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The safety net

One thing this sceptred isle has going for it is one of the best state-run safety nets in the world.  We all put in when we can & we all get support when we need it – right?  Almost socialist – whether we like it or not.  Maybe even bordering on the communist?  Too soft on third-generation NEETs?  meant for the deserving poor only?  To now, I’ve been pretty split, like the Officer Krupke song in West Side Story.

I am getting some experience of the system working now.  I was confident that the system must be designed for users much less capable than myself, so didn’t expect to hit any real difficulties.  Hmm.

Late June 2011: completed online application for actuarially reduced pension.  Already reduced, compared to a bloke’s, because I’ve been the at-home carer bit.

July 1st:  my first day newly unwaged.  To the JobCentre first thing.  Made the effort – fragrant & dressed dressed for business.  Paperwork ordered &  in the briefcase.   Only to be sent away.  Without an appointment or entry on their database, I was an unwelcome intrusion -‘Go home & phone in or apply online’.  I was very tempted to pull out the mobile & make the call there & then – but these are security guards & body language is telling me they brook no nonsense, so home, it is & application for unemployment benefit completed online.  Only as I re-file the last document I’ve referred to for the application, does a message come up telling me to bring all these documents to the next meeting.  the message comes across loud & clear for the second time:  ‘You are just a cog in our machine.  Your time is of no import to us & we will waste it for you at every opportunity. ‘

Five days later, someone called from Walsall.  Asking me to come in on either of the two days I had already said I had committments.  Why did I fill it in online?  If it’s going to be ignorred?  But at least she’d read some of it & picked up on one of the form’s shortcomings:  yes, I’d received a redundancy payment & detailed it online.  But the form hadn’t given the opportunity to say that most of this had gone straight to improve my reduced pension prospects, rather than into my bank account. Noted – good.  But I still need to take all the doc’s to my first Nuneaton appointment.  Fair enough the advance warning had been there in the end.  They’re all filed in order & in the briefcase ready.

July 4:  not heard anything about the pension, & I could really do with something to show the benefit people, so I email Teachers’ Pensions.

July 12:  college haven’t completed their online form about my pension, so Teachers’ Pensions has sent, requesting it.  Still nothing for benefits people.

July 13:  appointment at Nuneaton JobCentre.  Gaz  (what sort of name is that?) asks me about the online application & I confirm information I have already given.  But he’s not able to deal with the rest of my application, so passes me on, once I’ve signed to confirm what I’ve already:

that I’m telling the truth.  What does it take before I’m believed?  How come this lady’s time is so much more important than mine, that Gaz has to perform this third vetting before I’m allowed the appointment they’ve made with me?

Now, Carole, who may or may not be my Personal Advisor is actually helpful: after 25 years of contributing without a break it seems I am eligible.  And my Initial  Action Plan requires at least 3  jobsearch activities per week.  Do-able.   Oh, and  sorry but my signing on day, every fortnight starts tomorrow – sorry to get you in two days in a row.  I can be philosophical about that – there’s a 1 in 5 chance of it happening, after all.  I also now know that it is permissible to have holidays while claiming – as long as you promise to come straight back if they find a job for you.  Now to sort an appointment for the proper Action Planning:  the system suggests tomorrow – fine by me if I’m coming in anyway.  But Carole vetoes this – its too soon.  What do they mean, too soon?  its been a fortnight since I applied.  But no, some people find jobs quite quickly.

I’m a lecturer.  Computing.  This is summer – no hirings at this time & I’ve already sent my CV out to all colleges in the area.  What I need is advice on the sort of jobs outside FE that I’m eligible for with my qualifications. I know how to do CV’s etc, but the world of work has changed in the 20 plus years I’ve been fully employed.   No, that’s not what the Personal Advisors are for.  Carole is unmovable on this.

So, a compromise:  Personal Advisor meeting on 3  August,  and a Next Steps Careers Advisor meeting at Connexxions, on 17 July.

14 July:  first signing on.   All the paperwork says be there ten minutes early – you can use the time at the terminals to do jobsearches.  As usual, I comply – I’m generally a complying kind of person.  No need to use the terminals here, I can get the same vacancies online at home & the system is easier to use.  Same system used  again – someone comes round to collect our signing-on doc’s, but not able to deal with us.  Have all these people been given the same timeslot with the same interviewer?  Not sure, but from arriving 10 mins early, I am seen 15 mins late.  So again, the system is here for the staff, rather than the users.

Meanwhile, there’s a young man on the phones at the back of the office, explaining how his money hasn’t come & he’s entitled to it in 7 days.  7 days?  Its been 2 weeks for me & yesterday Carole said I can expect it to take two more weeks.  If he wasn’t so angry, I’d ask hime what I’ve missed.  Maybe it’s that I’m on my own, no dependents.  But on my own also means no other safety net.

Only 1 question:  what have I done to look for work?  What, since yesterday?  Phew – since applying, a fortnight back.  Didn’t even get the doc’s out, just reeled a few off until asked to stop.  I may be overdoing this & making myself too noticeable.  Must watch this in future.

