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Wednesday, April 21st, 2021, 6:50 am

Manchester Town Hall Complaint (Updated)

Manchester Town Hall

FOLLOWING a visit to Manchester Town Hall I decided to make a formal complaint. The staff at the Manchester Town Hall’s reception area gave me a generic and likely false E-mail address for the complaint, so I went to the Manchester Town Hall Web site and got a more appropriate address (specific for complaints). My concern was, they hope not to be scrutinised (and it’s less likely to happen when the Manchester Town Hall investigates itself anyway, unlike somewhat of an ombudsman, which I might reach out to at a later stage).

From 19/04/2021 (sent by myself to Manchester Town Hall):

Formal Complaint: Manchester Town Hall Customer (Dis)service

I have been a Mancunian for over 20 years and I really love the city. You can imagine how much I have been paying in Council Tax. Maybe 20,000 pounds in total, inflation-adjusted.

I have thus decided to write to you about my experiences. I am writing with deep and sincere concern. I regret to inform you that the Council has failed me repeatedly.

My complaint is threefold. I ask you kindly to respond to each element of the complaint individually as my complaint is on the public record and will be pursued as far as need be (upwards if necessary). I enumerate the problems very clearly at the end of this letter, which constitutes a formal complaint, not a hobby or an habitual rant. I have exhausted all other means of recourse.

I will begin by outlining events from this year and last year. From recollection, I believe, this is an accurate account of what happened.

SECTION I: 2020

COVID seems to have been exploited by the UK Home Office and Manchester Town Hall to violate basic laws or fundamental Human Rights, as per the UN’s definition. The Manchester experience, however, is what’s really at stake here. I will, hereon, focus not on the Home Office.

Many people may be going ‘online’ and longing for ‘apps’ (e.g. so-called ‘self-service’), but many people do not. You cannot force them to. The old excuses and banal lines like, “because who need services anyway??” won’t fly because they’re part of people’s basic rights, which the Manchester Town Hall is obliged to respect.

In 2020 I was repeatedly misled if not lied to by Manchester Town Hall. This led to a great deal of angst, both for me and for my wife. It lingers on for months, it does not vanish overnight. It’s still unresolved.

First time misled? My bad. Second time? Your fault. Unlike the old saying, “fool me once, shame on you…” (twice… me)

I’m tired of being pushed around and misled by people who claim to be the public face of Manchester Town Hall (they’re the ones manning the front desk, the reception).

What’s all this commotion about? Is it about privacy? Accessibility? Adherence to law? Or all the above?

Right about now many rules and laws are flouted and violated. In the name of “emergency”… a public health crisis. Perfect justification?

Courts have apparently decided that the equivalent of a telephone call is “trial”; governments are waging an accelerated war on cash, as well. I often wonder if here in Britain we changed the coins (rendering old ones worthless and obsolete) to artificially reduce the money supply; it would be helpful to know how many “old coins” there are compared to “new ones”. The thinking is, maybe they try to impose financial surveillance by “going digital” with scarcity of physical money added to the mix… or removed from circulation.

I bring this up just for analogy’s sake. Internet ‘voting’ is not secure (technical people like myself with a strong background in Computer Science will tell you that, based on evidence), ‘apps’ are no substitute for in-person services, and security is waning because back doors are mandated by our government, even out in the open.

I’ve heard it said, even by Manchester Town Hall, that they’re separate from the government as much as Manchester City (private company) is separate from Manchester United (another private and publicly-traded company). I reject this false equivalence because the same political parties that control the government also occupied Manchester Town Hall for a very, very long time. So when your staff at the front desk tells me (earlier today) that they’re as separate from the British government like football clubs are separate he’s basically insulting my intelligence and trivialising a serious situation regarding an essential service. I expected much better than this. Standards should be higher. They can be.

The deterioration of our lives is now driven by technology; we were promised technology would make things easier (like doing our laundry, shortening the working days/hours etc.) but in practice people work harder and for longer hours than ever before. People are even being contacted by their bosses well outside working hours. Is this progress? No.

In the case of Manchester Town Hall, a lot of services are now being outsourced and to make matters worse there are no options left for those looking to get things done the “proper” way.

This brings me to the nature of the complaint. On December 10th 2020 my wife and I went to Manchester Town Hall (temporarily housed partially in Heron House across the road, below GCHQ, as he main building undergoes renovation/overhaul). We went to their office, as explained in the official site, at the specified time with all the documents and a laptop (as required for communication and exchange of details), only to be told the service we need (EEA settlement) is not available due to COVID but can instead be done at the Post Office.

