The road to benefits is full of potholes

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The Independent Online
Graduation means time to face reality - financial demands that may come as a surprise to those unprepared for life outside university. Welcome to the joys of council tax, income tax and national insurance, and kiss goodbye to free prescriptions and dental treatment. In addition, as soon as you start to earn anything worthwhile, student loans will need to be paid back.

There is often an uncomfortable pause between graduating and the first steps up the career ladder, when a job is impossible to find but the bills begin to mount up. That is when you say hello to those nice people at the Job Centre - not only should they help you find a job but they can also give you benefits.

Unemployed graduates can qualify for income support, and if you are claiming the maximum, you qualify automatically for council tax benefit and housing benefit as well.

Income support is claimed from your local Job Centre in a process that initially appears to be very simple: attend an interview, sign lots of forms, and promise to apply for at least three jobs every week. But behind this veneer of simplicity, there are inconsistencies in the benefit system that can confound the most determined job-seeker.

Ten days ago, I decided to get on my bike and come to London to look for work. My Job Centre in Leeds was encouraging. "Ask your local Job Centre in London for a UB90 and you'll be paid benefits as usual," I was told breezily.

My friends were more sceptical: Eleanor, 23, who graduated from Manchester University last year, had been given the same advice. When she arrived in London, however, her new Job Centre told her that she had to cancel her original claim and make a fresh one. When she protested that she would be going home in two weeks, she was told that on returning to Manchester she would have to cancel the claim made in London and re-apply.

If a claim is stopped, housing benefit and council tax benefit are automatically cancelled. When a fresh claim is made, there is a 10-day pause before the claimant receives benefits.

Making two new claims in two weeks would have left Eleanor unable to pay her rent or council tax and without any money for 20 days.

With no savings or overdraft facility, Eleanor had to return to Leeds in time to sign on that day - a journey that wasted pounds l3.50 of her pounds 37.90 weekly claim. Other friends have lost out in the same way.

I was expecting similar treatment from the Job Centre in Kentish Town, London, and I got it. I was told by a member of staff to make a new claim, which I would have to cancel on my return to Leeds to make another in its place. When I explained what I had been told in Leeds he said this was not the case. We battled it out until he lost patience and told me that if I did not believe him, I should go and ask another member of staff.

I chose another official and asked again for a UB90. He nodded and fetched the form and filled it out for me. I signed it and was out of the building in five minutes flat. Not a word was said about cancelling my claim.

You lose some, you win some, I suppose.

And while the benefits system has never been easy to navigate, don't expect much from the introduction of the jobseeker's allowance in October to replace both unemployment benefit and income support. There are fears that the jobseeker's allowance will lead to more claimants losing out through cancelled claims.

o Amelia Hill has just graduated from Leeds University and is going to City University in London to study journalism this autumn.