Martin Sewell is a family solicitor.
Over the years, the state bureaucracy has come up with a multitude of offences and regulatory misdemeanors which serve to tax, inconvenience, and irritate the citizen, causing significant outrage in the process. Park with your wheel outside the designated white line of a parking bay in an empty car park and you will be photographed and fined, though no inconvenience will have been occasioned to anyone. Put your re-cyling bag out early because you are going on holiday and you may be fined.
I am currently having to appeal a penalty imposed by the Inland Revenue because their letter said that I should send a return by a specified date or three months from the date of this letter. Apparently, although the return did not have to be filed, I should have paid the tax before the return was required, though nothing in the correspondence gave the slightest indication that that is what they required.
So I thought -”Don’t get angry – get even!” It is not only financial claims that irritate. We have heard recently of a number of latest instances of the ridiculous application of the Health and Safety Culture. Health and Safety is important but it is about the serious, the real, the dangerous and necessary – not the fanciful or the politically correct.
A children’s sports day was cancelled because of dew on the grass. Schoolgirls were told they could not wear frilly socks lest they trip over them. In perhaps the worst example of cultural insensitivity, an Oxford Council official refused permission for an Eastertide Passion Play because he thought it was a sex show. It makes one wonder if Oxford Council’s diversity training needs an overhaul.
Yet behind these examples there lies both a very significant injustice and a cultural problem. The officials of the State continually and increasingly impose costs and inconveniences on the ordinary members of the public to make their own lives easier and simpler, without any personal responsibility being enforced whatsoever.
If you are determined enough, you may wring an expression of regret out of some other remote part of the bureaucracy which has letters on the word processor for just that purpose, but there will be no real link to the source of the irritation, no personal telephoned apology and certainly no compensation. This set me thinking.
Before the end of the Coalition, might it be possible to introduce a short Bill in Parliament to raise a modest fine on anyone working in the public sector who fails to act with common sense? Those in the private sector are immediately accountable to the customer who can take his or her custom elsewhere, but sadly we are currently impotent when stuck with public sector jobsworths making daft decisions with no real hope of redress.
I am not proposing anything major. A system rather like the fixed penalty notice for parking would do. Perhaps a £25 fine for an immediate admission to encourage early acknowledgement of error rising to £100 for an unacceptable explanation.
This could be accessed by a simple online form with no more than 150 words of explanation from both complainant and official. The decision could be a summary one with only a handful of Commissioners reading and adjudicating in a rough and ready way. If it is an obvious failure to apply common sense, the fine is levied, if not it is summarily dismissed without appeal. The public are judged in this way all the time. It would not cost a lot and its benefits would soon be apparent.
I am not looking to raise much money with this modest proposal but rather to stimulate a transformation of the official culture. Knowing that a decision might result in direct personal loss, might just occasion our otherwise anonymous and unaccountable officials to pause and ask the simple question: “Am I just being plain bloody silly about this?”
I can’t help thinking that the simple existence of such an offence would yield benefits. Paradoxically, its real success would be measured by how little it was used. Has anyone got a better idea?