This is a double post
We’ve been through a time where two key matters are raised: who is sovereign, and who is accountable to who? They are of course related.
I’ve taken up sovereignty here, but the two questions are stacked: who has ultimate power and agency, and who holds that to account?
Governments have the power to intervene in as well as to provide for many aspects of our life: what we consume, what we learn, what we can do and what can be done to us; where we live, where we work, where we walk, where we ride and where we rest – our cars, and our bodies, when they go wrong, we when can’t look after our own, and when we leave them behind. Our government forces taxes at a rate which it chooses – not us – from all but those deemed on too low an income. It also takes from the goods we buy – those whose pay is not docked for National Insurance and income tax do contribute to the treasury, as there’s no such thing as VAT benefit. [Value Added Tax, for any non British readers – added onto goods we buy here].
We might be happy to contribute to both national and local government in order for them to provide the above services. But if you look at how I described them, and consider that tax is paid on pain of punishment, one might feel less comfortable with assumptions about our state.
We made heroes of our ‘keyworkers’ during the lockdown. We’ve even put out thank you notices to our bin collectors, whom we may’ve hitherto taken for granted. But mine have frequently, in ordinary times, not only strewn bins across the streets and muddled them with our neighbours (like elsewhere in this city), but not bothered to collect. I’ve frequently had mine missed, and Norwich city council and their contractor always tried to blame me. They averred that I’d got the date, time and place wrong – I hadn’t – but I noted the many rules and variables they created which made it possible for them to deem that I, not they, were at fault.
Is a missed bin so terrible, even if it’s over 40 times and you need to spend an hour cleaning due to the rot caused by their remiss behaviours? Actually, the bin service is a synecdoche for our relationship with our council. It’s the most obvious service we (as a household) receive from our council in return for our nearly monthly tax to them. We have no choice about paying it, or who provides the refuse service. If it were privately contracted to us, we’d demand money back or sack the refuse collectors if they often failed to collect all our bins. But if we tell the council that this, or any other problem brought to them, has been such for so long that we’re withholding payment, we are liable for prosecution resulting in bailiffs or prison.
Thus this is a massively imbalanced relationship, showing the one more generally between us, the people, and all tiers of our government.
Now as government rules about the virus are being devolved onto shops and services on pain of closure, this becomes a serious problem. In England, shops are given permission to refuse entry if we don’t wear masks. Bars and libraries are told to take our contact details for tracing and self isolation, or they can be shut down.
Is this the benign provider of publicly owned services that I’ve heard left wingers say they are protective of, and won’t hear criticised?
I believe that the council is accountable to me – and to you. Not the other way round.
During the lockdown, some celebrated civil servants came into work, not to provide but to harass. I know someone who was assured that their housing benefit would continue throughout, but days later, a dreaded green chevron edged envelope appeared demanding details of income on pain of benefit stoppage. The council confirmed that no it wasn’t an automated letter going out by mistake, which would be bad enough; but that they did actually require the information within a month, or the benefit would cease… in the middle of a pandemic! The council failed to action the information – which took some gathering – reluctantly provided and then sent another auto letter saying that this claimant was suspended. If they didn’t get the barcoded form with mostly irrelevant questions within another month, benefit would be terminated, and this household would be expected to henceforth pay full rent and council tax (when both were fully provided by the council). Like so many, this person had lost their income and the stress made them ill.
I find this disgraceful, and what’s even more so, is that the council often sends random letters out like this. It doesn’t write bespoke letters – in fact it often takes the involvement of a third party such as a councillor or Citizen’s Advice to get the council to explain themselves. They talk to the third party, without permission of the claimant, and spout bureaucratic rubbish that doesn’t even match the situation.
I do wonder if there is a training course for this style of response, since I’ve seen it so often. It belittles the complainant, making the professional and their organisation sound entirely reasonable.
Like other benefit providers, this East of England city council didn’t confirm if the award was reinstated or not. You just have to check your bank each day, and wonder if they’ll change their minds again next month.
