Inspired by real council blunders
Daniel Poole was an amiable sort. He always had a smile for colleague, friend or stranger and radiated a keen sense of camaraderie. He didn’t judge people often, took them as they came. He liked comics and had never really grown out of his childhood obsession with wrestling, though he now kept that dirty pleasure hidden in the closet and away from his professional life. He worked for the council, a green suited ‘parkie’ spending his days come rain, sleet or snow trundling around the Municipal Park in a golf buggy that leaked trash juices from its trailer. On weekends he liked to visit his seventy two year old mother who regularly screamed at the sight of him and accused him of being a thief, a rapist or a door to door salesman. He’d wait patiently for the nurses to get her settled then leave some flowers in a vase by her bed and kiss her forehead goodbye. He still visited her despite the regular abuse because of the days when she recognised him and indulged him in stories from her life or critiques on Eastenders.
How could someone lose track of so much but still follow the soaps?
As nice as Daniel was, he wasn’t particularly outgoing. Therefore opportunities for dating were quite limited. In fact the sum of his experiences with women, up till last October, was holding the hand of his childhood crush whilst they were walking from school on a geography trip to a local park. Maybe that was why he worked in one to this day?
Anyway, as a man once said; fate is inexorable and life has a way of working out for nice blokes. Last October he greeted a new colleague at the Park and took her for lunch as a welcome. Jane was her name, just moved from Yorkshire. Daniel began showing her around the county, they discovered shared passions and humour and somewhere along the line found themselves kissing under a porch light. They’ve barely stopped kissing ever since.
Now Daniel and Jane had decided to rent a flat together. It was all happening so fast for Daniel that he believed it may be all a dream, but the bills that started dropping through the door soon snuffed out that idea. Thing was, on their pay they could get by. Not really enjoy themselves, but survive. And as a lot of Daniels pay was from overtime and so not dependable, he decided he needed a little help. For the first time in his life Daniel Poole decided to ask the government for his share of benefits. Housing Benefit, Council Tax deduction, Working tax credits. At least it wouldn’t hurt to ask if he qualified for any.
First thing to understand about applying for benefits was that one didn’t apply to the council or the government. Sure there was a Southborough Town Council logo on the forms, but Daniels local council subscribed to the very esoteric way of thinking of the 1980’s Conservative Government. That being to farm out the business of being a local council to a, well, local business. Privatising the business of government ensured it was governed by market forces. The best, most efficient service would be provided at the cheapest cost to the tax payer.
Despite the best of intentions and the universality of market forces, stories of the failings of the local council when it comes to the running of public services were fairly widespread. There was said to be something other about the way the council acted. It didn’t appear to function under the same rules of logic and reason as your everyman or woman on the street. Perhaps, someone had argued in a bar, the confusion was deliberate, intended to discourage any dealings with the council and reduce their workload. Ingenious strategy when you think about it. Yet the political side of the council was elected, and the contract of the part-privatised council operations consistently reviewed following elections. Daniel trusted that this meant the complaints were exaggerated. The alien Julianachs, employees of the company Julian & Foster Services that ran the council, were simply an urban myth.
Daniel downloaded the forms from the Council’s website and took some time off from work to go visit Southborough House, the headquarters of the council’s benefits department. Smartly dressed in a £25 suit Daniel appeared a man out of place sat among the drunks, druggies and dregs of society that scratched and sniffed in their seats waiting for their ticket number to be called, like they were waiting at a delicatessen,. He was early and so had drawn the number 3 ticket though it still took a good forty minutes for him to be called to the desk. He approached, unlatching his folder and withdrew his application and evidence of income smiling at the twenty something gum chewing bored receptionist.
“Yes. How can we help?” she asked, already typing into her computer.
“Hello. My name is Daniel Poole, I’ve recently moved into a flat with my partner and found that our incomes a little tight so I was wondering if there was any…”
“Date of birth? Postcode?” she interrupted.
“Uhm, 2nd of April 1976…SB8 1TY I just wanted to see if there was any small help we…”
“Take a seat over on the left. A benefits advisor will call you over by the number on your ticket.” She looked behind him then, a finger pushing a button out of sight to hail the next person in the queue. A numerical board flashing to #9 and a thin, pale looking 17 year old male rising from his seat, pushing a tatty pram towards the desk.
His number was called to Desk A ten minutes later, though he had observed the Benefits Advisor sat alone the whole time, so why there was a delay mystified him. Good job he had taken time off work. When he approached the desk the Benefits Advisor looked up at him with a startled expression.
