Saturday, 22 July 2017

Only following orders

You've probably read about the five year old lemonade criminal of Tower Hamlets. She was selling lemonade outside her house on a sunny day, as children do, when four 'enforcement officers' charged her with trading without a licence and issued a £150 fine.

Tower Hamlets council have since cancelled the fine and apologised to the family, saying:

"We are very sorry that this has happened. We expect our enforcement officers to show common sense and to use their powers sensibly. This clearly did not happen."

The incident has been almost universally recognised as an extreme example of jobsworths mindlessly applying the letter of the law when they could use their discretion.

But there's always one...

You may call me a monster – but I'm glad that girl's lemonade stall got shut down

This article comes from the keyboard of one Duncan Hothersall who is the editor of Labour Hame (sic). Mr Hothersall seems to be a real person and his article does not appear to be a spoof. His argument is, in essence, that rulez is rulez and if you don't like them you should move to Somalia.

There are half a million cases of food poisoning each year in the UK, and one of the reasons we have stringent controls on who can sell food and drink, especially in unsealed containers, is to try to cut those figures down. And street stalls in general are regulated because we have a system of taxation, rights and responsibilities in this country which underpins our functioning society. Regulation is a social and economic good.

How many cases of food poisoning are caused by juvenile lemonade vendors - or sugary drinks in general - Mr Hothersall omits to mention. How much VAT is lost to the treasury as a result of five year old entrepreneurs is also left to our imagination, but we can safely assume that these numbers are very small indeed.

Nevertheless, it is not disputed that this infant was breaking the law. The question is whether the law is right and whether it was appropriately applied in this instance. The sweeping claim that 'regulation is a social and economic good' implies that a regulation must be good because it is a regulation. Presumably, then, Hothersall can think of no law that should be amended, repealed or applied with discretion.   

It’s also pretty unfair to criticise the hard-working public servants who acted in this case for doing the job they are no doubt underpaid to do. For the council to say “we expect our enforcement officers to show common sense” as they cancelled the fine is all very well, but I’m willing to bet they are given precious little leeway in their training when it comes to who gets fined and who doesn’t.

On what basis are we to assume that the enforcers are 'hard-working' and 'underpaid'? They may be, but we have no way of knowing. We do not even know who they are. What is an 'enforcement officer' anyway? As Josie Appleton says in her fantastic book Officious, the law used to be enforced by the police and we knew who they were. Today, we have an army of wardens, support officers, compliance officers and co-ordinators with varying degrees of authority (or none) whose only unifying feature is a high-vis jacket.

Whether you regard these people as underpaid depends on what value you think they bring to society, but there can be no assumption that they are all hard-working. Clearly they were not sleeping on the job in this instance, but if it took four of them to close down a child's lemonade stand we might question whether they were working at maximum efficiency.

For Hothersall, however, we do not need to know anything about the individuals. They work in the public sector and therefore must be hard-working and underpaid. It is unthinkable that anyone who works for the council could be paid too much.

“But these are decent folk being persecuted by a nanny state,” I hear you cry. And I stand impervious, I’m afraid. Because I’ve heard that line a lot recently and it’s beginning to grate.

I have not heard anybody claim that this is an example of the nanny state. The nanny state is about protecting adults from themselves. This case is not about that. There was no paternalistic intent in either the law or the application of the law. If it requires a label, it is the busybody state. 

If Mr Hothersall has been hearing a lot of complaints about the nanny state recently, it is because there is a sense that the state has become ever more intrusive. The complaint is not wrong just because it is 'beginning to grate' on him. A more enquiring mind might ask whether his fellow citizens have a point, but instead he changes the subject...

It’s the same argument used against speed cameras and parking fines. 

No, it isn't. These are not nanny state issues either and the complaint that Hothersall identifies (which is essentially 'bloody nanny state') is not actually an argument. If it were, he would have to find a counter-argument and that would be too much effort. Much easier to create a false equivalence between a motorist who moans about being fined and a five year old being punished for selling lemonade.

How often have you heard those caught out proclaim themselves as “law-abiding citizens” and bemoan the infringement of their freedom? 

Laws do infringe on freedom and they are intended to do so. The question is whether the infringement is justified by the wider benefits to others. A motorist might legitimately complain that a speed limit of, say, 20mph is unreasonable and is therefore an unnecessary infringement on freedom.

Just as Hothersall believes that the salaries of council workers can never be too high, he may also believe that speed limits can never be too low. Who knows what he thinks? It is possible that he gives these questions no thought at all since, despite writing for a political website, he seems to think that the nature of laws is not a matter for public comment. Regulation is good per se and every law in the land is perfect.

I have news for you: if you break the speed limit, or park illegally, or indeed break health and safety or trading regulations, you are not a law-abiding citizen. You’re actually the one who’s in the wrong.

If you break the law, you are not a law-abiding citizen by definition. That is undeniable. But whether you are in the wrong depends on whether the law is right. What if the law is an ass? What if agents of the state do not 'use their powers sensibly', as Tower Hamlets council put it?

Even if Hothersall cannot think of any laws he would like to change in Britain today, surely he can think of historical examples of good people breaking bad laws? Surely he can think of instances in which the letter of the law, rather than the spirit of the law, has been applied, thereby causing harm?

Most people - including the council - think that that is what happened in this case. Hothersall's insistence that we unquestioningly follow orders when the consequences are so farcically at odds with the intentions of the lawmakers and deviate so far from public opinion is slightly sinister.

A culture of entitlement, and a belief that rules are for other people but not us, is a disease gripping middle Britain.  

A culture of entitlement, he says. This is a five year old girl he's talking about. As they say on Merseyside, Mr Hothersall, give your head a wobble.

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