WHEN I HAVE TIME to kill in my local town, a terminal conversation doesn’t spring to mind. You see, I sometimes pop into the council-run library and read or write. Yesterday was a writing day. 

… the study concluded the scale of the cuts and their lopsided impact on the most disadvantaged were a policy choice, rather than inevitable.

Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur

indistinct distress

With a couple of hours spare, I said ‘hi’ to the staff at the desk, found an empty table, logged on to the wifi and started writing. About an hour in, an unhappy, indistinct murmur grabbed my attention. It could have been a person on a mobile having one of those loud, I-don’t-really-need-a-mobile-to-communicate, conversations you hear in public transport and cafes, but it wasn’t …

On a per-head basis, reductions since 2010 were significantly higher in England – equivalent to about 18% – than in Wales (5.5%) and Scotland (1%), in part because the devolved governments chose to mitigate some effects of the cuts, it said.

Guardian article

distinct torment

TEN MINUTES LATER, with desperation adding volume, the clarity increased. Her diction was as clear as an Inverness accent. The conversation went something like this (‘other end’ is an unheard benefits official):

‘…but I had to pay my October rent last month.’

[other end]

‘…it cost me £190 and I had to make it out of savings’

[other end]

‘…Yes, you paid September, but you didn’t pay October, I did.’

[other end]

‘…Now it’s November and I have to pay my Landlord.’

[other end]

‘…But I don’t have any money to spare. You said things would be sorted, they aren’t.’

[other end]

She repeated her story pretty much as above a further three times, an increasing note of desperation filling her voice. Yet, she didn’t become abusive, she stayed lucid. About thirty minutes in…

‘…you want my mobile? What’s going to happen?’ She wept.

[other end] 

‘…Universal Credit isn’t working for me. You make excuses and my money doesn’t come through.’ She sobbed now, long sniffy sobs, between clear statements.

[other end]

‘…you’ll call me back tomorrow.’

[other end]

cradle of civilisation?

conversation terminalThe phone was placed firmly on its cradle, not slammed. I looked up as a young woman passed a short distance by my table, lips twitching. I didn’t see her face. A trembling hand rubbed her upper face. Outside, she strode past the window, distressed, wiping her eyes with stiff shaky fingers.

Later I walked through and found an all singing and dancing terminal provided by my Local Council, for free. That’s what she used. A helpful idea in a very public place.

distress shared

Before I left, I spoke to the librarian at the desk. 

‘Does this happen often?’

‘All the time,’ she said.

‘How does it affect you?’

‘It’s upsetting. I wish I could help, but there’s nothing I can do.’

‘Do you all hear this a lot of the time?’

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘lots of different people, all much the same.’

angry old man …

I drove home with a heavy heart. Writing this I feel anger with the architects of such mental cruelty. What price the governments duty of care? Why a belief in hostile treatment?

Imagine the impact on the young woman, the library staff hearing such conversations and, the officials operating the system.

It is easy for a government  to create an insensitive and hostile environment. Policy makers say they care. Do their actions and their outcomes support this? How credible the rationale?

Whatever the political rationale, it’s much less easy for the people who rely on a rule based, computer controlled, system. What are we like? When will we change?

© Mac Logan