Friday, November 25, 2005

Your call is important to us

This is sheer spite on my part but there's a certain thrill in hearing the shortcomings of Jobcentre Plus being exposed on national news this morning. In this case it's their computerised calling centre. In my case it was the rules concerning the self-employed. In both cases it's skilled, helpful people doing a job that many saints would turn down as too stressful, being let down by the crap they are expected to work with.

My company went under, I was reduced to 15 freelance hours per week at £13/hour. Not really enough for any more than scraping by, especially when you have a mortgage and loan to pay off. But said mortgage and loan were insured, so that if I hit hard times, payments could continue. All I needed was to get a monthly certificate signed for each by the Jobcentre, to say that I was claiming ...

I already knew that because I had at least 10p in my pocket there was no earthly way I was actually going to get any money out of HMG in return for my diligently paid taxes and national insurance. Absurd idea! But at least I could claim, and the Jobcentre could say I was claiming, and they would sign my bits of paper and that would be the mortgage and loan taken care of for another month. Right?

First obstacle was that I was due to go abroad on a scheduled, paid-for trip while my initial claim was being processed. If I did that, I was warned, the claim would be cancelled and I would have to reclaim once I got back. This is apparently a measure taken in light of all those people who fleece the state for thousands of pounds and go off to live the high life in Benidorm. God knows how they do it. So I'll let you into a little secret. I didn't tell them I had gone abroad. They are welcome to sue me for every penny they didn't pay.

For the first couple of months (while the claim was being processed) it worked -- I signed on, got my bits of paper signed, and in the meantime (I really should add) was genuinely looking for work. Then my claim got processed and came back as refused, because I worked more than 15 hours a week, so was ineligible to claim anything.

3 hours a day, 5 days a week somehow worked out at more than 15 hours. "Maybe it averages out at more than 15 ..." someone said vaguely, using an obscure form of calculus in which the average is able to be more than the total. And oh, the fun and joy I had from that, trying to get a real live human being to explain it to me. To do that, they had to squeeze an answer out of the computer themselves, which is easier said than done. But eventually someone managed and explained it in words of one syllable, which is what was needed. You see, this freelance work meant I was self-em-ploy-ed. And if you're self-em-ploy-ed then the time you take tra-vell-ing to and from work is ad-ded to the time you spend work-ing. In my case this was an hour's travel every day. So, 20 hours per week! How dared I even show my face at the Jobcentre door?

I could go on -- like, the way their most useful suggestion, visit Connexions which was just down the street (and isn't just for teenagers, though I had always assumed it was) -- came after six months, when it should have been suggested on Day 1. But I won't. That was the personal failing of one individual; my larger problems stemmed from the fact that they have to work with one of the sillier laws on the UK statute books, designed purely to keep the claims figures down and not actually help anyone. It's not their fault.

Connexions, by the way, were marvellous and their service included an in-depth critique of how my CV was all wrong. So I redesigned it and within a month I had my present job. Which I got by filling out the standard company application form. No CV needed. Poo.

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