When I have time to kill in my local town, the only terminal conversation on my mind is of the thriller writing sort. For this reason, it’s nice to have a bolt hole. For example, if my car is being fixed, I pop into Leven library and write for a while. That’s why 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
With a couple of spare hours I said ‘hi’ to the staff at the desk, found an empty table, logged on to the wifi and started working. About an hour in, an unhappy, indistinct murmur grabbed my attention. As I sat back, thinking, a voice interrupted my train of thought. Was it a person on a smartphone having one of those loud I-don’t-really-need-a-mobile conversations? You know, like the ones you hear on public transport and in cafés? But it wasn’t …
A young woman spoke, her diction as perfect as an Inverness accent. Ten minutes later, the terminal conversation reached full flow, with desperation adding volume. With volume, the detail of the content became unavoidable. The discussion went something like this (‘other end’ is an unheard Universal Credit benefits official):
‘…but I had to pay my October rent last month.’
‘…it cost me £190 and I had to make it out of savings’
‘…Yes, you paid September, but you didn’t pay October, I did.’
‘…Now it’s November and I have to pay my Landlord.’
‘…But I don’t have any money to spare. You said things would be sorted, they aren’t.’
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 number? What’s going to happen?’ She wept.
‘…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.
‘…you’ll call me back tomorrow.’
cradle of civilisation?
The phone was placed firmly on its cradle, not slammed. Looking up I saw a young woman pass a short distance by my table, lips twitching. A trembling hand rubbed her upper face. Outside, she strode past the window, distressed, wiping her eyes with stiff shaky fingers. Might she self-harm?
As a result of the echo chamber sounds, I later walked through and viewed the space she occupied. In this case, an all singing and dancing terminal graced the wall with the best of intentions. In this case, a helpful idea was not best positioned for sharing personal information, in a very public place.
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.’ Her face shared her feelings.
‘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. As a result, writing this I feel anger with the architects of such mental cruelty. What price a government’s 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 is the rationale?
Whatever the political thinking, getting help is much less easy for the people, helper and helped, who rely on a rule based, computer controlled, system. What are we like? When will we improve?
© Mac Logan