One in five think we all own Abbey National: Even with the Citizen's Charter on their side, many Britons don't know how to complain, reports Donald Macintyre

Click to follow
The Independent Online
MORE than half the population of Britain believes that the National Westminster Bank, British Airways and ITV are, or may be, public services and utilities. Twenty per cent think the Abbey National 'definitely is', and only 30 per cent are sure about the status of English Heritage as a government agency.

These remarkable findings, in a survey to be released this week by the Cabinet Office, show that, even after more than 10 years of wholesale privatisation, many people have difficulty in distinguishing between the public and private sector.

Equally worrying for the Government, the findings show that people are largely ignorant of the purpose of the Citizen's Charter. They are, it concludes, so underconfident and confused about complaining of poor treatment from the public services that a large majority would be prepared to pay for a telephone advice line on how to do it.

The findings suggest that the Government will need to embark on a re-education programme over the charter - or consider extending it to the private sector.

William Waldegrave, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, is to announce this week the installation of the first Charterline telephone advice service in one region of Britain. This will give callers information on the Citizen's Charter and provide contact numbers, and where possible names, of people they can complain to about public services.

Nine in 10 respondents in the survey said the Charterline was a good idea and should be set up; 80 per cent thought people should pay a local charge for it. Seventy per cent said they would use the line less if the charge went up to 30p a minute compared with only 37 per cent who said they would use the service more often if the calls were free.

The survey, carried out for the Citizen's Charter Unit by Research International, probably provides the most comprehensive picture yet of the 'British disease' which inhibits members of the public from complaining. More than 29 per cent of adults said they had 'felt like' complaining about a public service in the previous year, compared with 21 per cent who had done so. Of those who had wanted to but had not done so, 36 per cent said they thought complaining 'would not make any difference', while 23 per cent said it would 'take too much time' and 15 per cent that 'they could not be bothered'.

The survey also shows that a large majority (87 per cent) believe people do not complain because they do not know how to go about it, or because of the difficulty in making contact (85 per cent) or because they do not know which organisation to contact (75 per cent). More than eight out of 10, however, believe that 'public services would improve if people had more confidence to complain and find out their rights'.

Even so, among those who had complained, two-fifths said their complaint had not been resolved: and half of those had given up seeking redress or information.

On the charter itself, the survey found that 69 per cent of people had heard of it, but only 14 per cent claimed they knew a 'fair amount' about it and a mere 1 per cent said they knew a 'great deal' about it. This compared with 89 per cent who knew how to contact their local Citizen's Advice Bureau.

Also, despite the Prime Minister's aim of a 'classless society', awareness of the charter is markedly greater among members of higher social classes ABC1 - 83 per cent were aware of it compared with 55 per cent among social classes DE.

Awareness of the individual charters was much lower, with only 9 per cent, for example, having heard of the taxpayer's charter. The best-known was the British Rail passenger's charter, but even here only 43 per cent of all adults had heard of it.

Not surprisingly, the public has a strong dislike of computerised advice lines. More than half the sample would use a Charterline a 'lot less' if the service was always answered by a computer voice. Nine out of 10, however, would be satisfied if the Charterline was available on weekdays from 8am to 8pm and from 9am until noon on Saturdays.

Elswhere, it has emerged that Mr Waldegrave has salvaged some of his key proposals for more open government after a battle with senior civil servants in some departments and some Cabinet colleagues. With strong backing from Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, he has persuaded colleagues that concrete steps will have to be taken to fulfil the manifesto commitment to open government.

He will indicate during the debate on Friday on a Private Member's 'Right to Know' Bill, from the Labour MP Mark Fisher, that the Government now expects to publish a White Paper in the spring.

Although the White Paper it will stop well short of proposing a Freedom of Information Act - which is Labour policy - it could mean wider publication of some policy advice for ministers, some legal protection for public-service 'whistleblowers' and an increase in the release of government papers that remain secret for more than the normal 30 years.

Mr Waldegrave is said to be perturbed at new evidence of an increase in civil service numbers by 11,456 in the year up to 1 April 1992. Ironically, among the factors behind the increase are Government policies of contracting out and more particularly the creation of hived-off, self-managing agencies.

Mr Waldegrave is expected to warn the agencies that the Government will reimpose manpower targets of the sort used during Mrs Thatcher's administration if there is evidence of 'empire building' by the agencies.

(Photograph omitted)