Saturday, 19 February 2011

Absolute power

The last time it happened the GP had insisted I have my flu jab the week before. I was lying on my sofa wrapped in my furry blanket with a high temperature, shaking so hard my teeth were rattling in my head. The phone rang.

"Hello" I croaked,

A bright cheery plastic call centre voice spoke, "Ms Witch?"

"My name is Mad, I don't use a title"

"Oh. Sorry, Mad. I'm afraid there's a problem with your direct debit payment." I sat up, groaning. God damn it not again.

"I'm sorry about that." I said. "The DSS has probably suspended my benefit again. If you give me a few hours I'll try and get things sorted out."

I have a plan for when this happens, because it's happened so often I know how to deal with it. The Government giveth and with one press of a button the Government taketh away. They can stop the money you get at any moment, the money that's supposed to be in your bank at a certain hour on a certain day to allow you to pay the direct debits that are scheduled round that payment is just... not there.

Step one: Phone the bank. The voice recognition software doesn't recognise what I'm trying to say to it because my voice is so broken. Ask them to put an emergency overdraft on my account and not to bounce anything else. Luckily I have a good relationship with my bank manager. I earned a decent wage once upon a time.

Step 2. Begin the endless rounds of phoning to find out why I suddenly have no money. This should be easy, I am disabled, on benefits. I should be protected, right? There should be a single contact point that I can reach that allows me to speak to a human being who is on my side.

I don't know which benefit has been stopped, or how long ago - I had a little bit of money in the bank saving for Christmas and because I've been so poorly after my flu jab I haven't been anywhere to need money. First stop Income Support, call centre number unavailable on the web site. I spend half an hour trawling through to find it. I'm no longer dealt with by my local job centre because I claim as a disabled person, not as long term sick or as a single parent.

I take more painkillers and find the computer screen floating in and out of focus in front of my eyes. I begin to shake again as my body reacts to activity. I wake up an hour later slumped over the keyboard and try to focus again

I finally mange to find a human being who can tell me what's happening. My money has been stopped because Housing Benefit suspect that I had someone living with me paying rent some 4 years ago. My stunned silence must have shocked the girl in the benefits office into a little bit of humanity.

"Is there any change in my circumstances right now that would warrant my benefit being stopped?"

"Well, actually, no." She said

"So why has my benefit been stopped, without warning, over an alleged incident from 4 years ago?" I asked in a hoarse whisper, my voice had about given out by this point.

"Um." said the official voice, and again, "Errrrrm...."

"So can you restart my benefit while the Housing Benefit department investigates this alleged overpayment, assured that if I have recieved more benefit than I'm entitled to, you can take the overpayment out of my benefit in the future?"

"Errrmm...." came the voice again, "Erm yes, I suppose we can do that.." I glanced at the time, I didn't have long to phone the offenders who'd started this particular F.U.B.A.R.

"That's fantastic, you have a lovely day now, thank you ever so much for your help" I croaked as gushingly as I could manage, plastic smile plastered to my lips.

I sighed and braced myself for the Housing Benefit call. This one was a little longer and more complex. Suffice it to say that an old friend of mine had decided to raise his head and cause me trouble by phoning benefit fraud on my behalf yet again. I'm one of those disgusting scrounging winging disabled benefit scroungers, so I am in fact fair game.

I hung up the phone, benefit re-instated. But that would have cost me dearly. Overdraft arrangement fee, Direct debit return fee. Interest on unauthorised borrowing. At least my rent hadn't bounced that time.

I think that time it took me three weeks to recover from the flu jab plus the enforced activity of sorting out money. The stress of seeing money due out of your account and no way to pay it is ... horrible. It chews a gaping hole in your stomach because this time, this time it might not be ok, this time it might just be permanent, this time they might not believe me innocent, this time someone might say 'there's no smoke without fire - look how often this case has been investigated, she must be shamming' This time the bank might say no and the horrible downward spiral to loosing my home, my belongings and any dignity I have left might have started.

But this time it was ok again. Next time it might not be. The little bit of money I had put by for Chirstmas had all gone though.

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