17 March 2013

When you take the 'service' out of Civil Service

A few days ago HMRC announced that they are closing all 281 of it's Enquiry Centres. There's no getting around this; it's a cost cutting measure but they still have the cheek to say that they will provide a modern and accessible service to 'customers' who need it. Apparently they will offer a 'more specialised phone service' and also 'home visits'.

This is a travesty.

One of the reasons given for closing the enquiry offices is that they're just not being used the way they used to be. There's been a drop in the numbers visiting the centres of 50% since 2005/06. This is hardly surprising when you take into account that since then, the centres have reduced their opening hours and have also been part of a an enormous departmental reorganisation which has meant that most people haven't got a clue where their local enquiry centre is. Many were closed during reorganisations meaning that people didn't really have access to a 'local' service at all any longer but had to travel to a new centre.

I recall back in the 1980s the union arguing against the closure of local enquiry offices precisely because if they weren't local and serving their local community then there was in effect no service. I also recall from my own personal experience when I was a local case worker with my own allocation of work what a valuable service was offered and how much it was valued by those who used it. I knew many of my own people name, could recall instantly their history and how I might need to handle them. I also remember my 'regulars' who just wanted me to go through what had been sent to them, 'just to make sure' that everything was OK.

Now who can argue against home visits? At first thought it seems like such a good idea but two problems instantly spring to mind. HMRC are known for their 'fishing' visits and how they gather information on a taxpayers personal circumstances by visits to homes and business premises. Some of this information can be sadly wrong because of supposition and that can have devastating consequences for the individual involved. If you're offered a home visit I strongly urge you to ask them to book a room at their expense in a public building! Secondly we all know how vulnerable people can be prey to unscrupulous and criminal people calling at their doors. Letting HMRC out on the loose just gives those with bad intentions another organisation to use in pretence at gaining entry to someones home.

HMRC have come in for a lot of very justified criticism over the telephone helplines they run. People are quite literally left hanging on the telephone waiting for their call to be answered. In years gone by you called your local office and spoke to whoever it was that personally dealt with your tax affairs. Sadly that sort of caseworker no longer exists and you cannot call your local office but only a call centre. This means that rarely will you get a decent explanation of exactly what is happening with your tax affairs because in truth, no one person has ownership of them anymore. Yet HMRC now say that telephones are the only way that you will be able to have a real conversation with them, unless of course you're invited in for an investigation interview. It must not be forgotten that all of HMRCs contact numbers are now 0845 and can therefore cost some people an awful lot of money. To be left waiting for a human voice after the instant initial greeting is in my opinion unforgivable in terms of delivering an effective public service.It is sad that HMRC seem to be running what should be a public service as a business  and counting up the cost of providing a face to face service that really should be seen as essential. What they have failed to realise is that many of the people that do visit the enquiry centres are vulnerable people that need the reassurance of friendly and courteous face to face contact and are by default therefore, likely to prove to be 'expensive' customers, sorry, I mean taxpayers.

Many would say 'hey it's only HMRC' but let's not forget that this department oversees Tax Credits, National Insurance, Customs duties and VAT, as well as Income Tax. These are really complicated subjects for many people to understand. We should making access to information easier not harder to obtain for ordinary people. Or maybe I'm just a dinosaur who still believes that public services are worth fighting for?

Once HMRC could be proud of the personal service it offered. Now that service is to become merely a memory.  For some the service is already a shadow of its former self with staff ill informed and badly trained compared to twenty or even ten years ago. For many staff who work there  finding their own inability to offer a decent service is frustrating and against their own public service principals. Believe it or not many civil servants do actually want to fulfil their role as a service provider and be proud of it.

HMRC say that plans are not yet final but will be dependent upon the pilot that is to be run in the North East but we all know that pilots rarely fail in the eyes of those who most want them to succeed whatever the actual results are.

Little thought has been given to viable alternatives to closing all enquiry centres. One idea that occurred to me is that advice staff could be placed in every Job Centre so that a dual role could be given to such offices and ensure their survival in the future. I'm sure that there are many other ideas out there. The best idea though would be to abandon this badly thought out initiative. HMRC is a public service performed by civil servants. The clue is in the word 'service'. It is not just a service to the government of the day in raising and collecting taxes so that our country can run it's schools, hospitals, roads and so on but it is also a service to the people who pay those taxes.

