Is the customer always right?

Originally published on October 24 on my blog for Inside Housing 

Whether we are talking about benefits or housing, a new Ken Loach film and a BBC documentary expose a system that’s failing. In the face of growing demand and shrinking provision, the safety net has gaping holes. Rising homelessness and the queues at foodbanks are the symbols of this. The basics of life – shelter, food and warmth – can no longer be taken for granted.

Seen from the outside this is obvious and so are the answers. Return to provision based on need. Build more social housing. Abandon the divisive rhetoric of strivers and scroungers. Follow the founding principles of the welfare state.

Most people working on the inside will agree with this. But they also have to work within the system as it is and they know that there is little chance of real political change any time soon. This dual reality is perhaps most obvious in the social/business divide within housing associations but it exists right across the public and voluntary sectors too.

Watching I, Daniel Blake and No Place to Call Home over the last few days, these divides were obvious. One is a documentary, the other a film, but both would claim to be revealing truths about life when the safety net fails. But they also beg a less obvious question for people working within the system: how do you know when you’ve crossed the line between doing your best in an impossible situation and making that situation worse? One answer, I’d suggest, lies in the language we use.

I, Daniel Blake opens with a conversation between Daniel and a call centre worker who we soon learn is deciding his entitlement to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). Daniel has had a heart attack and been told by his doctor and consultant that he cannot go back to work. This counts for nothing as the call centre worker sticks to her script of questions about whether he can walk 50m unaided or raise his hand above his head. Then he decides to ask questions:

‘Are you medically qualified?’

‘I’m a healthcare professional.’

‘Are you a doctor? Are you a nurse?’

‘I’m a healthcare professional.’


Rationalisations like this – finding reasons for things that we know are wrong – run right through the film and are at the heart of the benefits system. The very name ‘Job Seekers Allowance’ carries with it a switch of responsibility. You are no longer unemployed because of the state of the economy but ‘job seeking’ because you have not tried hard enough to find a job. From there it’s only a short step to loading the moral onus further on to the job seeker with the ‘claimant commitment’ and the ‘sanctions’ that follow if you do not meet it.

Fundamentally though they are about dehumanising the people asking for help. I won’t give away what happens if you haven’t seen the film yet but I think it’s safe to say that you will never feel quite the same about calling people ‘customers’ or ‘clients’ or ‘service users’ when you do.

We use that language all the time in housing too of course but should we? Calling tenants ‘customers’ may feel more business-like and less feudal but it’s also signalling a change in their relationship with you as a landlord. And it also allows you to rationalise an ever more commercial approach to your ‘business’.

No Place to Call Home is the second documentary with the same name shown on the BBC in the last couple of years. The first focused on families with children in temporary accommodation. This one concentrates on the housing options service in one London borough and includes the plight of single homeless people who are not entitled to help under the current system.

One of the most telling moments comes when housing officer Simone explains what her department does. ‘We are a housing options service with no options,’ she says. Even in the most affordable borough in London, there are hardly any affordable homes to be had. Instead the jargon of a housing and homelessness system designed to help people according to need is subverted so that they become not ‘homeless’ or ‘vulnerable’ enough or not enough of a ‘priority’.

Another comes when Darren Rodwell, the Labour leader of the council, proudly shows off his plans for estate regeneration. The plans to transform the Gascogine Estate into Weavers Quarter involve 1,575 new homes for affordable rent, shared ownership and private sale.

New homes will be created for ‘residents of the borough and people that will be moving in to the borough,’ he explains. The council cannot do it on its own because of borrowing controls and has to work in partnership with the private sector but he denies this is gentrification. ‘No, it’s aspiration for the working class.’

He goes on:‘It will benefit the majority of the community, people that are working, people that want to aspire.’ But something in his eyes changes:

‘The truth is though that means the most vulnerable, the most severe needy, the people not working, the people on the minimum benefit, we won’t be able to house them on this sort of product. I’ve got to concede as the leader of a council, of a Labour council, that there are some people in my community that with the greatest of intentions I’m not sure if I can facilitate their wellbeing moving forward. It is difficult.’

The people he’s talking about are of course the ones we’ve spent the previous half hour watching not getting help from the housing options service. ‘The most vulnerable’ means poor people, just as ‘affordable’ homes mean ones they cannot afford. The more rationalisations he uses, the more uneasy he’s feeling.

But it’s easy to criticise people who are doing a difficult, sometimes impossible, job in very difficult circumstances. Housing officers like Simone openly admit the limits of what they can do in the programme in balancing priorities for the few homes available. I can’t remember if it’s her or one of her colleagues who puts it this way: ‘I came into housing to help people. I didn’t come into housing to make people homeless but I can only do what the law will allow.’

Housing also features in I, Daniel Blake but the impact of the bedroom tax and out of area placement are minor compared to those of the rest of the benefits system. One Jobs Centre Plus officer does attempt to help Daniel but the rest of the insiders apply the rules without questioning them. Outsiders see the aim with more clarity: to ‘make it as miserable as possible – that’s the plan’.

Loach calls it ‘the intentional inefficiency of bureaucracy as a political weapon’. He’s been accused of exaggeration and manipulation but he seems to have used the same technique as in Cathy Come Home: what happens to the characters is based on extensive research and is the experiences of real people. Critics like Conservative MP Kwasi Kwarteng also argue that Loach is a creative artist and this is fiction not fact. On Channel 4 News last week Loach hit back with the facts about food banks, ESA appeals and sanctions. The telling response from Kwarteng? ‘We had an election about that.’

It’s another rationalisation of a system that even he must know is failing.


2 Comments on “Is the customer always right?”

  1. John Goodwin says:

    Thanks for a fine yet depressing blog Jules.

  2. julesbirch says:

    Thanks John – not much cheer to spread I’m afraid

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