On the phone to a Housing Benefit department, to find out why my client is going to be evicted this month. Peter got too sick to work and claimed benefits, which have taken a few months to kick in. I want to know why nobody is answering my letters about his Housing Benefit claim.
Instantly my heart drops. Digital sirens assure me that a East London Council uses fab data protection procedures, I am invited to use touchtone options that steer me seamlessly from rubbish collection to ongoing claims information. The promise of a real live human voice is always there, but proves tantalisingly beyond my reach. Just at the point that I am about to speak to a human being a cheery mechanical voice bids me good day and refers me to their website.
As any fule know, Council websites are often designed to prevent rapid access to services. You try to find any information about the rights of homeless families put on the street through no fault of their own, and you would not know that the Council must house them.
After an hour I manage to speak to a human voice. She sounds surprised and scared, and tells me it would be better if I called at a low demand time (say midnight).
None of my letters have been logged on by the Council. Thus the guy on the phone can't discuss Peter’s case with me. Not even when I point out that a family will shortly become homeless because the Council keeps losing its mail.
“What do you suggest then?” I ask Mr Call Centre. “I’ve faxed you, I’ve written to you, this week Peter took copies of my letters to you and was turned away. How can you help me to stop a family from becoming homeless?”
Mr Call Centre advises me that Peter should have visited his local office and asked to call the Housing Benefit Department for a special appointment (since the cuts, a free citizen can’t come in off the street with his documents, you need a special appointment). This cheers me up. “Can I make an appointment for my client Peter? He will bring copies of the documents”
Mr Call Centre pauses. No-since they haven’t had any letters I am not authorised to make an appointment for Peter to bring in the documents that they have lost. He makes a special point of saying that if I were a real lawyer I would understand this. That’s me in my place.
I politely thank Mr Call Centre. Quixotically I dictate a letter of complaint, send it by email and by fax with copies of all the previous correspondence, advise my client to make an identical telephone call begging for an appointment, then hurl my telephone against the wall.
I don’t know what makes me more angry. That a so called trained lawyer has had to spend an hour on the phone to speak to Mr Call Centre talking rubbish, or to think that every other resident with Housing Benefit problems must spend an hour on the phone they can’t afford.
Sir Robin Swayles declared some time ago “I have an ambitious vision for this borough, and that's because Newham's people are ambitious and forward-looking too. I'm determined to deliver the very best services and make sure local people get the most out of the Olympics and regeneration of the borough.”
As I scotch-tape my telephone together, it seems that the true problem is that with cuts starting to bite in East London’s poorest boroughs, local services are delivered behind the opaque barrage of call centres where staff do not have the training to make practical common sense decisions.
Dwindling numbers of trained Council officials that know how to call the shots are cloaked and inaccessible because of Mr Call Centre. Should they not be open and transparent and admit that the service they are giving is increasingly inadequate?