The Co-op, Council, Citizens Advice Bureau & the consequences

This blog is about something that happened a long time ago but I still feel the effects from it even now and it is something I’ll never stop being angry about. It’s not about hurt feelings or dismissive behaviour it’s about the stripping of dignity under the guise of banking policy and voluntary work.

When I lived in Brislington (a bloody awful part of Bristol that pretends to be nice) I was subject to antisocial behaviour from a group of neighbours. It stemmed from the incident where I refused to lend one of them £10 on the night I moved in and they decided that I was a posh snob who had loads of money.

I don’t speak with a local accent but that doesn’t make me posh anymore than the jobs that I did when I was working. Being a PA doesn’t make you posh, being a publican doesn’t make you posh and working as the manager of a shop doesn’t make you posh it just means that you’ve got somewhere. None of those jobs necessarily attract high salaries but obviously those people thought they did.

It started with small things – I’d go down to the laundry at my allotted time to find the machines full. I’d empty the machines to do my laundry and the person concerned would come down and threaten me. I’d speak to the caretaker who always promised to speak to her but never did and then I’d complain to the council who told me I had to try harder to fit in with the neighbourhood.

Shortly after I moved in I was diagnosed with Manic Depression (which has since changed its name to Bipolar Disorder) and then I really began to struggle.

My bank account (with the Co-operative Bank) didn’t allow direct debits and a lot of the work I did was via an agency which meant that in the lean times (and they were regular but that’s another story) I had to sign on and claim housing benefit. If I couldn’t get to the housing office to pay my rent then it disappeared on food and household bills. I was getting more and more into debt each month.

When I opened my account with the Co-operative Bank I specifically told them that under no circumstances should they offer me loans or credit cards because I would take them, mismanage them and become very ill.

They ignored me.

As it became obvious I was struggling their helping hand came in the form of a credit card which had a limit of £750 and thankfully this didn’t increase in the time that I had it. When it became even more obvious that I was struggling harder they insisted that I take out a bank loan to consolidate my debts, paid it into my account at the wrong time of the month and then blamed me for taking money out to buy food, bus fares and to look after my two cats.

The bank told me that my debt was too large to let go (£1,500) and it would always be there to be reclaimed. When my financial adviser spoke to them about it when I registered Lasting Power of Attorney they said they had no trace of the debt.

Meanwhile the situation with my neighbours was escalating. Regularly I returned from work to be showered with a hosepipe or to find piles of rotting food outside my door. In the evenings their kids (some of the in their late teens) would try to see through the curtains of my bedsit (I had to keep them permanently closed by this time) to see if they could see me in my bed. They stole my post and read it to me as I walked past (the police said it was probably just a joke) and I had to pay to have it diverted which cost me money I didn’t have.

By this time I had a credit card I couldn’t pay off, a loan I couldn’t begin to make payments on and I was 10 weeks in arrears on my rent. I was on the point of being evicted and the housing officers visibly made fun of me when I sat in their office and cried whilst begging for help.

A new manager to the area heard this going on one day and took me into his office. I poured my soul out onto his desk and he listened to me carefully. He immediately wrote off my rent debt and four days later I was moving into the flat where I have lived happily for 16 years.

The next step was to acknowledge my illness and then talk to the bank about my debt. When I asked to see someone to talk things over the assistant announced to the world that they weren’t going to give me anymore money. She cut up my cheque book and debit card and told me that I’d have to go to the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) for a financial statement and until then they would allow me only what they think I could reasonably live on. I sometimes earned £150 a week and the bank would let me have £45 which was barely enough to keep me alive.

The CAB made a big mess of things. They left off my electricity and water bills off the financial statement and made a big fuss when I said I needed a new one. (Apparently I was asking too much of volunteers to get it right!) My electricity bills stopped arriving at home and, as I was moving on to a prepay meter, it was essential to see them. The CAB had told them, when I had given them permission to speak SWEB to ask them to freeze my debt for a while, that I was incapable of looking after my affairs and to send the bills to them. AS IF THAT WAS A SOLUTION TO ANYTHING.

It came as no surprise that shortly after that I crashed and burned and claimed Incapacity Benefit as a short term thing. Sixteen years later I live with the knowledge that I will never work again and the people who were supposed to help made things worse.

The CAB will tell you how wonderful they are but they will not disclose how many people say how wonderful they aren’t. The Co-operative Bank will claim to be ethical but they don’t understand that ethics is as much about treating customers with dignity as it is about not funding arms dealers. The police in the neighbourhood allowed an ill man to be beaten to death and his body set on fire as his pleas re his neighbours went unheard also. The council still don’t get their act together with neighbours and disputes. Nothing has changed.

I’m now in a safe place in all senses of the word safe but how many people aren’t?