Friday, April 01, 2011

Big Society, Small Mind

It's been a long while since I last posted. Together with all the usual busy-ness of life during this time of year I had been doing my weekly stint at a local charity which gives advice on all areas of life. (This means I have less time to run my business, but never mind.)

Of course we are not know-it-alls. We merely have the resources to point people in the right direction. Some folk who come in need more help than others. For these we spend more time with them and help with writing letters, making phone calls, etc.

My role in this charity is to assess within as short a time as possible how we might (or not) help the "client".

We get all sorts. People asking about neighbour disputes over boundary fences, pensions and how these affect their current benefits, whether they are genuinely required to pay underpaid taxes because HMRC completely fouled up, domestic violence, how to apply for benefits for 19-year-olds, etc.

We get the few odd-balls, for want of a better word. People who want to just have a talk, eg I've applied for x number of jobs in the last y number of weeks, and not a single reply. Can you tell me whether the job market is really that bad?

One man who finally decided to divorce his wife was so glad for some guidance we gave he put quite a substantial donation into our collection box. He needed reassurance, some advice regarding a legal matter, and you could see the relief on his face when we helped him to separate the two issues.

But two weeks ago I very nearly quit. For the second week running I had a 'run' of clients wanting to know where they stand with regards to their benefits application, etc. We are a charity. We have nothing to do with the various government departments that push one bit of paper to another, and then on to another department, only for it to be lost in the post, etc.

But they come, constantly, "Please, I have no money to live on this week, what has happened to my application?"

I don't know.

You also have those who tell you, "I'm entitled to this [benefit] and that [benefit]. I went to the office, and they tell me I'm OK, but I get the letter that tells me I get nothing. What is happening?"

I don't know.

Some get really rude when after we had given them the advice and clear directions as to what to do. "But why are you not helping me? Previously when I came here always someone helped me. Make a phone call and you get the answer."

Me: "Here's the number given to you. Call and find out what the situation is."

Client: "No. They won't give me an answer. You people have to give them a call, and then they give you an answer."

Me: "Are you saying that the people at the council are not giving you the answers? Are you saying that they would only give an answer if someone from here speaks to them?

Client: "Yes. Always I call and they don't help me. You people call them, they would give you an answer."

That really made my blood boil.

First, I didn't like being referred to as "you people". "Look!" I said, "I am only a volunteer. I don't get paid for trying to help you. My role here is not to make phone calls for you."

Second, I was furious that local council employees who are supposed to be public servants, paid by my tax money, seem not to be doing their job. Why are they not giving this man the answers he deserves?

So on the one hand I pay these servants, and on another I pay this man (his benefits via my tax), but the lazy public servant has caused this man to come to me to say, "You people are not helping me."

Why should I be taxed to the hilt and be insulted by this client whose benefits come out of my taxes?

The following week I had a woman who claims to be single, with three children, with a query about her housing and impending eviction. Of course the taxpayer is already paying her housing benefits, council tax credit, child benefits, child tax credits, etc.

She asked me whether I knew anything about "banding" in the homelessness jargon. "No," I said, and she rolled her eyes in disgust.

I wanted to say, "Sweetheart I've not received a single penny of benefit from this country. How do you expect me to know? I have not even received Child Benefit because it was too complicated for me as a foreigner to claim, so it has been given to my husband.

"Incidentally I am contributing towards your benefits, so don't sound so high-and-mighty." (I learned later from the case notes that actually, she had not been telling us the whole truth! And yes, I would still like to find out how in a community that considers it acceptable to stone a woman caught in adultery she could have three children when claiming not to be in a relationship.)

When I got home after this session I had to bake bread. I needed to punch out my anger and frustration. How dare these people talk to me like I am their servant when their livelihood depends on people like me who fund their benefits?

Here I am trying to do my Big Society and all I meet are small minds like these.

Thankfully the last session (yesterday) was so different. I met some really nice people who were grateful for the help, advice and information we were able to provide.

I am, however, continuing to make my own bread. My baking skill has risen a lot in my boys' estimation as my bread proved to be a great success!

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