16 March 2013

A First for Park Lime Pits

Path at Park Lime Pits 1 May 2011
This is just a short blog to ask for your support on Monday evening.

Less than 11 months ago a meeting was held to form The Friends of Park Lime Pits. Since then the steering group of the Friends has helped organise several successful events at PLP including an hugely enjoyable Bee Walk, a very wet litter pick, two work party days, A Dawn Chorus Walk and a Winter Bird Walk. The group has also worked closely with West Midland Police in an attempt to eliminate anti social behaviour at the Reserve and as a result of the Friends forming, Brum Bats in association with Black Country & Staffordshire Naturalists  have erected an awful lot of bat boxes because Park Lime Pits is Walsall's Bat Central!

Park Lime Pits is as many of you know an oasis of peace, beauty and tranquility just two and half miles from Walsall Town Centre. It is biologically very diverse with over three hundred species of plants and one hundred species of birds including Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Heron and Kingfisher.

The Friends of Park Lime Pits want to work to preserve and develop this wonderful site. They also want to further develop the relationship with the local farmer of Lime Pits Farm, which envelopes the Pits on three sides and to develop ties with other User and Friend Groups in Walsall. This cannot be done without the wonderful Ranger help along with The Countryside Services Team and Walsall Council. Equally it cannot be done without more help from the local community. On Monday evening therefore, the Friends are holding their inaugural annual general meeting where it is hoped, if there are enough people there, to formally constitute as a group. This will have several benefits. The Group will be a community group with a community voice and will therefore be stronger for that. The group will also be able to apply for various grants in order to further the conservation work at the Reserve. We would like to be a group that truly represents what the local community wants to see in its own local nature reserve.

If you're interested in having a say in all of this and maybe in playing a part, we need you.

I would like to invite everyone to come along to The Manor Arms on Monday 18 March at 7.30 to the meeting. Everyone is welcome and you don't have to live in Rushall although it would be wonderful if you do!

14 March 2013

I'm Walsall and I'm Proud

Funny things coincidences. Before I read this this rather lovely blog about the West Midlands, I was formulating  a post in my head about Walsall following a conversation with my son earlier today and an even earlier conversation with my daughter. The blog being written inside my head was about my love for dirty, dingy,scruffy, unloved and almost unloveable Walsall and by Walsall I don't just mean the town centre  but the Borough, which encompasses some pretty diverse neighbourhoods all with quite distinct identities.

I know what you're thinking; the Mad Old Baggage really has lost her marbles this time. Love Walsall? Not Mad but Stark Staring Raving Monster Loony Old Baggage! Allow me to explain.

Despite the fact that my accent is now once again firmly local to Walsall, the southern twang picked up during 20 years in London having been 'lost' since my return to Aldridge, a town I actively loathed as a teenager, neither of my children have a local accent. Daughter has a slight tinge of the Midlands in the way her sentences run but Son is accent-less  I've always put this down to Son having spent the first 8 years of his life in London and Daughter having a posh sounding Dad because it's certainly not because the common denominator that is me. I mean have you heard me on the radio? Sometimes if I break into dialect they look at me as though I'm a beast from another planet. So it was no surprise to me when I said something to Son today and he he responded in exasperation by telling me 'Mom, you're so Walsall sometimes.' I retorted that there was nothing wrong with that to which he scornfully said 'Mom, Walsall is a dump. Have you looked around the town recently?'

He's right of course. Teenagers always are. Walsall Town Centre is a dump. With nearly a third of shops empty, there is an air of desolation and despair about the place. What shops there are tend to be of the bargain basement variety, only Walsall could boast about having the largest Poundland in the country, or they're charity shops or burger/pizza/kebab fast food outlets. All the heritage buildings such as Shannons Mill or the BOAK building have been conveniently raised to the ground by the Walsall Firestarter. There is little to be proud of there.

Then there is the local council. Least said the better there because I do not wish to provoke more angry emails from Councillors advising me that criticism of the council is not allowed. However let it be said that in Walsall we are blessed with three political parties, none of whom are prepared to leave behind party dogma, history and divides that happened 20 odd years ago and work together for the benefit of the people they are meant to serve.

