Universally Incredulous

So, with the job we thought was pretty well sorted falling through at the start of the week, I am now officially unemployed. What an education its already been in our fragmented benefits system in the UK.

What does one have to do? Firstly, phone up the “Job Centre Plus” and register for Job Seekers Allowance. This is pretty painless but takes a good half hour plus. Once I’ve put down the phone with that first nice gentleman I need to pick the phone up again to call my local City Council to sort out a claim for housing benefit and council tax benefit. Apparently that can’t be done over the phone, so a form has to be sent to me which I fill in and then take with all the accompanying documentation to the Council offices. Put the phone down again and pick it up so I can call HMRC to notify them of my tax credits situation. Put the phone down again and call up the local Job Centre Plus in Canterbury to rearrange my preliminary interview, because the latest that the first gentleman I spoke to could book it for was for this coming Wednesday and I am away from Canterbury till next week (a combination of a family gathering and job interviews).

Along the way what I am picking up is a multitudinous lack of joined up thinking. None of the different agencies I speak to can access the information from the other, so I am going to have to bring my JSA information along to the local council next week in order to demonstrate what (if anything) I am receiving from them. On top of this, despite the fact that the Job Centre Plus can access my National Insurance number from their system, HMRC cannot (or more likely will not), given I am away from home at present, take any details from me at present. Let’s just run that past you again – one government agency has no problem finding my National Insurance number on their system, the other refuses to do so.

Roll on Universal Credit. What we need is a single place to receive a single payment to cover all your different benefit needs. That there need to be different amounts of money for different purposes is very clear (Council Tax and Rent varies across the country), but the fact that you need to go to different places for them is not. On top of that, the inability of these statutory agencies to access each others’ data and to have differing approaches to determining your identity and letting you proceed with a claim is just infuriating. Why can one agency find your National Insurance details in an instant (Job Centre Plus) but the other cannot? I’ve built relational databases – there is NO reason for HMRC to not be able to do this.

Even if I only stay unemployed for a few weeks (I have more interviews this week – say tuned), this is already turning out to be an education.

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9 Comments on “Universally Incredulous

  1. First of all, prayers for you and your family for a successful job search – hoping this week's interviews bear fruit.

    Councils running HB / CTB dated back from when almost everyone claiming it (well, HB) was in a council house. Which made it easier for them to administer – they knew the rent, no money to shuffle to you and back, simple. But now council houses are a rarity, with most stock transferred to RSLs, well, surely time is ripe to roll back into Job Centre Plus? You are of course a brainy, able chap, who speaks English as his first language who can handle multiple forms. For those who aren't, the forms themselves are daunting – have you seen the size of the HB form yet? And… Why can't you do almost all of it online? A degree of physical interview may be needed, given the still high rate of phantom and contrived tenancies. But even so…

    • I've seen the HB form online. Absolute nightmare. I'm pretty smart and can handle it, but for someone with less education or worse English… Yes, you're absolutely right.

      Tried to do JSA online but if you have savings/investments over a certain amount you have to call up. Can't submit Tax Credits updates online at the moment either (which is really helpful since I'm competing for attention against people who couldn't be bothered to do their Tax Credits renewals until the last possible moment, despite the fact they knew 3 months ago their circumstances weren't changing.

      As I said, roll on Universal Credit.

      • Is the savings limit not £16,000 or something? And surely housing benefit just covers rent rather than mortage payments? One can just imagine the Daily Mail headlines at people being able to sign up for "Taxpayer's Money" online!

        I'm sorry to hear about your (hopefully very brief) unemployment, Peter, but I must say that some of the above does seem surprisingly non-Tory (no bad thing, of course ;-))- surely you don't need to be Norman Tebbit to think it a good thing that those genuinely on incapacity benefit (the deserving poor) get £100 a week whereas those on Job Seeker's allowance get a lot less and have to jump through assorted hoops? Surely the right should regard as the stigmatisation of the unemployed to be no bad thing, which would be lost by a universal benefit?

        The White Paper of course reflects this – with some nasty sanctions to boot – but given the difficulties in implemnting current benefits accurately and comprehensively how realistic is it (especially in the financial climate) that assorted departments could be amalgamated efficiently?

        That said, JS staff often don't know how to handle the very qualified. One can understand new graduates thinking (hopefully not least for moral reasons) that working in McDonald's is better than doing nothing, but clearly it would be absurd for them to expect someone like yourself to take vast backward steps just to get off the dole. Hopefully you get a suitably good job very shortly.

        Not sure if the money's good, but personaly I think it would be cool if you were a full time blogger like Fr.Madpriest! ;-)

        • The issue isn't whether people should get money, it's the fact that said money comes from three or four different agencies, each of which seems unable to talk to each other or to act with some level of consistency.

          As for IT issues, the problem is not the PCs sat in front of operatives but the software, databases and network infrastructures. It is NOT hard to make different systems talk to each other correctly, but the government seems to find contractors who make an absolute meal out of it.

  2. Too intelligent and sensible by far to be taken up by government agencies. I listened to a report this am (6.30-700 actually. It was either get up early or wet the bed) It was on defense procurement and distribution. They are running outdated supplies (0ne example was treddle Singer sewing M/cs) through computer systems that go back to the 80s. Yes, government is a labyrinth but not as tidy and easy to follow. I pray your torturous experience doesn't last long.

    • >>>They are running outdated supplies (0ne example was treddle Singer sewing M/cs) through computer systems that go back to the 80s.

      In fairness, can you imagine the response of the press if any Goverment department announced expensive plans to upgrade equipment? University staff love to get themselves the latest giant Apple Macs, and get away with it despite their institutions having 'charitable' status. Some schools in the US have had success with using iPads for children (including those with special needs, such as autism). But there's no way, in this economic climate, that job centres and benefit delivery services could get away with expensive upgrades – indeed, I've heard people complain about the fancy touch-screens and full time "greeters" that your average space-age job centre now use (at public expense)

  3. "Greeters?" I always thought they were bouncers the way they behave. I take your point about waste but the idea that our defenses rely on supplies being handled by 30-year-old plus computers is frightening. Then there was the case that triggered all this scrutiny, highlighted by Paul Flynn, of a soldier in N.Ireland, knowing he was to be posted to Afghanistan, ordered a pair of boots(£45). The MOD sent it by courier to N.Irelands at a cost of £700, not realising that to get to Afghanistan he would come back to RAF Brize Norton, a mile and a half from the supply depot.

    They talked about each service having separate computer sytems in the same room that didn't talk to each other. It is called the swivel chair room because a lady in a swivel chair goes from one computer to the other, entering manually into the second what she read on the first. It is truly frightening to think these people are actually running things.

  4. Some of us have great privacy and security concerns over the amount of integration that already exists between databases in the public sector, Peter, and certainly don't wish for any more.

    Aside from anything else, linking inaccurate databases (that ate "owned" by different departments) together makes for more error.

    Think back to the year 2001. At that time, it was admitted that almost 70% of the records on the Police National Computer contained errors or were incomplete. And that in a (relatively) secure system with only a small number of screens, where every user had been vetted and received good basic and refresher training. And where regular data audits were carried out (that's how they know how inaccurate it is).

    I could go on, but why not read my article on Data Protection in IVP's Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology? It's a bit dated now, but still true nevertheless.

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