Alright then…

So we went to the Post Office, only to be told they don’t do any of that and at least two people had been similarly misdirected earlier in the same day!

What on Earth is going on? ‘Ping-pong’ with people?

So we went back to Town Hall, only to face a different person, who barely even apologised for the misdirection and used “COVID” as a catch-all excuse, instead suggesting contacting the Home Office or urging us to use some Android “app” (which is out of the question).

What if we were disabled or blind? What about options that are paper-based?

This is a terrible regression which actually predates (in part) the pandemic. An “app-only” government would be a travesty for many reasons; like rendering you a non-citizen for refusing to carry around a so-called ‘phone’ that tracks your movement more closely than RFID. There are also security issues and one need not be a Luddite to reject this option. I have a strong background in computing and I work with many of them; I’m no Luddite, I just understand enough the pitfalls and human rights aspects. Our local and national government needs to be better advised on those aspects.

Is COVID a valid excuse here? Hardly. Because apparently, according to information we received from a representative at the Town Hall, this has gone on since March 2020 and there’s no projected date or resumption. According to our solicitor, the whole “app” thing was already pushed well before March. They literally want people to take selfies of themselves and then send that to the Home Office, then send sensitive documents over ‘phones’ with back doors.

This isn’t the future; this is not “innovation” but degradation of services spun as “smart” and convenient.

Nothing is as convenient as an informed person interacting with you, dealing with the papers for you, checking the authenticity and ensuring everything is done properly right there on the spot.

I am not a lawyer, I don’t know the pertinent laws and sections, but I know enough to say that the government cannot demand people do those sorts of things with “apps” or digital devices. There must be a fallback. Leaving people ‘hanging’ for almost a year citing “health and safety” cannot be excused because of the COVID-19 pandemic; for several months during summer people could go to pubs and restaurants, so surely Town Hall could facilitate face-to-face (with masks on) meetings.

I decided to carry on chasing Town Hall the following year after lock-downs (which went on longer than anyone had expected).

SECTION II: 2021

Manchester Town Hall looks the same, some of the staff is the same, and there are familiar faces.

Back in December I complained that in the name of “COVID” (the ultimate source of excuses for just about everything) services that are considered “essential” were shut down, outsourced, and basically ceased to be taken seriously. Citizens became almost ‘disposable’ and there was no effort to help the elderly, the disabled and so on.

Without having to repeat what happened in December (it’s documented above, down to the level of fine details), let’s say that this time, with lock-downs lifted after a 4-month quarantine period, Manchester Town Hall enthusiastically told me (upon me visiting) that now it’s possible to get appointments again, albeit it’s done by an external and private firm. Not particularly encouraging. Not everything ought to be privatised. Did the government just cease to exist? What does the government collect tax money for and what does Manchester Town Hall take over a thousand pounds per year for? To pass that money to private firms in the form of contracts? So long story short, Manchester Town Hall outsourced some services to private companies and now it takes almost an hour waiting on the phone just to speak to a person. See, companies think “efficiencies” and “profit”… not quality of service…

Once you finally get to speak to a person they pretend to offer services but are in fact admitting it’s not something they do. So the Manchester Town Hall staff sends people in the wrong direction, with completely false hopes.

I went to Town Hall today and they confirmed that, indeed, it was just some biometrics company. Why did Town Hall send EEA citizens to a biometrics company??? The process does not at all require biometrics (at any point).

This, to me, showed a degree of incompetence.

This is not the first time! They did the same thing last year. They had been sending people to the Post Office, only to be told that it’s the wrong place and they offer no services to that effect. Based on what staff of the Post Office told us, the Manchester Town Hall kept sending more and more people in that direction in vain (several people before us, even on the very same day).

So what on Earth is going on?

Manchester Town Hall once again sends people to the wrong firms, falsely claiming they offer in-person services. I’ve just spoken to their manager after escalation (and 40+ minutes on the phone; not cheap, premium rated!) and they’re basically confirming it’s a case of “not my department!”-type deflection. COVID has killed the concept of public servants and services.

The staff of the Manchester Town Hall is either seriously misinformed or deliberately lies to people just to get them to exit the premises, never to fulfill essential requirements. I dread the thought of what Manchester Town Hall would be like if there was Martial Law.

But on a more serious note, is any attention being paid to quality of advice and service?

SECTION III: Today

Upon my visit to the City Council I was mostly stonewalled, unlike in my previous visit, which gave me false hopes (see above).