There are lots of reasons to dislike Walsall and to laugh when outsiders make it the butt of jokes so why did I automatically say that there was nothing wrong with being Walsall?

I have waxed lyrical to the point of reader boredom about Walsall's Green Spaces. Don't worry, I'm not off on one again although I will say, they are very special and would do many a council proud. There is envy for our Green Spaces by similar types of local authority and with good reason. Walsall's Green Spaces are bostin'.

The real reason there's nothing wrong with being Walsall, is the people of the town. We're multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-everything and I like it that way. What I really like though is the directness of people in the Borough, the dry and self deprecating humour and the practicality within. I love the way when Aiden was trying to elicit sympathy whilst wearing a sling and he said something along the lines of 'she hits me when she gets angry' to shop assistants etc, they all without exception replied 'well you must have done something to deserve it'. I love the way people, complete strangers usually, will strike up a conversation, in a shop, on the bus, at the bus stop, anywhere and you don't automatically think they're a nutter. I love the generosity of the people in welcoming newcomers to the Borough be they northerners, southerners or from further afield. I love the generosity of giving, just look at the response during the coldest days of winter for the homeless shelter. I love the way people still hold doors open for you or hold the lift or pick things up that you've dropped and run after you in the street. I love the general friendliness of the people of Walsall. It took the long suffering Aiden to open my eyes and make me see that it is an unusual thing. It's precious.

Sure Walsall has more than its fair share of problems and also its fair share of bad folks but on the whole it's not a bad place to live and a whole lot better than some places that I've lived. Yeah I'm so Walsall and I'm proud of that.

11 March 2013

When Customer Service Matures

I accompanied my Father to the bank today. Dad is a little old fashioned when it comes to cash withdrawals. If he has a number for his chip and pin card then he doesn't know what it is because he has no need for it. Once a week he writes out a cheque to 'cash' and it's off to the bank.

I'll name the bank because the customer service to the elderly people who use the Lloyds TSB branch in Aldridge is second to none, as was witnessed today. Everyone was warmly greeted as they walked in, most by name. As I watched the customer service assistant help people use the ATM, rather than queuing for the windows, I realised that there is a whole generation or two of people, who have never used the internet and never will, never used a chip and pin card and never want to and who just like my Dad, prefer a financial transaction to be carried out between people and not machines or wireless connections.

The world moves quickly and we are all expected to keep up, without thought to those who are unable or do not want to embrace a digital, wi-fi, automatic existence. Funnily enough Dad was taught how to use and did use a computer when he was still working but he didn't like it so it's not because intellectually he is incapable of getting to grips with technology, he just doesn't want to. There must be a substantial minority of people in this country who do not know their way around a pc or laptop, think twitter is what the birds do and have never owned and never will own their own little internet appliance.

Life must be becoming disproportionately more expensive for this minority. Some companies charge for paper statements, others don't give any discount for anything other than an internet based account. Cheques are to become historical memories. When you sit and think about it the world we have now is not designed for those who do not have or want access to the internet.

It's a good thing that there are still some places left where the minority are greeted with a smile and treated like valued customers but I do wonder how long this will continue.

1 March 2013

Final Part of An Awakening: the road from Walsall to London

439 people in total were suspended. The first days were busy, setting up the machinery for making strike payments (no computers!), setting up support networks and a cascade system for keeping people up to date with what was happening and making sure that people were not feeling isolated because if that happened there might be a trickle back to work. I am happy to say that not one person went back to work early.

The Board were served with the writ from me and the other plaintiffs and we were given an imminent court date,so there was little time for final preparations but I did manage to get my hair done! Suitcase was packed and then off to London.

