The benefit claim - or what Tony Hancock would have done next
Having been made redundant in July, I decided that I would recoup some of my lifetime investment in UKPLC and submit a claim Jobseeker's Allowance. This is something I have had to do occasionally in my life and I take the view that I have contributed at a high rate for many years, so why not? The process of claiming remains one of the most Kafkaesque, pointless exercises I have ever undertaken.
The starting point for any such claim is that the government hates you and does not want to give you anything since you are a wretched individual with no demonstrable worth to society at all. However (big sigh and much huffing & puffing), if you must claim, you must fill in a form and provide evidence of everything you have ever done and everything you might do – information the government can trawl through to find anything which might enable them to stop paying you your few coppers each week.
Knowing this all from bitter previous experience, I still foolishly embarked on what I knew would a Hellish voyage through the darkest places bureaucracy can take you. I completed the online form.
I’ll be honest, this was easier than it has been in the past. An online form is progress, so let me give them credit for this. The form completed, I received an e-mail confirming that I had indeed completed said document and advising me that I would be called to the office. I was to take two forms of ID with me when I was summoned. I allowed myself a brief moment of celebration, for I knew that I had merely got past the two gormless guards at the entrance to what I knew was a labyrinthine system and that such little victories would be needed given the tribulations and epic battles with paper that I knew were to come.
I was telephoned the following day to be told when I would be seen, what I needed to take with me (three forms of ID, not two) and what I would need to demonstrate – pretty much a slavish desire to work at any cost, anywhere and at any time for anything above £1 a week and to be pathetically grateful for this. I acknowledged this all, knowing that the system feeds on paper and misery. I prepared for my interview.
The following day, I attended the interview, which is always with a disarmingly friendly person keen to reassure you that they want to help you. I provided all the requested details, including advising them of the payment I had been given by my employer in exchange for buggering off like a good boy. I also advised them of my intention to go on holiday with my family in August – like 99% of the population – and the various measures I had taken and would take to find gainful employment.
My first mistake: I had been honest and comprehensive in what I told them.
Having signed the new-fangled electronic signature machine countless times - because The System did not like my signature – I left and awaited the mountain of letters I knew were on their way from offices across the country to tell me about any and all aspects of my claim.
Letter one duly arrived a few days later and told me I would receive this benefit. I fell to my knees and blessed The System for its largesse in returning a fraction of my money to me. They are good people, really they are!
Buoyed by this gift from on high, I went on holiday to the beautiful Gateshead Riviera satisfied that I, Joseph K, had negotiated my way thus far through The System successfully.
The terrible hubris of that moment.
The System strikes back
While away, the second letter arrived. This one was more like it: I was told that my claim had been suspended because I had told them I was going on holiday. The third letter followed swiftly after, advising me that my claim had been cancelled because I was on holiday and not looking for work.
This, it must be clarified, is on the back of an interview with said nice person when I told them that I would indeed be away but that I would still be keeping up with job opportunities although, being 250 miles away from home, I might not be able to attend an interview at 8am in the morning in Didcot or start work in McDonald’s Banbury the following Monday.
I was, to be clear, a layabout who was corrupting The System and must be punished!
I returned home from my exotic holiday and prepared for my first ‘signing on’ date, a uniquely useless interview at which I am asked stock questions which I have to answer in precisely the right way to ensure that The System can understand my answers and interpret them in such a way that enables it to consider me slightly less of a scumbag than it already does.
Unfortunately, my first appointment was scheduled for Bank Holiday Monday, so I called first thing on Tuesday to enquire what I should do. I was informed that I had no claim. However, fear not, The System advised me, I could make a ‘rapid reclaim’, which would be much quicker.
Like a sucker, I believed them.
The second claim
The same tedious form duly completed – although once again I must acknowledge that much of the information was pre-completed - I was called the following day to be advised of my next appointment, for which I duly prepared, gathering the same forms of ID I had submitted two weeks previously and evidence of all my efforts to find work.
At the second interview, The System was represented by a nice person who apologised for the problems (they always do), clarified that while I had been away I could not possibly look for work – the internet has been fully embraced by The System, it seems – and that a request for backdating would probably not succeed. The System has moved on, you see, so should I.
