Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Top Seekrit Project

Finished hairband
Originally uploaded by girl_of_bats
It being several days since the recipient of the Top Seekrit Project recipificated it, I can now reveal that the Project was, in fact, this hairband.

The "pattern", such as it is, was very simple (Anna at Web Of Wool helped me figure it out).

Cast on 130 sts of 4ply yarn on 3.25mm needles.

6 rows stockinette, ending with a purl row.

Work fold line: (k2tog, yfwd) to end of row.

13 rows stockinette, ending with a purl row.

Work another fold line, (k2tog, yfwd) to end of row.

6 rows stockinette, ending with a knit row.

Cast off, embroider flowers, fold the fold lines, press, then sew the long seam along the underside of the hairband, and join the ends together.

Does anyone else find it kind of... deflating, when a month's work is condensed into seven short sentences?

I wrapped it up and sent it to my mother to look after until my sister's birthday last week. On the day itself, I phoned my sister and sung Happy Birthday at her. But she hadn't opened her presents yet (in fact I don't think she was out of bed) so I don't know if she liked it or not. Certainly she hasn't phoned, emailed, written or even texted to say thank-you... although she did text Steve to thank him for the happy-birthday text message he sent her... but then, some of you know her in Real Life. It could be that she didn't like the hairband, it could just be her being forgetful/thoughtless/rude, or it could be that I've managed to somehow upset her even from 200 miles away. Who knows.

This morning we had the first Jehovah's Witnesses since I've lived here. I opened the door and there were two women saying "hello, lovely to meet you!" and then actually trying to step up into the house. When I physically blocked them and asked who they were, they spotted that I was leaning on a walking stick. I've never seen such a look of... well, I don't know what it was. Pity? Revulsion? All remarks from that point on were addressed to the stick. Maybe they thought I was going to hit them with it. Maybe I should have done. Still, it does feel a lot more like I live here every time something like this happens. And that's nice.

Life is very steady at the moment. After the turbulence of the last twelve months or so (the benefit crap, the moving house, the new job, Christmas, the financial crisis, the further benefit crap, and any amount of nonblog Aaarg) we seem to have entered this nice, calm bay of serenity. Things are still far from perfect - money is still tight, I'm having a rough time with the illness and there's a list of things which need doing as long as my arm - but that's life. At least at the moment, everything critical is taken care of. I feel happier, more relaxed, and more fulfilled than I have done in quite some time. I think living with Steve has the curious dual benefit of being very sensible, but also very enjoyable. There are so many elements of our life together that make me disproportionately happy. One thing that gives me particular pleasure is making his lunches for him to take to work. Haute cuisine, it is not. It's basically a sandwich and a bit of fruit and some biscuits or similar. But it enables me to repay a little bit of 'looking after', and it's a simple thing, within my capabilities, that I know is appreciated, and that makes me feel good. I know it's a silly thing to blog about, but at the moment, I'm so contented, possibly more than I ever have been, and I want to kind of put that in my mental photo album to remember in the future.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Naughty Remploy

The other day, I got a letter from Remploy. Here's a direct quote, with my flags in brackets:

"To enable us to validate your employment status (1) we require further evidence of your registration and job start. Therefore, we are writing to ask you to sign the enclosed documentation (2)(3) and provide us with a copy of [list of documents such as my work contract, payslips, etc]....

... We understand the inconvenience this gives you and to address this, we will give you with a £50.00 giro
(sic) on receipt of this pack/evidence." (4)

To take these flags one at a time:
(1) Validate my employment status? Why? With whom? What for? The only people who need to know about my employment status are the DWP (who know), the Inland Revenue (who know), and me and my employer (who definitely know). My work is valid, my tax is valid, my NI is valid, what other validation could I possibly need? And why have they dressed it up in officialspeak to make it sound like it's something important and necessary while conveying no useful information?