Lisa had been a friend of a friend in school. They had been on the fringe of each other’s social circles. Not exactly on each other’s msn messenger list, but friendly with one another all the same.
“Take a seat Dan, how are you doing?”
He hadn’t been called that for years, everyone called him Daniel now. He sat placing his folder on the desk.
“I’m good, no problems. Yourself?”
“Getting married in July. Remember Andrew Goslin? Year above us?”
Daniel didn’t but he nodded politely anyway.
“Yeah well, to him. What are you here for?”
“I’ve just moved in with my girlfriend and moneys tight so we thought we’d see if there was any help we could get”
“Okay. I’ll have to call a colleague to deal with your claim because I know you from school. One second.”
Daniel nodded and sorted his evidence and application forms idly as Lisa flagged down a colleague and spoke a few words to her. The colleague disappeared into a Staff Only elevator that ascended or descended to who knows where.
“So what do you do for a living?”
“I work for the council like you. I’m a parkie down at the Municipal. Fun, interesting, but only part time”
“And your girlfriend?”
“She was the same but she now works at the University as a senior librarian”
“Oh okay. Well from the sounds of it I’m sure we can find some help for you. You both work for the home team after all!”
Lisa laughed and then stood up as a colleague emerged from the newly returned elevator and approached the desk smartly. She explained the conflict of interest and deferred Daniels case to her. For the next twenty minutes Daniel and the Benefits Officer talked through the application. The Officer studiously recorded details into her computer as they spoke. She was in agreement with Lisa. They should qualify for some kind of benefit but Daniel had not brought all of his girlfriends’ employment details.
“What I will do is, I’ll put this on hold and if you bring the information in tomorrow I’ll process the application. Is that okay Mr Poole?”
She clicked save. Daniel thanked the officer for her help and stood to leave fairly satisfied. For a brief moment as he shook her hand he had the absurd notion that her irises were oddly shaped like that of a nocturnal animal, and her hand felt scaly. He blinked the vision away and left.
When he returned with the required information the Benefits Officer tutted and sighed explaining to him that if this information were correct he and his partner wouldn’t qualify for benefits. A tad disappointed but not exactly surprised, Daniel left the matter at that turning his attention to securing a better full time job instead. A few days later however a shadowy figure appeared through the glass of his front door and pushed something through the letterbox. A TV Licensing bill fell to the ground along with a Mama & Papa’s Pizza takeout leaflet and a letter stamped SOUTHBOROUGH COUNCIL: CONFIDENTIAL. He opened it with a sense of dread, expecting some other unforeseen bill to appear but to his shock found a benefits statement outlining his successful application and a deduction of more than £300 from the Council Tax Bill and award of £52 a week in other benefits. For Daniel and his girlfriend it was like winning the lottery and they celebrated that evening by ordering from the pizza shop and downing a few beers.
The next day they woke up to a hangover and another shadow at the door dropping the daily mail through their letter box. Again, it contained a letter stamped SOUTHBOROUGH COUNCIL: CONFIDENTIAL. In a moment of madness that can only be explained by an illogical assumption that he’d won the benefit rollover or something, Daniel excitedly opened the letter and then almost choked on his cereal. The throat clogging line of the letter read;
“Due to benefit overpayments. A total sum of not more than £508 will be recovered from you within 30 days of this notice.”
He mumbled something, milk and crumbs rolling out of the side of his mouth before he swallowed and took a drink of his juice. He read the letter top to bottom, on both sides again and again. The detailed statement clearly showed he was never due any benefit, and the officer had indeed said he wouldn’t qualify. Yet if that was the case why the utterly cruel letter of yesterday? He couldn’t pay that back. He had never even received the money.
Just to be certain, he took the morning off work (costing himself needed money) and rushed to the bank for a detailed statement which showed nada, zilch, nothing but his meagre wages going in and lots of expenses going out. Certainly nothing that could be pared up to this alleged backdated benefit overpayments. His sweetheart told him over the phone that it was probably a misunderstanding and would be cleared up in five minutes if he went to Southborough House and explained things.
You know where this is going don’t you?
With a palpable sense of dread, confusion and fragile hope Daniel returned to Southborough House, took a ticket and stood amongst the sea of benefit seekers and waited to be called. Number 213 flashed up on the screen. Daniel approached the desk flapping the demand and his bank statement in the air as he spoke.
“I received this letter from you asking me to repay some benefits I wasn’t due but as you can see I never received…”
“Name?” the gum chewing bored brunette responded. In his minds eye the receptionist seemed to morph into a semi-mobile robot/computer station. Her upper body joined to the desk before her and her fingers didn’t so much tap along the keys as commune with them, transferring the data she wished into the central system.
