What a Waste

In which The Author receives some letters

In the past four days, I’ve had no fewer than eight letters from the Department for Work and Pensions.
One came in the post on Thursday, three arrived yesterday, and the last four (so far, anyway!) came just before I left the house this morning. All of them appear to have originated from the semi-mythical ‘Caerphilly Benefits Centre.’
I say ‘semi-mythical’, because you can only contact them via a non-geographic phone number, or via an accommodation address in Wolverhampton. To add to the mystery, their previous postal address was somewhere off Penarth Road in Cardiff – several miles from Caerphilly itself. If Caerphilly Benefits Centre exists at all, it clearly moves around fairly regularly.
As a final twist, all the brown envelopes which have thudded onto my doormat over the past few days bore a return address in Belfast. That’s not just nowhere near Caerphilly (or Cardiff, for that matter) – it’s in a different fucking country entirely!
This torrent of brown envelopes is clearly keeping some civil servants in work. It’s quite well-paid work, too, from what I can gather, although it doesn’t prevent them from planning a one-day walk-out next month, as part of an ongoing dispute about their pensions. Now, I’m fairly sure that I could sit behind a desk all day, stuffing pieces of paper into envelopes. In the words of Alan Bleasdale’s character from Boys from the Blackstuff, Yosser Hughes: ‘Gissa job! I could do that!’
In fact, I’ve done it on several occasions, most notably in Dillons/Waterstone’s, where every year Glenn and I would send out requests for reading lists to every HE and FE lecturer within a fifteen-mile radius of the shop. If we had a ten per cent return, we knew we were having a good year. Most of the time we got away with using a combination of long experience, information from reps, lecturer inertia (which meant that the same books stayed on the syllabus year after year), academic hotlines and open returns. That was why from June to August you’d have found me putting together the academic orders for the forthcoming autumn. That was why I used to get excited about the new edition of Michael A. Jones’ Textbook on Torts, when everyone else thought it was just another of my eccentricities. Second-hand law books are no use to man nor beast. (In fact, about half of the already poor selection in Aberdare Library could probably go straight into the bin.)
But back to the DWP, and the avalanche of paperwork which has settled on my house since Wednesday. I haven’t sat and read them all in forensic detail yet, but I’m fairly sure that at least two of the letters which came this morning are identical to two which I received yesterday. However, that might just be because their strange blend of Civil Service Speak, tempered with a substantial input from the Plain English Campaign, all starts to sound the same after a while. The third of today’s missives was a notification of my taxable income so far this year, and advised me that I would receive my P45 in due course. Can you guess what was in the fourth one…?
Yes, you’re absolutely right, of course – my fucking P45! You couldn’t make it up, could you?
We’re always told by whichever political party is in power (and by the Liberal Democrats, come to that) that central and local government need to make ‘efficiency savings’ in order to reduce public spending.
Well, how about this suggestion for a start?
Instead of printing out people’s P45s in one office and their notification letters in another office, and sending them in separate envelopes on the same day, why not print them out at the same time and send them in one envelope?
That’s halved the cost of stationery and halved the cost of postage at a stroke. With second class postage now costing 53p (with discounts for bulk users), that would soon add up to a fair saving.
Mind you, it’s halved the number of civil servants involved, too. Scale that up across the entire DWP, and you can see what happens next – a sudden increase in the number of unemployed junior admin staff looking for work in the private sector. They’d have to sharpen up their game in the real world, mind you.