(2) The "enclosed documentation" consists only of the signature pages of several forms. I have the parts of the forms which say "I confirm the above information is correct" (a couple also specify that I understand that the information I give may be checked by the DWP) but I have no idea what the above information may or may not consist of. In other words, there is no opportunity for me to actually read what they are telling me to sign. What?!? How can a company whose raison d'etre is dealing with "vulnerable adults" possibly get away with encouraging people to sign things they have not read?

(3) The dates which have already been written into these signature pages are all "27/10/07". The Jobcentre DEA didn't even begin to refer me to Remploy until our sole meeting which was 3 days after that date - and Remploy didn't contact me until early December, by which time I was happily employed. In other words, they are encouraging me to falsify evidence which, if it is checked with the DWP, will be proven false. With my signature on it.

(4) Is it just me who thinks that £50 is rather a lot of recompense for the "inconvenience" of four signatures and a few bits of paper? Even if I had to hire someone to do it for me and sent it by courier, it wouldn't cost me anything like that. Given the extreme dodginess of the false dates and the not-enclosed documentation, one might even go so far as to consider the possibility (*avoids lawsuit*) that this may, by some people, be considered tantamount to a bribe for falsifying documentation...

With all this in mind, I decided to call Remploy to find out what the hell they thought they were playing at. After a short time, the woman whose name was on the letter phoned me back (woman? Yes. I should probably point out that to the best of my knowledge the male Remploy employee who was trying to help me find a way around the hours/NI problem a few weeks ago was not involved in this at all).

First she told me to just sign the boxes indicated and pop it all in the prepaid envelope and she'd take care of the rest, nothing to worry about, and then I'd get my £50.

I told her I understood that much, but before I started signing things, I wanted to know what it was that I was actually signing. She said they were just doing some admin for their own purposes, it's nothing I need to worry about, I just need to sign the forms, and they'll give me £50.

I asked why I was being asked to sign documents I had not been given to read, she said she was just trying to save on postage costs (they're offering £50 per person and they're worried about an extra 50p postage?!). By this time she was getting really annoyed with how awkward I was being and told me that if I was going to insist on being sent the full documents then she could do that, but really, there's no need, it's nothing I need to worry about, I just have to sign the forms and then they'll give me £50.

I told her that the dates were false. She tried to explain that they had to backdate things. I told her that her false dates could be easily proven false by the DWPs own records as they predated my original referral, and that I wasn't going to sign false documentation. At this point she changed tack to "okay, fine, don't sign the forms then. Just put them through a shredder and forget about it." I find it interesting that she specified that if I wasn't going to return the paperwork, I should destroy it. Maybe, despite her incredible lack of understanding of acceptable (never mind best) practice, she's really hot on data protection... or maybe she doesn't want me to show it to anyone. Oops.

She didn't seem to get that this sort of thing just wasn't on, or why I didn't want to participate, or why I felt organisations like Remploy should really know better.

£50 is a LOT of money to me (half a week's wages! more than a week's food!) and it really is quite difficult to effectively turn down free money. I suspect there will be others who have been sent this kind of letter who've decided that £50 is £50, and cheerfully signed away.

I don't want to have missed out for nothing. I have to do something with this, "alert the proper authorities" or similar, but I don't know where to start or who the proper authorities might be. Remploy, so far as I can ascertain, is government-owned and government-funded, and I don't know who they answer to or how to complain. I did ask about their internal complaints procedure and was told that a complaint would come straight back to that department to resolve - in other words, it wouldn't go any higher up the ladder and no one would be held accountable for bad practice.

I know I'm asking this a lot lately, but what would YOU do?

Friday, June 20, 2008


Remember the ongoing saga of the Tax Credits problems?

Today I checked my bank statement, as you do, and saw that on 9th June, a payment of just under £20 was made straight into my account with the reference "Working Tax Credit".

PANIC! I don't want Tax Credits! I don't want to be entangled with them at all! I have an ongoing dispute with them! Why are they putting money into my account with no explanation?!?

Straight on the phone to a chap called Bob, who had a dig through my file and found a letter, dated 3rd June, which has been sent to me, but hasn't arrived here yet. So he read out the relevant bits to me.

