Wednesday, 21 June 2017

The lesson of dutifully paying my duty

What a tiresome experience it was!

Phoning a number and being told I needed to speak to someone else. Being kept on hold while trivial music played, only be told after a twenty-minute wait that I was being transferred to another department. Giving a credit card number only to have to repeat it and then being told the card had been declined, though it worked the time before and the next time too. The whole tedious business of trying to settle a bill – or rather three bills – over a telephone: never easy, certainly never pleasant, but in this case, urgently necessary.

Why was the need so great?

My work involves presentations to staff in NHS hospitals. After seven years of austerity policies of Britain’s enlightened government, many of them are close to bankruptcy. It’s good to be able to distribute a few gifts, from time to time, when we turn up: pens, say, or post-it notes, now officially banned for purchase anywhere in the NHS though still much in demand.

We get these things sent to us by our colleagues in the US. Before a series of meetings back in March, we asked them to send out a few batches to several hospitals we were about to visit, which they duly did.

Our visits and presentations went well and the gifts were gratefully received. At first. But then, a small number – for some strange reason not all – received bills from the carrier company. Duty was payable on these (free) gifts and it was up to the recipient to pay it.

A bureaucracy to free ourselves from
If only Britain were
They didn’t, of course. They raised the matter with us. Politely at first.

We were abject. Can you imagine? Clients of ours. To whom we’d made gifts. Which naturally means free of charge. And now they were being charged.

My colleagues set about contacting the carrier service to see what could be done. But these things grind slowly. Long before we’d got to the bottom of the problem, the hospitals had reached the next stage of the exercise: letters that not only demanded that they pay up, but warned of dire legal consequences to come if they didn’t.

One of the hospitals had even gone a stage further. It had reached the point of a letter with a big red banner across the top. “Do not ignore this matter, it will not go away”. You could almost hear the guillotine blade being wound up. As for our embarrassment, well, you can imagine. It was crushing.

There was consternation within the company on both sides of the Atlantic. Nothing we’d tried had worked. We couldn’t get the carrier company to re-bill us instead of our clients. And the wolves were closing in on them. Broke hospitals. Being chased for payment of sums only incurred because we tried to give them something.

Fortunately, they’d sent us their dunning letters. And they had phone numbers on them. Into the breach I stepped: “I’ll ring and make the payments by credit card, over the phone”. Hence the appalling, tiresome experience. The waiting on hold. The explanations of why I was paying, not the client. The card payments that generally worked, if slowly, but sometimes didn’t. The well-meant but time-consuming apologies from the other end of the line. My requests to be sure to provide me with receipts. On and on and on. And all for a sum which, taking three cases together, barely topped £90.

But all bad experiences teach lessons. 

What did I learn from this one? Well, I didn’t need to be taught that NHS organisations were being driven to the wall by a government which regards public service as an inexcusable imposition on its paymasters right to make huge sums of money. I knew that already.

No, what I learned was how painful it can be to try to deal with transporting goods across the Atlantic. The petty regulations, sloppily applied: after all, not all our clients were even charged duty. The dead hand of the bureaucracy involved. The impossibility of making anyone listen unless it was to meet their immediate, monetary demands.

And yet Britain is about to throw itself into hugely increased dependency on transatlantic trade as it withdraws from the European Union. And, while it will no doubt keep trading with the EU, it will be under terms that face the same kind of bureaucratic meddling that already affects trade with the States.

Brexit will bring us back control and free us from bureaucracy? Don’t make me laugh. It will allow Britain to become a major world trading power? I wonder who the people who claim that think they’re kidding. It’s going to be a tiresome pain and source of costly inefficiency?

You bet it is.

No comments: