When my daughter was young I used to warn her of some of the pitfalls in life. I don’t mind one jot who you end up marrying, I used to stress, except never, ever, end up marrying a politician! In the end she did OK and no politician got anywhere close to her heart! But if I could rewind time I guess I would have to add one more category to that injunction… nor end up marrying a bureaucrat!
OMG Bureaucrats! How I loathe them. The late, great, Sir Patrick Moore, who died last year, and for whom I once had the honour of producing one of his programmes on the BBC’s World Service, was not only the anchorman of TV’s longest running show with the same presenter (The Sky At Night on BBC1), but was less well known as a self-appointed scourge of bureaucracy. Some 30 years ago, under the pen-name R. T. Fishall, he published an irreverent guide to taking out vengeance on people who were burying Britain under paperwork and tying the country up in red tape.
‘Bureaucrats: How To Annoy Them’ was inspired by correspondence with a man from the Southern Gas Company, who had sent Moore a final demand for £10 of repairs, despite the fact that the central heating at his cottage was oil-fired.
‘We are not ruled directly by Parliament,’ he wrote, ‘but by minor officials — bureaucrats of all descriptions, safely embraced in the arms of the civil service, with immunity from dismissal and nice, inflation-proof pensions.’
My last three months have been filled by the shenanigans of petty bureaucrats, and only now am I emerging from the tomfoolery of their actions. Let me explain…
As my last posting in Beijing was drawing to an end, I was already laying plans for my next port of call – the Philippines. ‘It’s more fun in the Philippines’ is the country’s latest pithy, hard-hitting slogan for attracting visitors from around the world, and I was seduced.
Reading through the information posted on the web, it transpired that in order to get an SRRV – a special non-immigrant resident visa that provides its holders with multiple-entry and indefinite stay status in the Philippines – I would first need to prove that I wasn’t a criminal … a bit ironic, perhaps, given the fact that Manila is one of the crime capitals of the world, while politicians and bureaucrats at all levels in society make some of the corruption of even China’s corrupt officials look like mere child’s play (as witnessed by the current ‘Pork Barrel’ scandal, involving billions of siphoned off pesos, which illustrates this all too clearly).
Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained… and I set about attempting to get a police clearance certificate showing that I had a blemish-free past (assuming, of course, no one bothered checking on the fact that I was arrested in Saudi Arabia on three occasions!).
Now, if you’re a Brit abroad and want to get a Police Clearance Certificate, what do you do? My first thought was to go to the British Embassy. No way. The embassy in Beijing emphasises that they cannot help. Instead one has to apply from the UK itself, where not only must you fill in endless forms attesting to the fact that you are of upright character, but you also need a British doctor / nurse / accountant / lawyer / teacher / etc / etc signing the back of one of your photographs to say that the photo is really you. What happens if you have lived abroad for some time and don’t know any doctors, nurses, accountants, lawyers, teachers, etcs? Too bad!
Luckily I did; and having filled out the forms, attached photographs and sent them off to the UK to be countersigned, they were then sent on to the Association of Chief Police Officers, together with a cheque for £45. And some two weeks later a certificate arrived proclaiming to the world that they could find no trace of a criminal record for your favourite blogger.
Next up, according to the instructions, I had to get the Philippines Embassy in my home country to attest to the fact that they had had sight of my police clearance certificate, together with proof that I received a monthly income of more than $800 – or just over £500.
The embassy, of course, is in London; my home is in Yorkshire – a five hour bus ride away. But no worries. When I finally arrive back in the UK from China I book a trip down to the capital (£15 return ticket on National Express) and present myself to the Philippines Embassy Consular section – not a stone’s throw away from Trafalgar Square.
I look at a wall full of forms for filling out, but they are all intended for Filipino nationals applying for various services – nothing remotely linked to attesting a UK piece of paper. So I grab a queuing number and wait for a free bureaucrat while watching a feed of a Pinoy TV station, along with countless bored-looking Filipinos.
Finally my number is called and, pushing my clearance certificate and proof of income through a tiny slot, I explain what I’m after. Sorry, I am told by a bored-looking bureaucrat who looks anything but sorry; You need to get this authorised by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office before we can authorise it.
Why? I ask.
Because that is the rule.