There’s an easy alternative to all this nonsense, of course. I’m using it at the moment. So are you. It’s the wired world. As I’ve noted on several previous occasions, this government loves its ‘Digital by Default’ mantra. They talk of ‘everyone’ – my mother, for example – being able to tax their cars online. Are they having a fucking laugh? My mother wouldn’t have the faintest clue of where to start taxing her car online.
Even so, the Digital agenda is being foisted on to people whether they like it or not. You can’t sign on the dole without having an email address. You can’t search for jobs unless you use the Government Gateway – which is not quite the shambles it was two years ago. That’s why Aberdare Library, and no doubt every other library and community centre in the country, has a daily parade of Loteks coming in to use the computers. They have no choice in the matter.
The Loteks have been forced into the Twenty-First Century by a government which itself has a love-hate relationship with technology. The government loves to trumpet its investment into fantastic IT systems, which always fail to be on time and on budget, or collapse entirely under the strain. Just yesterday, the Guardian reported that Sir Bob Kerslake, the outgoing head of the civil service, had described the DWP’s timetable for the introduction of Universal Credit as ‘undeliverable’. Universal Credit is the latest in a long line of Whitehall farces dreamt up by people who grew up watching Tomorrow’s World and thinking it was a documentary.
The people at the top don’t understand how technology works; the people under them don’t have the knowledge or the experience to build a resilient system; the contractors don’t have the necessary budget to construct the infrastructure; and the end-users are the ones who suffer. As far as the Circumlocution Office is concerned, that’s the way things have always been, and there’s no sign of any change on the horizon.
In an ideal world, seven of the eight letters I’ve received over the past four days would have been emails. Only my P45 actually needs to be a piece of paper. That could either come in the post, or as an attached PDF to be printed out at my convenience. Whichever option they chose would have saved the taxpayer just over three quid in postage, plus half a dozen brown envelopes and the associated staff costs.
Now multiply that across the whole of ‘Caerphilly Benefits Centre’ for an entire year. I could probably pay off my mortgage with the total amount, and have a nice holiday as well. How many ‘benefits centres’ are there throughout the UK? What’s the total amount wasted right across the board, I wonder?
The problem is that the government is happy to piss billions of pounds up the wall with disastrous projects like Universal Credit (the cost of which was ‘reset’ to zero in 2013, after £600m had already been spent!) When the taxpayers are funding a shambles like that, £3.50 in postage and a few bob in envelopes probably seems like a piss in the ocean.
But it isn’t. It’s entirely symptomatic of the way that our money is squandered by public bodies, at a time when most people in the UK have seen a real decline in living standards as a result of the banking collapse.
It’s the reason why libraries all over the country have closed. It’s the reason why the NHS is creaking at the seams, and why schools are chronically under-funded. Money is poured down the drain by countless inefficient practices which have been in place for so long that nobody even questions them.
We often hear the argument that public bodies have to pay their senior managers their inflated salaries ‘in order to attract the best people.’ That’s a load of crap, and everybody knows it. People like them wouldn’t last five minutes in the private sector, where they’d be under scrutiny from auditors and shareholders alike.
The private sector simply wouldn’t tolerate this sort of waste. The accountants and auditors would take steps to find out where the money was leaking out, and do their best to plug the holes in the system. Conversely, the public sector has always been content to throw its (our!) money away, knowing that there’s still plenty more where it came from.

