When you live in Britain the media and the state like to remind you about the scourge of ‘benefit scroungers’. The Daily Mail are often the spearhead of media outrage against the lower-class, welfare pariahs and ‘chavs’ who they seem to believe enjoy do nothing more than hanging around waiting for their 15 minutes of fame on Jeremy Kyle in between picking up state handouts.
The scourge of the benefit scrounger is usually reignited every couple of months by an inflammatory story highlighting an isolated case of extreme governmental incompetence; like the one where Kensington and Chelsea Council moved a family of Somali’s who had migrated to England from their war torn country and placed them in a £2million pound house in a posh part of London. Then there are stories like the one about Joanne Sheppard, who has 12 children by three men and hadn’t worked for 19 years. Her 12th child (“an accident” apparently) was to a man who had no job, but was collecting £89.80 a week for long-term incapacity whilst allegedly still pursuing his hobby of riding motorbikes. This was the one that tipped the scales of outrage for The Mail, who stated that Miss Sheppard claimed £30000 a year in benefits. Perhaps Miss Sheppard and her partner have a long term plan to create there own Apostles and set up the church of Evel Kinievel, who knows what could motivate such irresponsible copulation. More to the point, who would seriously want to raise that many children on welfare money!?
Benefits couple with ELEVEN children rake in £30,000 a year and a free-five bedroom home (and now they’ve got another on the way)
I’d like to think that most rational people would recognise that both of these stories are exceptions to the rule. For the vast majority of people who are claiming benefits long term, life is pretty grim. Let’s face it, you can’t exactly live it large on around £70 a week. However, for those of you who may be ‘between jobs’ due to the total mismanagement of the country by government and the total mismanagement of taxpayers money by bankers which has left you unemployed due to a declining economy; if you have decided to claim Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) for a period of time whilst you sell yourself cheap to an employers market, you will find that just making that claim is a harrowing process. A process that makes you want to dive out of a window – a plate glass window that is closed and exits a 10th story apartment. I found myself in this position and spent a very frustrating hour or so trying to make a claim. Although not as frustrating as the time I spent three weeks on the phone to BT technical support in some place in India trying to get my broadband problem resolved, but that’s another posting…
1. The first call – 0845 608 85 04
You start off with a call – that’s where it always starts, that first call. You know how it is, you’re wondering; “How many button choices will they give me to get to the right department? What will her voice be like? Or will it be a he? What about the hold music – classical, calming, some Costa coffee, soft, indie, rock/pop – what will be poisoning my ears for the next twenty minutes? Or will it be an hour? Ooh I’m scared!!!” But you have to make that call. I’d actually been told in the Job Centre that they prefer you to make the application online, but that has become little more than the alternative of two evils these days, and often results in having to make a phone call afterwards anyway, so I thought I’d try and skip the middle man. Bad idea.
2. Navigate the automated phone directions
She has quite a nice voice – calming and almost caring whilst also somewhat alluring. But it’s early days. She hasn’t even repeated anything yet. She gives you the customary preamble, which like the lengthy opening credits of a HBO series, is worth sitting through the first time round, but after episode 3 you’re reaching for Sky+ fast forward on your TV. Fortunately the second option was the option I need so I opted for option two. This option instructs you to give your postcode so that you can get put through to the right area. My postcode is for Manchester, so I got put through to a woman in a call centre in Eastbourne, which is about 220 miles away!
3. The first interrogation
So you get asked a whole bunch of questions in this bit – name, address, national insurance number, when you want to claim from etc, etc, etc. Essentially, you answer enough questions to fill a good-sized application form – then you get told you can’t make a new application over the phone, you have to do it online!
4. Complete the online application form
This takes about 10 – 20 minutes depending on how much information you put in. There are some really useful questions like ‘How did you find out you could claim Job Seekers Allowance? Who did you ask for advice about claiming? When did you ask them? What did you ask them? What did they tell you? Is it safe?’* But this is okay because you’re only given 200 characters to answer the long questions. After you’ve completed the form you are informed that you will be contacted by telephone within the next 48 hours between 7am and 9pm. This all makes it seem quite exciting, like an important arrangement between secret service operatives.