“Dan, Daniel Poole…” he stuttered. “If you’ll just look at my bank statement you’ll see…”
“Date of Birth and postcode?” the automated public service device responded. It seemed to only respond to a pre-specified set of Names, dates and letters. To differ from that script was to elicit a blank, stunningly silent response. He provided the required input and was directed to take a seat from where he was called into a secluded room with a thick Plexiglas panel dividing him from a benefits officer.
“How can I help Mr Poole?”
“Well I received this letter…” he passed the recovery demand through a small slit in the glass, “asking me to repay benefits I haven’t even received. In fact I was told by an officer here that I didn’t qualify for benefits. If you look at my bank statement you’ll see I haven’t received anything in the time period the letter refers to.”
The young man he was talking to read the two documents with some scrutiny then typed something into his computer. A tail flicked idly behind him as he spoke.
“Yes it does seem that you have been asked to repay benefits that you were overpaid. You have thirty days from the notice to do so.”
“But look at the statement; I haven’t been paid a penny…”
The plexiglass was clearly acting as sound proofing as the officer didn’t check the statement in front of him but instead prodded his computer terminal again.
“It says here you applied for benefits and they were backdated four weeks and paid into your bank account,” continued the tail wagging creature. Daniel restrained his frustration and tried to express his predicament in another fashion so that the alien worker could understand him.
“Okay, can you explain to me how I am supposed to repay money that my bank accounts show never entered my account? Am I supposed to click my fingers? Busk on the street? I can’t pay that back because I never received it.” Okay, so he wasn’t completely restrained. The benefits officer raised bushy eyebrows at him, his bulbous nose snorting slightly.
“Please don’t take that tone with me. I am trying to help you sir. The system is showing that you were approved, given and then reassessed for benefits. Now it is your responsibility to pay them back.”
Daniel shook his head and demanded to see a supervisor. Someone he could talk to. He got the impression that this minion of privatised council administration could no more depart from his script than the receptionist. The creature stood, scrabbled at the door and left, replaced a minute later by a middle aged woman. She checked the relevant documents and clucked her tongue.
“A-ha. You were approved sir but then provided additional information which altered your benefit status and made you ineligible. The transfer of backdated benefits had already been sent but we asked for a hold and are waiting for it to be returned.”
“So I don’t owe you anything?” he said with palpable relief. Even as he said it the woman seemed to transform into some kind of humanoid hyena. Laughing at him.
“Oh, no, you still do owe £508.”
“How can I owe you money that you yourself just said never made it to my account?”
“The money was issued to you sir. It is your responsibility until it is returned. I suggest you contact your bank.” The hyena woman rose from her chair and skulked out of the back of the room clucking an insane laughter.
Confused, alarmed and running out of options Daniel hurried over to the bank only to be told that banks don’t hold money, they send it back within 24hrs if they cannot put it in the intended account. He returned to Southborough House for a third visit and took an uncharacteristically aggressive approach demanding that he be given a written letter, signed by a senior officer to say that he did not owe them anything. The strange workers who no longer seemed to function remotely like normal people to Daniel told him to calm down or he would be removed from the building. Eventually two bulky security guards were called, though he had neither threatened or risen from his chair, and clamped vice-like hands on his shoulders hefting him out of the chair and into the air, carried on their shoulders in a most undignified way.
“Put me down! Put me down! I’m not causing trouble, I just want a letter!” He spotted Lisa at her desk as he was carried through the reception area and shouted a plea to her. “Tell them, I’m not one of those people…” he waved a flailing arm at the queue of benefit seekers, ascribing a prejudicial view to the crowd that certainly didn’t endear him. “I’m a good person, I pay my taxes, I work as often as I can and all I want is one error clearing up! Lisa!” However it was no use, for Lisa did not respond and instead the security guards threw him out of the door and face first into a muddy puddle.
A benefits officer emerged moments later.
“Mr Poole, I’m so glad I found you. It appears the money was returned to the Council a few hours ago. Our checks agent only just processed the document.”
Daniel slowly picked himself, dripping, off the ground.
“I don’t owe anything…?” he asked with resignation.
“Nothing sir. In fact if you wish, now we have your correct details you can come back inside and we can process a new claim for benefit”
Daniel wiped his face of mud watching the traffic drive past unaware of the strange functioning’s within the smart modern building that formed Southborough House. He inclined his head for a moment and laughed once before shaking it.
“No, I think I’m alright thanks.”
Please feel free to leave comments below.
All comments are moderated for abuse.