Thursday, October 06, 2005

The Sun Never Sets on the British National Insurance Number Queue

When the English set out to conquer the world, they did it not with huge armies, but with bureaucrats. Why, they reasoned, should one waste all of that valuable manpower on fighting wars when one could simply administrate whole countries into submission? When the Brits arrived in India, they didn't march across the landscape, burning everything in their path. They simply showed up one day and said, "All right, folks. Start forming a queue. Starts right here. Yes, you too. All seven hundred million of you. No cutting! I'm sure we'll get through all of you before lunchtime."

And then they took an hour long tea break.

I have complained many times about inefficient bureaucracy in this country, but my experience of trying to obtain a National Insurance number takes the cake. An NI number is the British equivalent of a US Social Security number. You need it to access the National Health Service, pay your taxes, and generally be counted as a legitimate resident of the country. In other words, it's important to have one of these ASAP upon your arrival. Four months after my arrival, I still don't have one.

I found out about this whole NI number business sometime back in June. A bit of research on the subject and I realized that I needed to have what's called an "Identitiy Verification" interview. This is (or should be) exactly what it sounds like - they verify your identity using your passport, other photo IDs, birth certificates, etc. I spent the next couple of weeks collecting the relevant documents, and arranging for those not on-hand to be shipped over from the US. Then I called the number listed on the website to set up an appointment for the interview.

Beep beep beep.

The line was busy (or "engaged" as they say here.) So I called again.

Beep beep beep.

Hmm... I'd expect to be put on hold for hours for something like this. What kind of savage bureaucracy can't even put you on hold? The next day I tried again, after checking the number to make sure it was correct.

Beep beep beep.

So I sent an e-mail. No response. I called and called, three or four times a day, every day for three weeks until finally...

"Hello, Cambridge JobCentre! How can I help you"

Hurrah! Yes, I need to set up an appointment for NI identity verification.

"Oh, you'll need to call this number to set up an appointment for that."

So I called this number.

Beep beep beep.

This went on for another two weeks, until I finally got another human on the line.

"Hello, Cambridge JobCentre! How can I help you?"

You've got to be kidding. It was the same bloody office! This time they let me make the appointment, though.

"The earliest appointment we have is three weeks from now, in the middle of a rainstorm, and you may get rabies from it."

Fine. Whatever. Just get the damn thing out of the way.

So today was the day. I collected every piece of documentation I had regarding who I was and went to the Cambridge JobCentre (which smelled of urine and alcohol) and stood in the queue for the hilariously named "Welcome desk"

I'd arrived 40 minutes early for the appointment, and stood in the queue for ten minutes until the "Welcome" guy welcomed me.

"You want the other JobCentre office. Next building down, first floor."

God dammit.

So I walk into the other JobCentre office, still 20 minutes early for my appointment. This one doesn't have a "Welcome desk," but it also didn't smell, so I figured something was going right. I finally managed to get the attention of one of the bureaucrats who was trying very hard to look busy because his supervisor was standing right behind him.

"Oh, you have an appointment. Do you have the letter we sent you?"

You sent me a pamphlet telling me which documents I needed to confirm my ID (Information that I'd already obtained from the website several months ago anyway.")

"No, you should have a letter confirming your appointment."

Why do I need to have a letter to confirm my appointment? Here's my ID. Don't you have my name on a list of, you know, appointments for today?

Bureaucrat looked rather unhappy about being made to think, but eventually confirmed my appointment. By now I was only 10 minutes early. He asked me to take a seat and said that I would be called in for the interview "Very shortly."

Very shortly turned out to be some 50 minutes later, or 40 minutes after my scheduled appointment time. Then my name was called by another bureacrat, this time for the actual interview. Hurrah! The nightmare was almost over!

If only.

She took one half-hearted look at my passport, ignored my birth certificate and US driver's licence entirely, then proceeded to tell me that my work permit was "not proof of work" and demanded to see a copy of my employment contract or a letter from my company stating that I work for them. I tried in vain to explain to her that that is what a work permit is. The work permit even had the name of the employer on it! Sent to their offices! I fished a few old pay stubs out of my bag. These were from when I was paid in the US. Oh, man, was that ever a mistake.

"The name of the company is different!"

Yes, that's the name of the US company. The company I work for is a wholly owned subsidiary in the UK, and as you can see, it has essentially the same name with "Europe" added to the end.

She shot me a look that said "You're trying to pull one over on me." What the hell is this? I'm getting this number so I can pay taxes to the government! And I thought this interview was to establish my identity, not my work record. Their pamphlet said nothing about any of this, other than "you should take your work permit" which I did.

The interview dragged on for another twenty minutes. I had to explain each and every stamp on my passport for the last year, had to explain that whoever scheduled my interview had put down the wrong postcode for my house (and would you please initial these changes, sir, then sign here, here, here, there, here, here, and here.)

Then they took my passport and documentation away "to make sure I've not made any mistakes when filling out your form."

Great. A third bureaucrat, making all the same mistakes as the first two. Eventually I got my passport back, and was told that I would receive my NI number in...

Six to twelve weeks.

At least there wasn't a thunderstorm. The rabies tests are inconclusive.


Anonymous John said...

Really gives an American perspective on why the Vorg are so funny to Brits.

5:36 AM  
Blogger Logan said...

What the hell is a Vorg?

5:40 AM  
Anonymous Nickyh said...

It's some obscure reference to Hitch Hicker's Guide to the Galaxy... Man, he reads ONE book and he thinks he's all special.

5:42 PM  
Anonymous John said...

It was 5 books, 15 radio shows and one half ass movie, thank you very much.

7:34 PM  
Blogger Logan said...

Oh, you mean the Vogons.

12:39 AM  

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