Few stewards in the service of the public can have been asked to rearrange the deckchairs as many times as those employed on board the currently named ‘Public Guardian’.
The Office of the Public Guardian is an honourable one, referring as it does to the historic defender of the rights and welfare of the most vulnerable in our community. Any argument as to whether public services should be cut must start well away from the boundaries of protecting the very weakest of our community.
Yet with monotonous regularity, the budgets of that department are cut, the headed paper redesigned, new logos ordered, telephone numbers changed, experienced staff replaced with new – and cheaper – ‘trainees’. The paintwork is changed, buildings leased and relinquished – the confused occupants are in a constant state of ‘change’.
As fresh management whizz kids are released proudly clutching their MBAs, and sign up to do their stint in this least fashionable of public sector jobs – the entire organisation lurches and remerges with a fresh vocabulary, a ‘new landscape’, and a ‘fresh approach’ to what should be a remarkably simple and repetitive job. Ensuring that those who have lost their mental capacity are not preyed upon by relatives, legal advisors, banks, or merchants, to their detriment.
Time was, all were employed in the office of the Official Solicitor in Greystoke Place, S.W.1. That was declared no longer fit for purpose when the new Mental Health Act emerged in early 1963. Some experienced staff were transferred to a building in Sardinia Street, WC2 and renamed employees of the Public Trustee. The deckchairs moved with them, and once they had settled down they recommenced the same work as before.
Not for long – another new MBA entrant had taken control of the ship and two distinct divisions of employees were merged, with all the in fighting, battle for filing cabinets, misdirected phone calls and utter confusion that such a merger of entrenched positions within the civil service can occasion. The Foyer repainted purple this time, a ‘fresh landscape loomed’. The job remained the same.
The advent of the Mental Capacity Act 2005 predicated anther move – to Archway this time. Those who had bought homes convenient for work in WC2 were bluntly told to ‘get themselves on the Northern line and don’t be late’ – the most vulnerable in society are still waiting for you to answer letters and phone calls, the job remains the same. By the way – you work for the ‘Public Guardian’ now.
Another MBA entrant and the name of the game was diversity, and regionalisation. Who knows what happened to the £5 million plus that the old building in Sardinia Street was sold for – now even the newly acquired £913,000 a year lease in Archway was obsolete. A second lease in Birmingham was taken up – a snip at £174,000 a year, and yet another in Nottingham for a mere half million a year.
No relocation costs were offered to staff who found their jobs zooming up the M1. New staff were hired – ‘providing new jobs’, ‘building a better service’, no mention of the ones lost! Experienced staff sloped off to the Public Records Office or anyone who would have them – grateful to still find a job at the end of their chosen commuting line.
Unsurprisingly, the newly hired staff in Birmingham and Nottingham found life difficult; the move coincided with a 100% increase in applications to the office and so ‘twilight working hours’ were undertaken. According to the evidence Martin Johns, the current Public Guardian, gave to the House of Commons Justice Committee last week, this gives staff a ‘work/life balance’ and is popular for that reason. Perhaps with those who seek part time evening work, but there was little concern for work/life balance in those experienced employees he discarded in London. Enough of the staff difficulties. Now that the good ship ‘Public Guardian’ is berthed in three different ports, what is life like for the customer you ask?
Perhaps you are writing to tell of some abuse of an elderly neighbour? You address your letter to Birmingham as per the information on the web site. There it may be opened by one of the ‘twi-lighters’ enjoying their work/life balance. They of course have only worked there for a few weeks, so are unable to do anything with your letter – besides, the files are stored in Archway in London so they have no information on the case you refer to.
They courier the letter down to London. It is an urgent attempt to stop abuse after all.
In London, an experienced case officer looks at the letter and agrees it really should be seen by the Court of Protection – except that the judge for this case is based in Nottingham.
He couriers the letter up to Nottingham. There it is seen by the presiding Judge – who has no details of the case. He e-mails London and asks that the file be sent to him. It is. By courier up to Nottingham.
The Judge makes his decision and asks the administrative arm of the court to write and convey his thoughts to all concerned. Did I mention that was in Birmingham? Hmmn. Back we go.
Now that all concerned have decided that ‘regionalisation’ has its difficulties, not least when you don’t have a dedicated intranet, we find that it will cost a ‘mere £22 million’ to rationalise the service in one place. This has added advantages in that it will ‘create 177 new jobs’ in Birmingham for experienced case officers – keep your eye on the ‘lady’ card folks, for unless the ‘177 experienced case officers’ in London can sell their homes and move sharpish, there will be 177 simultaneous redundancies that no one will mention. Quite possibly they will turn up in a future report detailing the savings made in this move!
So many millions spent rearranging deckchairs and none of it of benefit to the ultimate customer – but then as the Public Guardian carefully reminds us in his evidence to the House of Commons:
The services of the Public Guardian ‘are not a price sensitive market’.
That will be because neither the taxpayer, nor the vulnerable, nor even the experienced staff, have any say in the matter. The Office of the Public Guardian has a monopoly in the matter of protecting the vulnerable from financial abuse, a monopoly hidden behind a veil of secrecy.
The current level of fees agreed by the Public Guardian as applicable to supervising the payment of gas bills for those who have lost mental capacity run to a stunning £409 an hour – based, we are blithely told in management business school speak, on ‘comparable private civil litigation costs’. This is ‘not a burden’ to the vulnerable because in many cases the cost of these fees is added to the damages awarded against – for instance – the National Health Trusts.
If ever there was a public sector that should undergo a ‘management buyout’ – it is the Public Guardianship Office. There are experienced staff there who have spent their entire carer understanding the requirements of the mentally vulnerable.
Time for the MBA careerists to leave the building and let the experienced staff get on with the job.