Lifeboats, lost cats and Wellington boots

The tail end of Summer has seen a spate of stories about minor officials with an acute grasp of the regulations and no brain. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency would rather see a girl drown in compliance with the rules than save her by breaching them. Chichester Council declined to pick up rubbish in a four inch deep stream because they had no-one qualified to wear Wellington boots. And a Canterbury council official threatened a 13 year old boy with an ASBO and an £80 fine for putting up notices about his lost cat.

When Gordon Brown looks back over New Labour’s failures he will find that much of the hatred which he and Labour have inspired will derive from the uncontrolled zeal of stupid officials like this. Labour has created the context – an avalanche of petty regulation and armies of petty pen-pushers to enforce them. There is an economic cost to add to all the other economic costs – compliance amounts to an additional tax and all these dim little people have to be paid for – but the cost in popular support is greater.

By “popular support”, I don’t just mean what people do with their votes. Every incident like this erodes public backing for authority and distances rulers from ruled. If everything you do is an offence, why bother to try and comply with the rules? It makes it worse that whilst minor infractions of rules and of law are pursued with vigour and apparent disregard for their cost, there are no resources for street crime and burglary.

Who are these people anyway, these minor officials with major powers over our daily life? If you are not bright enough to be a bank clerk or shop girl, not sufficiently dedicated to be a teacher, not brave enough to join the police, or the army, not skilled enough to lay bricks and not strong enough to carry them, and insufficiently commercial to flip burgers or stack shelves, you join a local authority or one of the many agencies to which public functions are devolved. You do not have to think, you will not get laid off however useless you are and however bad the economy gets, and you can retire early with a fine pension. Such bodies become the dustbin of the job market, sweeping up all the dross which no-one else wants to employ.

The Maritime and Coastguard Authority is a statutory body whose web site claims that it is “committed to preventing loss of life”. It has a mission statement and a diversity policy and all the other crap which public bodies love. Its responsibilities include supervision of coastal safety and inspection of vessels. On the whole, as government agencies go, it has a useful function and is – or was – despised less than most of them.

The Hope Cove inflatable rescue boat had failed a safety test for defects which certainly needed attention but did not render it unseaworthy. The volunteer crew, alarmed at the MCA’s failure to do anything about the defects, had paid from their own funds to have it repaired so that it would be available for the busy Summer season. The MCA had not managed to find the time to come and reinspect the boat.

When a 13 year old girl was carried 150 yards out to sea and was in danger of drowning, the crew tried to get permission to go out and rescue her. They lost radio contact and went out anyway, saving the girl’s life. It would have taken the nearest lifeboat 20 minutes to arrive, by which time the girl would almost certainly have been dead.

Brave men, you and I would say, gratefully. That was not the MCA’s reaction. Some little prat came out to tow the boat away and the men are threatened with discipline. The inevitable spokesman said:

The health and safety of the boat crews and those who they may render assistance to is of paramount importance. ‘We have identified a serious breach of health and safety procedures and they are currently being investigated.

He estimated that it would take eight weeks for the MCA to investigate repair or replacement. Those eight weeks covered the peak of the holiday season.

We have heard stories like this before – the fireman punished because he risked his own lives to save another’s in breach of some technicality in the rules, and Police Community Support Officers standing around as a boy drowned in Wigan because they had not been trained to step into water

The latter point recurs in the Chichester story. A parish councillor rang the council to get them to remove rubbish from a bin which had fallen into a 4 inch stream causing rubbish, including dog faeces, to gather where children walked to school. The council’s first shot was to say that the bin was a private one and not their concern. When challenged on this, they said that they had no-one qualified to wear Wellington boots and that safety harnesses would also be required. The parish councillor collected the mess himself in ten minutes and took it to the tip.

The third story, the boy putting notices on lamp-posts advertising for his missing cat, illustrates what happens when you give power to dim people. You cannot give them discretion because discretion requires a certain level of thinking capacity and, as with traffic wardens, the people who deal with our rubbish are… rubbish. There are, of course, laws and by-laws which prohibit fly-posting. Strictly, they apply equally to a concert promoter plastering the town with advertisements and a 13 year old boy desperate to find his beloved cat. Most of us would see a distinction and would treat the two circumstances differently.

Not the little plonker at Canterbury Council, who threatened the boy with an ASBO and a fine. You can just picture him, can’t you, from your own experience of council officials? Thick as planks, whiny voice, clip-board in hand and pens in shirt pocket, unloved by his wife, despised by his children, and determined that someone should take notice of him. Fortunately, someone higher up the tree spotted the potential for embarrassment and over-rode the official, conceding that he had been over-zealous and apologising to the boy.

Chichester Council recently ordered its staff to avoid expressions like “man in the street” and “manning the switchboard” because they are “inherently sexist”. How much publicly-funded resource goes into this sort of nonsense whilst rubbish lies uncollected? Has Canterbury fixed all the things which really matter, that its staff have time to pursue heart-broken boys looking for their cats? How many deaths by drowning would the MCA consider a fair trade for strict compliance with its regulations?

I would tie the MCA official to a stake and watch the tide come in. I would make the Chichester bureaucrat eat the dog poo and his Wellington boots. The lamp-posts of Canterbury would be a good place from which to hang the Fly-Post Prevention Officer.



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