Saturday, 20 August 2011

Spanish bureaucratic madness

There is much about Spain that I like.

There are a few things I dislike greatly: lack of organisation, lack of planning, lack of respect for the environment, the constant intrusion of the Catholic Church in everything Spanish, from local fiestas to high government, and the overpowering bureaucracy.

For the past week or so, we have been confronted with aspects of the lack of organisation and the stifling bureaucracy.

When we first came to Spain from Belgium just over five years ago, I applied for residency shortly after our arrival. Elise waited a few months in order to be able to more easily sort out some legal matters in Belgium. When my application was accepted, after a real struggle, details of which are too far in the past to be relevant, I was given a sort of ID card, carrying my photograph, address, NIE number, and other information: a useful and handy document, easy to carry and to use as proof of identity. When Elise eventually made her application and was accepted, things had changed: instead of receiving the handy card, she received an almost useless A4-size sheet of paper, with no photo to identify her. Not only was the paper of an unhandy format, it could not be used as proof of identity. Sadly, the Spanish authorities had chosen to substitute this form for the ID-card format. The only advantage of the form, was that it did not carry a date limit, as did the card.

My own card's validity was until the beginning of October 2011, so the time had come to renew it. I knew that this meant that instead of a new card, I would also receive the useless A4 document, but that's the way things were, so it had to be done. Now you would imagine that, as all your details are known to your local Ayuntamiento (town hall) and as that Ayuntamiento has a big staff, with computers and printers and everything that is required, they would be able to exchange the ID card for the new A4 form (known, incidentally, as the Certificado de Registro de Ciudadano de la Unión). So first stop the Ayuntamiento.

It went something like this:

"My card is about to expire. Can you renew it or provide me with the new form?"

"For that you must go to the Office for Foreigners at the National Police Offices in Elche."

"Can you tell me what I need to renew the card?"

"For that you must go to the Office for Foreigners at the National Police Offices in Elche."

Now, I might be naive, but it seems to me that, even if the Ayuntamiento is incapable of actually performing the task of renewing the card (in fact, exchanging it for a silly document), then they should at least be able to tell someone from the EU what is required to achieve this magnificent feat: thousands of EU citizens live here in Guardamar, so the information really should be at the fingertips of those responsible for registrations in the Ayuntamiento. But no, it is apparently not their job, so they know nothing about it.

Right, next thing is a quick visit to Elche (an almost 80 Km round trip) to ask what must be done in my case. We arrived at the offices at about 11 o'clock one morning. Entering the offices, we are stopped by a brusque official.

"What's it for?"

"I want information on what to do about my ID-card [shows ID card] which will soon expire."

"Through there."

We enter the room that we were headed for (there is nowhere else to go), which is full of people. One of them tells us that we need a number, so we go back into the entry hall and ask the same official that just told us where to go for a number.

"No numbers left. Come back tomorrow."

You might well ask why he sent us through in the first place!

Back home, the next day I decided to phone the Elche offices to see if I could gather the necessary information that way. Fortunately, after some delay I was able to speak to a pleasant-sounding lady who informed me that all I needed was the ID card itself, my national passport and the fee of 10.20 euro. Remembering the long waits of five years previously and the requirement for a number, I also asked if many people usually came. She assure me that it was not as busy as it used to be. I wondered if it was possible to make an appointment (I had seen that an appointment could be made for NIEs and passports). No, she replied, this was not the case for foreigners.

Last Tuesday, we got up at seven in the morning (generally unheard of in our household) and made our way to Elche. We were at the offices at about eight o'clock and there was hardly anyone to be seen, other that a policeman. To say he was gruff would be an understatement. I don't think I have ever known a policeman, and very few other people for that matter, with less people-skills. His job, I assume, was to offer help and assistance to those coming to the offices. That can only be a joke. He didn't speak, he barked. His Spanish was coarse, poorly enunciated, and spoken in a most unfriendly manner. He was not a welcoming image to either foreigners or Spaniards visiting the offices (Spanish nationals must come to the offices in order to obtain passports). Fortunately, another person was there who could speak clearly and answer questions in a civilised manner: all of the numbers had already been issued for that day.

Our next expedition was planned for Friday. This time the alarm was set for six o'clock (!) and we arrived at the offices at seven. There was already a considerable number of people, but most seemed to be Spanish nationals, who would receive a different set of numbers. Upon enquiry, I was told that 32 numbers would be given to foreigners. It looked as if we would be in with a chance. When the distribution of numbers took place just before eight o'clock (in utter confusion, of course), I obtained number 16.

We had made acquaintance with a young couple while awaiting the distribution of numbers. He was Italian/Australian and his girlfriend Spanish. He was also there to obtain the Certificado de Registro de Ciudadano de la Unión, having just come to live in Spain after several years in South Korea. He told us that I could get the form for the payment of the 10.20 euro fee in the entrance hall of the office. After having obtained our numbers, we both went up to the entrance hall in order to get such a form (highly necessary as, without having paid the fee the form will not be issued!). In the hall was the unfriendly policeman.

"What's it for?"

"We need a payment form."

"Get out! Get out!"

Nice chap! The poor Italian/Australian lad was most put off by this attitude: he had never been treated so badly, it was no way to treat foreigners, it was downright bad manners…

We tried again ten minutes later and thankfully a more amenable person was also in the hall, so even though Unfriendly Policeman again tried his authoritarian tactics, we were able to obtain the required form.

Here's another stupid aspect of the whole sorry affair. The fee for the Certificado de Registro de Ciudadano de la Unión is 10.20 euro and must be paid before the form is issued. Now, this is 2011, the twenty-first century, an era of electronic banking, digital transmission, cash points, cash cards, credit cards, debit cards… That cash is not accepted I can understand for security purposes, but wouldn't you think that a government office would be able to accept payment in electronic form? I mean, the local Mercadona, Consum, El Corte Inglés, Hypercor, and any other supermarket can; the little bricolaje (do-it-yourself shop) in Guardamar can; the newsagents can; the bars and restaurants can. So why can't a government office? No, instead, the punter must go to a bank, make the payment, have the form officially stamped to show that the payment has been made, return to the offices and present the application with proof of payment. Crazy!


It gets crazier, for many banks will not accept such payments on a Friday! I kid you not. Fortunately, we were able to find a bank with a friendly teller who had nothing to do, so was prepared to make the payment, but there were notices around informing us that such payments could only be made from Monday to Thursday.

I had asked at about what time we should return to the Office for Foreigners, given that we had number 16, and was told that number 16 would be dealt with at about eleven o'clock. After having made the payment in the bank, we had breakfast, walked around Elche for a while and decided to return to the Office rather early, just after ten o'clock. There were relatively few people there and the display panels indicating the number being dealt with at each counter were blank: the numbers were simply being ignored! There was one counter for foreigners, so I plonked myself in the queue (there was just one other person there) and was soon dealt with. The whole process for exchanging my dearly beloved ID card for the pathetic green A4 Certificado de Registro de Ciudadano de la Unión in the end took less than five minutes of actual work.

Somebody, and I honestly have no idea who, needs to look into this whole business. The processing of EU citizens should be moved to the Ayuntamientos to start with. Officials need to be taught people-handling skills or, at the very least, basic good manners. The whole process needs to be rationalised, simplified, modernised, reworked.

And Spanish citizens should not have to queue for hours in the hope of obtaining a number that gives them the right to request a passport, which is their basic right (numerous Spanish people who were queuing with us failed to obtain a number and must return another day).

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