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IDENTITY CRISIS

16-01-2007

The government has announced plans for a giant national database which will allow its various departments to share the vast amounts of information they already have about us. Lynn Hawthorne wonders when it will start working the other way around so that we can know everything about them.

As the row over a national database containing information about every citizen in the country rears it's ugly head, so too does the question of how much is known about us and by whom.

This week, for instance, it was reported that one secondary school was fingerprinting its pupils without parental consent in an attempt to establish attendance.

Interesting move. No doubt it will be against those pupils' human rights and the school will be stopped from doing it, but you do start to worry about the potential uses of such information.

If you think about our daily lives, every mortal thing is known about us: where we live, what we drive, how much we earn, how much we owe, even what we buy and where.

There's a seemingly infinite number of CCTV cameras watching our every move and it is virtually impossible to remain unseen as you go about your business. Unless, of course, you're an escaped convict on the run from open prison, but that's another issue entirely….!

So you'd think it was extremely difficult to conceal your identity, wouldn't you? Well, not if you work in two particular organisations, it isn't.

Both of these ‘revelations' occurred on the same day, oddly, and both incensed me for different reasons.

The first is not serious in the grand scheme of things, but irritating nonetheless. On December 21st, I went out to celebrate my birthday with my husband and the three friends who weren't bogged by Christmas preparations.

We went to The Plough and Harrow in Aldridge, which is a considerable distance for us by taxi, but it's a pub we'd visited frequently and we'd always been pleased with it. Except for that night.

The place was cold, the staff inefficient and the meal dreadful, so we complained both then and there and the following day to the area manager. It was only then that we discovered that it was an M & B pub, part of a chain.

Now this boozer gives every impression that it's an independent pub, which, apparently, is deliberate, so that it can ‘blend in' with the locality.

Fair enough, I suppose, but there was the unspoken implication that if punters knew it was an M & B pub, they'd avoid it. Correct! To my dad, M & B always stood for ‘mouldy beer' and he hated the places with a passion! I now understand why.

To me, this ‘business decision' seemed like a deliberate attempt to fool the public and I really object to false pretences. If there is an issue about theM & B name, then that's what needs to be addressed rather than “tricking” punters into venues by hiding the company brand.

But it is the second instance that concerned me most. On December 22nd, I received a letter from the Department of Work & Pensions as a follow-on to a dispute about a Jobseekers' Allowance claim I made when I had no supply teaching work.

The DWP claims to have overpaid me and is making it look like my fault, even though I have complied with everything that has been asked of me. This letter was headed ‘Debt Management' in Darlington, County Durham, although the first letter had come from Nuneaton and it always says Belfast on the envelopes. With me so far?

So I called them and was told that no-one could answer my query, because they were only debt management. “Find me someone who can” met with a blank response. After putting on extra pressure, for which I make no apologies, the girl on the other end of the phone asked me to put my request for information in writing.

As my ‘debt' was due to be repaid by 1st January (a Bank Holiday), I asked if I could expect any beefy men to arrive to take away my furniture. She said she would suspend my case for 21 days.

Reasonably, I asked for her name for my records. “Er…Holly,” she replied. On December 22nd, she gives me ‘Holly'? I smelt a rat, so asked for her surname. She then gave me one of the most common surnames in England. “And you expect me to believe that's your real name?” I asked. “It's the name I am known by here,” she said, portentously.

At that point, I operated a superb Jeremy Paxman routine and asked her the same question over and over again. “Is that your real name?” Eventually, she crumbled and admitted that it was a pseudonym.

A government employee using a pseudonym? We're all used to actors using stage names and know that people change embarrassing monikers by deed poll; we are grateful that the brave officers of MI5 and MI6 use false identities in the line of duty and know that police and military operations are given codenames. But someone discussing unemployment benefit?

I was appalled, thoroughly disgusted, then downright insulted. So it's alright for the government to know everything about me, but I have to put up with a pseudonym-wielding civil servant?

Obviously I have complained and been told that it is not DWP policy to give out false names (first names and section only, apparently), but it has been done.

They don't yet know by whom but ‘feel confident' that the person concerned will come forward and admit what they've done. They ‘feel sure' that this is an ‘isolated incident'.

I, however, have my doubts. How many people have been hoodwinked by such tricks? How many people have had telephone conversations that they cannot prove? How many times have identities been masked to cover up incompetence?

It all boils down to bottle. Who has the courage to stand by their work/statements/competence and take responsibility for what they do? This is yet another strand of a continuing argument, as far as I am concerned, namely that standards are falling and nobody can be bothered to do anything about it, except lie and hide.

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