I chuntered, signed the box another 20 or so times (it really doesn’t like my signature) and left, reassured by this latest visit. Move on, I thought.
Comes the weekend and The System, clearly full of remorse that it had not been in touch recently, sent me three letters. The first letter was a form which asked about the ‘voluntary severance’ I declared as, apparently, this meant that I had left work voluntarily. I would need to explain to The System what this means.
Letter two advised me – pointlessly - that the mythical benefit payment I have yet to receive would count towards Income Tax.
Letter three was a real humdinger, advising me that as I had left Great Britain for my holiday I was not entitled to benefits. I must confess that as we landed at Gateshead International Airport last month, flying low over the palm-fringed beaches of South Shields, the native girls dancing on the sand in their leggings and crop tops and the locals welcoming us in their friendly but completely incomprehensible way, I did have some misgivings about whether The System would allow this frivolity.
I have visited Gateshead (pronounced ‘Gateshead’, by the way) many times to visit family and to sample the delights of the neighbouring Newcastle (pronounced ‘Newcastle’) and the beautiful beaches of Northumberland but little did I know that as we barrelled up the A1 those many times, we were in fact foreign travellers. I felt newly exotic. Only a vague recollection of geography from school suggested that I might be right and – whisper it – The System wrong.
I therefore called The System once more and this time I got a bit cross – something I very rarely do. I explained about the myriad letters and forms I had received, the information I had submitted which had been ‘sent to the assessors’ and which was therefore now completely irretrievable by another part of The System, the appointments cancelled and the various entirely spurious reasons why The System could not possible give me a few coppers each week.
Having very politely expressed my almost apoplectic rage at the utter uselessness of this shambles, incredibly I found I was speaking to the mythical ‘person-who-can-do-their-job’ - they exist, they really do.
The ‘person-who-can-do-their-job’ actually looked into it. They called me back. They acknowledged the errors. They confirmed that I could discuss this all at the next – planned – meeting, instead of filling in yet more forms and they even arranged for the local office to call me to confirm all this. I later received a text confirming that things had been sorted. A text!
I was under no illusions that The System would give in this easily – I’m not a fool – but I have allowed myself to be cautiously optimistic that I might go a whole week without yet more letters from The System asking me about a holiday I took in 2005 or my first pet, for such are the ways of government.
The next meeting
Attending the office, I was blessed to be presented to another ‘person-who-can-do-their-job’, who smiled as I presented my rainforest of letters, each usually contradicting the others in some way. I had by this time received two letters explaining that I had left the country, as well as a new form asking me to explain why I had left my job voluntarily.
The second ‘person-who-can-do-their-job’ explained that my claim was apparently assessed ‘in Ireland’, a statement which was clarified to ‘Belfast’, meaning that these fine people had no knowledge of the geography of England, similar, it seems, to the lack of knowledge of the geography of the island of Ireland of the person I was speaking to.
Request to the minister in charge of the benefits system: buy your staff some road atlases: nothing fancy, the £1.99 ones you get in discount bookshops would do, just to enable them to look up place names in the UK.
In response to my increasingly strident – if polite – tones, I was reassured and told my claim would be fine. I thanked said person and left, reasonably confident.
They miss me, clearly they do
Since that meeting, I have received a payment – just one, enough to cover the cost of petrol and phone calls to resolve the claim – but it remains progress and should be celebrated as such. I have also been written to twice to tell me that I went abroad for my holiday (sigh…) and that I left my job voluntarily.
I have been back to the office and had a meeting with a similarly reassuring person. The trouble is, the people at the office appear to have no power to apply any common sense to a claim, all of which it seems is decided across the Irish Sea.
I shall persevere, not for the money but for the thought that my claim is making someone in Whitehall unhappy. That is something to keep you warm at night.
A final thought
I was told originally that I was expected to spend around 35 hours a week looking for work, roughly equivalent to the normal full-time employment hours. The weekly benefit entitlement is £73.10 which, divided by 35, gives an hourly rate of £2.09.