Mark sat at the desk, soon to be joined by two colleagues including a security person who clearly was not needed. There was no escalation or threat, I am soft spoken, so three people standing around me only caused unnecessary hostility. They made me feel not like a foreigner but a leper. Seeing that a longtime citizen gets treated in this fashion worried me about ‘brexit’ more the anything the government says. Seeing it face-to-face…

My approach was about an essential service, not a luxury.

Mark said you must answer within two weeks and work towards a resolution.

To summarise, my complaint is split as follows:

1. Failing to provide an essential service to my wife and I

2. Giving bad advice or misinformation, sending us and many others in the wring direction repeatedly

3. Treating a polite person with a legitimate grievance (aggrieved by repeated disservice) in a menacing way, no less right under the GCHQ as if their citizen, who is also a journalist, poses a potent threat.

Maybe the projection tactics sought to cause self-shame and in effect invert the narratives. All we wants to do was register as residents/citizens. Nothing more. Now I completely lack confidence in the Council, which I do not feel exists to serve or protect me. Or anybody else for that matter because what the Post Office told me suggests they did the same to other people.

Today is 19/04/2021

I am aware your deadline for substantial reply is thus 03/05/2021.

Kind regards

Dr. Roy Schestowitz


The following day (20/04/2021) Manchester Town Hall wrote to confirm that it is now dealing with my long and threefold complaint. I had clarified my willingness to take this up to the higher levels (like central/national government) if necessary. Lots at stake across many areas, not just my own experience, so I will try to make the complaint generic enough to tackle underlying causes.

Feedback and Complaints Service

Telephone: 0161 234 xxxxxxxxxxxxxx
xxxxxxxxxxxxxx@manchester.gov.uk

Dear Dr Roy Schestowitz,

MAN/xxxxxxxxxxxxxx – Corporate Complaint Stage 1 – xxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Thank you for your complaint which we received on 19/04/2021.

Your complaint is being dealt with at the first stage of the Council’s complaints procedure.

We have allocated this to a member of the team, who will investigate and respond to you directly, within ten working days. You will be contacted again if for any reason we cannot meet this deadline. In the meantime, if you have any queries about your complaint, please reply to this email directly and we shall be in touch.

I hope this matter will soon be resolved to your satisfaction and I would like to thank you for bringing it to our attention.

Yours sincerely

xxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Registration and Coroner Services Support Officer

I am now awaiting further updates/actions and will update this blog post when/if further communications are made.

Update: Today I received the following reply.

Dear Dr Schestowitz

Thank you for submitting your recent complaint which has been passed to me to respond to. I would like to respond to the each of the three main points of complaint in turn, but before I do so I would like to take a moment to explain precisely who we are and what connection we have to the EU Settlement Scheme. I am the Registrations Manager at the Manchester Register Office, who primarily are responsible for the registration of births, deaths, marriages and civil partnerships in Manchester. The EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) is, and always has, involved a self-serve online application process. Since its inception EUSS has required the applicant to make the application online themselves, there is no way of applying using a paper form. Neither Manchester Register Office nor Manchester City Council have any connection to EUSS and cannot assist with applications on behalf of residents. Part of the application process involves the applicant verifying their identity by using a smartphone app to scan their biometric passport and take a photograph of themselves. Initially this app was only available on Android phones and was therefore not available for download to iPhone users. Prior to the pandemic, what Manchester Register Office did provide was a service whereby EUSS applicants who were unable to download or use the smartphone app could attend the office and a member of staff would do this for them using an electronic device with the app installed on it. The applicant could only use this service if they had already submitted their application online. This was a non-statutory service and had to be immediately suspended when the pandemic hit. There were numerous reasons why we were unable to offer this service, but one of the main reasons was the fact it was no longer safe from a public health perspective for us to offer it. The service involved large numbers of people attending the office in person, the staff member and applicant being in close personal contact with each other to take the photograph and the passing of an electronic device between them. This meant the service was no longer viable or safe for us to provide and therefore has been suspended indefinitely. Furthermore, since the smartphone app is now available to iPhone users as well as applicants with an Android phone, there was far less requirement for us to provide this service. The online application can be made here: https://www.gov.uk/settled-status-eu-citizens-families/applying-for-settled-status

I hope that goes some way in explaining why neither Manchester Register Office or Manchester City Council has withheld an essential service to either you or your wife.

