Saturday, January 19, 2008

Give me credit

If I had to name the next big institution that has tried to ruin my life, it would have to be the Inland Revenue. The Tax Man. In particular, his dubious attempts to give me money. It sounded fine in theory. The leaflet said, 'If you're working but not earning much, you can claim Working Families Tax Credit'. Okay, I said to the missus. We are a Working Family, and we're not earning a lot – just like they say – so let's fill in the form and get some cash out of the government. Who could possibly argue with that? In a matter of weeks there started a steady drip of credits into our bank account. Wow, it was like winning the Lottery. Suddenly we were in the money.

After six months we had to fill in a new form, but this didn't seem threatening at the time. They were just trying to find out if our circumstances had changed, they said. We form filled, we complied, we posted off, and the blessed donations kept arriving. What could possible go wrong? Well, it wasn't as if we imagined the happy situation could go on for ever. After all, they were paying us because our income was low. If it ever went up, well, we knew the tap would be turned off. What we didn't know is that we have to start making contributions to them.

It works this way. If your income is below a certain level, then the UK government gives you money to make it up to that point, (wherever it is they've decided is good for you). But if you earn over that amount, then you are no longer entitled. Fair enough. But, they say, and this is where it gets nasty, if you've got so much money now, then maybe you could afford to give some of the stuff we gave you – back to us! Hey, hold on. What happened to us is that I was working part-time and I was self-employed. My income went up and down from month to month. For almost a year I was below the level decided by the Tax Man and he was willing to send me cheques. The following year things picked up and got better in my world. I worked myself over the hurdle and I didn't qualify for help. But what I'm saying is that I had a bit more cash – I didn't have so much that I could afford it give it away! But that's what they wanted. They said, 'We decide how much you need to live on. If you're getting less than that, we'll give you more. If you're getting more, why then, we can take it away from you and you won't suffer'. But we did! We weren't earning so much that we could afford to send cheques to the Tax Man. We were only just paying the rent. He might think that meant we were swimming in champagne, but we didn't notice that. All we saw was a demand for repayment, and we couldn't afford it, (even if the man in a grey suit said we could).

Nobody told us that Tax Credit was a loan! But that's the way it works out. If somebody had said that, then we could have gone to the local Credit Union, or even taken advantage of our friendly neighbourhood Loan Shark. The British Tax Man is worse than a Loan Shark, because he tells you one thing – when your income is low, low – then hits you with a demand when your income is simply low, (but not very, very low). And it works like this. Five days before Christmas, when I was seriously wondering whether I had enough money to buy anyone any presents at all, let alone invest in a turkey, an envelope dropped through the door. No, it wasn't a Christmas card. It was a threatening letter from the Tax office telling me that I owed them a thousand pounds, and 'would have to pay'. Some Christmas present!

Well, credit me with some intelligence. I phoned them up and they said sorry, it was a 'clerical error'. No, they didn't know where the thing had come from. Yes, we had owed them some money in the past, but we 'repaid' that by them not giving us a bit of credit that we were owed, so that was fine, then. We were all up to date. 'Sorry to ruin your Christmas'. Yeah, right. Thanks, Tax man. The irony is, of course, that they keep insisting on sending us letters inviting us to apply again. No way! Maybe we are entitled, maybe they will give us some cash if we're short and it will tide us over the bad patches, but with the prospect of being harassed, hassled and threatened for repayments when we get out of the hole and are a bit better off, no thanks. I'd rather stay poor.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

First Bus - The bus company from Hell

If I had to choose the next big organisation that is doing its best to wreck my life, I'd have to pick on First Bus. In overall terms, they are pure evil.

Firstly, they start with an advantage.

They are the only service running up the main road past the area where I live now. The only one. Even though the buses aren't there because they've been designed for us – they are simply wending their way past, on their way to Wigan, twenty miles away – the company provides the only moving vehicle available to me and my neighbours that is able to get us into and out of the great city of Manchester.

When they deign to run.

