One thing I’ve had to learn about fairly quickly over the last few months is benefits. I’ve never had to know about them before, as I was never entitled to any when I was lucky enough to work full time at a reasonably well-paid job. I am bad with money at the best of times, and now that I have S I keep a close eye on my finances, keeping a spreadsheet to show when my regular outgoings are due, what money is expected in, and what my current bank balance is. I am petrified that one of these days I will run out of money and not be able to feed my child.
When I got pregnant, I was suddenly beset with panic about how I would afford things, where I would live, how I would manage to move there. I was living in a shared house, and although I had always assumed I would move in with S’s father, that turned out not to be a practical idea fairly early on, and so I filled in forms to be on the local council’s housing list.
I will spare you the details of the process, but I received a phone call when I was 32 weeks pregnant: I had been “matched” to a maisonette locally. If I wanted to take it, I had to pay my first week’s rent and collect the keys the following week. When I explained to them that I had to give a month’s notice where I was, and had little spare cash floating around, I was told I had to sign the contract next week, or because of the council’s empty homes policy, the maisonette would be given to somebody else. They suggested I apply for housing benefit to pay my rent in the new place. When I called the housing benefit people, they looked into it briefly before informing me that because I was a single person earning above X amount, I was not entitled to housing benefit until the baby was born. I asked if there was any sort of help available for moving, or acquiring furniture or white goods once I’d moved; they asked if I was on any benefits already. When I said no, they said that there was probably no help available in that case.
Much as I dislike him these days, I could not have moved house without S’s father. He paid for removals, and got me several items of furniture for the flat, including a cooker and a microwave. My brother managed to get me a fridge and a washing machine and several friends and family members donated various items. I moved into the flat when I was 33 weeks pregnant, with dodgy hips and no energy. Once the removal men had left, though, it was up to me to put my bed together, move the furniture from where it had been dumped in the centre of various rooms (wardrobe in the living room), and generally attempt to make it look like home. When I first moved everything in here, paying that first lot of rent had cleared me out financially, and I had no money for gas or electricity, much less cleaning supplies. I spent my first week and a half as a council tenant living at S’s father’s house, catching the bus to the flat every day to try and do some unpacking. Because I was technically still employed (and on maternity leave), there was no financial help to be had. I had not been in any position to save up for this before it happened, as I’m sure a lot of single pregnant women are not. If S’s father had not paid for the removal men, I could not have moved. There was nowhere else I could have got that money from, in order to pay them. And how else would a 33-week-pregnant woman move all her belongings across town?
I gave birth prematurely, at 35 weeks, and then spent 2 weeks in hospital. When I came out, I began the hilarity that is applying for benefits. Various people had told me, “Oh, once you’re eligible for one all the others kick in as well…” What they didn’t tell me was the fun and games that would ensue. I had made applications for Housing Benefit and Tax Credits before S was born, knowing that I wouldn’t be entitled to anything, but that also if I had an open claim it would be more straight-forward to just update my circumstances once the baby was born. Tax Credits was simple; I called them and told them I’d had a baby and they sent me a backdated payment of Child Tax Credit within a couple of weeks.
For Working Tax Credits it’s a little more complicated: normally they go by how much money you earned last tax year. Last tax year I was in a different, better-paying job, and earned a lot more money, so that precluded me from any entitlement. This year, I had only had full pay for one month before maternity pay kicked in, and I expected to earn a great deal less. They wanted to know how much less. Exactly how much I expected to earn during this tax year. I had to produce a calculation for them. And then there was a lengthy discussion about the “first hundred quid each week” which confused matters further. They started my payments, but they decreased in the middle of July, and then at the end of July, because of some weird confusion over my earnings, they stopped and I had to make a panicked phone call to get them reinstated.
The Housing and Council Tax Benefit is an ongoing farce. I took them a wad of documents, including payslips, S’s birth certificate, bank statements and a letter from my work confirming my maternity pay. They updated their records and started paying me a laughably small amount each week. Each month, as my pay decreased, I was to submit my payslip and wait for them to back-date my recalculated entitlement. Meanwhile, the people in charge of rent payments needed my account to always be up to date. I ended up paying my full rent each week, and then calling to request an updated statement at the end of the month to see how much benefit had been paid. The letters the benefit people send to confirm such things are written in some sort of code. I am convinced they make them deliberately hard to understand, so that if they make a mistake you will probably never notice. They also somehow take two to three weeks to arrive, so it was quicker and easier to just ask for a statement of my rent account.
A month or so ago, I received a letter informing me that they had miscalculated my entitlement to Housing Benefit, that actually I had no entitlement, and they would be invoicing me for the amount they’d already paid. I called to ask what had changed, and to remind them that although I may not be entitled to benefit at the moment, I probably would be when my next payslip arrived. I was told they had closed my case because I was not entitled, and I would have to make a new claim, which could not be backdated – so I would lose out on any benefit for that month. I had to write a letter begging them to please reopen the original case, so that my most recent payslip could be taken into account. Eventually I received a letter stating I was entitled to about a third of my rent each week. And then another letter, stating that they had adjusted the amount I owed them from their previous miscalculation, by the grand total of 60p. When I called and spoke to them, they told me not to worry about the invoice they had sent for the previous overpayment; they were taking it gradually out of my new entitlement. This meant I had (yet again) no clue as to how much rent or council tax I should be paying each week. I now call up to get a statement of my rent account every other week, to ensure I am not in arrears. This has made it impossible to budget, since I never have any idea how much rent I will need to pay each week. The situation is ongoing; when I get my payslip at the end of this month, and every month until January, I have to take it in for them to send off.
