Difficult by Default 2. Dangerous by Default

I made a promise to myself I wouldn’t write this blog until I could complete the story but there has been so much frustration built up over the last few weeks that I need to share it before I end up dying from helpline exhaustion.

So, when I left of on my last blog I was already pretty annoyed but hopeful that an hour-long meeting at the job centre could sort it out.  An hour speaking to an expert who can help me through this labyrinth of bureaucracy. Someone who deals with the system every day and knows the ins and outs can help me with what I thought would be a fairly simple task, apply for and receive statutory sick pay for the period I have been signed off for. As you may have predicted my hope was very misplaced.

I asked my dad to join me for the meeting. I was anxious that I might get frustrated with the process and thought it was best I had support there as I was informed in the last meeting that the task ahead would be gruelling. So once again me and Dad head up to the G4S security guard at the door and give our names. Once again there seems to be no record of us on their numerous lists but after showing our email notification of a meeting we are allowed in and sent upstairs.

There we are greeted by William. William is an affable fellow who will be leading us through the process. We begin working through my Universal Credit claim. Standard questions. Showing various documents including bank statements and passports. William clicking through in response to my answers.  Then it comes onto my work. As usual, freelance is not a box that sits happily in these systems, so I am required to list every payment I have received over the previous two years.  This involves me going through every invoice I have given. UC doesn’t work in tandem with HMRC and won’t go by financial years like myself assessments.  I need to work through various spreadsheets to ensure that they have a record of every payment. With each payment I need to list what the job was, when it occurred and who engaged me with this work. As you can imagine this is something like 40+ projects I need to list out. I’m lucky I’ve come prepared.

My dad is perhaps dealing less well with the absurdities of the system. ‘Is this system not much harder for you guys?’ my dad asks affable William. He guffaws. ‘No, no, no I love it.’ He replies genuinely. ‘I put it all into the system and it works it all through, calculations and everything. In the old system I had to do much more work.’  I am taken aback. Confused by someone having job satisfaction in just inputting data. My dad continues to explain, ‘you know it seems like a lot of work for someone who is looking for their sick pay. When I was working it was just paid by my employer, I suppose it’s the same with you too. You don’t need to worry about it or so many hours of forms.’

‘I hadn’t really thought of it as statutory sick pay before, replies affable William. He then goes on to explain how when the system came in they weren’t trained in all the aspects of it and he doesn’t know the background of things and how interesting it is to think of sick pay and he might look into that. Alarm bells ring in my head. This is not an expert. It is a man clicking buttons in response to my answers. He is literally a middle man between me and a computer screen. He functions to nod his head at my passport and then as a giant index finger on a mouse. What does he mean he has never thought about Statutory Sick pay? That is what I have always asked to be looking for. A creeping sense of dread comes over me. This has been a huge amount of bureaucracy, such a giant amount of form filling. I have paid my NI contributions, why do they need to know about my income? 

Oh my god, the feeling tingles over me. It honestly makes my hairs stand on end. I am in the wrong system. At the start of this process. I have been put down the wrong rabbit hole. This man isn’t an expert, so he is not going to identify that I am not here for his particular set of click button answers. We leave the meeting; the UC claim is complete. Emma just needs to fill in another box or too and I can claim apparently. But already I am thinking, what the hell am I allowed to claim here exactly?

As an aside, I begin to think, this is not at all what I imagine a job centre to be like. I have read the horror stories in newspapers and I expect a faceless bureaucracy. But not this. I expect a job centre to be a place for guidance also. A place where you can go to look for work and be helped and supported in this process. It is not that at all. It is a giant form filling machine. You are just a hole to be punched in a punch card. No wonder people get trapped in these systems. There is no help out they only offer warrens of bureaucracy to burrow down with the promise of a bit of cash at the end of it maybe 5 weeks down the line. It is such a self-defeating system.

Anyway, I get home. As you can imagine as someone suffering from anxiety with depression the realisation that literally hours upon hours of work has been a waste of time sets me back a lot.  I phone a Universal Credit helpline. A very helpful lady named Nicola listens to my situation and decides that I am right. When I first phoned the ESA helpline they advised me that I was in a universal credit area and would need to deal with them. Universal Credit then, not listen or perhaps understanding my specific claim for statutory sick pay advised me to begin filling out a universal credit claim online. But what should have happened, what could have stopped this whole debacle. I should have been informed that I am actually eligible for a ‘New Style’ ESA claim. These are for people in Universal Credit areas whose claims where previously covered by ESA but not by the replacement service of Unversal Credit. Nicola speaks to my case manager, Shahzeb (I have a case manager?? It would have been good to know that) who will look into it.

Shahzeb and me enter into dialogue on my Universal Credit claim page via the journal. Its like  a messenger service for my claim. There are 73 entries in this journal, most with tasks me and Emma had to complete. But my journey with the journal is coming to an end…hallelujah. Now Shahzeb emails me 4 forms. 2 of which I have to fill out. 2 of which are the proofs of ID I need to bring along to my ‘new style’ ESA meeting at the job centre.

That is right one more meeting. I fill in a 8 page 53 question form that is so poorly formatted the text of the questions and the tick boxes don’t align.  Questions repeat themselves. It’s like a Kafkaesque puzzle to decipher what they are actually asking at points. I look out every form of ID I can find, and I wait for my meeting. This time it better work.

So along me and Dad go. Affable William is waiting. Here we go again. He takes my forms. He looks confused. He laughs at his confusion. Not realising his body signals make me fill with dread each time. What has gone wrong now?  He photocopies some documents. That is it all complete. I’ve not even been asked a question. I could have emailed these forms and bypassed the meeting. The process has taken so long, that I am now back at work, So I’m taking time off for this meeting.

Ahh well. Hopefully that’s it sorted.

One week later, I check my Universal Credit page and see my claim is closed and I can no longer ask questions etc without starting a new claim. But no one has told me when my payment might be due. My sick period is over, but I have no sick pay (which I remind you I pay my national ‘insurance’ for this very reason). I decide it might be best to phone and find out what is happening.

That was this morning.  So today I have listened to hold music over my phone for about 50 mins, a culmination of 4 phone calls.  You see I looked on the Gov.uk page on ‘new style’ ESA, it advises me to phone Universal Credit. They apologise, website must be wrong.  My claim is closed. I need to phone the ESA helpline. ESA say they have no record of me and that there is two ESA’s. There are part and full ESA’s and I’ve been put through to the wrong one, they will transfer me.  Beep Beep and I’m back in the Universal Credit helpline.  I speak to them. I am mildly frustrated. They explain that they can’t help the only thing Universal Credit does for ESA is send out the applications and arrange the appointments. I am given a whole new number. A different number to call. I call it. It transfers me to the ESA helpline I have already been on. They have no record of me, perhaps they can transfer me through to Universal Credit who can help. MY DEAR GOD. I sigh and say, ‘its fine.’ Im worried now that all of this will be for absolutely nothing and I will find out I should have applied for a ‘new style part 2 universal support claim’ or something.

I am so lucky to have a loving family support me. My health has not been great. I can’t imagine how people suffering depression can go through this system without support. I can’t imagine how people with more sever or longer-term conditions can survive this. It is a test of resilience that I am so close to failing. It’s genuinely painful. It makes you feel small, it makes you feel like you are begging for something, as a citizen you are entitled too.  I am exhausted by this process and it is now affecting my mental health and my work.  It’s inhibiting my step back to work not aiding it.

I’ve emailed Shahzeb, I’m praying he might be able to answer me with something more than ‘your universal credit claim is closed.’