“I am not a client, a customer, nor a service user.
I am not a shirker, a scrounger, a beggar
nor a thief. I am not a national insurance number,
nor a blip on a screen.
I paid my dues, never a penny short, and proud to do so.
I don’t tug the forelock but look my neighbour in the eye and help him if I can.
I don’t accept or seek charity.
I am a man, not a dog.
As such I demand my rights.
I demand you treat me with respect.
I … am a citizen, nothing more, nothing less.”
You may already know where those few sentences come from. If not, I’ll tell you in a minute. But I want to tell you what they mean to me.
There’s one phrase that I hate above all others. If I had my way, I would ban it from all forms of public discourse.
I would make it illegal for any public servant, or anyone providing a public service, ever to utter the phrase in their interactions with citizens. I would make it a dismissable offence for any manager to use the phrase.
The phrase is “we know best”. There are different variations of it, and different ways in which it manifests itself. But it’s used, again and again, to make people feel inferior, and as often as not beholden. It’s a phrase that ignores the fact that we all have both rights and responsibilities.
Sometimes, of course, the phrase is never uttered. It just underpins behaviour. Let me give you a small example of what I mean.
Don Buckley is an Irish journalist. He is one of that band of journalists of whom it can be said that he has done the State some service over many years. Throughout his career he did tenacious and demanding work.
And he did that despite the fact he has never been a physically well or strong man.
The progress of his illness means that it’s very difficult for him to get around now, and he’s often housebound.
Recently, he needed some money from his bank account (more than could be got from an ATM, though considerably less than four figures), and made his way, with difficulty, to the bank branch where his account has always been.
They refused to give him the amount he needed without proof of identification. So he produced the only proof he had, his personal public service card (PPS). You’re familiar with them, I imagine. Don’s had his name, photograph, signature, and PPS number, as they all do. It had been issued by the State, as they all are, using the best standards of authentication available.
But the bank refused to accept it. His own branch of his own bank (Ulster Bank, though I’ve since established that other banks apply the same daft rule) refused to give him access to his own money in his own bank account because the basis on which the State recognised him wasn’t acceptable to them. When he protested, he was told that the Central Bank wouldn’t recognise the PPS card. And that was the end of that.
The Central Bank, however, implies something different saying that the requirement for the various proofs of identity is specified by the individual financial institutions as their interpretation of the 2010 Criminal Justice Act.
Nevertheless, what Don Buckley was told locally was “come back with your passport”, notwithstanding the fact that he had struggled to get his walking frame into the bank in the first place.
When he protested, he was told that the Central Bank wouldn’t recognise the personal public service card. And that was the end of that.
They reckoned without Don Buckley. As ill as he is, he decided he wasn’t leaving the bank without his money.
Through mounting discomfort and pain, he sat there for several hours. He was never threatened, although he was entreated several times to leave, and even offered smaller amounts of money. When it was clear that he would not surrender, they gave him the money, in return for his signature on a withdrawal slip.
The nonsense — and the callousness — involved in this rule, if that’s what it is, is incalculable. Despite illness, Don Buckley can stand up for himself.
There are thousands of people in Ireland — elderly people, ill people, disabled people – who don’t have passports or multiple means to identify themselves.
Rules like this, that have no basis in logic, are designed to make citizens feel inadequate. Of course there is a need to ensure that someone seeking to take money from a bank account is who they say they are.
There could actually be no better way of meeting this requirement than the personal public service card, and yet some bureaucrat somewhere has decided to outlaw it.
The only reason?
“We know best.”
As I said, that’s a small example. I have written here before about the bureaucracy that refused a medical card to a dying man.
I’ve written about the publicly-funded service providers that deprive people of the services they need. I’ve written about the people with disabilities whose legal rights – to independent assessment of their needs, for instance — are routinely ignored.
“We know best” is the reason so many women were deprived of their most basic rights in the cervical check controversy.
“We know best” is the reason so many women suffered symphysiotomies. “We know best” is the reason behind the still largely untold story of thousands of fake birth certificates.
“We know best” is the reason we still don’t know the full story of what happened to Grace and other children in the South-East of Ireland.
“We know best” is the reason that whistle-blowers can be driven to act, and the reason why they are always punished for doing right.
“We know best” is what deprives a citizen of his or her citizenship in the face of any bureaucracy.
Let me go back to the first paragraph of this piece. The words there were written by a man called Daniel Blake.
He is a fictional character in an unbearably true story. The movie, I, Daniel Blake is about an ordinary man who, because of illness, gets caught up in a vicious spiral of “we know best-ery” that deprives him of the most basic means of support.
There’s no good reason behind any of the decisions made that affect his wellbeing in ever more damaging ways.
The film is a harrowing, powerful reminder of the poisonous relationship that can develop between a bureaucracy that takes on a life of its own and the ordinary citizen. Movies like that can move us to tears. More important, they can bring us up short and force us to think.
So, sadly, can real life. You listen to a story like Don’s — with a happy, though unnecessary, ending thanks to his determination — and you remember all the other stories. Stories where people had to fight for years, often to the end of their resources, to get any sort of result. Or stories where, no matter how hard they fought, people were crushed by systems anyway.
We designed those systems. We did it to try to make sure that services were better delivered, and then we were powerless as they became more remote and out of touch.
And stupid — the most striking thing often about the injustices so often done is that they’re not necessary and they serve no purpose. And you wonder – when will we ever learn?