I ask this question because there is a maxim that says âa nation is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable citizensâ. This is from US President Hubert H. Humphrey and the full quote is:
âThe moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.â
I would go further and say that Government has no mandate to interfere in the lives of any citizen beyond those who cannot help themselves, or should not be helping themselves. In matters of defence of the realm, that includes all of us. Equally true when it comes to punitive sanctions. Any other interference in our lives needs to be judged against the yardstick of whether it is a necessary evil introduced by the necessity of helping those who cannot help themselves.
Yesterday I wrote (at length, my apologies) of my abiding interest in the hidden world of the Court of Protection. Inevitably, I attracted a commentator who jumped to its defence and told me that his experience of it âhas been professional â if a little slow at answering the telephoneâ. He was of course a relative of someone whose affairs the Court was handling. I might have been impressed by this statement of support if he had told me that he was a âpatientâ whose affairs were being handled by the court, or even better, a dishonest relative with evidence that the court had not only uncovered that dishonestly, but had taken steps which had restored the âpatientâ under their care to the position they were in before they were ripped off.
You can liken the Court to a Smoke Alarm, with attached Fire Insurance.
Being impressed with the ease with which you can buy a Smoke Alarm is meaningless, ditto eulogising over the packaging and simple method of attaching it to the ceiling. If your Smoke Alarm doesnât sound off loud and clear long before the flames lick round your bed, if its sole response to the billowing smoke is to dryly record â Smoke Notedâ for the benefit of those who find your charred body, then the entire apparatus has no discernable meaning. It is a lump of molten plastic that has cost you dear. Worse, if the legislature has ensured that by law you must buy said Smoke Alarm for Â£800 each year, all it actually represents is a tax on citizens who fall within its aegis.
The sole criteria by which the Court of Protection can be judged is its response to being aware that fraud is indicated. If it canât do that it has no moral right to be doing anything. Taking Â£23 million pounds of tax payers money every year cannot be justified by the speed with which it answers phone calls from honest men and women.
Unfortunately, those are the sort of meaningless criteria by which the National Audit Office does judge the Court â and it still regularly finds it lacking!
Yesterday I gave you two of the many hundreds of examples indelibly burnt into my memory of the complacency the Court displays when informed of fraud. You would get fed up long before I did, if I were to list them all. I cannot forget, they are real people, not âpatientsâ, not âstatisticsâ, real people with names and faces and stories and tears, forever in my memory.
Roger Dodger asked âwhat reforms would be necessary to make the Court fit for purposeâ. A good question.
Accountability would be my first answer.
There are but three ways in which the Court can be made aware of fraud, its raison dâÃªtre. Either someone is silly enough to file annual accounts showing that they purchased a Ferrari with the money earmarked for their Motherâs care home fees â it does happen, some are that daft â or an âinterested partyâ writes in to the court telling of their concerns, or one of the pathetically few Lord Chancellorâs Visitors happens to have a fraudulent case amongst the 25% (and that is a huge improvement on the 1 in 36 cases that used to be âinspectedâ) of cases that are visited and files a report saying so.
Those annual accounts, the sad little letters carefully written on newly purchased lined writing paper from the âconcerned relativeâ, and the Lord Chancellorâs Visitors reports, all land up on the desk of the Case Officer, a civil servant. One of the 500 employed by the Office of the Public Guardian. Even if every single one of them were solely employed in handling cases, not being Union Representatives, or making the tea, or dusting the shelves in the archive room, they would still have some 46 bulging case files on their desk, and of course it is far more than that. It used to be 400 cases per active case officer. It used to be virtually impossible to see across the open plan rooms with every desk surrounded by a towering pile of dusty files.
In between speedily answering the phone to impressed Deputies like Richard, the case officers have a mountain of other duties. They are buying and selling houses for âpatientsâ, they are sadly arranging divorces for some, they are arranging child support for the offspring of others, they are supervising the rewriting of wills for still more; unless they resist the temptation to write ânotedâ on the report that will satisfy the National Audit Office that the entire edifice has been inspected and supervised, unless they take the time to read that letter and walk down the corridor, sorry, make that travel from Birmingham to London now that they have been âoutsourcedâ to Birmingham, and notify the Court of Protection that there is a problem and which solution would the court like to apply, then the court will be none the wiser. They are not telepathic.
Assuming that we do have such an energetic and dedicated case officer, and there are some, then what will be the Courtâs response? Generally it will be to change the Deputy to one of the Professional Deputies that the court has expressed a preference for â no wonder, they understand the system and donât overload it with queries regarding whether they are in any danger of getting a reply to their letter soon.
Each Deputy has to lodge a âfidelity bondâ â used to be for Â£5,000. The Court can âcallâ that Bond in. That has put Â£5,000 back in the patients account. Pretty meaningless when the patient has been ripped off for many tens of thousands of pounds. It would make far more sense to have something along the lines of the âpoolâ operated by the Motor Insurers, which could actually take all those payments for bonds and use them to make true restitution to those whom the system has failed.
Very occasionally, the Court does take criminal action against a Deputy. Google and you will come across the handful of cases, you will also come across the equal handful of cases where the Court has instigated criminal action against the civil servants who discovered that if you have the responsibility to pay bills for someone, it is just as easy to pop the odd bill for a roof repair printed up on your bother-in-laws computer into the dusty piles. Who is going to know whether that roof was actually repaired or not? Sad, but true.
The system relies too heavily on the innate honesty of most people. Changing the Deputy only serves to (hopefully) prevent further fraud in the future. Given that the Court itself believes there is in excess of 10% of fraud just within one area, I would suggest that the entire operation be disbanded.
Let concerned citizens and relatives write to their local Police Station if they believe fraud is being perpetuated.
Let the banking system take over payment of bills for citizens who have money but are not able to remember to write their own cheques.
What we have at the moment is a system that encourages people to believe that there is such a thing as âprotection of the vulnerableâ â it taxes the honest citizen and cannot even compensate by fulfilling its core fuction which is to protect the vulnerable.