Sep 06 2008

Islington Council is a disgraceful shambles

Category: GeneralLee @ 22:17

WARNING: this is a bit of a long one. There’s a lot to say, and a lot happened. I’ve tried to keep it brief, but even if you fold up an elephant to get it as small as possible, it still won’t fit into a juice box. That said, it’s worth reading and may, in fact, even help some people. Or at least serve as a warning. I hope it does – some practical advice follows at the end.

As you may have guessed by the title, I live in Islington, London. It’s a nice place, for the most part. There are things to do, places to shop, all the conveniences and it is very well connected to get just about anywhere else in London.

The Council, however, is another matter altogether. Legendary for it’s poor performance for years now – seemingly regardless of which party manages it – I have had personal experience of it’s many and varied failings.

To go into all the details would take many pages, digging through old documents and, frankly, probably send my blood pressure skyrocketing. However, I will attempt to give a suitable overview. Believe me, the prose below is a heavily truncated list of occurrences compared to what I could go in to.

First, there were the summonses to magistrates’ court. That’s plural – as in many, many times. And not one of them justified. See, for a while, I was unemployed and living with two students; this means that we did not pay *any* council tax, as all three of us were excluded due to our respective statuses. The bills came anyway, however, and I spent a fair bit of money talking on the phone with disinterested and rude people for whom, being generous, English might have been their third language. We all provided proof of our statuses and lack of income. We did everything we were asked to do, including all those little ‘just one more thing we need’ bits which I have come to know and loathe (I presume they are intended to actively discourage people for doing anything which might take money from the council, as no-one would press on through such a swamp of red tape unless they really needed to). We received our first summons, and it was not a happy occasion. I called the council and explained the mistake. The man at the other end was uncharacteristically helpful and sympathetic, apologising and issuing a letter saying that the summons was withdrawn immediately. He also said it would not happen again; I think he believed it, but he was very wrong.

It happened again. I called up again. This time I spoke to a very rude woman who informed me that I would have to go to court to dispute this. I pointed out that this had not been necessary last time, explained what had happened and received a patronising response stating, once again, that court was the way to go. After the conversation ended I called up again, spoke to someone else and immediately got the issue resolved as it had been the first time.

In total, we received something like six summonses, all but one of which were dealt with by phone, costing me time and money, causing me untold stress and being of varying levels of difficulty to resolve depending on whether the person I was talking to had the faintest idea what they were talking about, cared, had an ounce of common sense or – and I am quite sure of this – was just in the right mood to do the right thing.

The figures they demanded varied wildly, from well over £1000 to £300, then back up to around £700, then £100… it was clear that they had no idea what they were doing. I never sought any explanation regarding the yo-yoing figures as, to the best of my knowledge, we owed them not a single penny.

Finally, around a year after this had begun, they got us into court. The bill was a joke, asking about some £35 – except this time, every time I spoke to someone they insisted that we did, in fact, owe it. No-one could explain how or why, but they wanted our money and would take whatever they could get. So off to court we went. It might be worth mentioning at this point that the two people I was sharing an apartment with, my very great friends, are both lawyers. That’s solicitors and barristers. The gentleman I went to court with was virtually cracking his knuckles in anticipation of these derisory proceedings.

But there were none. We sat in a waiting room along with all the other summonees, and a council lawyer eventually got around to us. We told him we owed no money and would not pay. He was, to his credit, helpful – although his lack of interest and generally utterly disheartened demeanour almost made me feel sorry for this minion of the council. Almost.

So we went to the council offices. They explained that the amount they wanted from us was for the two weeks or so after we had moved in, but before my flatmates had provided their proofs of studentship. We went back twice, I think, arguing that not only had they only found out about this necessity after having moved in, but that the institution they were attending had been slow to provide said proof and that it was no fault of theirs. It was useless. In the end, by law, we owed them the money. We paid. My friends did the sensible thing and moved back to India. I remain.

HOUSING AND COUNCIL TAX BENEFIT

I will attempt to keep this as objective as possible, although I actually shake with frustration merely thinking about it.

Once unemployed and in receipt of Job Seekers’ Allowance (JSA), one can also claim Housing and Council Tax benefit. Now, whilst the former comes from the central government and, as such, is, well… centralised, the latter is managed by each individual council directly – in my case, of course, Islington. Oh dear.

First off, I discovered that, because I was under 25, I was expected to be living in a shared bathroom, shared kitchen, dump of a home. Purely based on my age. No, it’s impossible that perhaps I had the money to rent a decent place but then fell on hard times. An outrageous concept. So the council would not pay all of my rent, I had to supplement it with both most of my JSA and help from my parents, who didn’t have that much either. The upshot was that I lived on about £5 a week, if that – sometimes much less – for several months. That was a calming and happy experience, I don’t think.

Skip forward – through the soul-crushing bog of bureaucracy which Islington Council sits in the middle of, squatting like a wart-covered and particularly ugly toad, staring with balefully yet undeniably blank and unintelligent eyes at any who might approach it. OK, so that wasn’t objective. But it is accurate.