The act of submitting my payslip is, in itself, something of a nightmare. If you can get to the office when it opens at 8:30am, you may well be in and out within the hour. Quite often though, they take your name and have you wait in a waiting area with several other disgruntled people, all waiting to speak to people in different sections of the office, so you’ve no idea how many people are ahead of you. The last time I went in there, I lost an hour and a half, and my daughter’s remaining goodwill for the day.
Child Benefit is supposed to be fairly straight-forward: they give you the form in the hospital, you fill it in and send it off with your child’s birth certificate, and they plonk the grand total of £20 in your bank account each week. I am lucky, in that it really was this straightforward for me, and I know that however skint I end up over the weekend, I will have £20 on Monday morning if I’m desperate for food or nappies. I have a friend, though, whose baby is now 18 weeks, and she has still had no Child Benefit. Apparently there has been a mix-up somewhere because, although being British, and born in a British hospital, she was not actually born in the UK. And it’s taken them 18 weeks to understand that, and sort it out. Meanwhile, she just has to make do without her Child Benefit. They will backdate it, and when it is eventually paid she will have a nice little lump sum paid – but that doesn’t stop it being hugely inconvenient when she needs to buy nappies or formula at the moment.
The other financial gripe in my life is maintenance from S’s father. When he had been gone a month and a half, he texted me to say that the most the CSA could make him pay me was £135 a month, so he would pay me that directly in return for regular contact with S. I told him that paying maintenance was nothing to do with contact; you are responsible for a child and therefore obliged to pay maintenance. That first month, he paid the money straight into my bank account. By this time, though, things between us were less than pleasant, and my health visitor urged me to go through the CSA so that I did not have to have any further contact with him. I had already warned him a month previously that if he did not contact me with a concrete plan for maintenance I would contact the CSA as he had already left it long enough. When he didn’t come back with much other than the usual tirade, I filled out the form and sent it off. The following month, when he did not pay any money into my account, I contacted him to ask if he intended to pay it. His response went along the lines of, the CSA called me last week, they are sorting it out and I won’t have to pay them anything until next month so you will just have to wait, it’s your own fault for contacting them. I responded, if you’re happy to see us struggle for money until then, that’s fine. The following day he put some money into my account. It was less than he had agreed to pay before, but I wasn’t complaining. Since then, the CSA have been less than helpful, and I’m fairly sure his employers (being his friends, and sympathetic to his cause) have dragged their heels with sending money. The payment that covered July did not arrive with me until last week, and the August payment has yet to surface. It’s hard to budget when you know you’re due a payment on a monthly basis, but have no idea when in that month it’s likely to turn up. It’s easier to just not include it in the budget – but then it becomes difficult to fit all my outgoings onto the list without my account going into the red, something I cannot afford, what with the bank charges that go with such an occurrence.
Does every single mother have this problem? From the times I have complained about the CSA on Facebook, I’m inclined to believe that in most cases, they do. From the number of people I’ve met grumbling their story at the receptionist in the council offices, most people claiming Housing Benefit do as well. On the news this morning I heard that the way Council Tax Benefit is paid is changing from a national scheme to a local one, meaning the local authority will have “up to three and a half million pounds” less to spend on it, from next April, and will have to make “some tough decisions” as to who will receive Benefit. My Council Tax is currently around £30 a week; if I turn out to be one of their tough decisions, it will make a big difference to my life.
Next year, the government intends to introduce Universal Credit, a single monthly payment which will replace most benefits, including Housing Benefit, Tax Credits, and Income Support (which I will be on if I decide not to go back to work). This fills me with dread purely because a month is a long time to budget for when the goalposts change as often as they have thus far. At least with weekly budgeting, if something is missed or an unexpected outlay of cash occurs, I know I will get my Tax Credits next week, so will not starve. Also, with the number of mistakes, miscalculations and non-payments I’ve already experienced in my brief encounter with benefits, I don’t hold out much hope of Universal Credit being rolled out without a lot of low income families being made a lot worse off, at least in the short term while they iron out the teething problems that don’t affect the pockets of the people doing the ironing out. Martin Lewis (he of Money Saving Expert fame) was on the Daily Politics today arguing the toss with Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi and made the valid point that many families relying on these benefits budget on a weekly basis, and don’t have the ability to budget on a monthly basis. That might sound as if he’s patronising people on benefits, but personally I am terrified of having to budget monthly, and I think Universal Credit is a bad idea for that very reason.
I know the idea of me complaining about the handouts I get from your taxes might make you want to punch me, but really they are my taxes as well. I have paid tax since I was 18, and am still paying it now – being, as I am, still employed and on maternity leave. I get angry about people playing the system, being dishonest and spending my taxes on flat screen TVs and foreign holidays, but as I have previously mentioned on this blog, I believe the taxes I have paid thus far (and intend to in future, whether I go back to my current employer or get another job further down the line), coupled with the fact I am a single mother of a small baby, entitle me to those “handouts”. I never intended to be a single mother; when I got pregnant I believed I would move in with S’s father and live in Brady Bunch bliss with him and his children. The fact that didn’t happen was probably foreseeable, and I was probably stupid to ever believe it would; but I didn’t set out to get pregnant, get a council flat and sponge off society for the rest of my days, and do not feel I should be treated as such.