|Ealing Town Hall|
My UK public service career began here in 1970 as a pre-graduate experience placement. In 1974 I joined Surrey County Council, moving on to Devon County Council in 1975 and to Dorset County Council in 1978 where dealing with “Social Services” was the biggest challenge. I left for overseas life and work in 1985, going to St Helena; Saudi Arabia, Malawi and Rwanda before settling in SE Asia working mainly in Cambodia. My profession and training is in “organisational development” and “human resources” - how to obtain the best performances from people. I retired from full-time work in June 2016, only to encounter maladministration at Northumberland County Council.
Please see the sequel to this blog and my website entry - the case for better public service everywhere also published here.
Bournemouth Dorset 1984
Mr Ricketts couldn’t believe his luck. He’d asked for a pay rise and got twice as much as he’d asked for. His trade union representative Mr Watson beamed approvingly: “Never” he said ”Never has his union won a pay upgrade by two whole grades”. Mrs Bicknell chairing the Appeals Committee addressed all three of us. “We don’t care what the rules are supposed to be. We are correcting an injustice and that is our job as elected Councillors.”
◄ Fairer Share Council Tax website - please go here:
Justice Delayed is Justice Denied: Normally in law the status quo is maintained pending an appeal. Northumberland County Council insists that its decisions must be implemented immediately, so any extra charges it levies must be paid straightaway. The money must be found! If not its automated defaulting procedures are invoked ending up with its debt collection agency, and of course ratings at credit agencies. If the status quo rule applied, it would be more likely to expedite appeals instead of delaying them. Indeed this policy is probably designed in the hope that people simply give up. In my case, despite several reminders sent to them, it was only after invoking the Council’s formal complaints mechanism that I received a response, appeal turned down (of course) – 10 months overdue.
As added at the start of this blog. there are some astonishing revelations about the internal governance of Northumberland County Council in an investigation just released, Now this relates only to leadership and management involving both officers and elected members. It does not delve in to if the same shortcomings were found in dealings with the public. However several of the findings corroborate what I had tried to raise about the Council's governance. I am pleased to say the Council Leader, Glen Sanderson is revisiting them. It would be good to get the answer I never did from then Councillor Robbie Moore about how certain policies were adopted and if the powers exercised to officers were duly delegated with no recourse to elected members. The investigation does indicate that at times elected members and officer colleagues were treated with derision, the same feeling that I felt.
October 2020Please note this decision by the Valuation Panel in Durham to allow Dominic Cummings off paying Council Tax for his second properties.
The Valuation Panel in my case confirmed the council's decision to make me pay full Council Tax on the property I inherited (even for the period when it was unfit for habitation while essential remedial work was made), as well as on my rented place, despite my income below the government's figures to live on.
Fascinating article by Colin Talbot posing the question "Who killed the study of public administration in UK?" I must confess I had not thought of this important aspect. I did of course study the subject as part of my Business Studies course and professional training though I opted for personnel management not public administration. It helps to explain the demise of public services.
Indeed that seems to have led to local government senior officers being more accountable upwards and outwards to bodies controlling inspectors than in my days. Then the main accountability was to locally-elected Councillors who in turn were held to account by their constituents as well as local media and commentators.
2. The Finale
In most advocacy campaigns there comes a time when you must conclude "We've given it our best shot, got nowhere, no point in wasting more time and effort for now". In my case I tend to go further than most before reaching this conclusion - as seen with the complaint of poor Cambodian disabled people that we took all the way up to the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons.
It is evident usually well before that "the system" or the people in it are not willing to be moved, regardless of the merits of arguments. They find ways to dismiss or get round them. The most sure way is to bounce you back to someone at a much earlier stage of proceedings, so that you must start all over again.
A registrar at the Social Entitlement Chamber has just done that in response to my latest enquiry rather than answering my question as to what guidance has been given where claimants dispute ever having received due notice of rights of appeal - exactly what format must it take to be clearly understood as well as proof of delivery? I posed the question directly because one Ombudsman's ruling (in contrast to mine) reported that Councils must report disputes to the Chamber, it is is not solely the obligation of the claimant to register his or her appeal.
As mentioned in this blog, the best independent examination of how the UK social security and safety-net system works has been by the UN Human Rights Rapporteur for Poverty. He concluded that the system was failing the country's most vulnerable, keeping and even putting them in dire poverty. Little wonder some like disabled claimant Errol Graham end up taking their own lives.
A summary of my case "Pillar to Post" has been forwarded to the UN Rapporteur in the hope that it will help frame follow-up review questions for how the new system of Universal Credit rolls out. Will it correct shortcomings or will they all be transplanted from the old system as I strongly suspect? Please contact me for a copy and for a summary of the case I also pursued (for poor disabled Cambodians) to the point of having to give up.
More can be seen in my 2005 London presentation as to why "Wealth percolates up in Cambodia; it does not trickle down."
Before getting down to detail I would tell them about my earliest days in local government in the UK with a quip and let them ask questions. I'd explain that I was involved in setting up a new local authority, Surrey County Council, as part of "local government regorgaisation", except we nicknamed it "local government disorganisation". (It and subsequent reorganisations well and truly live up to the name)
I had adopted and translated a small form that peculiarly I happened to have not from the UK but from then apartheid South Africa. You simply ticked a few boxes to say how satisfied you were with whoever dealt with you in public service. We began by each participant noting the last time they were a customer of public service, then to use that experience to complete the form anonymously and post it in a box.
I do not need to dwell long on how this suggestion went down in my sessions. Again most said it was a great idea but expressions on faces told me “It won’t work here!”
A few years ago the population of Northumberland voted against having one large unitary authority, but it was imposed upon them. There are reasons for its unpopularity. One is that while cuts to services are made and Council Tax bills go up, it enjoys a large surplus in its Council Tax collection. So much of that money bolsters reserves that can be borrowed by one of the UK's richest men. Again at one time the #UK was a firm advocate of the concept of Conflicts of Interests. More on this here.
6 Representations to the Local Government Ombudsman
9 August 2019 - The Local Government Ombudsman has at long last replied to me to ask "If my complaint is the same one or a new one?". I have submitted all the papers even though it looks like a waste of effort. I have asked for specific answers to my questions about officials not being bound by the figures that the government says people should have to live on and to impose their decisions arbitrarily.
4 September 2019 - The Ombudsman sent me a draft response proposing to dismiss my complaint as I had had two rights of appeals, one of which I had exercised and it had failed (Council Tax), and the other I had failed to exercise (Housing Benefit). I replied to indicate that I was not aware - and had never been made aware - of a right of appeal over housing benefit - quite the contrary the Council indicated it had no choice but to apply national rules. Also more importantly my main complaint is not about money but the way that the Council makes and enforces decisions, including several failures to respond, and that this should be examined as "maladministration". The Ombudsman has referred the case for more investigation.
11 September 2019 - Excellent article condemning Councils like Northumberland's widespread use of Bailiffs to enforce payment of Council Tax and my Tweet on it.
11 December 2019 - email from UN Human Rights Rapporteur on Poverty:
|4 December 2019 at 11:30|
|To: John Lowrie <email@example.com>|
Dear John Lowrie,
I very much appreciate your taking the time to write and to explain the ways in which the welfare system is capable of mistreating people and being entirely unresponsive to their plight. Your aunt's case seems reasonably representative of others that I have come across and I often ask myself why the relevant bureaucracies are not capable of adapting or adjusting their procedures to avoid obvious injustices. My focus is, as you would know, not on individual cases but on how the system as a whole operates and I can assure you that I will continue to try to shine the spotlight on that dimension.