meeting with the adviser on the 28th February. Followed a similar pattern to before really, but at least they sent me to the right place this time and I got a seat.

My Arrival time: 09.35
Apppointment Time: 09.40
Time Seen: 09.47
Minutes late: 7

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