I make my way over to the other side of Trafalgar Square where the FCO hang out, only to discover that since I was here last time (getting the paperwork in order for my China work visa) the system has been changed. A fed-up looking doorman tells me that I am the nth person this morning they have had to turn away. FCO attestations are all now being done in Milton Keynes (three hours away), he tells me. I could try writing to them there.
But I need this in a hurry. Can I visit their office? No. According to their web site, only postal applications – taking up to ten days – are allowed. No visitors at all. This, according to the tripe they tell their ‘customers’ is ‘so they can offer a better, more efficient, service’.
First you have to go online and pay for the service you want – in this case attesting two documents is going to cost me £60, plus postage. Then you are given a reference number that you insert into the forms you have to fill in, proving you have paid for the service in advance before sending everything off in an A4 envelope to MK. You then wait for 2-3 working days after which your documents should be sent to your home address. Thank goodness I am at least in the UK now as I doubt I could have done this from abroad.
The system works, and a few days later I am the proud owner of yet another piece of paper which says the first piece of paper from the Police is genuine. (I wonder why no-one asks for a piece of paper attesting to the fact that the FCO piece of paper is genuine, but hold my tongue.)
I book another bus journey down to London, allowing enough time for the embassy to process my application, which I have been told should take no more than three hours.
I arrive at the embassy and shove my sheaf of papers through the tiny slot in front of the Filipino bureaucrat. Please pay £18 for each document at the window opposite, I am told, only after which they inform me that due to staff shortages and the fact that their computer system was down the previous day, I could not now have my papers back until the following Tuesday (it being Friday today).
But I specifically booked my ticket to the Philippines on Monday, after you told me last time that I could get the paperwork completed in three hours, I wail. They relent. I can get my paperwork on the Monday, but certainly not today.
The weekend passes and for the third time I take a bus down to London, leaving in the middle of the night to ensure that I get there when the embassy opens in the morning. Hurrah! The paperwork has been completed (and from the look of things was even finished on the Friday. I am not amused.)
So far I have shelled out the not inconsiderable sum of £45 (ACPO) + £60 (FCO) + £36 (Embassy) + £40 (bus fares) = £180+ just to get a few pieces of paper together.
I head for Heathrow Airport and the check in desk of Kuwait Airlines, whom I have the misfortune of flying with to Manila.
Sorry, I am told. You need to show you have booked an onward flight out of the Philippines before we can let you board.
But I am applying for a residence visa in Manila – look, here is all the paperwork to prove it, I tell them.
Sorry, rules are rules. Get on the internet and book a ticket to anywhere and then we can let you board.
I storm downstairs to what Heathrow laughingly calls an internet café and book a seat to Bangkok for £170 which Kuwait Airways then checks up on by ringing the airline to ensure that I have really done what I said I had. I am allowed to board!
I arrive in the Philippines where, surprise surprise, no one is the slightest bit interested in asking me for proof of an onward connection.
A few days later I head for the offices of the PRA to apply for my SRRV. This whole application process is going to cost me a one off payment of $1,400 (£880) which I hand over in 100-dollar bills which are all photocopied and the photocopy placed in a newly opened file with my name on it. Twelve photographs are also required – heaven knows what they will do with them all.
I also need to deposit $10,000 into a designated bank account of the PRA which can in the future be used for investment or going towards the purchase of an apartment.
I go to a branch of the designated bank around the corner to arrange a transfer but am told I have first to transfer the money from my UK account into a Philippines dollar account and from there transfer the $10k into the PRA’s account. That way I can show proof of transfer to the PRA in order to get the whole unwieldy process to move forward. Luckily I have someone with me who has a dollar account and a few days later I have the requisite paperwork to take back with me to the PRA to prove transfer of funds into their coffers.
But this being the Philippines, where banking is still carried out much as it was 50 years ago in Europe, it is another eight days before the PRA can confirm that they have received the funds. I go back to the PRA once again.
Now I am told that I will need to undergo a medical. No problem… that is included in the initial fee. A kindly looking nursing agent accompanies me to the other side of Manila to a hospital where I offer up various samples, get my BP taken, and have a chest X-Ray in a room in which there are notices denouncing the old wives tale that drinking milk can mask any irregularities the X-Ray might show up.
