Neil McNicholas: When those in authority lose sight of the ‘dots’

Father Neil McNicholas has highlighted how officialdom is failing Alzheimer's sufferers over the payment of bills.
Father Neil McNicholas has highlighted how officialdom is failing Alzheimer's sufferers over the payment of bills.
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THE pictures in newspapers once upon a time were made up of tiny dots – much like the pixels in modern digital images – but you would only notice it if you looked very closely, otherwise all you saw were shades of black and white.

The most common failing of officialdom – be it government, local authority, public corporations or quangos – is that all they see is the big picture and they lose sight of all the many “dots”, the people, over whom they exert their authority.

Like the Roman emperor who, to keep him humble, as he returned to Rome in triumph had a servant who whispered in his ear “Remember you are just a man”, they would do well to remind themselves on a regular basis of who elected them to their positions of power and who can just as easily un-elect them.

Let me just cite, by way of an example, Labour-run Redcar & Cleveland Council and the Labour MP for Redcar where my parents live. This is the same Labour that has its founding roots in the quest to represent and improve the lot of working class people.

Earlier this year I tried to appeal against my parents having to pay a £27 component of the council tax allocated for adult social care when they were already paying £5,000 a month from their savings to pay for their nursing home care – both have Alzheimer’s disease. The council was unbending, as was their MP, pointing the finger instead at Government policy that required them to make such charges regardless. It’s nice to know they care.

In September, I responded to the latest council tax bill and paid not only the £168 demanded, but an additional £168 to cover the period until I hoped the house would sell (to continue funding their care). This week I received a summons for non-payment and a date for a magistrates’ court appearance! Well actually the summonses were addressed to my 92-year-old parents (in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s, remember).

As you might imagine I was furious, and got straight on the phone to the council who had to immediately apologise for their clerical error having sent out the summons the day before my cheque arrived (so they said), and also for the potential stress and trauma that might have resulted had my parents been in a position to have understood such a letter dropping through their letterbox.

It gets even “better” in that, as it turns out, not only do my parents not owe the council the £555 stated in the summons, but the council actually owes them £80 because the house sold last month and the council already knew that! So they had to apologise yet again. It was now my turn to make the demands: firstly for an equally official letter of apology and then for a form to register a complaint. The question remained unanswered as to why the summons hadn’t been stopped when the council realised all the mistakes they had made.

While it may be the case that it is computers that spit out these missives, someone has to input the software in the first place and it is they who should find themselves at the Job Centre as a result of situations like this otherwise no lesson is taught or learned which is why, of course, such things continue to happen. Meanwhile it is a disgrace that they do.

I’m sorry if this seems like a personal rant, it isn’t intended to be. I am in the privileged position of being an occasional contributor to these pages, and every once in a while something comes along that lends itself to being aired in this way. While I speak from the position of having power of attorney for my parents, I also speak from the position of being their son and, in both instances, an advocate for them and their rights given that they are unable any longer to speak and act on their own behalf.

It’s bad enough that my original appeal against the adult social care component of the council tax was turned down. £27 may not seem worth arguing over, but having to contribute to the cost of everyone else’s social care when my parents are already paying £5,000 a month for their own care is grossly unjust and cries out to be challenged. A “no exceptions” response was, and remains, totally unacceptable. The autocratic high-handedness of those responsible for erroneously issuing my parents with a court summons was the last straw.

Before officialdom starts throwing its weight around like this, it would do better to be more considerate of where it is going to land and who might be hurt in the process – usually the dots, the little people, they no longer see.

Father Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Yarm.