You see, they have on the bus stop what the company laughingly refers to as a 'Timetable'. It bears about as much link to reality as The X-Files. If you believe in flying saucers in our part of Salford, then you might believe in First Buses too. They are about equally as rare.

Secondly, they change their nomenclature.

During the day the buses running our way will be called a number 33.

After 7 o'clock at night, they become a 63.

Ah, you say, the night service is worth twice as much.

Wrong, quite wrong. It's exactly the opposite. The service after 7pm operates at half the frequency and travels for half the distance. Why, it doesn't even go all the way to Wigan anymore – it stops somewhere past Eccles.

You want Manchester? You want to go out for the night, perhaps to sample the delights of the night-life of City Centre, Manchester, the bars, the nightclubs, the concerts, plays and entertainment? Tough. You can't count on getting there by bus, and you certainly can't be assured of being able to get home by bus. No way. They cease altogether, long before the pubs chuck out. You thought this was a bus 'service'? Not for you, buddy. Not for normal people.

Thirdly, they make up their own rules.

The thing - the one single damn thing that makes every other annoyance feel like a small and unimportant irrelevance - is that First Bus has its own take on reality. In particular, the idea that a bus service exists to drive along the road and pick up people waiting at bus stops. Sounds simple? First Bus don't play by those rules.

Oh, it will take you a while to realise. At first, it seems like a mystery. My experience is that I was standing in the bus area at Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester in the depths of winter, shivering and waiting for a 33 to take me home. I waited, and waited. I arrived just after ten past five. I consulted the timetable. There should have been a bus at 5.13, but it didn't arrive. No matter. The next one was scheduled for 5.33. It didn't arrive either. Strange. Every other bus was coming along, including the 34, the 35, the 37 and the 39. But no 33. None at all.

You guessed it. The 5.53 didn't arrive either. Eventually I was gratified to see the 6.13 hauling up, I caught it and got home, having wasted an hour of my life which I will never get back.

The explanation? You think some buses broke down, and had to be hauled back to the garage by a tractor unit, maybe. Or maybe they got caught in the traffic, couldn't move, and are still out there, stuck in a solid line of cars and trucks on the East Lancs Road, dreaming of arriving in Wigan, one day?

No, the answer – which I got from a bus driver – is that all those buses that should have arrived between 5 and 6 were there, yes, there, in Piccadilly Gardens. But, and here's the big problem, they were running late – yes, because of the traffic. So, the devious trick they play, encouraged by management, is to arrive at one end of the Gardens surreptitiously, dump all their passengers, then, quietly and unobserved – kill all the lights, knock off the display at the front and back of the bus, and roar out of the bus area as quick as their overcharged engines can take them – without passengers. When they get to Eccles, miles out of the city of Manchester, they can then switch lights and signs back on, become a proper bus again and start picking people up. The point of this subterfuge? They've saved time, by failing to pick people up and drop them off, and are now back on the official timing schedule, at least as far as the part of the journey from Eccles to Wigan. The other bit, the distance from Manchester to Eccles, is lost, gone for good.

The reason it works, and works so well, is that the first part of the journey is the most popular. More people get on in Manchester city centre than at any other stop, and then most of these same people disembark at the few stops between that place and Eccles and do so more than on any other part of the trip. Leaving them out – leaving us stranded – is a brilliant way to save time and get back on schedule. In other words, being 'on time' is more important than having people on board the vehicles, and it is! The bus company gets fined for running late. It doesn't get any penalties for running empty, apart from having no income in fares. Hell, they're used to that. They just don't like the fines, that's all, and have evolved to avoid them.

So, a bus company that finds out its customers want to travel to and from Manchester, but only in the short space between that town and Eccles, might be expected to start a service that runs that route, picks people up and charges them money. Not First Bus. They would rather leave passengers stranded in Manchester city centre than have them slowing the service down and causing them problems with the regulators.

Well done, First Buses, the bus company that prefers a 'business' running buses without customers than serving the passengers and giving them the transport that they want.

Oh, topsy-turvey world.