I found a job. Yay. Big YAY. I had been unemployed for far too long, and although the job was a low-paid thing of questionable dignity (customer services in the travel industry – prostitution might have lacked dignity, but I like to think I might have made better money) I was happy as could be. The bills could be paid, the rent too (it’s the little things like that which caused me so much stress), I could buy more than cheap pasta and supermarket own brand canned vegetables to eat. There wasn’t much money left for anything else, but in comparison to the desert I had just walked out of, life was good.

Then I got another letter. It was a very polite letter, explaining that they had a few simple questions to ask me and would I mind popping over to answer them. The bit that gave the game away somewhat was at the end, when it mentioned that what I said would be recorded and could potentially be used in court against me. I took along my father and my barrister friend, and we made a day of it.

The interviewer was truly obnoxious. I am on tape asking him to kindly cease patronising me, as I had not done anything wrong and he was badgering me by asking the same few questions over and over, just phrased differently. That might be enough to fool a monkey or a scientologist, but not someone whose IQ points are in double-figures. This seemed to annoy him greatly, which in turned warmed me somewhat.

In essence, I had been receiving housing and council tax benefits for about 3-4 months since I had started work. See, I had asked the people at the Job Centre how it worked, as I rightly suspected I might need some aid whilst I re-built my fragile and functionally non-existent finances. They had told me, about three of them all together, that I could continue receiving the rent and tax help for up to six months.

It wasn’t true. The limit is one month, and then only under exceptional circumstances. I might have qualified, but never got the chance to find out. It works like this: in order to get housing and council tax benefits, you have to provide the council with proof that you are already receiving JSA. I did this, and all was fine (relatively speaking – I didn’t spontaneously burst into flames). So when I got my job, I went back to the JSA people, filled in all the forms and asked about keeping the help with the rent etc, getting the answer I mentioned above. I also sent a change of circumstances form to the council, informing them of my job. I heard nothing back (this didn’t surprise me, as the only correspondence they seem to deal with is forms for me to fill out, and simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ letters regarding whether or not you get benefits. Or asking for more information) so went on with my life, content that I had done everything I needed to do.

Yet now here they were again, the council, accusing me of fraud. I was red and shaking. Fraud. Me. After everything they had put me through: the piss-poor attitudes, the professional ignorance of the staff, the bureaucracy so thick you could almost choke on it, the mistakes made by them one after the other… I was being accused of fraud. Not only that, but by way of ‘evidence’ they produced sworn statements from the job centre people I said had misinformed me, which described the correct thing they should have said in such a flawless and uniform manner that I truly believe it was copied out of some textbook – if only because I happened to know that at least two of them could not possibly write that well from examples I had seen, and even their spoken English was decidedly sub-standard. Each one claimed they would have given an absolutely exemplary response. Really? No! When the alternative was admitting that they had said completely the wrong thing to some guy they probably didn’t even remember, and they had been given about a week to go away and do the research necessary to write such a flawless statement. The bottom line is: they lied. But, of course, I could not prove that.

I took it to arbitration. I sat in front of a lady arbiter behind a big desk, dressed as best I could in my only suit, next to a lawyer from the council who looked like an impending suicide attempt. The filthy suit, covered in dandruff, the adult acne smothering his face, the loosened tie, the battered briefcase, the soulless expression. It gave me confidence, which was a mistake.

His (literally) two-minute ‘case’ was basically ‘He didn’t tell us he had a job but kept claiming benefits, under article blah blah blah.’. That was it.

My presentation went of for about 15-20 minutes. I produced document after document after document, including the one where they demanded – on threat of legal action – a sum from a Mrs… something (I can’t put the name here, even if I could find the old letter). Definitely not me, anyway. I showed her the many summons, the withdrawals, the apologies, the reams and reams of paperwork which proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Islington Council was grossly incompetent in every single aspect of their dealings with people like myself. I left no doubt. I’m being objective here: I had an inch-thick collection of documents, letters from the council mostly, showing categorically that they were mistaken in virtually everything they said and did.

I was told to pay. I could not believe it. I was told that even though the arbiter could accept that the council might not have received my letter telling them I had a job, that despite my even hypothetically being given the wrong information and therefore not questioning my continuation of benefits, I should have somehow thought this was wrong and I should have contacted them. Their misinformation and mistakes and lax checking systems were somehow now my responsibility.

I considered appealing. I had already pointed out in the arbitration that even the name of one of the witnesses, my friend, was utterly wrong. Surely, I had said, if even something as legally vital as a witness name was so very messed up, everything else they told me – and said about the case – was at the very least highly suspect if not literally unbelievable. (To give you some idea, if my friend’s name was, say, John Thompson, they would have written it as ‘Mr J. Ohnthomon’, or something like that. It was unrecognisable as his name, except vaguely if spoken phonetically. It was made much worse by my friend’s Indian names.)

I could only appeal in the circumstances I was in if it was on a point of law. I considered bringing the witness name issue back up, and therefore asking for the statements to be discounted entirely on a point of validity, but by then I had finally realised the truth: there was no way to win. It didn’t matter how right I was, how much Islington Council had screwed up or, indeed, the countless pieces of evidence I had provided to support my case against the council’s impressive number: ‘0’. Systems were in place to ensure that Islington Council could not lose – not on the big things, anyway.

