Andreas Whittam Smith: Our uncaring, amoral and shameless state

Even if Railtrack shareholders win their action, the one thing they won't obtain is an apology
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The Independent Online

I first glimpsed the unpleasant nature of the state some years ago. The issue was quite minor compared with what has been happening recently. At the time, newspapers were challenging police demands to see unpublished pictures of demonstrations. Newspapers made the reasonable point that once it was realised that the work of their photographers could be used as evidence, they might well be attacked by demonstrators and have their equipment smashed. In any case, the police employed their own photographers at such scenes so there was no reason to put anybody else in danger.

I first glimpsed the unpleasant nature of the state some years ago. The issue was quite minor compared with what has been happening recently. At the time, newspapers were challenging police demands to see unpublished pictures of demonstrations. Newspapers made the reasonable point that once it was realised that the work of their photographers could be used as evidence, they might well be attacked by demonstrators and have their equipment smashed. In any case, the police employed their own photographers at such scenes so there was no reason to put anybody else in danger.

This argument was made at court hearing after court hearing but never succeeded. The state pressed relentlessly on. What I learnt then is that you cannot have a conversation with the state.

This has been the tragic experience of the thousands of families who have suffered from the Inland Revenue's mishandling of the tax credit scheme. Some 1.9 million people were overpaid. Living on modest incomes, they naturally quickly spent the unexpected funds. Then the state, having discovered its mistake, reduced or stopped welfare payments until the account was in balance. This feast and famine routine caused great distress.

The Parliamentary Ombudsman reports that, as a result, many families are having to borrow money from relatives and friends to support their children, using up their life's savings or running up credit card debts in order to pay for childcare costs, buy food and get to work. One woman whose award was wrongly terminated wrote: "I have had to borrow money to pay my rent as the landlord was threatening me with eviction. It has caused me so much stress and depression."

Another woman facing an overpayment of more than £5,000 stated: "I cannot buy sufficient food for my three young children, never mind my husband and myself. Not to mention the increasing credit card bills which are coming through the door. We are in the process of re-mortgaging our house to cover payments for credit card and loan repayments. My husband and I are at breaking point due to the pressure and stress."

Likewise, the Citizens Advice Bureau recounts that in the most extreme cases, people have been threatened with repossession or eviction. Some have had to give up work because they were unable to pay for child care. Citizens Advice staff have even had to arrange Salvation Army food parcels for families left without enough money to eat.

So what happened when these really desperate people sought to have a conversation with the state? They simply couldn't get anybody to listen. One woman attempted 77 times to find somebody to speak to her on the help line, but she never got through. Sending a recorded delivery letter obtained no result either.

Even when contact was made, help-line staff often lacked the relevant information because of information technology failings. The Citizens Advice Bureau has found it impossible, for instance, to resolve even simple problems, "because tax credit systems have left help-line advisers unable to provide accurate information, and because letters have gone unanswered, sometimes for months". Tax credits staff have even told some families they must take out high-cost loans to make good overpayments.

As well as not being able to speak to it, a further unpleasant feature of the state is that it is amoral. We shall find this accusation being made in the High Court this week. Some 55,000 former shareholders in Railtrack are suing the Department for Transport and, with reference to its former Secretary of State, Stephen Byers, alleging misfeasance in public office and confiscation of property, In a nutshell, the charge is that the state forced Railtrack into insolvency by wrongly, and with dishonest intent, withholding payments that the company had every right to expect. As a result, the Government could renationalise the company without having to pay a penny for it. After a big fuss, shareholders have received some compensation, but this cannot disguise what has been alleged - attempted robbery of shareholders by the state.

E-mails disclosed in the course of preparing the case contain such choice passages as these from the discussions of government advisers: "engineering the solution through insolvency"; "I was thinking we need a trigger to insolvency that we decisively pull"; "very attracted to the option of pushing [Railtrack] into administration. It does not cost too much"; "It would be politically dreadful to be paying off shareholders and I see no reason why we should want to"; "we have enough things to spend money on in the sector without worrying about bailing out shareholders who added no value to the company"; "the grannies [a jocular reference to shareholders] lose their blouses".

These are the exchanges of people who work for the state, unsuspecting that their e-mail messages would ever be disclosed. Reading them is not very different from overhearing a mafia conversation. They could be Whitehall mafiosi. Rather than discussing how to extort protection money from bar owners, they are considering how to rob grannies of their shares. The tone of the messages also reminds me of the celebrated Downing Street memorandum which describes the results of a visit to Washington to discuss preparations for war in Iraq. "Military action was now seen as inevitable.... The intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

Wouldn't dishonestly pushing Railtrack into liquidation be also fixing the facts around the policy? Even if former Railtrack shareholders win their action and receive a fair price for their shares, the one thing they almost certainly won't obtain is an apology. When a miscarriage of justice is corrected, does one ever hear an expression of regret from those responsible, even if the result has been a long period of wrongful imprisonment? The state isn't very good at admitting its mistakes if it does so at all.

On Wednesday, for instance, the Paymaster General, Dawn Primarolo, came to the House of Commons to answer questions about the tax credit fiasco. The policy has been her responsibility. This is how she began: "With permission, Mr Speaker, I want to make a statement on the reforms that we have made, and are making, in the operation of the tax credits system, and to answer, point by point, the reports from the parliamentary ombudsman and the Citizens Advice Bureau that were published today."

This shows the characteristic reflexes of those who work for the state. Never admit you have made a mistake. Never apologise. Cast it all in the language of reform. The effrontery of it! Earlier, however, the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had blurted out an apology at Question Time. But not understanding that for an apology to be an apology, it has to be unqualified and stand on its own, Mr Blair went on in the same breath to attack the leader of the Opposition, Michael Howard, who had raised the issue.

The state is omnipresent in our lives and most people are fortunate enough to have only passive dealings with it. But once anybody becomes an obstacle to the state's purposes, they will see it for what it is: uncaring, amoral, shameless. These are its permanent features. It makes little difference which political party is in power.

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