The seven plaintiffs were well looked after, there was always someone available for a chat or to help. Some people I will never forget. Martin Beaver was the journalist in charge of union publications and was from Wolverhampton. I was forever taking the micky out of him and his pink leather ties, asking what the folks back home in Wolverhampton would think if they could see his ties. Men just didn't wear pink in those days! Martin was very good to me. He gave me a place to stay on a temporary basis when I moved to London a short while later and was a shoulder to cry on when needed. Tom Hedley and his smoking pipes, hand in his pocket to buy a drink and a friendly personality. Les Priestly, all six foot thirteen of him and his big booming Yorkshire voice, that I shall forever feel ringing in my ears when later in the year at the IR National Sports Day when he couldn't quite get over seeing me in a pair of athletic knickers. Ron Seddon, a Coventry lad and fan and his cheery smile and personality to match plus he could always be relied upon to pull a silly stunt. Benign father figure Clive Boote, President at that time and an Inspector too (way out of my league of life experience at the time). Finally Fraser Whitehead, solicitor to  the union and all round good egg! Poor Fraser, I don’t think he ever knew what quite to make of this gobby Midlander, who spoke her mind but was guileless  We always called him Fraser Pimple and I will never forget that one day he walked in a heard one of us calling him that nickname. A deathly silence ensued until Fraser burst into genuine laughter when he realised that we were in fact talking about him. Fraser was a terribly posh, dashing sort of fellow, who drove a fast car and had a rather lovely young woman draped over his arms at weekends but he was totally committed to the labour movement and was so kind. When the case was finally over he took us out for a meal at his own expense. It was the first time I tasted whitebait and all because I wanted to make jokes about white heads, white bait and pimples.

I really don’t remember what I expected when I arrived at the Royal Courts of Justice but I do know that I didn't expect to be confronted with the whole of the Board of Inland Revenue standing outside court number 14. I and the other plaintiffs were intimidated and bloody scared. We were allowed to sit at the back of the court and observe the proceedings and the way the court worked. This helped a little because the surroundings and the barristers became familiar to us, as did the judge, Justice Walton. Our barrister Eldred Tabachnik seemed terribly old but on reflection was probably incredibly young.

The only thing that never became any less frightening was the Board. They sat as near to the front as they were allowed. Anyone would think that they didn't have a department to run. Clearly they were taking this case extremely seriously and this became more apparent when our personnel files were spotted in the courtroom by one of the IRSF secretariat. Possibly, allowing someone to spot them was a deliberate ploy by the Board in order to intimidate us plaintiffs but it actually made me very angry. How dare they? I knew the strict rules regarding access to personnel files and the Board of IR certainly did not have any right of access under such circumstances. They were told in no uncertain terms that the files should be returned, unmarked to the Personnel Office in Solihull immediately. A union official then made sure that the request had been complied with in full and it had.

Eventually after watching the proceedings for a few days, it was time to give evidence. Our local branch secretary, Greg went first. He was the same age as me but much more  politically aware and active than myself and was firmly entrenched on the left of the union. Greg acquitted himself  well and then it was my turn.

I walked up to the witness stand with my throat completely dry and my legs shaking. I was more nervous than I had ever been in my life. I took the oath quietly and Justice Walton turned to me and in that gloriously patronising way that old men always had back then when talking to young women but that you just don’t see now except in the House of Commons when being told to calm down, said “ My dear, I do appreciate that it is more difficult for you, being a woman, but please speak up so that we can all hear you.” I started to smirk and everyone sitting at the back of the court that knew me started laughing. Justice Walton glared at everyone and we returned to soberness.

Eldred took me through my affidavits, clarifying certain points and raising one or two other questions for which I had been thoroughly prepared. Then the Board’s barrister stood up. He started gently enough, asking a few daft questions but then he began what was a hatchet job on my affidavit, basically calling me a liar in a posh legal way. I looked up at the whole of the Board sitting there up front. Their smug faces, their suits, their grey hair, their confidence, everything about them annoyed me and for some reason two lines of an old Hazel O’Connor song sprang to mind: “Give me an inch, and I'll take me a mile. Give me the distance from your supercilious smile”. I felt my confidence grow and I felt my anger grow. How dare this man, taking orders from these other obnoxious men before me, tell ME the person doing the job, that I was wrong about what I had said about how I did my job pre and post COP? How dare they call me a liar? I didn't lie and what’s more I was bloody good at my job and knew a damn sight more about it than any of them! All my fear and nerves disappeared through the roof of court number 14. I met the barrister’s eyes, locked in and gave him what for. I remember seeing Justice Walton suddenly sit up in his chair and start paying attention. I made sure that the court knew that I knew my job. I was polite, I didn't swear and I certainly made myself heard!

Following my evidence I do recall words such as self-confident, belligerent, enthusiastic, verbose, combative, wise, being banded about. I walked out of the courts and over the road to the Pen and Wig where I allowed a kind person to buy a bottle of wine that I downed very quickly.