I met with a couple more council workers to discuss repayment of the housing and council tax ‘overpayments’. The first seemed to me to be the definition of ‘old school’. He looked and acted like he’d been doing this for a long time and had seen it all. Again, it was refreshing to meet someone professional and, dare I say, perhaps even a little sympathetic. But the real reason I’ll remember him is this: when I asked him, unofficially, whether I had had the slightest chance of winning in arbitration, his answer was essentially ‘They’re supposed to be independent, but they basically work for the council. It’s very rare that anyone ever wins against them. You know how it is.’ accompanied by one of the most knowing looks – tinged, I am certain, with disappointment if not some fair annoyance – and we got on with things. I even felt a little better, know that I had done everything I could have despite apparently being doomed to failure.

I asked the second council worker the same question. His effuse answer was something like ‘Of course not, they’re completely independent, that’s what they’re there for… etc, etc, etc’. His look of annoyance was directed at me, and my look of pity and disgust was aimed at him.

The penalty they imposed was the entire amount ‘overpayed’ plus 33%. It came to thousands. I am still re-paying it. In the end, though, it is worth considering this: the total amount, even including the penalty, taken across all the time I’ll be paying it off at £50 a month, can be viewed as a loan with less than 3% interest. Not exactly a great win, but then at the time life without that extra money would have been very difficult indeed.

In the final analysis, there are a few simple major problems with Islington Council, some of which could be solved easily and some not so easily:

Ignorance. Very, very few people at Islington Council actually have the faintest clue as to what they are talking about. They contradict each other, insult other departments to you (the customer) in reference to their ignorance, and can actually provide 5 answers if you ask only 3 people. Mind-boggling. There needs to be consistency, and I find it very hard to believe that training and testing people properly would not improve matters a hundredfold.

Attitude. This is a tough one. The vast majority of people I have spoken to, across several departments, have exuded a lack of interest which borders on the brain-dead. They simply don’t care. This contributes to them giving you the wrong information to get you to stop talking to them as soon as possible, or to being re-directed from pillar to post because no-one wants to deal with you. It’s not that they can’t (although ignorance might be in play here again) it’s just that it’s a crap job and they don’t want to do it. They can’t be bothered. Now, I’ve done some damn crappy jobs in my time and it sucks, but if you take the money then you do the work as best you can. And come on, this is people’s lives we’re talking about here. Destitute people, desperate people, people who need someone who will listen to their problem with both ears and their brain before saying the right thing. Or at least trying. It doesn’t take much.

Language. This one’s easy enough: the people on the phones the most, but everyone who works for a London Borough, should be able to speak good English. I dread to think of the number of times someone’s life has been made infinitely worse because they couldn’t understand what was being said to them. Thick Caribbean, African and Indian accents abound at the other end of the phone when you talk to Islington Council. I have nothing against them due to their ethnicity, of course, but if I can’t understand them (and I come from a very multi-cultural background, so I’ve heard English spoken by all kinds of people – sometimes even Englishmen) then they’re no use in that job. And try to get them to repeat the garbled words they’re saying and you’ll get a snappish attitude and pushed off the line as soon as possible.

Consistency. I touched on this above. There are three main departments involved: the Job Centre, Contact Islington (a central advice line for the borough) and the part of Islington Council which deals with the benefits. Ask each one the same question and you might well end up with four different answers. Then when you go to one and tell them another told you something, you get told ‘Between you and me, they don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re always telling people the wrong thing’. Seriously, I was actually told that about Contact Islington by people at the Job Centre. Now, they may be right but why is this allowed to continue? It creates enormous confusion and surely must make as much work for the staff of all three departments as it causes stress to people like myself. Plus: how do you know who to listen to?

There are probably other things, but I can’t think of any right now.

Essentially, it’s like this: if you have to deal with Islington Council, triple-check everything you’re told, request (or demand if you have to, sometimes they don’t want to commit themselves) to have it put in writing by e-mail or post (or preferably both, so that when they send it to you and you never get it they don’t claim it was ‘lost’ or there was a ‘computer error’) and, if someone in one department tells you something you’re not sure about, check with the other relevant departments immediately. Also, if you were expecting something to happen but it’s been a little while (don’t leave it longer than a week) phone them and chase it. Otherwise you will suddenly find them telling you that they sent you a letter you never received and are denying your benefits because you didn’t supply information you didn’t know they asked for. They will not ask again, even if you never knew they had in the first place (yes, you guessed it… it’s happened to me).

Or, best of all, don’t deal with this awful institution in the first place if you can possibly avoid it. It’s like jumping out of a plane towards a rainbow: you might be aiming for something good an beautiful, but the pot of gold is just a myth and ultimately you’ll just end up smacking into the ground and it will hurt.

P.S.: to those few who work for Islington Council and are genuinely helpful, knowledgeable and professional: thank you. You are the rare Schindlers to the council’s Nazis and worth your weight in gold.

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