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Disability rights activist chains self to tax office desk

Taking the direct route on system failures

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Opinion Poor system design and large inflexible bureaucracies are encouraging outraged punters to take the law into their own hands. Is this healthy? Or is government slowly teaching the electorate that the only way to get things sorted is by direct action and being unreasonable?

Take the case of disability rights activist Clair Lewis, who this week came close to suffering serious hardship as a result of a "glitch" in the tax credits system. She discovered that a problem that officials told her would take a month or more to fix could be resolved in just half an hour, after she threatened to handcuff herself to a desk in her local tax office.

About two months ago, Clair came off benefits and applied for tax credits. Such a step is always risky, since it creates a transition period, when money from one source dries up – and no money is yet available from the new. A few weeks later, she called the helpline, only to be told there was a glitch and to wait for a letter. Two weeks later, with no letter in sight, Ms Lewis phoned again and was told to wait - although an official suggested that there must be an error and it must have been her entering data wrongly. The same thing happened a week or so later, and on a number of occasions since.

Last week, Ms Lewis was finally told that a date of birth did not match to other data on the system - although this had "just come to light". She volunteered to send the information off, only to be told that she couldn’t do so until the system had sent her an official letter asking for the information. When would that be? They couldn’t tell, but as she wasn’t priority, it could take a month.

Hardship payment? Sorry, no - because they don’t make such payments to individuals where details need verifying. Urgent review of the case? Again, no - because the case wasn’t priority. They couldn’t review its priority status until it became a priority to do so!

That high-pitched hum off-stage is the sound of Franz Kafka spinning in his grave.

In the end, Ms Lewis did what any self-respecting activist would do: she headed into the centre of Manchester with sleeping bag and handcuffs in tow, called the press, and explained politely but firmly that she wasn’t leaving the tax office until the issue was resolved.

Which it was, within about half an hour, by means of local officials and a phone call from a breathless manager from the Preston office.

Was this then a systems "glitch"? Probably not, according to a spokeswoman for HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), who was unable to comment on this particular case, but suggested that issues of this sort were often caused by data entry error and then compounded by staff unawareness.

An ordinary everyday story of bureaucratic cock-up? Perhaps. But this case highlights two disturbing trends being fostered by the UK systemocracy.

The first is a shuffling of blame off on to those who are actually victims of systems failure.

In another neck of the woods entirely are mistakes made by the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB). Over the years we have encountered a number of cases of individuals being misidentified by the CRB, and where this happens the victims of such error are then required to jump through a number of hoops – including possibly having their fingerprints taken – in order to rectify a mistake that was not of their making.

It is only natural if individuals who find themselves subject to such mistreatment in time decide that "playing the game" is no longer an acceptable option – and respond with extreme direct action. It is a good thing that Ms Lewis is now being assessed and likely to receive a pay-out in the next week or so. It's not so good that it took the intervention of the press and a threat to the good running of the organisation to make it happen. ®

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