The council so far won’t apologise. It doesn’t understand that it acted deplorably.
Staff should have only come into work during lockdown to put and keep claims into payment – not to take it away. This cut made me highly suspicious: at best, it’s an inefficient system – the same person said it’s their 10th such stoppage. At worst, it’s deliberate draining and straining, trying to recoup from the centrally set ideological austerity budget from the poorest and most in need.
The council swiftly stops talking to complainants – they’ve only a two tier internal system. There’s a free external dispute resolution organisation, but the ombudsman is infamous for further unsympathetic timewasting bureaucracy. The grassroots website holding the Local Government Ombudsman to account has been replaced with a false URL and I saw an LGO report about how to ‘manage’ this troublesome group. So you and your complaint can feel not very heard.
Meanwhile, this council wasted its austerity budget on unnecessary road renewing and ever more security cameras, and new things on poles which I suspect are connected to 5G. I’m perturbed that we’re expected to accept ever greater watching and intensified harmful electromagnetic rays. It is us who need to be vigilant and the watchers need to have the lens turned on them. What are they doing?
The post viral world is demanding this fairness ever more loudly, asking who is this body who controls so much of ours (especially recently) and whether it really is in our or their interest that they act; and if it’s not time to restructure or recreate from a fundamental level. Starting with those apologies…
I’d like to develop this notion of accountability further, taking it to our local representatives of our next level: our member of parliament.
We of the Western world are proud to speak of living in a democracy, and of universal suffrage, but voting is a passive act: you put a prescribed mark into a prescribed box on a form with preset answers. Most of us did not influence the options given to you, and nor can you make a proviso, suggestion, or say: none of the above. It’s expensive to stand for local or especially national government, and it’s as much about marketing – and which party you’re in – than your own suitability. Our first-past-the-post system in the UK ensures that half of the five main parties, and the many smaller ones and independent candidates, have no realistic chance of being elected. The proportion of overall votes for a party doesn’t translate to seats; and the systems at Westminster are so archaic – as described in Caroline Lucas’ Honourable Friends? – that it’s not easy to stand or get things done.
The public can perhaps contribute a little more at both national and local level than we may realise, but it usually involves going via our representative. We in Britain can attend meetings of either government, but we cannot speak – only watch. For Westminster, there’s a queue and a frisk, putting some off and also adding gravitas to the theatre of state in action – just as there is with its twin pillar: law.
We can make suggestions, either to be discussed at a sitting, privately considered by a minister, or just let our rep know how we feel about an issue. There are some personal problems we might want to bring to them – such as the housing benefit stoppage above, which we can take to a local councillor. To our Member of Parliament, there’s a broader range of issues; we’re often fobbed onto them when we can think of nowhere else to turn. This might include complaints procedures we’ve exhausted, before having to consider media or court action. Their portcullis-headed letters are supposed to have weight. But getting a sympathetic and timely one sent out is not easy.
The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman covers the public health service and many government ones in the UK – court administration, the valuation office, regulatory offices like OFGEM for energy, and the tax office. Unlike the other public alternative dispute resolution organisations, you can’t complain directly yourself: you must contact your MP, get him or her to sign the form and pass it to the PHSO. This means that if your MP is not sympathetic or efficient that you do not get your final chance for free redress.
I feel that many MPs are show people who make the right speeches, tweets, and appear at the right gatherings…but are less concerned for the very kinds of people they publicly supported when needy individuals appear in their mailbag.
Working Tax Credit is a top up from the tax office for those working full time on a low income. Now being phased out in favour of controversial Universal Credit, WTC was infamous for huge and often spurious overpayment claims, vociferously chased, to the point of ruin and breakdown. It – like other government support – could disappear suddenly, for specious and mysterious reasons. A random ‘compliance’ check can mean the end of your award – even if you fulfil the arduous and often immaterial request (read, demand) timeously.
