Having my phone stolen was bad. But the bureaucracy that followed was almost worse.

5 Aug

On Saturday night I had an experience that has become all-too common among Londoners – and, indeed, other city dwellers. My phone got stolen.

I had been walking home, looking at my phone (stupidly), when a boy on his bicycle snatched it out of my hands. My brain took a second to process what had happened. And then my first instinct was to scream and shout for help.

Although the crime did not exactly warrant screaming – it is not the most serious – I was in effect trying to draw attention to him and encourage someone to come out, stop him and/ or call the police. “F**k you” I yelled down the street, interspersed with screams. I also sprinted after him for about 100 metres. I really, really didn’t want my phone to go.

Maybe the most disappointing thing about this experience was that no one did anything when I screamed. I wonder what if it had been a more serious crime? Victims get blamed when they don’t call for help. But nothing happened when I did.

My neighbourhood is a very woke area. It has signs boasting that it’s anti-fascist – and there are other symbols of social justice. Yet when it came to the crunch, no one was there. Perhaps a more sympathetic explanation is that people are desensitised to petty theft, so frequent has it become.

Afterwards some women stuck their heads out of their windows. “Are you okay?” One said. I clearly wasn’t and was crying. “I’m coming down”, said another. But she didn’t, and I just went home.

Luckily I have an amazing support network. I was able to get help quickly from my parents when I got home and was touched by everyone who checked I was okay. Despite this being such a “normal” crime, people were incredibly empathetic on Twitter and Facebook – and took it very seriously that I was upset.

Too many people replied that this crime had happened to them. They used the words “shaken up”, “gutting” and other terms I, through the hard way, now fully understood. I hate how accepted theft has become. It makes me feel that we’re too soppy about it, generally (“well if only we hadn’t made cuts to the youth club”), and it’s something I have resultantly become more interested in as a political matter.

Part Two

The second part of this piece is about the admin that followed – which was almost worse than the event. On Sunday the following morning I went to my phone store, thinking I could get mine replaced right there and then, in what turned out to be a very optimistic estimate.

When I went in and told the staff what had happened, they came across as nonchalant – as though they needed their morning coffee first – and got me to phone their insurance line. One of the most “catch 22” things about having your phone stolen is that you have to phone for help. As I live alone and cannot borrow a phone, I was reliant on using the shop’s.

Next problem. The phone line at the store was close to inaudible. When I pointed this out to the staff, they told me there was nothing they could do. “But you’re a phone shop,” I replied. For me to just about hear the line, the security guard had to close the store door, turn down the music and let me stand in a corridor next to the staff room.

I went to the phone shop three times in total. After my second trip, I emailed a claim, via my Gmail account, to the insurers. I got a receipt and learnt that it would take two days to process. Then I got a new problem: I got locked out of Gmail, as I have always used two-factor verification – and had no mobile to log in.

So off I went again to the shop – to phone the insurers and tell them to use another email (which I wasn’t logged out of). This time the phone line was even more inaudible, but I could make out the woman who answered telling me that they had not received my insurance claim (a day after I had sent it) – and could I send it again?

I am afraid, feeling very fed up with things, I cried. For the first time, the staff in the phone shop seemed to care. A staff member offered me a tissue and lent me her own phone for the insurers to call back on, which was slightly more audible.

During my time getting this sorted out, I had to listen to another stressed-out woman in the shop (as well as a preacher yelling outside!). I won’t go into too many details of the woman’s complaint, but she had been charged £400, and was – as you might imagine – upset, to the point of threatening she “wasn’t very nice” when she was in this state. Being in the shop for three days honestly made it look more like a counselling service – with customers constantly venting to despondent staff.

Even though I found the staff unhelpful – the man serving coffee outside was more sympathetic to my situation – I don’t blame them for being so checked out, as they were often middlemen/women between angry/sad customers and bureaucracy. So often these companies boast of their social justice credentials – their commitment to climate change and helping people and so forth – but the human aspect of their service has become non-existent.