I ask if the appointment time can be changed for future meetings: 9.55 really breaks into the day & wastes time – especially if its going to be late every time.  No.  not unless someone else signs off.  Realise afterwards, I’m probably marked as suspisious now – what opportunity have I got going on that is being skuppered by a 9.55 appointment?  In reality, nothing, but it still wastes time – doing them the courtesy of turning up professionally dressed & documents prepared, then climbing out of the work clothes into something to tidy the garden in.  The morning’s gone.  I can’t bear to see time wasted – mine or otherwise.

Decide to check the job sections of local papers in the library since I’m in town, rather than wait for next door’s copy.  AS expected, as before, as when I was looking for the students just a few weeks ago:  nothing.

18 July: call from Conexxions – can I move my appointment on 19 July – staff shortages, so they can’t do a 9am start.  But here’s someone who understands – I am offered either later same day, or 9am on the following day.  This is the sort of option that recognises me as a real person & not just a KPI.  OPt for 9am start to give me a bigger slab of the day in one piece.

19 July:  appointment at Conexxions.  Interviwer turns out to be Raj Atwal who used to work at college.  This is a bonus:  we’ve worked together & there’s ongoing mutual respect from the outset.  Plus, I don’t need to go through my whole job history – Raj knows a goodly chunk of it.  Some useful suggestions to follow up, but no pressure – he’s already recognised that although I’m more than happy to consider opportunities outside FE, there will be some new stuff I’ll deal with better, given the time to think it through.  An important recognition  of the individual.  Wow.

Two forward & one back:  email from Teachers’ Pensions.  College have chosen to send a paper copy of the form about my pension.  That means Teachers’ Pensions cannot access my online application – can I complete & send them a paper copy!  Argh!  in this day & age, how can a system be so faulty?  Why is nothing done about it?  Another organisation that would rather waste the time of it’s users, than solve the problem.  This unwaged business is becoming a lot of work for no reward.

27 July:  phone call:  can I get to Carlisle?  If so, chance of a few days in Scotland.  Exciting, but this is the way we do it in my family.  Responsible jobs, consultancy work,  grab the chances between committments.  Not a moment too soon.  This has been a busy stressful year – I had put off the bulk of my leave entitlement until the summer & the redundancy made it all disappear.  I know I’m still wound up & the hills always smooth out the wrinkles for me.   Can’t understand why the therapeutic effect of the countryside is not better recognised.

Am due to sign on tomorrow, but I can deal with this, I have a form from Carole at the Jobcentre I can fill in.  So, after packing  & aranging a ride to the station,  phone the JobCentre.  Hmm:  am told I MUST come in to explain.  I offer to put this holiday form in the post – it has boxes on it to indicate whether it comes in by hand or by post.  NO.  this is not an option.  MUST come in.  Try to explain that there isn’t time & I’m actually asked what time the train is.  When I answer, I’m told I have time to go to the JobCentre before catching the train.  I resist the urge to suggest that my experience with The JobCentre to date is not one of timeliness.  But I do try to explain that at 58, I’m not up to running across town twice – with a carpet bag & rucksack.  And a slowly-recovering ruptured disk.  Much as I am insisting that this is just not physically possible,  I can hear the disbelief & sullenness.

Think about it:  end of July – who’s going to want a Computing lecturer in the next few days?    My integrity is important to me.  I am no scrounger. Why am I not believed?  What power has the state given this young woman, to encourage her to think this way of treating claimants is OK?

I decide that, notwithstanding the trouble I may be storing up for myself, I have earnt a few days to recuperate. I agree to phone in on my first day back & arranging a replacement signing-on.    But it doesn’t stop me laying awake at nights wondering what’s in store for me.  I thought that I was a more-than-averagely capable sort of person, but this is diminishing me – how do less able people cope?

1 Aug:  back home,  phone the JobCentre.  AS soon as I say why I’m calling, the young woman wants to know why I couldn’t sign on last Thursday.  I had to stress that I had explained all this on Wednesday, in order to be spared part of the grilling.  Again, there’s the ungraciousness in the tone & the message:  ‘we’re shortstaffed & can’t give you an appoinment, but you’re to come in straight away & wait to be seen.  ‘

One of the hottest days of the year & there seem to be a few people who’ve been waiting longer than they wanted & more arriving all the time.  Sweaty bodies wearing as little as they think they can get away with.  Still hot, sticky & working up to irate – without the skills to express this civilly.  But, I’ll be philosophical: there were 4 envelopes from the Department f Work & Pensions waiting for me & they seem to have got pretty confused.  So I’m prepared to hang on to get this all clarified.

then, bombshell:  DWP have denied my claim – either I’ve too much money (not true) or I didn’t tell them what they wanted to know (not true).  But the upshot is, that was Walsall did that.  and as I am no longer a claimant, I am removed from the system for Nuneaton.  There is nothing they can do for me.  It is no use showing them any of the documents I have been habitually bringing with me.  There is no way thay can talk to Walsall on my behalf.  They do not want me to sign on.  They do not want me to come to the meeting with a Personal Advisor.  I am a non person.  The lady who tells me this is sympathetic and caring & finds me a tissue.

