Discipline for Bristol Jobsworths – not likely

August 9, 2010

Times columnist Matthew Parris was amongst those who commented on the story of the council jobsworths who made a family take down their windbreak whilst eating their picnic on Clifton Downs in Bristol (see Putting petty officials back in their box). Like the rest of us, Parris fears the unchecked power of small people with authority unsupported by thought or brain. He wonders if the council officials have been disciplined.

I think this is unlikely for various reasons. Employment law is weighted heavily in favour of employees and is unlikely to appreciate the distinction between being an official and being officious. Very few public servants are actually dismissed, for incompetence or anything else. Besides, unless Bristol city council is very different from other local authorities, it is probable that the senior staff share the general bureaucrats’ view that theirs is the earth and everything in it. They may call us “customers” and describe themselves as “public servants”, but the reality is the rather paradoxical one that they have come to think of themselves as our masters. The contradictions inherent in this reach their apogee with signs erected by highways officers telling us to “think”. They don’t see themselves as others see them, which is probably as well for their self-esteem.

I suspect that Bristol’s apology was inspired by a quick-witted PR person. Bristol did not apologise because anyone thought that the officers’ heavy-handed conduct was wrong, but because someone rather brighter than the general run of council officers spotted a PR disaster looming. Another of Matthew Parris’s long-time battles is with people who cannot say “sorry”; it does not matter what inspired Bristol’s apology, they did at least make one.

Their apology was not accompanied by the usual empty assertions that “lessons have been learnt”. Perhaps the PR person was clever enough to realise that this phrase has been discredited with over-use by officials whose capacity to learn anything is pretty slim.



Speed cameras and statistical ignorance

September 15, 2008

A new study shows that government claims about lives saved by speed cameras are overstated. This is ammunition against the free-spending little people who run our local authority highways departments. As recession closes in, councillors and others who have been rubber-stamping big budgets are going to have to start questioning what the money is for and why it is necessary to spend it.

Researchers at Liverpool University have knocked Government claims that 100 lives a year are saved by speed cameras. Whilst speed cameras do reduce accidents, the numbers are exaggerated. The research shows a fall in accidents of 19% compared with the claimed 50%.

Does this matter very much, you might ask. After all, this Government belches out false statistics daily and has, indeed, devoted more energy to rigging the apparent outcomes of initiatives than it has on the initiatives themselves. It does matter, and for reasons which go beyond the actual facts behind this research and beyond motoring. Money is wasted in vast quantities on things which make little difference; things which really do matter are neglected in favour of those which yield apparently good outcomes; the police, who need all the friends they can get at the moment, are tarred with the fall-out of policies to which they do not necessarily subscribe; and any little surviving regard for government (as opposed merely to this Government) takes another pasting. Read the rest of this entry »

Lifeboats, lost cats and Wellington boots

September 13, 2008

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Department dogs look like their jobs

August 15, 2008

It is often observed that dogs resemble their owners which, if true, would make me a handsome black chap, friendly to everyone he meets, always thinking the best of everyone and eager to please, absolutely none of which is true of me (nor, indeed, and perhaps fortunately, do I pee on every bush and rest my head on visitors’ knees under the table). Have you noticed, though, that public servants somehow acquire the characteristics which suit their jobs? Or perhaps people who look like that gravitate to jobs which suit them. Read the rest of this entry »

Labour lies about rats in rubbish

June 10, 2008

One of the least appealing aspects of the Blair-Brown administrations – in a very long list of unappealing things – is the institutional dishonesty which these two men and their advisers have brought to government. The dishonesty comes with added hypocrisy since both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, in their different ways, have expressly laid claim to a religious and moral basis to their lives.

This dishonesty is not just morally wrong. One is left gaping sometimes at the political stupidity of lying about subjects on which you are bound to be found out sooner or later, particularly things which, however important, are not matters on which governments fall. Governments are entitled to make some mistakes, to experiment, to assess the consequences, and to accept they got it wrong. What loses the votes is the persistent feeling that we are being lied to daily on every subject. Read the rest of this entry »

Got nothing to say? Send for Harman

May 3, 2008

There was not much Labour could say as the extent of the overnight debacle in the local elections became clear. If there is not much to say, Harriet Harman is just the person you need to say it, and the mere fact that it was Harman who was sent out to speak on the Today programme this morning was evidence enough that Labour was lost for words.

She was eloquent and fluent as streams of nothing poured from her mouth. John Humprys was gentle with her in a way he would not have been with, say, Geoff Hoon or Hazel Blears or any of the others from the substitutes bench who might have been sent out on New Labour’s behalf. It would be like kicking a dandelion. Read the rest of this entry »

Alienation in my own land

March 4, 2008

The state of the nation was neatly summed up between trains at Reading station one day last week.

For the second time that week I had bounded out of a west-bound train and dashed across to Platform 8 in time to see the doors lock on a train heading north to Oxford and beyond. Both trains were running to time so it is deliberate time-tabling which ensures that one cannot do a seamless change. Well, it may be deliberate – some venomous little bureaucrat spotting an opportunity to inflict a little more misery on those who are compelled to suffer the “service” which First Great Western offer to those who pay the wages; it may just be stupidity. Read the rest of this entry »