We hear that banks end up “too big to fail”, but perhaps organisations have also become “too bureaucratic to help”, with staff that lack soft skills – because there is no incentive – and have little impact on the outcome for the customer. Central bureaucracy calls the shots, with the customer ever short of power to get what they need, and ever bewildered by their contracts. With the growth of big tech, I wonder how much further this imbalance will go.

Again, this made me think about matters bigger than my phone (a replacement of which I am still waiting for…).

James Frayne: Six ways of boosting local pride and identity

8 Dec

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

In an excellent recent blog, my colleague Andy Westwood of Manchester University called on the Government to pursue a local identity strategy.

In it, he wrote: “Buying or subsidising a hotel, pier or football club might not sit easily with notions of the role of government, nor a faith in competition rules. It goes against the grain of markets, state aid and traditional Conservative views of the state. There are lots of arguments about why we shouldn’t attempt such an approach. But if we really want to care about ‘place’ and identity then we should put these objections aside.”

He is right. Local identity should be a defining part of the Government’s “levelling up” agenda. While new investment in infrastructure and education and skills are ultimately what’s needed to improve post-industrial areas, local people will have to wait many years to reap the benefits of such policy decisions.

But the Government can do a lot in a short space of time to improve towns and cities by thinking about things through the prism of local identity. A key question should be: how do we make these towns nicer places to live? A simple question – but one which would drive different policy answers to simply asking how we deliver more jobs.

Here is what focus groups tell you people in post-industrial areas want to see. They say their towns and cities were thriving until the late 1990s, but have been in increasingly rapid decline ever since. Shops have closed on once-busy high streets, bustling markets are a distant memory, local businesses have moved out, once-great festivals have been downgraded or ceased altogether, community pubs have shut, low-level anti-social behaviour (like open drug use) has risen massively, attractive local focal points such as war memorials have been vandalised.

While the sense of malaise in these towns and cities is unmistakable, equally unmistakable is the sense of local pride people have for the places they live in. People are angry about the state of their towns because they love them. This is what the Government should be looking to tap into.

This can sound a bit vague and woolly, but it doesn’t have to be so. For a start, it’s important to acknowledge that England really is unusual in the intensity of very local identity. In a tiny country, small towns, often separated by just a few miles, think of themselves as being entirely different from their near-neighbours – and indeed they often sound completely different.

Think of the huge differences between, say, Mansfield and Rotherham. 25 miles apart and on paper quite similar, but people who consider themselves to be totally different; and remarkably, who sound totally different despite being separated by a car journey of half an hour.

Nor does renewing local identity all have to be a 30-year project. Some parts of such a project, to be clear, does: if you are going to make devolution work, revive major civic institutions and change the role of universities in their place – as well as build major infrastructure – you won’t see the results overnight. But there’s also a lot that can be done in four years, with tangible results. Here are some illustrative examples of things that a combination of national and local Government might do:

  • Keep the streets clean and safe. As well as generally increasing the visible police presence, pay for security guards to walk through the high street during the hours that the shops are open, and deploy others to walk through local parks.
  • Bring back the events. Everywhere I go, people have a local event – a carnival, a fireworks display, a special annual market – that used to bring people together and that disappeared in the last few years. The Government should help bring them back.
  • For that matter, there should be incentives to restore a local market day. Many towns still have the basic infrastructure – and certainly the space – to bring back the sorts of large markets that existed on Saturday mornings and which brought huge commerce to small towns. This basic infrastructure should be repaired or rebuilt.
  • Some transport takes decades to deliver, but regular, inexpensive buses don’t.
  • Invest in those institutions that are delivering leisure services to the local community. Long Eaton United is an example of a thriving local institution of the kind I’m thinking of. Its training facilities – partly grant-funded – are used to ensure that huge numbers of teams – for men, women, boys and girls – are all able to play. There are huge numbers of similar clubs across the country who could play a similarly important role locally.
  • Support libraries and local museums. Cultural infrastructure needs funding and supporting.

As we deliver the levelling up funds and the towns funds, plus the safer streets money, and all of the plethora of pots the government has (very sensibly) been putting into these kinds of efforts, government needs to make sure it doesn’t just go on long-term infrastructure like broadband, or local economic zones.

