Yesterday I was back at the JobCentre for my first fortnightly appointment. The guy I saw this time was much more inclined to actually listen to what I was saying – he made some changes to what had been put onto my file on Monday (for example, the type of work and number of hours I was actually looking for) and recorded some of the jobs I’d applied to. There wasn’t a whole lot I needed to discuss with him and he was quite happy to sign off that I’d been actively seeking work.
It wasn’t until I was back in the car and we were half way out of town that John reminded me I was meant to hand in some paperwork to prove I wasn’t at uni or receiving loans. There wasn’t an option of going back another day so we turned round and drove straight back.
I went in with the letter from the doctor recommending that I leave uni for the year, and the letter from the loans company stating they were reclaiming £120 overpayment (it didn’t explain why, but the reason is that I didn’t complete the term they had already paid a grant for). They were the only things I had which might have been suitable… but they weren’t. The man at the front desk took copies anyway, and gave me his fax number so that I could get college to fax a letter stating I had left to him. He also gave me the number of the JobCentre processing office so I could find out what they needed from the loans company.
After more than two hours in town, mostly in the job centre but also dropping off another job application, I got home and started making phone calls. For the entire day. Ringing college was easy – the domestic bursar is always very helpful and she immediately said that she would write a letter containing all the very specific details needed and fax it directly to the Centre. One down, several to go.
Then I rang the number I’d been given for the processing office – or rather I rang the landline equivalent I’d found on saynoto0870.com because I object to being ripped off. Sadly they were one step ahead and the landline number didn’t actually work, so I had to ring the number I’d been given (after ringing another JobCentre office to find out why the processing office was claiming to be closed. They just gave me another non-standard rate number). I did eventually manage to get through after only a couple of minutes of tinny hold music and several “press any button to continue”s. The boy on the phone, who sounded like he was being paid minimum wage to work in a call centre answering questions he didn’t care a fig about, told me I wasn’t eligible to claim because I was a full-time student and therefore not available to work.
Uh, what? The one thing I am is available to work. I am up to my neck in availability. I’m drowning in free time. So I rang my own office again and they reassured me that if I got a letter from the college and one from the loans company, it should be fine.
Student Finance England seem to have made it their main goal to be as unhelpfully cooperative as possible. After sitting on hold for ten minutes, being periodically told that I could go on their website to find the information I was looking for (which I’ve never found to be true), I got through to a lady who asked me every single detail of my entire life, including my shoe size and eye colour, before listening to my request, putting me on hold to “consult my supervisor” and then coming back to tell me a letter had been posted to my address stating that I was no longer receiving student finance.
I explained to her that I had wanted to ask her to put my NI number on it (to which her answer was “we don’t have your NI number”… well no, I was going to give you that) and then ask her to fax it to the JobCentre. She told me that they couldn’t possibly send private information such as that to anyone other than me, by any other method that the entirely reliable and utterly safe Royal Mail. Even with my permission. Even if I begged. Even though there was no way on earth that a letter would arrive in time for me to send it on to the JobCentre by Friday morning. Even though both the JobCentre and Student Finance England are divisions of the same government. Sorry, no. There’s a procedure, donchaknow.
So I rang the JobCentre again, to explain that their colleagues over in Glasgow (and why, incidentally, is Student Finance England based in Scotland?) were so suspicious of anyone potentially stealing the state secret that I’m not receiving finance that I probably wouldn’t be able to get the proof to them in time, and could they please please please not cancel my claim and make me start all over again? They promised to put a note on my file – my file must be almost entirely notes by this point – and said that it probably wouldn’t be cancelled. But no assurances.
I guess that’s as good as I can expect to get from a government department. At least I got to speak to actual human beings, albeit a different one every time, who on the whole listened to what I was saying before launching into a pre-prepared speech that didn’t completely relate to my problem. Other than the boy in the processing office, who I don’t think ever completely understood what I was trying to tell him, they were all keen to help, but they all expressed the implied message that despite my completely understandable situation there was no guarantee that the mechanisms of the law would allow any flexibility at all and it really depends on the mood of whichever shadowy figure has the final say.
It was all very frustrating, but it also felt like quite an achievement when I put the phone down for the last time and knew I’d done all I could. If it hadn’t taken me seven hours – if a single phone call to each person would have been enough – then I wouldn’t have appreciated the satisfaction of finishing quite as much. And I did make a lot of new friends.
In similarly government-related news, my CRB check from the hospital finally arrived yesterday, so I can start volunteering at the hospice. I emailed the lady and she said I could come in on Friday morning to get started. I’m really looking forwards to it, it’s so much more worthwhile than sitting round surfing the internet and wishing I had something to do.
Then of course it’s choir in the evening. This morning I got a phone call saying that there was a place available on the junior choir’s week-long cathedral choir course in August, and did I want to take it? The church is able to pay a large percentage of the cost, so I didn’t hesitate to say yes, even though it means I’m now taking three weeks’ holiday in the three months I’m available to work. But since no one has actually offered me a job yet, it seems daft to turn such a great chance down on the offchance that it might be a problem to an employer I don’t yet have. If the worst comes to the worst, I will just have to bail on the second holiday in August, which is stewarding at a festival – I haven’t paid anything, and there’s a waiting list for stewards so they’d be able to replace me easily.
So that’s yesterday and this morning. There were actually a few more phone calls than that – I rang the number I’d got from a job advert and a computerised system asked me to give my name and address so they could send me an application pack. Considering that I live in the world’s most Welsh-named English village, I’m not convinced it will ever arrive, but it’s only an 8-hours-a-week job anyway. I also got at least three phone calls from the JobCentre (one of which I missed because they suddenly decided to ring my mobile, even though we’d been using the landline all day) and I rang a new coffee bar/wine bar/children’s play area/ice rink monstrosity to see if they had any jobs. They don’t. They also don’t have any actual ice, it’s that plastic stuff that pretends to be ice, but I’ll probably still go there because I’m hopelessly addicted to skating.
I’m actually feeling rather bereft today. I’ve exhausted the supply of jobs to apply for. I’ve got no one to ring and wrangle with over paperwork – I even managed to complete my application for next year’s student finance last night, so that’s all sorted. A friend from France has solved the money-stuck-in-French-bank-account conundrum (she has a French and an English account and no charges for transferring between them, so she’s going to be an intermediary for me). It feels rather odd having nothing to worry about. Maybe I’ll go and bake some cookies.