5. Wait for the call
I missed the call – both of them. Instead I got an answer machine message telling me that because I missed both calls I had to call a freephone number to complete my claim otherwise they will assume that I no longer want to continue the claim. So I called the number 08000 55 66 88…
6. Call the
When you navigate the options for this call you find you get redirected back to the first number you rang!
You eventually get put through to someone who tells you to call theagain. By this stage you have heard the recording four times and the lady’s voice is no longer calming, caring or alluring, it’s just fucking annoying. The hold music is like an acoustic ice ballet performed on your brain by miniature sadists wearing razor blades for skates. You try to stay calm as you explain that you have already made an online application and you have already called the 0800 number. They detect the tremulous hint of desperate frustration in your tone and concede that the automated directions aren’t very clear, so they instruct you to select the option for a new claim, even though you are calling about a claim you have already made. You accept those instructions and you end the call politely.
7. Call the 0800 number again
You call the 0800 number again, this time making the incorrect selection in order to get to the correct person but…
…this takes some time. Your patience withers and wanes as you are told over and over again to make your application online, knowing that you have already made an online application. Your ears start to bleed as you listen to that first part of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons again and again and again and again – knowing that when it finishes you’ll have to listen to her voice again telling you to make your application online. And this seems to go on forever and ever and ever. In desperate reverie you imagine yourself smashing your phone against the wall and the pieces shattering in slow motion before you turn to the owner of the automated voice – who looks like the woman you hate most in your life – and you imagine strangling her with the strings from one of those violins playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Then you imagine just giving up on the claim, buying a local newspaper and replying to the first vacancy for door staff, cleaners or traffic wardens – anything just so that you don’t have to hear Vivaldi play that tune again!!!!!!!
Then you get your breakthrough. A voice. A voice at the other end that isn’t automated. You feel like Columbus, starved and deluded after months at sea, when suddenly land appears on the horizon. Hallelujah!
8. …It’s not over yet
I don’t know if it’s the effects of exhaustion or chronic exasperation – but you are calm. You’re just happy to hear a voice again – a real voice. This voice asks you questions that you have been asked before over the last hour but you answer them calmly. Then she tells you to ring that 0845 number again!
9. …you’re almost there
To your surprise you do not explode. You appeal to the lady in Eastbourne to consider your situation and ask her to actually try to resolve the issue rather then putting you through that hell again. Then there’s a pause at the other end of the line.
“Ok, can you just hold for a second whilst I speak to my supervisor?”
Now this can go one of two ways; the supervisor can resolve your issue there and then or they can insist that you have to jump through another administrative hoop and do something else. I got lucky and the lady from Eastbourne came back to me and went about resolving my problem. And the solution was? I was given an appointment to go into the job centre and complete a ‘clerical’ application.
10. The Clerical Application
Having spent over an hour making phone calls and filling in online forms I now have an appointment to go into the job centre. When I get to the job centre I will have to fill in a paper form in order to make my JSA claim.
Fortunately I was offered a job before I actually made the claim and I am now in gainful employment again. The thought of having to become an unwilling player in the sadistic administrative pantomime of welfare living frightens me. I cannot believe that anyone in their right mind would genuinely want for this. The process in itself is almost like a war of attrition. I can only assume that those who have been on long-term benefits without any genuine reason simply don’t have a mind that is right, or have been oppressed into submission by this process. They have been demoralised to the point of abject inertia as their resolve and motivation has been eroded by pointless and monotonous administrative processes. If daytime television isn’t enough to get you out to work, surely being counted and questioned and qualified every fortnight must be. Whatever the reason you find yourself on welfare, one thing is for certain – there are far easier ways to process a claim.
* ‘Is it safe?’ isn’t really one of their questions, it’s a parody of the classic Dustin Hoffman and Lawrence Olivier movie ‘The Marathon Man’. Good film if you haven’t seen it, one of Hoffman’s most accomplished performances. Thank you for taking the time to follow the asterix.