Yesterday, I got involved in a Twitter conversation which began with Rob Mitchell tweeting a call out to LAs that if you are asking your clients who are receiving direct payments for a receipt for a strawberry Mcshake, you have moved into a position of oppression. Although, I don’t like that over-used word, I agree with the sentiment of the statement. I am surprised though that anyone would think that direct payments can be administered in any other way. My reality of receiving them has been characterized by power games, distrust and micro management from day one.
I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth telling again because it demonstrates all too clearly how the markers were laid down from the beginning. I had received our first monthly direct payment allowance. It was my first experience of being an employer and running a payroll. It was the first time I had received a sum of money and from that, I had to pay five support workers and set up a contract with the cab firm to pay for Steven’s travel. It was also at this time, that the Direct Payment team insisted that all payments must be made to and from a pre-paid card. Being new to this, I didn’t know at the time that they were meant to offer a choice over how you received your budget and couldn’t force all their service users down the pre paid card route.
So, I’m sitting at my computer, with this card by my side and decide to pay the first lot of wages. I selected the first support worker alphabetically and entered his bank details. Confident that I had entered the details correctly, I clicked on “OK” and a message appeared. My blood ran cold. The message told me that I had successfully paid the entire personal budget for the month into this worker’s account. Current balance = zero. I still had four other workers to pay and the cab contract to set up. I panicked. I phoned Michael to tell him what I’d done and to ask him to please pay the money back to me as soon as it appeared in his account. He found it quite amusing, but I felt like I’d been discovered, crouching in the vault at Hatton Garden.
Twenty minutes after clicking on “OK”, the landline rang and it was the direct payments manager. The games began. “What on earth do you think you are doing, transferring the entire monthly budget into one account? That is not how you are meant to do it. I will have to refer this upwards.” I was a grovelling mess and all I could do was keep repeating that it was an honest mistake and that the money should be back on the card within 24 hours. It was only after five minutes of the DP manager becoming even more puffed up and me shrinking even further, that a thought hit me. “By the way. How did you know about this? I only did it 25 minutes ago.” I could feel the smug, winning smile from the other end of the phone. “Mr Neary, it is my job to monitor everything that happens with this account. I can see everything you do from my end. That’s the beauty of the card. It’s all here on my computer screen.”
That was day one and the rules were made clear. The power dynamic was set and the tone of our relationship established. And of course, my elementary error, played right into this culture. At best, I was a fool, incapable of managing a personal budget: at worst, I was on the make and not to be trusted with funds from the public purse. That was 2013 and seven years on, things are just the same. I made the mistake of thinking that perhaps I had to earn their trust. 7 years experience has shown me though that it doesn’t matter. I am meticulous with the account, but that is irrelevant. The base camp position of the LA is to distrust. I assume it’s not personal. I’ve met other local carers and they describe similar experiences of the power games. I suspect that stakes are slightly higher with me. After a few months, I got wise about the pre paid card and insisted that the money be paid into a bank account, set up for the purpose. I do find it easier and we could never work out how to pay individual cab drivers with the pre paid card, so it works for everyone on the receiving end of the personal budget. It doesn’t work for the direct payments manager as she can no longer track my every movement from her computer screen and I suspect that rankles.
Steven’s personal budget is tightly controlled. It covers just two things: the support worker’s wages and the cab fares. Rob’s tweet surprises me because I wouldn’t dream of buying a milkshake from the funds. If nothing else, it would send the DP manager into a fit of apoplexy. I don’t know how people manage to get their LA to agree to fund things like leisure expenses. Part of me doesn’t agree with that in principle. I pay my gym fees out of my wages; isn’t it right that Steven pays for his swimming fees out of his own income? I’m still shocked by the man on Facebook, many years ago, who proudly announced that his son was going white water rafting in Iceland (the country, not the shop) using his personal budget. “Mr Neary. I can see from my computer screen that ten minutes ago, you purchased six croissants from a bakery in Reykjavik. Do you care to explain yourself?” It doesn’t bear thinking about.
The tightness of the control means there is no slack whatsoever. Yesterday’s tweet was about me paying each of the support workers a bonus for the extra things they have done during Covid. They have been marvelous. Picking up shopping on their way into work. Decorating the whole house. Doing extra hours. Thinking up different things for Steven to do when all his usual activities got cancelled. I like to be a human employer. I don’t really want to be a boss and I’m certainly not interested in mirroring the power plays that the LA models. Unfortunately, there’s no scope within the budget, to adopt that tone of management. Well, at least when it comes to financial matters. Seven years on, I am still distrusted to the extent that the LA insist I complete a monthly audit form. With bank statements and receipts for everything. I dutifully sent off the July return, with five entries that showed the “bonuses” and within a day got an email reminding me that bonuses were not budgeted for and therefore not allowed to be paid for out of the personal budget. I could have argued the toss and it would have dragged on for months. I didn’t and reimbursed the direct payment account from my own funds. In the meta scheme of things, it was more honest anyway. The bonuses were a human gesture from me to the staff and personal budgets are not really designed to be human. It was more honest, and less sullied, to keep the transaction between me and the support workers and not bring the micro managing machine into the deal.
I’m not moaning about any of this. As they say, it is what it is. I’m not expecting or asking for anything different, mainly because anything else is beyond the LA mindset. I know my place, and after 7 years, I can begrudgingly accept it. But I occasionally need some sport and I like to play with them. I like to imagine the faux outrage in the council offices when they spot something sinister on my monthly audit returns, so from time to time, I slip in the odd £2.99 for a Culture Club CD. I amuse myself by composing, cap doffing email replies after my abusing the public purse to the tune of £2.99 has been discovered. I try to turn my relationship with the LA into a bad 1970s sit-com. You remember those storylines where Sid James and Diana Coupland (or perhaps Richard O’Sullivan and Paula Wilcox) would be house sitting next door’s parrot whilst the owners were away on holiday and Sid wakes up one morning to find the parrot dead on the floor of the cage. Whole episodes were built on the farce involved in trying to hide the fact that they may have killed the parrot. I approach the direct payments in much the same way. They are a farce. A contrived dance. And with the best will in the world, such are the complications of the dancesteps that you can quite easily discover that you’ve got a dead parrot on your hands and your fate could be just as bad….
Don’t get wound up. Don’t get on a soapbox and demand change or respect. It’s not going to happen.
Have some fun with them instead.
If nothing else, it’s a diversion from the utter humiliation of being a direct payment recipient.