Important though these are, the Government needs to ensure they’re making a tangible and visible difference to towns. Without that, no one will give it permission to do longer term work – and, to be honest, this is what people care about most.

Philip Davies: Our frontline staff are vital to our economic recovery, and we must do more to support them.

6 Dec

Philip Davies is MP for Shipley & Co-Chairman of the APPG on Customer Service

Ten months on from the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, we continue to face daily challenges as we navigate its far reaching impacts on our economy and society.

Since the start of the crisis, we’ve seen inspiring examples of the nation come together, with moving tributes to the NHS and those who have worked tirelessly to keep us safe. Yet, amongst these shows of support, a concerning trend has emerged across the country – with instances of hostility toward frontline staff on the rise.

Research from the Institute of Customer Service indicates that over half of customer-facing staff have experienced abuse from customers since the pandemic began. The worrying figures span every sector – from retail to public transport networks and even financial services. As we deal with the impact of new restrictions and the onset of the busy festive season, it’s more important than ever that we step up and protect our frontline workers.

The new localised tier system will, in itself, present new challenges, as increasingly frustrated customers kick back against restrictions. As customers looking to enjoy traditional Christmas festivities are told they can only enjoy their drinks with a “substantial meal”, and those looking for last-minute Christmas presents are presented with long queues as stores try to ensure social distancing guidelines are met, I fear that the dwindling patience of the public could put our customer-facing staff at even greater risk of abuse.

I am working with the Institute of Customer Service on a campaign, “Service with Respect”, which encourages businesses and the government to do more to protect these workers.

Alongside my colleague, the Labour MP Chris Evans, and over 100 big-name brands, including O2, Boots and Nationwide, we are calling for the introduction of a specific offence for anyone who abuses customer facing staff.

We’re also encouraging organisations across the county to invest in additional training for their employees, to ensure they are adequately prepared for the ever changing requirements of their roles as we continue to navigate these challenging times.

Through a series of All-Party Parliamentary Group meetings, we have heard concerning and wide-ranging reports from across the nation – with instances ranging from verbal abuse, being shouted and sworn at, to more extreme cases of physical violence.

With 80 per cent of the UK’s employees working in the service sector, the scale of the issue is extremely concerning: and research shows it is not limited simply to face to face interactions. Those working in contact centres have reported occurrences of hostility through phone and online chat services. Combined with increased workloads as the number of vulnerable customers rises, the potential psychological impacts of such behaviour should not be ignored.

In Parliament, I recently asked the Home Secretary what steps her Department is taking to ensure that customer service staff are protected from abuse during the Covid-19 lockdown.

In response, she outlined that any such abuse is unacceptable, and that the Government is working closely with the National Retail Crime Steering Group to deliver a programme of work aiming to provide better support to victims, improve reporting, increase data sharing and raise awareness of this crime.

Whilst this initial response is welcomed, and it’s encouraging to see the issue being taken seriously, I fear this narrow view on the retail sector alone does not go far enough. Our research has clearly shown that instances of hostility span multiple sectors, and the plight of those outside of retail risks being overlooked.

Any form of abuse, in all aspects of life, is completely unacceptable, but we should remind ourselves that these workers have been operating on the frontline since the beginning of the pandemic. They have kept our nation running in the most difficult of times – keeping our building lights on, shelves stocked and basic power and water supplies running. We all have a duty to ensure they have the training and respect they deserve to safely carry out their crucial roles.

With different tiered restrictions remaining in place across the country, the role of customer facing staff continues to expand, with many taking on additional responsibilities for ensuring social distancing measures are adhered to and hygiene requirements met. In the face of a progressively frustrated and restless customer base as we approach the busy Christmas season, there is reason that these concerning instances of abuse could continue to rise.

The pandemic continues to bring daily challenges across all aspects of our lives. Yet as we try to rebuild, customer-facing staff will be vital to our recovery, and we must show them they are a valued part of our nation. And this starts by enabling them to do their work safely, effectively and free from the fear of abuse.