So it’s been one whole year since I was signed off work and started the sole destroying task of applying for Universal Credit. If you’re a long term reader, you might remember my Open Letter to Theresa May, I was really reluctant to apply. I never thought that I would be in the position where I needed to apply for benefits and honestly, I felt a level of shame over applying. My usually proud front was shattered by admitting that I needed this financial help, but my health comes first. That was what I told myself.
And my God, was my front shattered. I had opened up about my health in a way that I never had before. I was begging strangers to take pity on me, in the hope that the application process might be made a little bit easier. Only, they didn’t take pity on me. Honestly, I felt a bit like a criminal. I was warned about sanctions if I couldn’t attend appointments if I was ill. Let’s remember at this point, that the whole reason that I was applying was because of how unwell I was and still am. I was asked when I was going to get better, because the government doesn’t seem to understand the concept of chronic or life long conditions.
I felt and still feel like a failure because I can’t work. I feel ashamed that I am ill, even though now, a year one, I am able to accept that life’s a bitch and doesn’t always go the way you want it to.
Anyway, after the initial stress of the first few months of the application, things calmed down a little. I had my work capability assessment and thankfully, the person leading the assessment had an ounce of common sense and agreed that I wasn’t fit to work. That was until. October, when my payments were stopped for no reason. I have real anxiety issues about going into the job centre because of the bad experiences that I’ve had there, but nonetheless, in I went to find out what had happened. I explained, very calmly, to the work coach that my payment hadn’t gone in and as a result, I was overdrawn. I kid you not, the work coach shrugged in reply and told me that “these things happen”. There have been admin issues over the past few weeks, which has meant that not all payments have gone out on time. Admin errors happen, what I am more frustrated about has been the sheer lack of communication, so I had no idea that this was the case.
I told the work coach, again, that I was overdrawn as a result of the payment not going on and was told that I would benefit from seeking advice from the Money Advice Service. The Money Advice Service is an organisation established with cross Government party support, that provides free and impartial advice on money and financial decisions to people in the United Kingdom. It is a really useful service, but not a service that I required at this time, because when my payments go in, I am very able at managing my own money. It’s very hard, however, to manage your money when you’re not receiving the money in the first place.
This leads me to now. I think maybe that I had become a little bit complacent when it came to Universal Credit: nothing has happened to offend me in a few months and I thought that things would remain that way. I went into the job centre to hand in my latest fit note and was told that my payments had been stopped and that I was being sanctioned.
I cried. A lot. The past month has been awful, I’ve been really unwell (more than normal) and the last thing I needed was finding out that my financial security was at risk. The person I saw at the job centre wasn’t able to reinstate my payments and was only able to tell me that it looked like I’d missed a phone call. I rang the Performance Centre and was told that my payments had been stopped because I’d missed a review phone call. Yes, I had missed a phone call, but I had also notified them that I was in hospital at the time of the phone call and therefore unable to take the call, and please could it be rearranged.
I then had to wait a week for the actual review phone call. There was me thinking that it would be to ask me if there had been any changes to my health etc but no, they wanted to know if I was still single (as a pringle, for what it’s worth) and if I had any savings or investments. My favourite part was when they asked me if I was receiving a World War Two pension. Dude, I wasn’t even alive then…
Whilst none of this is especially dramatic, it really knocked me. There isn’t one single aspect of Universal Credit that is easy to understand or logical. It baffles me that they have such poor customer service skills, when they are dealing with some of the most vulnerable people in society. There have been so many occasions over the past year when the process of Universal Credit has made me more unwell than I was already. It really seems like the government will jump upon the smallest thing as a reason to stop payments.
Until that changes, people will still be failed. They will still be struggling to pay rent and afford food. They will still feel penalised for being unwell and genuinely unable to work and I’m ashamed to live in a country whereby the government think that is okay.