We’ve all been there. You want to (or must) do something via a council, government agency or other arm of the state. It’s relatively obvious or straightforward to anyone giving it sensible consideration, and yet it is proving impossible. “Computer says no”, your records keep going missing and you have to start again, endless reptitious forms appear only for it to turn out that you’ve been put in touch with the wrong department, or else someone is inexplicably unhelpful.
It’s a frustrating experience to find yourself lost in the cracks between the bureaucratic floorboards, tumbled together with an ocean of others, all bouncing around from one “help”-line to another and collectively getting nowhere. It’s enough to drive grown men to hear-tearing insanity, even when it’s a relatively small issue.
But what if it’s a much more important matter?
Consider the case of a set of grandparents in North East Lincolnshire. Their daughter had a serious drug problem (she has since died) and an infant son. The grandson could not live with his father, so perfectly naturally his grandparents sought to bring him up themselves.
Today a judge found that they had been unreasonably obstructed in their attempt, by social workers who were “visibly biased” and “were intent on playing up any factors which were unfavourable to the grandparents and playing down any factors which might be favourable”. Instead, the social workers sought to have the boy given up for adoption.
There can be few more serious decisions for officialdom to oversee than whether a child is allowed to be brought up by his family or placed into care in the hope of finding adoptive parents. And yet in this case it seems that those social workers unjustly tried to reject loving grandparents who had a strong case – whether out of misplaced loyalty (to the council rather than to the child) or some sort of grudge isn’t clear.
Consider the frustration you feel when rebuffed by endless bureaucracy when trying to get a new bin, to pay your council tax or – in my case – to get your leaseholder to fix a hole in your roof. It might be incompetence, accident or malice that causes the problem – the outcome is the same. Now imagine the experience when the matter at hand is the all-important question of the future of your own flesh and blood, instead.
Sadly, this isn’t a unique tale in modern Britain. The relatives of patients at Mid Staffs expressed their concern about standards of care, and were ignored – or, worse, hounded for blowing the whistle. At least one father in Rotherham was threatened with arrest for challenging the abusers of his daughter.
In the cases we hear about, either the member of the public wins through in their battle, a whistleblower emerges from inside the system or ajudge or investigator reveals what is going on. But there are many more who are less fortunate, less determined or less able to represent themselves.
What happens to someone who doesn’t have good English, or is isolated, or suffers a disability which prevents them being heard? I suspect that all too often the bureaucracy wins out. “Computer says no” too many times and the person on the other end of the phone – the person losing out or suffering – eventually says “okay” and hangs up.
This is a question of social justice – one rarely discussed either because it is inconvenient or because there is no quick fix. Cultural problems like an uncaring attitude or a lack of accountability cannot be legislated out of existence or ordered not to occur any more. For that reason they mostly evade our headlines and our politics – and thus continue to wreck not just people’s days, but people’s lives.