Something inside me did click that day. I didn't lose all of my naivety all at once and I certainly didn't become cynical overnight but my eyes had been well and truly opened.

A few weeks later when the case was over and the verdict known I attended a press conference in Wolverhampton and was asked to do an interview for TV news. I did the interview and afterwards Clive Boote, who had been watching me and had spent a lot of time with all the plaintiffs over the previous few weeks, asked me if I would be attending conference that May. I said I would be. Clive turned to me and said, “Please don’t go, you’re unique the way you are and conference will ruin you.” I had no idea at the time what he meant. It is only as we mature that wisdom and hindsight intermingle to let you see what it was someone was trying to tell you. He was right.

The case concluded the following week. Justice Walton said he would deliver his verdict in about 10 days, so it was wait and see time. Back home it was down to the nitty gritty of keeping up the morale of everyone who had been suspended, writing out strike pay cheques, dealing with a million and one queries from my members and wondering if I would still have a job at the end of all this.

We lost of course. When Justice Walton started reading his judgement (and this during the week when Mrs Thatcher had announced the trade union ban at GCHQ) I thought for a few minutes that we had won. I was  devastated. It was about slavery you see. As civil servants we didn't have a contract of employment, apparently, not in the usual understanding of the term. We were in fact slaves of the crown and should work in any way the crown saw fit. If there had been a contract of employment we would still have lost because according to the judge, an employer is entitled to vary the terms of the contract as long as there is no huge fundamental change to working practices. I guess the introduction of a whole new way of working wasn't really a fundamental change! The case is now enshrined in case law and regularly comes up in studies. Cresswell and Others v Board of Inland Revenue, if you’re interested.

Talks went on for a while as to whether or not there should be an appeal but in the end there was never any.

So the union and the Board sat down again and started thrashing out a new technology agreement and we in the pilot districts continued suspended until the situation could be resolved.

I was invited to speak at branch Spring General Meetings. I couldn't believe that, I mean who the hell wanted to listen to what I had to say? Well it seems that the world was populated with foolish folks who thought I might have something worth listening to. After my virgin speech, I grew to love it and gradually I became very heavily involved with the Union at all levels.

We did get a NTA but there was no compulsory redundancy clause. However it did contain all the other safeguards that we wanted regarding working practices, ergonomic safety and so on. No longer would people have to sit for seven and half hours per day at a VDU without a break except for lunch, both during the setting up period and afterwards. Compulsory breaks of ten minutes per hour were introduced. I think that ended up being my personal bogey (it wasn't enough imho because it was only a break from the VDU screen and not work, you merely did something else) because due to promotions and transfers I ended up going through a district setting up period a further three times. Once was enough. Four times was purgatory.

The NTA was seen as a model for many others and was adapted and adopted by many businesses both in the public and private sectors. I suppose that on reflection it was a good agreement for all concerned although it didn't seem that way at the time.

The return to work was awful in that there was now almost 12 months post on hand, two lots of tax returns to examine and all the other jobs that hadn't been done for nigh on two years and yet we got stuck in and with a little help from those now familiar scourges, temporary appointments and casuals, inroads were made into the mountains.

The day after we returned to work I was on the telephone just after lunch when I noticed that everyone in the office was making a beeline for my desk. The telephone went down and I sat silent (made a change) wondering what the hell was going on. They all gathered around my desk, the boss too and I was presented with a bouquet of flowers and a box of chocolates accompanied by a card signed by everyone. They thanked me for looking after them during the dispute and for being their representative at the high court hearing. I am not ashamed to say that I wept with the wonderful emotions that swept over me. I couldn't believe that they thought I deserved anything. I was just doing what I wanted to do because I believed we were right and that I cared about the people I worked with.

A few weeks later I was weeping again at another presentation, when my long awaited promotion came through and I was transferred elsewhere.

And that is the end of the awakening. I was involved with the IRSF in one form or another until I took redundancy from the Revenue in 1996. I do miss it I suppose (the union stuff not the Revenue), the meetings, and the arguments, the debating; feeling alive and hoping that in some small way I made a difference to those whom I represented. I have many stories to tell, good and bad. I met some wonderful people along the way and when someone turned around and said thanks, well that was all I needed.