I have thoroughly investigated events by speaking to the staff that have dealt with you when you have visited the Register Office. The first time you attended the staff member you spoke to was a temp who was working for this service at the end of last year. This staff member explained that we couldn’t assist with your request to help you make an EUSS application. She suggested that you may wish to try the Post Office. It later transpired that this member of staff had made a similar suggestion to other customers and, when highlighted, she was advised that the Post Office couldn’t help with EUSS enquiries. I would like to apologise for that fact that this suggestion was not accurate and for any inconvenience this may have caused you. However, this was a genuine attempt to provide you with an avenue to explore, as we were unable to assist. I do not believe it is correct or fair to characterise this as a deliberate attempt to mislead you, ‘pass the buck’ or lie. Since the Post Office do provide a number of identity verification services, I do not think that this staff member’s suggestion was outlandish or far-fetched, although as I have said I would like to apologise for any inconvenience this incorrect suggestion caused you.

On a separate visit I understand that you dealt with another member of staff who again explained that we were unable to assist you with making an EUSS application. On this occasion the staff member suggested an alternative avenue to explore, namely, to try speaking to the company Sopra Steria to see if they could help. Sopra Steria are a private firm who provide UK Visa and Citizenship application assistance and are classed as the ‘official partner’ of the UK Visa and Immigration Service. Since Sopra Steria have offices based in the Manchester Central Library, a short walk from Heron House, this seemed to the member of staff that spoke to you like a sensible suggestion that would not involve you going significantly out of your way. Presumably because EUSS requires the applicant to make their application online themselves as I have explained, you have explained that Sopra Steria were not able to provide you with what you wanted. Again, I believe it is wrong to characterise this genuine and well-meaning attempt to help you find a solution, as a deliberate attempt to mislead you or waste your time. However, what this has highlighted is the need to ensure that all our team are fully aware of the fact that all EUSS applications must be made online and where necessary to advise customers of this. I would like to thank you for raising this matter as it has helped us improve the advice we are able to provide to customers and residents in the future.

On your most recent visit to Heron House you made the same enquiry regarding making an EUSS application and wanted us to help you complete ‘the form’. It was repeatedly explained to you that this was not a service we could offer, or indeed had ever offered. I have explained previously how this advice was accurate. I have independently spoken to all the staff members that were present (three members of Register Office staff and a security guard employed by G4S witnessed your visit) and I have not found any evidence that you were spoken to in a rude or offensive manner, or that anyone acted in a threatening or ‘menacing’ way. Having been told the same thing repeatedly and with no way of resolving the issue to your satisfaction, the conversation had to be drawn to a close. A queue of customers with appointments to meet with registrars was beginning to form behind you and needed to be booked in and sent upstairs to attend their appointment slots. Since only one party can be admitted to the entrance foyer at a time it became necessary for the security guard to ask you to leave the building to allow others to be admitted. I have not heard any evidence that you were treated in a ‘menacing’ way or in a way that suggested you were seen as posing a threat as you have described.

In conclusion, I do not uphold this complaint. Whilst I would like to apologise for any inconvenience caused to you and your wife by the suggestions made by members of staff here at Manchester Register Office, I do not believe these suggestions can be characterised as anything other than well-meaning attempts to provide you with avenues to explore as we were not able to provide you with the service you were requesting. Whilst these suggestions may have proven to be inaccurate it does not alter the fact that the assertion each member of staff made that we were unable to assist you in making an EUSS application was accurate. As I have explained in detail EUSS has always been an online application process undertaken by the applicant themselves and has never been something that the Registration Service or Manchester City Council have be able to offer. You have however highlighted the need for our team to be better aware of the EUSS application process and how it can be accessed, and I have since provided all staff with appropriate guidance. I would like to thank you for bringing this to my attention as it will enable us to provide better advise in the future if we receive such enquiries again.

Your complaint has now been considered at Stage One of the Council’s complaints procedure. If you feel your complaint has not been satisfactorily answered, you have the right to request it is reviewed at Stage Two. Should you wish to do this, you should respond directly to this email without changing the subject line. Your request for a review should be made within 20 working days of the date of this letter and should set out:

The reasons why you remain dissatisfied

How you expect the complaint to be resolved

Upon receipt of this information, the Corporate Complaints Team will determine whether:

A Stage 2 review is likely to bring a different outcome

Your desired outcomes are reasonable and achievable

In every case, your complaint, and the points above will be reviewed and you will be notified of the decision on whether a further investigation will be undertaken at the second stage. If a Stage 2 investigation is progressed, you will receive a full response within a maximum of 15 working days. If it is not, you will be advised further of your ongoing right of appeal.

Kind regards

xxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxx

Registrations Manager

Manchester Register Office

Heron House

47 Lloyd Street

Manchester

M2 5LE

I still contemplate how to proceed with this. Manchester’s authority investigating itself was bound to lead to such an outcome.

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