The last bit of sorting my affairs out after starting a new job I had to do was informing the Housing Benefit people of my change in circumstances. I had to wait til I got my amended Tax Credit award through and the timings of everything meant I wasn’t in a position to do so until the school Easter holidays had started.
Normally my preferred method of dealing with Housing Benefit is to suck it up and schlepp down to the council office in the city centre, where you take a ticket and wait to be seen by someone who will look up your claim and photocopy all your evidence (such as several months’ bank statements, your children’s birth certificates in triplicate and a signed witnessed affidavit stating what colour pants you’re wearing) and give it straight back to you. It’s usually anywhere between a half-hour and a two-hour wait. It’s a busy place. Considering a high proportion of Housing Benefit claimants are like myself single parents, you’d think they might make it somewhere that’s at least tolerable to wait for a long time with small children. But no, it’s a line of not-enough-chairs down the side of a room with a lot of other people queuing to pay their parking fines and there’s not even a public toilet, let alone anything to play with to distract the kids from the stench of misery and imbalance of power that permeates any benefits office.
So seeing as I’d have to take all three kids with me, I thought I’d risk phoning them instead this time. The council’s euphemistically-titled Benefits and Revenues Helpline consists of an endless rolling selection of pre-recorded multiple choice menus to navigate. As I repeatedly pressed ‘1’ for benefit enquiries then pressed ‘3’ for reporting a change of circumstances then spoke my postcode clearly after the beep, I got a rising sense of foreboding that this was a mistake. Finally having realised that I was never going to be allowed to speak to an actual human, I managed to leave a message saying I’d started a new job, giving as much information about it as possible, leaving my phone number and asking them to call me to tell me what to send as evidence. A week later I’d had no phone call so I sat down and wrote a letter repeating what I’d said in the message, packed it up with a letter from my childcare provider, my work contract and my tax credits award letter and sent it off.
The very next day the letterbox went and my 7 year old son went to see what the post was, and as he saw the brown envelope with the green cross-hatching round the edge he said ‘oh no mum, it’s a bad letter’ (I have such a long history of hassle with Housing Benefit that even the kids recognise the envelopes now).
‘Dear Miss Naenicks’, it said, ‘I am writing to you as I understand you have had a change in your circumstances. I have temporarily suspended your current claim to avoid any overpayment from being created’. They always do this. As soon as you speak to them in any way they automatically suspend your claim. Of course this was done on the 27th, and my rent goes out on the 1st of the month, so I have to cover my rent myself at 4 days’ notice. Luckily I was wise to it this time and had made arrangements to have enough in the bank in advance. But this seriously screws people over if they are, as most people on Housing Benefit are, in precarious financial circumstances.
‘I need you to send me the following’, it continued, ‘I need to see proof of your earnings and how often you are paid. If you are paid weekly I will require your last 5 payslips or monthly your last 2 payslips.’ This is a problem as I haven’t been paid yet, because it’s a NEW JOB which I have ONLY JUST STARTED, and won’t be paid for another two weeks. I won’t have 2 months payslips for, well, another 2 months. I’m not earning very much and I’m still going to need Housing Benefit to pay my rent. But ‘to prevent any overpayment being created’ they won’t pay out until I can prove my earnings. It’s all for my own good of course. Because I can’t speak to an actual person on their ‘helpline’ and I can’t sit and wait for 2 hours in their contact office for fear my 5 year old might wet himself, I’m going to have to have a back-and-forth pingpong match with letters to try and sort this all out. If I’d waited until I actually had 2 months’ payslips to show them I’d have been committing benefit fraud. But because I’ve been honest and told them straightaway my benefit won’t be paid. Frankly to anyone who actually manages to commit benefit fraud successfully I say ‘well done’, because it’s made as near impossible as they can to claim it when you’re actually entitled to it.