Frankly, we don't give a damn

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 June, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 June, 1994, 12:00am

DEALING with petitions is one of those practical matters neglected by the authors of textbooks on public administration. No doubt it is an awkward matter for popular petition recipients.

As it happens the one person who has been seen doing it (in a television documentary) is the Queen. So we can sketch the traditional approach from that.

Her Majesty, wearing the Royal reading glasses, sits at a desk. Next to her, standing, is a gentleman who in more colourful times would have been a palace eunuch.

The male flunky places a petition on the desk, while giving a one-sentence summary of its contents. ''Mrs Jones of Bolton complains that green men from Mars are holding rowdy parties in her front garden on Saturday nights.'' The Queen reads as much of the petition as she wishes. Whether this reading is comprehensive or sketchy, we will note that she has at least seen the petition. She will then briefly outline the action to be taken: ''Ask the Martian ambassador if he can help.'' A lady-in-waiting, usually a sprig of the aristocracy who rejoices in a name like Lady Fiona FitzHerbert, understands this to be an order for two letters, both beginning ''Her Majesty commands me to say . . .'' One goes to the Martian ambassador, seekinghis help, and one to Mrs Jones, explaining what is being done.

Whether these letters are effective or not, they will at least have the merit of honesty.

We may contrast this with the other end of the scale, represented by the White House letter-answering arrangements. Letters to US politicians have been corrupted by the discovery that the sheer size of the mailbag can intimidate. So production is industrialised by pressure groups.

This has evoked an industrial process for producing replies. These feature a letter answerer roughly on a social par with the White House dog walker. Most letters get a standard reply, typed by a computer and signed by a miraculous machine which duplicates the Presidential signature.

The question which then arises is how, for 14 years, our government has managed to operate what is for all practical purposes a variation of the second system while appearing to operate the first.

I was still pondering this question last week when I ran into an old friend who had once petitioned the Governor, and was kind enough to show me the reply.

The opening paragraph was a masterpiece of careful phraseology. ''I refer to your petition to the Governor blah blah blah. I am authorised to reply to you on his behalf.'' The naive petitioner, as is no doubt the intention, will suppose this to mean that having read the petition the Governor turned to his lady-in-waiting and said ''write to Mr X and say such-and-such''.

There is no hint - though the wording encompasses the possibility - that the authorisation in question was a blanket one, given three decades and four governors ago, and that the most senior person to have seen your petition is the official you wanted tocomplain about.

NOW let me say here by way of comment on Mr Ken Woodhouse's moving effusion in Monday's paper that I have no objection to the Security Branch being staffed by heartless bureaucrats. Sensitive people will avoid this work. So the alternative is to have itdone by people who positively enjoy deporting six-year-olds.

It is nice to know that officials care in a rather intransitive way for the infants they shuffle from prison to prison. My complaint is that they do not care enough for accuracy in their communications with the public.

Now the cat is out of the bag the letters sent to people who petition the Governor can state the position frankly, rather like this: Dear Mrs Wong, I refer to your petition to the Governor about the impending deportation of your son/daughter. We do not show petitions of this kind to the Governor. He is too busy. So I have the pleasure of writing to you again. Jolly bad luck. Sorry.

I have now carefully and objectively reviewed the decision I made about this case last month, and concluded that my original decision was a model of statesmanlike foresight and objectivity. I am a family man too, you know. Believe me the Government is not doing anything to your offspring which I would not be happy to do to my mother-in-law.