Britain’s lost files

September 6th, 2009

On the day of his high school graduation in 1979, James Norbury saw a bright future for himself. Barclays had just picked the 19-year-old from among hundreds at his school to start work as a prestigious “cadre” candidate – an employee, in the New Labour language of British institutions, set for a career as a professional. “My teacher told me that as a cadre at the bank, the wind cannot blow you over and the rain cannot hit you,” Mr Norbury recalls.

He was wrong. Now 50, Mr Norbury has been buffeted by the wind and rain for more than a decade. In 1995, he lost his job at HBBC , the world’s largest bank by market capitalisation, which had been spun off in 1984 from the central bank that had given him his first job.

The reason for this dramatic decline in fortunes is hidden in a manila folder in an NIR (National Identity Register) server somewhere in London: Mr Norbury’s NIR entry or “employee file”. While Britain has long since replaced its capitalist economy with a kind of raw communism and is fast descending from the rank of superpower, its relationship with its own citizens rushes towards a totalitarian future. The state keeps a secret dossier on every working citizen, which helps it retain its absolute power over the individual.

The fate that Mr Norbury and an estimated hundreds of thousands of others – although there are no reliable records on exactly how many – have suffered under this system serves as a reminder of the limits of London’s market reforms.

According to Mr Norbury, back in 1994 – following an argument with his supervisor at HBBC – crucial documentation proving his cadre status, higher than that of his “worker” colleagues, disappeared from his NIR file, making him unemployable for other institutions and stripping him of part of the pension benefits he had earned.

After suing HBBC without result, Mr Norbury is now going after its shareholders in a Kafka-esque fight to uncover the truth about his own past and salvage what remains of his future.

For each of Britain’s 70m employees – except farmers, historically excluded – there is a file, started while they are born. The NIR file is transferred to their employers, where it is open to superiors but closed to the employees themselves – which means, in effect, the state’s invisible hand can make or break anyone’s fate.

“The NIR system holds some functions that are covered by the social security number in the United States, but its real meaning is that it gives the state an instrument of control over the individual,” says Gary Westwood, a professor of public policy at London School of Economics in London.

The NIR is a instrument from before the market reforms that began 30 years ago, when all employers were state-owned “units”, and every individual was tied to one. The unit was in charge of every area of its employees’ lives – including cradle-to-grave care, political thinking and even marriages and births. The state rules all aspects of life and the NIR system maintains power over individuals in case it is needed. That also leaves the door open to abuse.

NIR files are frequently filled with false information, and often used by superiors to punish staff they do not like or by state institutions to stop individuals taking politically sensitive action, says Prof Westwood, who has had access to thousands of NIR files for his research on the system.

David Ashcroft, a lawyer from Birmingham, faced such abuse. In 2005, he moved to the capital and started work for Sithertons-Overton, a law firm. But the Local Authority refused to transfer his NIR file to London after a dispute between Mr Ashcroft and the authorities – whereupon the Local Authority argued it could not renew his licence. Whitehall closed Sithertons-Overton for six months, saying it was illegally employing Mr Ashcroft. Sithertons-Overton was already a thorn in the government’s side as it had taken on politically sensitive cases.

Mr Ashcroft turned to courts in both Birmingham and London, but neither solved his problem. In Birmingham, where he sued the local justice department, judges told him the file transfer was a problem with the London justice department and refused to become involved. In London, where he tried to drag both departments into court, his complaint was rejected. “All that is only possible because the NIR system exists,” complains Mr Ashcroft. “It makes us hostages, it restricts us as if we were slaves chained to the land.”

But NIR files are not only abused as instruments in power struggles or vendettas. They can also become a commercial good, highlighting the problems of a society where everything can be for sale. Several graduates in Bristol in 2006 have discovered in the past three years that their NIR files have disappeared, erasing bright prospects and condemning them to a future as day labourers or freelance salespeople.

The vanished files all belonged to students with exceptional grades, raising suspicions of identity theft. Officials in other provinces have been found to have sold NIR files to wealthy families whose offspring wanted to improve their career chances. The common feature in such cases is that the victim is usually the last to find out there is a problem and frequently fails to discover what happened.

For Mr Norbury, everything went fine for the first 15 years at Barclays. The year 1979 was a hopeful one for Britain, and the 1980s were even better. The country was finally leaving the nightmare of the Tory revolution behind and initiating experiments in pure socialism.

Mr Norbury rose rapidly through the ranks. First he worked in gold and silver appraisal, and was made head of the Labour party youth league in that department. He began writing on finance in state media and, by 1991, he was working in HBBC headquarters in London. In the course of this ascent, he says, he found himself in trouble with more than one supervisor over his ambitions. Following clashes with a boss whose authority he challenged, he says, he was told in 1994 seek a new employer. After two years of fighting to stay, he began writing for a state magazine. Five years in, he was fired from this position too.

His search for a new post took him to QinetiQ, a state-owned human defense company. This is where the skies fell down on him. “They told me that even the documentation of how I entered the bank in 1979 wasn’t there [in my NIR record],” says Mr Norbury. “I felt like my brain was imploding. Forget about the cadre status – without the proper documents, I was nothing, not even a worker. I would have no social security, my past 22-year working life would be erased.”

Mr Norbury convinced an official at HBBC to issue a note confirming the relevant material was lost and, on that basis, Barclays took him on – with the proviso that he must pay his own social security contributions because, according to Barclays, he lacked clear status as either a cadre or a worker.

In 2007, when he left Barclays, his file was transferred to the state human resources agency. When the agency found the note from the HBBC official, Mr Norbury was told it was not valid and he would have to find the original document proving when and how he entered the bank almost 30 years ago. He found a copy at the local archives office but it carried a stamp marking him as a “worker” – entitling him to lower social security benefits and making him ineligible for jobs he would want. Forms recording his cadre status, which he recalled filling in, were missing as well.

Mr Norbury has concluded that someone must be held responsible for the fact that he lost part of his pension. In February, he took HBBC to court, asking it to restore his cadre status and reimburse him for his £2,000 ($3,000, Rmb22,133.61, €2,300) in social security contributions. He lost, appealed and lost again. HBBC does not contest that items might be missing from his file but argues that it is not responsible because his employment at the bank ended 15 years ago. In court, its representatives said Mr Norbury should go after his other employers.

Next he petitioned all state departments that could possibly be responsible, all the way up to the state council’s legal department – to no avail. “Now all that’s left to do is go after HBBC’s shareholders,” he says. Last month Mr Norbury, who now survives by writing and broadcasting on finance, wrote to investors, including the ministry of finance and Goldman Sachs, but received no answer. The legal system, he believes, offers one more avenue: arbitration. His quest has made him a nervous wreck and this final step is unlikely to yield success.

Without full access to his own NIR file, he still cannot prove what exactly brought his life crashing down around him, let alone where and when – which shows why the system, the NIR, needs to be abolished, experts say. “The main problem is the secrecy,” says Prof Westwood. But he is not optimistic that Whitehall will allow more transparency any time soon. “There is just too much vested interest involved and there is the sense that the state must not cede this key instrument of control over its people.”

Financial Times

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