Speaking to others in consumer forums and the self employed and creative community, it seems that one or both of the above is very common. I suffered both a demand and an axing 7 years ago, and still do not have an award or the backpay I am due – now several thousand pounds. This sudden cessation – which happened twice more – made it very hard to move forward financially, or in any other way. We even wondered if government cuts are related to your conformity. Are they wary of creators who question the system, but reward – with furlough pay during lockdown – those whose contribution to society (read, GDP) they approve? Has the Chinese system of social credit scoring in fact begun here in Britain, and is ‘compliance check’ rather telling? Do systems of redress only work for those whose work is recognised, who accept the money that they are, or are not, given, and do not assertively complain with threats of taking it further if not satisfied?
My MP, Clive Lewis, was slow to act and failed to send the 40 page supporting document with my PHSO claim. I found out over a year later, when the case was finally assessed – it wasn’t upheld, and nor was the review. But joining PHSO: The True Story, I discovered that this wasn’t unusual. Through freedom of information which I and someone I know obtained, the PHSO confessed that out of 33,316 cases in 2014-16, it financially awarded to a mere 845; in 2014-16, 8% of review requests were upheld, and only 1% awarded to. https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/percentage_of_review_requests_fo#incoming-927328
It was only through receiving the FOI request on my case that I realised that most of it was missing – as were the papers to the tribunal. PHSO invited me to re-enter for another round of unsatisfactory rigmarole, but Clive, who’d only once written personally and not sympathetically during that year, would not. His aide Adam was rude, stating: we’ve given you alot of time (actually not); we have many vulnerable constituents. I replied incredulously that someone living off half benefit level, literally fighting for her existence due to this cut, who had every part of her life affected, was as vulnerable as any. I came to see it as constructive demise.
But they stopped talking to me. I found out that there’s no way to report, complain about or to de-vote an MP, save the next election. Due to the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn, and the desire to stop inequality and Brexit, Labour kept its seat in Norwich South. Hence, when there was another round with HMRC and a related matter, again jeopardising my wellbeing, I had only Clive to turn to. Unlike councillors where there may be a couple in your ward, we only have one MP; and although we can approach any member of the house of lords [lack of capitals deliberate], they cannot become personally involved in our case. Hence we are stuck with one another and I now feel that I do not effectively have an MP, which means no representation in parliament, no voice, and no-one to turn to for those myriad of issues which we have only our MP to recourse to. I can’t go to the PHSO, even if they reform, nor even for the inevitable compensation for their own failings (they did at least cede that – I was one of a dozen that year).
I hope that this has shown that the much vaunted democracy that we try to protect is not living up to its name. It’s a sham elected oligarchy and plutocracy, and our member of parliament shows that our governance not a membership for the people, and our MP is not ‘ours’ in any meaningful way – they’re just who we’re delegated.
I don’t think we’ve moved far from the rotten boroughs supposedly outlawed in the 1832 reform bill. It’s time that we have a far reaching reform, asking fundamental questions, rather than tweaking and repainting what is.
I’d like to ask those in another post, but for now I summarise that both local and national government seem to give and take as they see fit; and now we have global organisations doing the same, and devolving their decisions. I have found that many other institutions and companies – from law to energy providers, banks, and especially those government agencies meant to regulate them – are not meaningfully possible to hold to account. That means that the complaints procedures, and alternative dispute resolution, if there be one for that industry, just don’t work. And that puts us rather at their mercy – and they’re not often very mericiful, as I can personally attest.
In these current times, when the ‘they’ gets greater and more distant and faceless, it is all the more imperative to restore accountability and meaningful dispute resolution.
A site to list Britain’s MPs is called They Work For You; this feels like a timely reminder for our elected representatives, but also a misnomer.
It’s time that name – They Work For You – described exactly what our governments, councillors and MPs (or whatever your country’s equivalent is) do, and that the balance between the people and those who have the privilege of serving us is restored. We do not work, in any sense, for you.