It turns out that when I went onto long-term sickness, the government started paying a contribution towards my ongoing salary, reducing the amount that IBM has to pay me. This is Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) and is funded from my national insurance contributions. From my perspective, it’s completely transparent – my salary continues to be paid according to the terms of my employment, ie, I get some time on full salary, then a further period on a reduced salary, before (if it was eventually necessary!) being retired under long term sickness terms.
However, it transpires that SSP only lasts for 28 weeks, and in my case, will run out for me at the end of this month. At that point someone on long term sick leave would normally become eligible for various other benefits which essentially “take over from the SSP”. They must be applied for via Jobcentre Plus, who front the governments Department for Work and Pensions. So, to ensure that I don’t end up being overpaid/taxed etc, IBM requested that I apply for those benefits, and notify them of the amounts that I receive so that they can keep my pay and tax affairs straight within their payroll department.
Which all sounded simple enough. And immediately shows that I’ve never had any dealings with the UK benefits system before. I had absolutely no idea about how wrong I could be.
I started off by looking up the nearest Jobcenter Plus on Google Maps, which is in the local town, and drove in to present myself. It turns out to be the entire ground floor of a very large building, all decked out with little cubicles for people to have their meetings in, just like a modern bank. Except the it’s completely deserted. I am the only “customer” in the place. The staff are clustered together chatting. When I break in, I am then politely informed that they can’t do any of this for me in person. Instead I have to phone their helpline, which they give to me on a little pre-printed sheet.
I resist the urge to say anything I might later regret, and leave.
So I drive home, and call the helpline, on a nice freephone number. And I then spend nearly 40 minutes on a crackly phone line talking to someone about all the possible benefits that I might be entitled to, and they open an “account” for me with Jobcenter Plus, and initiate applications for all these unlikely sounding benefits on their computer system. And then I sit back and wait for the paperwork to arrive. Which it has been over the last few days, in dribs and drabs, a piece at a time, each in it’s own first class envelope.
The interesting thing from my perspective is that I know from a quick look on the benefits website that I am not entitled to the vast majority of the benefits that the lady on that original call seems to have signed me up for, as I earn too much, and have too many savings. And this is despite the fact that she asked me how much I earned & how much savings I had right at the start of our call. However, having now been sent applications for these benefits, they are clearly expecting me to fill them all in. Which other than being a waste of time, would perhaps be OK, if it were not for the fact that the application forms seem to typically be quite lengthy, and they want to know in great detail about all my and my wife’s personal & financial circumstances. They also want original proof for everything; birth certificates, share certificates, savings accounts, proof of house ownership, proof of employment and salaries, outgoings, dependant children, inside leg measurement, etc. Apart from the fact that I don’t have a lot of that stuff readily to hand, frankly, I don’t feel comfortable sending it all off to them in the plain brown (prepaid first class) envelope that they have provided.
Talk about leaving yourself wide open for identity theft and fraud, let alone the concern over it just getting lost somewhere.
So I decided to talk to the regional benefits office that is in charge of my “account”, which is based in Southampton, with a view to clarifying which benefits are actually worth spending any time on (I think there is only one, the “Earning Support Allowance”), and cancelling the rest. They have their own 0845 number, but no geographic number, which is deeply annoying to start with. It means I have to pay each time I call them rather than having the costs absorbed by my included free “geographic” minutes. And then, when I call that number I am connected to an Interactive Voice Response system, which forces you to pick an appropriate department to talk to. Except no matter which department I select, all their operators are permanently busy. At which point rather than queuing me up to wait for the next operator to become free, the system then terminates the call. In short, they have been completely impossible to contact during the last two days, despite my calling them whenever I’ve passed my study.
I have an irresistible vision of another large room somewhere with the staff all chatting to one another, while a couple of phones are always left off the hook in a corner somewhere.
And the most galling thing of all is that our tax pays for this ridiculous system. God help us.