I return to the PRA and am told that my medical results will be sent to them automatically. Unfortunately, as there are two national holidays this month, the processing of my visa is now going to take slightly longer than normal. Oh dear – what a pity – your tourist visa will therefore expire before we can get our finger out and do the necessary paperwork. Could you please go to the Bureau of Immigration to get a tourist visa extension. (Fume!!!)
I head for the other side of town to the BI – a horrid looking building with hundreds of people milling around, not sure of where they need to be going.
Finally I am pointed in the right direction, pay P500 (£7+) to the man behind the counter and am told to come back in an hour’s time.
An hour passes, and I get back my passport with a visa extension.
Back again to the PRA to prove to them that I can stay legally in the country until such time as they have got their act together. A photocopy is taken of my new extended visa and I am told to wait three weeks and then to eMail to find out the current status of my application.
I wait three weeks; I eMail; I wait two days; and behold, my SRRV is now ready for collection.
I return yet again to the PRA where a few more forms are filled out. I am asked to sign here… and here … and here… oh, and here also… and finally I have my new SRRV in my hot and stickies. I am now officially a Philippines Resident! Yeah!
A week or two passes and now it is time to get myself a Philippines Driving License. Unfortunately every site on the web which refers to this gives different information. I am in Baguio City where a friend has a friend who works in the Land Transportation office who ‘knows someone’ who will be able to help speed up the process.
We turn up in a small windowless office which has two tables, four chairs and two typewriters. I show my UK license. I show my expired Saudi license (to prove that I can drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road). I show my passport. I show my residents visa.
Would I mind undergoing a driving test to get my driving license, I am asked.
No problem … but don’t I need a license to hire a car in order to undergo a test in order to get a license in the first place?
Hmmm; hadn’t thought of that.
They take photocopies of all my paperwork and I am told that someone will phone me up later in the day.
Luckily for me, my friend also needs to get a new driving license for herself. I accompany her to the LTO just to view the process.
A stark warning on the notice board puts me in my place.
My friend casually asks how difficult it would be for a foreigner who has just got an SRRV to get a new driving license.
No problem at all.
Would he need a driving test?
No. Not needed.
Can this be true? I am wheeled in to the head of the bureau to check my credentials. She has obviously never seen a British driving license before – well, not the old style one that I have. She points to the list of vehicles I am allowed to drive.
Which of these vehicles are you allowed to drive?
The ones listed there.
She points to my date of birth. How old are you?
I do a quick computation, which she does at the same time. Our maths agree!
Just go upstairs for a medical and then fill in this form, she tells me.
Upstairs I have my blood pressure checked and am then asked to remove my glasses and read the letters on the board.
A, T, X, errrr ….
I put my glasses back on and manage to read all the way down to the eighth line. Success!
I head downstairs, fill out the form and am asked to wait on one of the benches. One gets the feeling that these people were never born to be bureaucrats. Hey, they have even scattered some pot plants around to brighten up the place!
I am called to window number 2 where I am asked to sign my name and stand in front of the camera for a mug shot to be taken.
Can you stand back a little? Can you crouch down a little? Perhaps just a little bit more?
There is something of the absurd as I try to crouch down while smiling into a webcam, but it seems to do the trick and I am told to sit down again.
I am called to window number 3 where I am again asked to sign my name and stand in front of the camera for a mug shot to be taken. (Did the last bureaucrat forget to press the ‘go’ button? Or did his machine crash? I will never know, though the notices over the windows might give a clue – Filipino nationals / non-nationals)
Can you stand back a little? Can you crouch down a little? Perhaps just a little bit more?
Yet again I crouch down while smiling and again I am asked to sit down.
Next I am called to window number 4 where I am relieved of P617 (about £8) and asked to sit again.
And finally – a half hour after the whole process started I am called to window 5 where a brand spanking new Philippines driving license is awaiting my collection.
I am amazed. I am delighted. Hey, not even in Europe would you get one of these so fast.
So in retrospect, I guess I would have to rewind the clock one more time and warn my daughter never to marry a politician, or a bureaucrat … unless, perhaps, they were working for the Philippine’s Land Transportation Department… though somehow I doubt Genevieve would have paid the slightest bit of notice to me anyway in the event of history having taken a different path!