An overpayment was made to me in the tax year April 2004 to April 2005.

This Inland Revenue intended to recover this overpayment by reducing my Tax Credits payments during the tax year April 2005 to April 2006.

I spoilt this plan by getting sick and eventually losing my job in June 2005. So that is why, in July 2005, I got a bill for over £500, consisting of the original overpayment, minus the £20 they had already recovered by reducing the payments I'd received between April 2005 and June 2005.

Communications since then have been variations on a rather repetitive theme of:
"Give us money!"
"I don't have that much money. And even if I did, I'm not convinced I owe it to you."
"Oh. Okay. (pause) Give us money!"

However, the letter I haven't received yet apparently says that the Appeals and Complaints bunch have reviewed my case and decided that the overpayment was due to "official error" and as such has been written off. This means that the money they "recovered" between April and June 2005 was in fact my money, so I can have it back. That's what the mystery payment into my bank account was about.

I'm so relieved. I was going to blog about something very very naughty which Remploy have done, but this is so much better. I hated the idea of being in debt, I hated the idea that I had somehow incurred debt without knowing I was doing it, and the letters demanding repayment and threatening legal action were really, really upsetting. But it's all over now, and I don't have to deal with them again.

I would say I'll try not to spend all of my almost-£20 at once, but thinking about it, I've probably spent more than that in phone calls and postage and photocopying and so on during the three-year course of this dispute. Definitely worth it to not have a £500 debt over my head, though.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Mind the gap

So, over the last few months there's been a bit of a dip in my health, and work isn't getting any easier. Okay, so work isn't meant to be easy - if it was, they wouldn't have to pay people to do it. But this isn't "work knackers me out so much I can't go clubbing," this is more "work knackers me out so much that half the time it's hit-and-miss whether I can manage to have a shower, even with assistance," and that's really taking things too far. Of my daily "spoons", I'm prepared to hand most of them over for work, but I do need a few left for attending to my essential personal care needs, my bits and bobs of housework, my relationship with Steve, my friends and family, and - dare I suggest it? - a little bit of leisure activity beyond lying in bed sporadically knitting or poking at a laptop computer in between waves of pain. And I really should keep a couple of spoons in reserve for emergencies (like unconscious boyfriends, or mornings at the CAB).

For the last few months, I've been spending spoons I don't have, and reclaiming them by using my annual leave for days off work to recover. That's not sustainable. For starters, I don't have that many days of annual leave, and besides, that's not what annual leave is for. My boss, who is very nice, encourages me to take time off sick if I need it and I have taken some sick days, but I don't want to screw over him, the company, or my own sickness record, by taking a paid sick-day every week. But by pushing my limits like this, I am damaging my health in the long and short term. This cannot continue.

Solution: reduce my regular paid hours, for reasons of ill-health - work four short days a week rather than five. My boss is amenable to the idea; however, now there is a new issue. Since I am on a very low hourly rate, dropping this many hours will mean I no longer earn enough to be paying National Insurance.

National Insurance is very important. If you haven't paid enough National Insurance contributions ("the stamp"), you can't get benefits such as Incapacity Benefit or a state pension. When you have a long-term health condition, it's important to keep this safety net in place. If you are unable to work and claiming Incapacity Benefit, your stamp is paid. If I asked my doctor to sign me off as sick, and I stopped work altogether, I would automatically go back onto the rate of Incapacity Benefit which I was on before I started work. My stamp would then be paid and I would be financially "safe".

But I don't want to stop work altogether, and my doctor agrees that I don't need to stop work altogether. I just can't safely continue working this many hours without damaging my health. I fall into a kind of No-Man's-Land. I looked into voluntary National Insurance contributions, but at £8.10 a week that's out of the question - my earnings would be reduced to below-benefits-level because of working less hours, deducting another £8.10 a week on top of that just makes the whole thing silly. Who should I call to help figure this out? Roll call!

