Monday 27 April 2015

40p a minute - why isn't it an election issue?

I had to phone the HMRC’s tax credits helpline last week. I had to report that my household income had risen this month. I’m obliged to do so for fear of the most appalling consequences if I don’t. I can’t apparently do so online, at least until my annual information pack arrives in July.

The experience was so infuriating and has made me think rather differently about the election campaign.

The helpline is not a freephone, it's an 0345 number. I had to hang on twice – first for an hour and a quarter, after which someone rang my front door bell and I had to ring off. Then I tried again and eventually got through the switchboard after 45 minutes. That is about 120 minutes at 9p a minute which comes to just over £10 I paid for the privilege of hanging on listening to their music tape.

I can afford £10, though it is infuriating that I should have to pay for their official incompetence. If I had been too poor for a landline and had to hang on via a mobile at the rate of up to 40p a minute, that is nearly £50 I would have been expected to pay via my phone bill.  Just to do what the law insists or to ask advice about it.

That kind of incompetence, enforced with all the weight of the law, is absolutely scandalous. Yet it apparently has no place in this or any other election campaign. 

So I sympathise with Aditya Chakraborrty and agree with him about the issues that are not being hammered out in this election. It is hard to list any that have, at least in any way that spreads light rather than confusion.

Labour says nothing (though the announcements about housing today were at least a shot in vaguely the right direction, though it wouldn't have the right effect.  And the Conservatives say nothing, and stay silent about how they are going to pay for it.  When they do say anything, the others say something fatuous about their "sums not adding up" (who was that today, I wonder?).

I agree with Nick Tyrone also that the lack of debate, lack of ideas has also been staggering. Dull in the extreme as the Westminster village gets excited about the prime minister’s football allegiances. But the issues, in what is supposed to be the most important election for a generation, go undiscussed.

The traditional answer is that the election campaign must focus on ‘bread-and-butter’ issues. This usually means long screeds of meaningless statistics about childcare, wages or the cost of living.

What is doesn’t apparently encompass is the sheer incompetence and arrogant authoritarianism of the central government services the poor have to deal with, at great expense and inconvenience in time and money.

Of course it isn’t just the poor who are at the sharp end of this bread-and-butter issue. As a company director, I’ve been warned by Companies House that I must offer my one employee (me) a pension by 31 March or face a stiff fine. I’ve been warned to expect log-in details. But can they be bothered to send the log-in details by their own deadline? No, they can’t – and presumably the stiff fines they were preparing for me don’t apply to them.

This isn’t a complaint about privatised services – they are just as bad, just as arrogant, bullying and incompetent. This isn’t about public versus private, and is therefore not recognisable as a relevant election issue. Yet it affects everyone, every day.

Election issues need to be expressed in an approved way, with enough technocratic jargon to make them sufficiently obscure. They need to be about issues where there is some obvious division between the parties.

This doesn’t. Nor do all the other incompetences and inhumanity we have to deal with in the labyrinthine services, state and corporate, that we face every day. Yet personally, in my current mood, I would imprison whoever is responsible.

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Anonymous said...

0345 isn't that expensive, it's the same as an 01 or 02 number (ie free if you have minutes left).

It's 0845 which is cost-sharing.

Guido said...

The phone costs are probably incidental to the enforced disruption to your day, the cost of your time and the opportunity cost of what you might have done instead.

Perhaps the system should be reversed, so the caller earns a revenue by hanging on the line.

In either case you are likely to be greeted by a voice-recognising answer phone; these rarely understand my accent (and I have tried many), they make you want to hurl your self off a cliff...and you are made to repeat everything anyway when you eventually do get through to a person.