What’s with all the hostility from those in public service? It seems more and more to me that the starting position is usually a defensive one and it goes downhill from there. Trying to have a conversation with someone in authority these days reminds me of those moments when as a kid you are expecting to be caught out by your parent (“Can you come in the living room a minute Mark?” – “I haven’t done anything Mum”).
Every statement I read from the DWP is un-necessarily aggressive. Their statements usually appear at the end of some report where the DWP official figures or statistics have been revealed to be dodgy or downright lies. The DWP response is often quite wordy but might just as well say “Fuck off – who the hell do you think you are”.
Today I got a letter from the Tax office informing me that I may have not sent my self assessment back in April. That is the opening sentence and the use of the word “may” suggests a pleasant discussion may next take place. No siree. From that point on, the letter is a succession of threats. Threats of penalties that get increasingly severe. I’m surprised the letter doesn’t end with the threat of castration. For the record, I submitted my tax return on 8th April with a covering letter and thankfully sent it by recorded delivery because Mr Paranoid thinks this might be a new way for HMRC to make a bit of money – tell people they didn’t submit a return and then give them a £10 per day penalty. But my point is, after the placid opening sentence, the attack is launched and there is never the possibility that perhaps the error may be at the official end.
This brings me to my fabulous conversation with the direct payments officer at Hillingdon the week before Christmas. The direct payments were due on 17th December. It’s an important month; not only do the workers want their money for Christmas (not unreasonable) but the PAYE is due at the end of December and if the attitude in the above paragraph is anything to go by, I don’t want to run the risk of incurring a fine. So, I checked the DP account on 17th – nothing there. Checked it again the following day – nothing there. I phoned the council and was promised a call back later that day after they looked into it. No call came, so I phoned again on 19th (after checking the account again). I waited 35 minutes to be put through and before I even got to end of my opening sentence was told, “I’ve checked. It has definitely been processed. There’s nothing more I can do”. End of conversation. I phoned the bank again just to see if the credit had disappeared into some sort of “pending ether” but to no avail. Five minutes later, the bank phoned me back. The very helpful woman had checked and the direct payments had been paid into my personal account (it hadn’t occurred to me to look there!). I thought I’d better phone the direct payment team back to tell them:
Me: Guess what. I’ve found it.
DP: I’ve already told you it was processed on time.
Me: It was in my personal account.
DP: (suspicious) How did it get there? All transactions have to take place from the one account for the direct payment audit.
Me: How did it get there! I guess you sent it there.
DP: That couldn’t happen.
Me: But you pay me. I don’t have anything to do with it until it’s in the account.
DP: We don’t have access to your personal account. (that’s not strictly true. They overpaid my housing benefit once and went straight into the account the next day and took it back).
Me: Don’t worry about it. I’ve transferred it into the DP account now.
DP: You must have changed the bank details.
Me: Look. Have you got any record, Phone call, letter from me giving alternative bank details?
DP: I shall have to change it back straightaway. We can’t have this happen again Mr Neary.
Me; Just a thought. I’ve just had a payment into my personal account from your homeless team to cover my housing benefit. Could the bank details have been altered by them?
DP: You gave my colleague in housing different bank details?
Me: Of course. The rent can’t go into the Dp account.
DP: Ah. See. That’s where the misunderstanding occurred. Leave it with me Mr Neary – I’ll get it sorted by next month’s payment.
The inference during the whole conversation was that I done something wrong. Worse – something suspicious. Was I trying to pocket the direct payment? That’s what it felt like. What obviously happened is that the council must have this one massive payment system and it can’t handle different payments going into different accounts. Where’s the shame in her saying: “Mr Neary, the truth is, we’ve got a computer system that dates back to the time that Showwaddywaddy were having hit records. You may have to start playing pass the parcel every month and transfer the payments from one account to another. And next time you’re in Greggs – have a cream cake on me for the inconvenience”.
When did this change in attitude happen? Someone, somewhere must have decided that it was a good policy to adopt with members of public; people using the service. Now it seems to me pretty endemic.