My boss continually assured me that as soon as I knew what I needed from them by way of adjustments, he would get it sorted out for me.

My doctor said she didn't know what the rules were - her specialist field is medicine, not employment, tax or welfare - but she assured me that she would support me with whatever I needed and offered that if necessary she would write me a very specific sicknote detailing that while I needed to work reduced hours, it would be detrimental for me to stop work entirely.

The Incapacity Benefit helpline took a while to understand that I didn't want to stop work completely and then told me they would get back to me with an answer (they never did). They also recommended I call the Disability Employment Adviser (DEA) at my local Jobcentre.

The local Jobcentre DEA, who we've met before, didn't even attempt to help me find a solution when she finally deigned to call me back, but gave me an earful about how "Incapacity Benefit is not a lifestyle choice just because you feel like working less." Happily this is the level of supportiveness and understanding that I have learned to expect from her, so after a few minutes I gave up on my efforts to explain that this wasn't about "choice" or about how many hours I "felt like doing", nor about an effort to "boost my income with benefits", and just let it go.

The local Jobcentre Incapacity advisor said much the same.
"You can work less hours and make voluntary NI contributions."
"But if I work less hours, I will have less money, and not be able to afford NI contributions."
"You can claim Tax Credits if you are poor."
"No, you can't claim Tax Credits if you work less than 16 hours a week."
"oh yes... well, your partner can claim Tax Credits on the basis that he has a low income and a dependent with a long-term health problem."
"My partner's a contractor, we'd have to fill in a new set of forms every week. Besides, it's not that we're poor as a household. It's that I want to pay my own way. I want independence, not to have to rely on him for handouts."
"Benefits isn't independence. Work is independence."
"But I'll be better off on Incapacity Benefit."
"I never said that..."

The CAB told me to contact the doctor, the IB helpline and the DEA at the local Jobcentre. When I said "done that" they were pretty much out of ideas and that I probably had no option but to give up work entirely. I told them I was waiting for a call back from Remploy. They said that was my best bet, then. Oh good.

The bloke from Remploy suggested that if I got back onto Incapacity Benefit, then I would be allowed to do Permitted Work. People doing Permitted Work keep their IB, and can work up to 16 hours and keep up to £88 of their earnings each week. But except in special cases, this is only for six months (after which you either go to full-time, or stop work completely).

I asked if there was a route that was more 'sustaining employment' than 'starting employment'. He told me that New Deal for Disabled People (NDDP) is being phased out and replaced by something called Pathways to Work. Pathways to Work have been active in my local area for about a month via a private company called Working Links. According to my Remploy chap, the staff at Working Links are fairly new to the game (obviously, since they've only been here for a month) and they took over a week to get an answer to him regarding my situation. The answer was that eligibility for help from Pathways to Work is dependent on having been on Incapacity Benefit for the previous 13 weeks. Which I haven't been. I've been working. So I can't have any help, unless I'm prepared to spend a quarter of a year being completely unemployed again and then hope that I can get my job back.

That's not helpful.

The biggest help so far has come from my boss and the company accountant. We've worked out the minimum number of hours I need to work to retain my NI contributions and that is how many hours I will be working as of this week. We've had to tweak a bit, basically from now on I will only be going in four days a week (giving me Wednesdays to recuperate as well as Saturdays and Sundays), but working an extra half-hour on those days. We'll have to see how well it goes. It's still more hours than my doctor and I think I really should be doing but at this stage it's better than completely giving up work.

Here's my options.

Option one: work 17.5 hours a week. National Insurance contributions paid. Take-home pay of about £88 a week, after tax, NI, transport costs etc. Working more hours than my doctor thinks I should. Precious few 'spoons' left.

Option two: work 12 hours a week. Take-home pay of about £57 a week after voluntary NI and transport costs. About the right number of hours work for my current state of health, and enough spoons left over to attend to basic daily needs (eg mountain-climbing: no, grocery shopping: yes).
Edit: I have been informed in the comments that voluntary NI counts towards one's pension, but is not counted for an Incapacity Benefit claim.