Business As Usual

In which The Author bumps into an old friend

Saturday was a surprisingly busy day in the pub. My friends Wayne B. and Liz the Good Twin got married in the afternoon, and a few of the gang made their way into town afterwards. Kath S. marked her 40th birthday in grand style as well, so an overlapping circle of friends were on a pub crawl from Trecynon to Aberdare. Shannon and her friends were marking their last weekend before they all head off to university. Joseph was home too, and called into see his cousins. Gaz and some of the football fans arrived, and by late evening the place was packed.
It’s funny how an ‘old man’s pub’ has been transformed into the most popular place in Aberdare in a short time. It turned into a very late night, by all accounts. I left just after one o’clock, and there was no sign of it winding down. When I called in yesterday, most of the family were on soft drinks and feeling rather sorry for themselves. Shannon, remarkably, was quite perky and had a bottle of cider to start the afternoon off, much to everyone’s disgust. Bloody kids!
With so many people in there on Saturday night, it came as a hell of shock when I turned round and came face to face with Gareth L. I haven’t seen him for about ten years, and I haven’t spoken to him since July 2001. I’d heard on the grapevine that he’d gone to Australia, where his partner Anne had lived before she came over here. However, the Aberdare Bush Telegraph is notoriously unreliable, so I didn’t know whether it was true or not. (For example, at least twice I’ve seen someone in town whom I’d been told had passed away. Either I see dead people, or there’s a remarkable quantity of bullshit in the mix. You decide.)
If you’ve come by this blog relatively recently, I’d better explain that Gareth L. and I were good friends until I met Anne’s daughter Emma. It took only eight days for our friendship to be torn apart by a lethal combination of heartbreak, beer and stupidity. You can read the full sorry account for yourself in From a Land Down Under.
After the events of that week, I’d found it impossible to face Gareth and Anne again. Even though what happened wasn’t his fault, I’d decided that I was better off keeping out of their way, for fear that we’d descend into an almighty slanging match (or worse).
When I saw him standing next to me at the bar, I didn’t know what to expect. It was a classic awkward moment, of the sort you see in films and soaps. However, we greeted each other cordially and started chatting as though the intervening thirteen years had never taken place. After a couple of minutes, Gareth told me that he was back was because Anne had passed away in Australia. I was shocked. She was quite a bit older than him, but even so she must have been relatively young by modern standards. He didn’t go into details, I offered my condolences, and then we carried on chatting about nothing.
He called in for a pint again yesterday, and once again we lost ourselves in nostalgia about the good old days in Aberdare. In fact, Gareth had come to mind a few days ago, while I was listening to the BBC’s latest Radio 4 on Music podcast. It was a frank interview with Robert Wyatt, and at one point he mentioned that he only rated three British pop groups: The Beatles, The Kinks, and Madness. I remembered a trip to Cardiff with Gareth one day, years ago, when he bought a multi-CD compilation of Madness hits, b-sides, LP tracks and rarities. It crossed my mind then to wonder how he was.
[A digression: The trip in question was one of my semi-regular visits to the theatre. I’d roped Gareth in to see Yasmina Reza’s hilarious play Art in the New Theatre. We met up with Jo R. from work, and the three of us took in a Saturday matinee performance before going for a drink afterwards.
The play is a three-hander, and we saw a touring production with Nigel Havers, Barry Foster and Roger Lloyd Pack. It was an absolute joy to watch, but there’s a sad postscript to this little digression. A little while later, the same company took the play to the West End. I was listening to Steve Wright’s radio show one afternoon, and Nigel Havers was one of his studio guests, talking about the play. When the hourly news bulletin came on, one of the items was an announcement that Barry Foster had died.
Presumably Mr Havers, who must have still been in the BBC studios at the time, would have been unaware that he’d be taking the stage with an understudy that night. Roger Lloyd Pack died in January this year. Neither he nor Barry Foster were especially old. To think that two of the three people we saw on stage in Cardiff are no longer with us is rather depressing.]
Quite often in my life, if I think about someone I haven’t seen for a while, I bump into them a couple of days later. It still came as a shock to see Gareth, though, especially as he’d been in Australia for a long time. I’m pleased to say that we were able to resume our friendship pretty much where it had broken off, thirteen years earlier. Anne’s name didn’t come up at all yesterday, and – so far, anyway – Emma hasn’t been mentioned either. But I’d be lying if I said I haven’t thought about her since Gareth’s sudden reappearance. In fact, I don’t think a single day has passed since July 2001 without her coming to my mind for some reason or another.
But what would the point of even asking about her? My life has changed drastically, and hers will undoubtedly have changed as well. She might be married with kids of her own by now. There’s no earthly possibility that the two of us would be able to pick up where we left off, as though nothing had happened since. So far, Gareth and I seem to have handled the seamless edit with considerable panache, but if Emma’s name does come up in conversation, I’m not sure I even want to know how she is any more. For the time being, though, it’s business as usual for the two of us, and that’s the way I’d like it to stay.