I am truly shocked.  I’m no angel, But I think I’m more compliant that average, with a fairly well-developed sense of what’s right.  No scrounger.  The last time I claimed unemployment was well before my daughter was born, & she’s nearly 35.  times as a single parent, if I’d given in, I’m sure there would have been state support.  But I didn’t, I worked overtime & took a second job as well.

Caring & gentle, but the best she can offer is a booklet about their service standards, & a phone at the back of the room to call Walsall.  She is totally understanding when I say that I’d rather do that at home, so gives me the number & sends me on my way with a gentle hand squeeze.

Walsall & I’m back to being fodder for the system to chew up & spit out:  The young man takes the details, asks questions & then reveals that he will not actually deal with my problem.  So why answer the phone?  Again, there are people out there who need me to know how important they are, so these time-wasting strategies have to be put in place.  But someone will call within the next 3 hours.  Working hours that is & with 5pm approaching, that goes into tomorrow morning.  I thought of giving my mobile number, so I could go & water at the allotment, but don’t fancy dragging the briefcase with me & dealing with this on the plot.  So I’m tied to the house until they’re ready.  & I’m not even getting any benefit.    Am becoming more & more of a non-person.  Shades of 1984.  & I started out fairly well grounded.

The call came – still obstructive.  I hadn’t said that most of the redundancy payment had gone to my pension.  Yes, I had, and it had been noted.  I hadn’t shown them my share certificates which I’d mentioned in the application.  They’d been with me at the meetings, but no-one had asked to see them.  I would have been better off not declaring them – small numbers, generating minimal didvidends, that I’d got from previous building society changes.  Oh, and they don’t know what my pension will be or when it will start. Hello! neither do I!

Where’s the joined up writing?  Why couldn’y they call & say “can’t see why you’re making the claim – it looks like you’ve got too much money’?  Then  to add insult to injury, they’ve sent me a P45 with a totally different tax code on from the one I finished work with.  Looks like that will make me worse off too.

Just  delete me why don’t you – there’s a film along those lines.  Somebody remind me what its called.

So far, there’s only two good things come out of this:  I don’t have to sign on, so my diary is my own, & I’m spared the admin of keeping a record of my jobsearch activities.  Oh, and one more:  Hurt as I am. I got some small satisfaction in writing to Walsall with the copies they insist on in order to reconsider.  No swearing, no aspersions, no tirades, just 3 A4 sides.  so despite there being more work & no reward, there was some satisfaction to be had.

8 Aug:  News from Atlantic:  Electricity bill goes up 11%, gas by 18%.  Hmm.  Maybe I need to programme in brisk walks to town & a corner in the library.  On the other hand, there’s the Cabbage Patch club – how long could I sit with a pot of tea?

October catch-up:  another piece of advice for the soon-to-be jobless – don’t tell your bank.  they won’t  lend you money if you don’t have a job.  WEll,  my bank won’t – thats Santander.  Even if you offer evidence of expectations to more than cover it; even if its not a lot; even if it’s for a couple of months; even if you have more than 20 years of banking loyalty.  and I never wanted to be part of Santander anyway – just got them whether I liked it or not, when they took over Alliance & Leicester – which took over Giro.  So, now on the To-Do list:  find another bank.

Using more/using less, part 1:  I’m defininitely buying more tea & less petrol but haven’t yet worked out why my glasses need cleaning more often.  I get to pop round the corner shop at least once a week now, instead of just the odd holiday visit.  I usually stop & compare newspaper headlines,  & the front covers of these celebrity gossip magazines always intrigue me.  No matter what time of year, there’s always beachwear.

February 2012:  changes, changes.  Last month, I came first, second & third in the Nuneaton Writing Group annual poetry competition, so I have written a poem for the World Marmalade Awards & am thinking of entering the Wales Annual Poetry Competition.   This month so far, I have had a review published in monthly newsletter of British Beekeepers’ Association, and been an expert answering bee related readers in Grow Your Own Magazine.  Now I’m working a few hours at Astley Book Farm.  Great people to work with, lovely customers , dog, chickens .  The whole place is like a TARDIS, and somehow, also like being in the Alice in Wonderland story, or one of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books.  All sorts of corners of serendipity.  You should see the cinnamon buns in the coffee shop too, & the coffee is fresh-made from proper grounds.  Lunch by the logburner, surrounded by 70,000 books.  Can you think of a better place when it’s cold outside?



1. hawkeyexiv - March 19, 2012

I have seen and tasted those cinnamon buns. Delicious and ruinous for the waistline! Astley Book Farm is bibliophile nirvana. Even the proprietors seem to be emulating that fabulous stern librarian attitude, not for them modern happy-to-see-you customer service. I keep half expecting to be “shushed”.

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