Option three: stop work and go back on IB. National Insurance contributions paid. Take-home pay of about £85 a week. All of my time and spoons to myself. However, no colleagues to chat to, no work goals to accomplish, no acceptable answer to the question "so, what do you do for a living?" and precious little self-respect.

What would you do?

Monday, June 09, 2008


If I said that, health-wise, I was feeling worse than usual, and the paperwork/benefits stuff was still a massive steaming pile of ongoing poo, but in terms of contentement with life, I was feeling really quite good... would you know what I meant?

So, I'm not too well, which is part of why I haven't been blogging. But it's been a gorgeous weekend. I've spent most of it in the living room with the patio door open, knitting and listening to the tweeting birdies and so on. Very relaxing.

Georgette the Courgette is doing well. If you clicky this linky you will see that she has been happily installed in a grow-bag of composty goodness, with two little strawberry plants (as yet un-named) to keep her company.

And on Sunday evening, Steve and I got in the car to meet Jiva and Munkt0n at some motorway services on their way back from Alton Towers. Which was nice... sitting outside on a bench with Steve, having a cuppa, and then friends turned up and we spent the evening chatting and relaxing. Jiva gave me some spare yarny from her stash which was unexpected and nice. It really is very tempting to spend a couple of hours on Ravelry trying to find some patterns for it, but I have promised myself that I will not fill up the house with half-finished items, so I will have to finish either the jumper or the socks first.

And finally, a quick mention for Tom Scott aka Mad Cap'n Tom, who has won his student union presidency as a pirate, upsetting any number of people in the process. Mwahahahaha.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Almost a jumper

lopsided style
Originally uploaded by girl_of_bats
Today is, I feel, a day for starting with the positive. So here is a picture of my work-in-progress jumper which, you will note, only needs Sleeve #2 and a little bit of sewing to make it an Actual Garment. I have made a start on Sleeve #2 and hopefully I will have it finished in a month or so. Definitely before the end of the year.

This morning we went to see a welfare advisor about the DLA appeal. I had to do a lot of signatures in the space of about ten minutes. Some were for paperwork to be sent to DWP and others were to confirm that I am allowing CAB to retain my information and whatnot. Serious hand-ache by the end of it - you could probably arrange the paperwork into the order I signed it just by how legible my autograph is on each piece. As I understand things, the advisor we saw today won't actually deal with my appeal. His role was more to advise us on whether we should appeal and how to go about it. But he's starting the appeal process for us and he's referring my case to another organisation, whose acronym I have forgotten, and someone from there will contact us to arrange to come to see us to go over things in depth. It all seems rather convoluted but at least the ball is rolling now.

Also on the positive, once that referral comes through we should be working with a named advisor on the basis of appointments. The CAB do their best, but they're over-stretched and under-staffed (almost entirely by volunteers) so you can't make an appointment - you have to turn up and wait, often several hours. If you're not prepared to wait, the theory goes, then your problems aren't that desperate. It's as fair as it can be, although I do feel sorry for people who wait patiently for a couple of hours but then leave before they get seen because they have to pick up their kids or get to work or whatnot. Today Steve and I were waiting just over two and a half hours, or, to put it another way, we'd arrived at the exact time the centre opened but we hadn't been queuing outside the door. Appointments will be much easier, not to mention less exhausting.

That said, despite the length of the wait, it wasn't so bad this time round. Rather than being held at the CAB proper in the town centre, it was a specific "Benefits and Debt Clinic" being held at a community centre which houses a hundred and one other things including a little subsidised cafe (you know the ones, lots of fruit and fairtrade stuff, no chocolate, crisps or fizzypop). So our two and a half hour wait took place while we were comfortably seated and enjoying a cuppa.

Georgette the Courgette is doing well. We have spent £1.49 on a bag of compost and now we're just wondering whether we have to find a container to put it in or if we can just use it like a grow-bag - to phrase it another way, will she need more depth or more width in her new home?