Putting petty officials back in their box

A Bristol family’s picnic was ruined when over-zealous council officials (or “dim jobsworths” as they are known) made them take down their wind-break on Clifton Downs.  We have to turn this tide somehow and put petty officials back in the box from which New Labour released them.

Petty officialdom is nothing new, of course. Every culture has always had small-minded officials with powers disproportionate to their intelligence. It always used to be one of those things we mocked the French for – they guillotined their leaders in the cause of freedom and then voluntarily submitted to legions of bureaucrats and small men in uniform eager to tell them what not to do. The English have always mocked theirs – Hodges, the bossy blackout Warden in Dad’s Army, is a figure of fun who stands in for every killjoy whose job involves the enforcement of regulations; as a rough rule of thumb, the actual significance of such a person (and, one suspects, the size of his penis) is inversely proportionate to his self-importance.

The missing component, of course, is discretion, that is, the application of intelligence to any situation in order to decide what is right. You cannot expect discretion from stupid people, which is why traffic wardens, town planning officers and the like are simply given rules to apply or enforce. The word “jobsworth” derives from the curious expression “it’s more than my job’s worth”, with the implicit admission that the job is not worth very much to anybody apart from its holder.

Such people thrived under New Labour, for whom no activity was too minor to be regulated. Figures obtained by Lib Dem MP Chris Huhne before the election showed that 4,289 new criminal offences were  created between 1997 and 2009, roughly one for each day in office.  More and more officials were employed to enforce them and given ever greater powers, including the power to levy on-the-spot fines. Labour may not have executed the hereditary aristocracy, but it took away its powers, such as they had, and, in a curious parallel with the French Revolution, simultaneously empowered the little people with more authority than peers had had for generations.

We have the curse of that unqualified, unregulated thug, the “security guard”. An early sign of his power came when 82-year-old Walter Wolfgang was dragged from his seat at the Labour Party conference of 2005 for uttering a mild protest. The security guard’s actions were endorsed by a senior policeman of roughly the same intellectual calibre, who confiscated Mr Wolfgang’s conference pass and detained him under the Terrorism Act. There have also been many reported instances of private security guards interfering with the legitimate activities of passers-by in public places by, for example, preventing them from taking photographs. Private parking enforcement is another area in which Labour positively encouraged actions bordering on the criminal. Almost anyone can set themselves up as a parking enforcer (see AA article here) and can gain access to the DVLA records; there is little or no restraint on their power to clamp vehicles or tow them away, or on the fees they can charge for their release.

Nor are things any better when you look at the police, whose willingness to punish unimportant things has matched their failure to address real crime. Simon Harwood, the masked policeman in paramilitary uniform who  launched an unprovoked attack on a newspaper seller, killing him as he walked home from work, is apparently to go unpunished . At the other end of the scale, we have police constable Stuart Gray of Ayr, known as “Shiny Buttons” for his zealous approach to the job. He gave one man a fixed penalty notice for blowing his nose whilst stuck in a traffic jam with his handbrake on, and fined another for littering when a £10 note dropped from his pocket. One of this colleagues was quoted as saying “Total nonsense like this is the very opposite of good policing. This officer is known as PC Shiny Buttons for his lack of common sense approach to the job. It is supposed to be about serving and protecting the public – not embarking on some petty power trip”.

It turns out that the G20 officer has a record of using excessive force for minor offences. Perhaps you grow into this sort of thing. The Clifton family may have been lucky – give the Downs Rangers another year of unbridled power and they will be punching people for pitching a tent, whilst Shiny Buttons will be taking his AK47 to people who stop on a yellow line.

Similar stories are everywhere – fines for eating a sandwich at the wheel, for accidentally dropping a small piece of food, for letting a child feed ducks in the “wrong” part of a park. Sometimes, an alleged “offence” is no more than a point of political correctness, such as the Manchester officer who reprimanded a victim for describing a hit and run driver as “fat”.

The overall effect of this is worse than merely inconvenient. Every story like this diminishes us with the feeling that freedom is being eroded little by little. It also diminishes officials who just get on with their jobs. It is bad enough when done as a matter of state policy; it is somehow worse when attributable to the individual abuses of little people. One thick copper in Ayr can affect the whole relationship between public and police, and do so well beyond his own little patch.

So what is the proper course when a whining little runt from the council tells you to stop a harmless activity, or PC Shiny Buttons embarks on his “petty power trip”? Stay calm and polite for one thing, and if nature or education has given you a “posh” voice, use it. Ask him for his name and rank, and for the name and telephone number of his superior, and write them down, asking him to confirm that you have recorded them correctly. Do all this before you answer any of his questions – you may find that this un-nerves him, as well as making it clear that he is in for a long haul. Then ask him to define the alleged offence – which section of what statute, by-law, or regulation have you broken?  Keep writing – every question and every answer should be recorded and if, as is possible, he says something you would like to see quoted in the newspapers or at his disciplinary hearing, read it back to him with “Can I be sure that I correctly recorded what you said?”.

There is a trade-off here, because you are stuck there too when it might be easier and quicker to do what he says. There is always the risk that he will thump you, as policemen seem to do these days without sanction.

There are multiple purposes behind this. As I say, you may make him nervous enough to bail out before things get too far, as he contemplates a starring role in tomorrow’s Daily Mirror and an interview with his boss. He may just get bored – there will be easier prey to annoy round the corner. The written record will help if court proceedings ensue, if the Mirror wants some evidence of what you say when you offer them the story, or if you want an apology in suitably grovelling terms from his employer.

To its credit, that is what Bristol City Council did promptly.  If we are to turn the tide, and put petty authority back in its box, we need more stories with endings like that. We do actually need park rangers and policemen, and they do, by and large, get on with their jobs without making tits of themselves or beating people up. The Con Dem Coalition will earn itself much goodwill, and at little expense, if it can restore common sense to the exercise of authority.



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