A Duty of Care

Before we have joined-up Government let’s start with joined-up responsibility.

This morning, I received a very red demand notice from those nice people at Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise, asking for a not inconsiderable sum of money to be paid ‘immediately’ or face having my chattels distrained and my children seized by an authorised person.

Naturally, I did what anyone else would do in such circumstances, as a Government customer, I called the number of the ‘Debt Management Unit’ and gave them my VAT number while explaining that in fact I owe Her Majesty nothing and certainly not the kind of money that was scribbled in biro next to ‘Amount Now Due’ on the letter.

I will admit, that I was pleasantly surprised at how good the customer service was, so full marks for CRM to the VAT office. All my payments, I told the lady I spoke to, are automated over the Internet – I’m a fan of eGovernment you see – and in fact, my returns and payments normally arrive early, just to ensure that I don’t experience the problems I had ten years ago, when they arrived ‘On the dot’.

‘Yes’ she told me, I can see that and the figure is completely wrong. It’s the paying early part which appears to be causing the problems with our system. I will get the case officer to give you a call but don’t worry.

But I do worry, I said because past experience suggests that once a letter like this is in the ‘The System’ proving that I’m not Al Capone and that I don’t owe the greater part of the national debt can be a little time consuming. In fact, on the last occasion, it finally needed a personal letter from the then Chancellor, Norman Lamont, to apologise for the inconvenience and ‘Let me off’ the debt.

So, I’m sitting here wondering how ‘joined-up’ Customs & Excise is and whether being a good customer is going to cost me dear again, as it once did with the Inland Revenue, which also once made a mistake and spent twelve months issuing final demands.

What interests me is how an automated process end-up with a figure scribbled on to the form? Does the VAT collection system really involve someone picking-up the pre-printed form with the ‘customer’ details on and inserting the date and a random number with a £ sign in front of it?

Finally, as another example of joined-up local government at its best, Westminster Council has generously agreed to waive the two parking fines they gave me in November of last year. I had appealed these because both fines were issued on private property and I had even collected the badge numbers of two parking attendants who both agreed. What they had not bargained with was a digital camera that proved where I was parked on each occasion.

Westminster Council tell me that they have lost all the details, my correspondence file and the accompanying email copies on ‘both’ these parking fines and as a consequence, will not be pursuing payment and that’s the end of the story but I am tempted to send them a data access request to see if this is really the case.

What both these stories tell me is that joining-up Government with technology does very little to improve accountability or even responsibility, its ‘Duty of Care’. It simply makes it easier for the ‘system’ to pursue its relentless goal of taxation, TV licences, parking fines and other fanciful demands for payment.

Those systems that should be most efficient and most ‘joined-up’ and which involve punitive measures against the customer in the shape of fines, enquiries or even potential imprisonment are simply not streamlined and are far from any sensible vision of efficiency if these two stories are any measure of our progress towards a truly joined-up public sector.


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