The government’s Work Programme, launched in 2011 to help long-term unemployed people into work, has been widely condemned in the media. It has been portrayed alternately as greedy, cruel or incompetent, and sometimes all three.
Yet one of these providers, Ingeus, helped me. Many journalists, who have no experience of such places, have maligned this scheme as well as others. This infuriates me. How dare they dismiss as a failure the scheme which saved me and many others (Ingeus has helped 215,000 into work) from long-term unemployment, benefits and the dismalness that entails?
Following a nine-month period on Jobseeker’s Allowance I was referred to Ingeus in 2011. As well as claiming JSA I volunteered at an arts cafe in return for a meal at the end of each shift. I had worked as a waitress during long university summers, and had envisioned it being easy to get similar jobs after leaving full-time education. My story is typical for someone who graduated at the height of the recession.
I applied for job after job, dutifully logging each one in the green and white booklet with 'action', ‘date’ and ‘outcome'. All too often the outcome field remained empty.
Like other jobseekers I went on several finding-work courses, the first in an ugly room with bright lights which picked out every fibre in the hardwearing carpet. The participants sat round two tables pushed together, then a woman came and addressed us. ‘The most important thing for jobseekers is to be realistic,’ she said. ‘I had a sixty-year-old woman once; wanted to be a model.’
At Ingeus I expected a similar spiteful atmosphere. I had read plenty of articles that led me to think of it as a way to trip jobseekers up, finding excuses to sanction their benefits. My local branch shared an office block with ATOS, the company which tests whether long-term disabled people are fit for work. I have no experience of ATOS, but their cruel reputation seeped into my perception of Ingeus.
I didn’t have the choice not to use Ingeus. It was compulsory if I wanted to still claim JSA which I needed to live, but I went along to my first meeting with low expectations at best and fear of draconian cruelty at worst. I was completely wrong.
Ingeus got me to my feet through self-employment. It has done the same for thousands of others. This is not in any conceivable way a ‘cheat', as has been suggested. Most crucial for me was their encouragement of my writing and their advice to write letters to magazines I liked: ‘use your skill with words to explain why you like the magazine and ask for any positions or internships going.'
One of these letters resulted in a paid internship on Intelligent Life, part of The Economist Group. Walking along Piccadilly in the chilly mornings and entering the tall Economist building with my laminated pass on my keychain, I could hardly believe this was my life. Without Ingeus I may well have still been clearing tables in exchange for hot dinners. How many others felt similarly thrilled?
Yet many members of the media still hold Ingeus, and other work providers, in contempt. Google ‘Ingeus,’ Serco’ or ‘Work Provider’ followed by the name of any left-leaning newspaper and you will see what I mean.
In a Guardian article last May, Ian Jack, who admits he has no experience of the benefit system except child benefit, wrote scathingly about Ingeus. He reserves special vitriol for their record of getting people into self-employment, asking ‘If you want to cheat the figures, doesn’t the state offer a cheaper way of doing it?'
When I contacted Ingeus, I spoke with Maeve McGoldrick from ERSA (the Employment Related Services Association) who said she finds the coverage frustrating: ‘The vast majority of stories we monitor [about the Work Programme] get highlighted in red – meaning they are negative, subjective and often inaccurate. Since its beginning, the programme has become tangled in political narratives, which is extremely irresponsible as this is a programme designed to help change lives for the better.’
Others I knew at Ingeus found it helped them, including a man who told me he had set himself on fire at one of his lowest points during his unemployment. He was applying for supermarket jobs and sat next to me on the computers. Several months later I returned and asked about his whereabouts. I was told he had found a job.
On their site Ingeus has a selection of case studies, such as one from Jodie, a woman disabled by a car crash who found work as a cleaner at a care home: ‘It was very depressing thinking I could never get a job but RMBI (the Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution) and Ingeus changed all that’ reads her quote.
Perhaps journalists seeking to criticise the Work Programme, as so many do, would prefer to dismiss these studies as platitudinous one-offs, but I lived it. The majority of them, I'd be willing to bet, have not.
Currently I am working as a freelance journalist, as well as writing content for marketing websites. Slowly I have moved off benefits. It’s an exhilarating experience for somebody who needed to claim for so long and there are still times that I cannot believe I managed to reach this point.
Hope Whitmore is a writer based in Edinburgh. She can be found tweeting @HopeWhitmore