A little girl fined £150 for running a lemonade stall. A whole street of people who suddenly started getting multiple parking fines for parking on their own drives. A man given an £80 on-the-spot fine for “littering” by dropping cherry stones into undergrowth.
In each case, people going about their lives were punished for doing something harmless – or even, in the case of the lemonade stall, something rather nice. Is Tower Hamlets a better place for having one more upset little girl and somewhat less lemonade? Does Ilford benefit from having some more cars parked on the road, rather than slightly overhanging some short 1940s driveways? Has the Wirral’s environment been materially improved by marginally reducing the risk of a cherry tree growing without prior approval?
Actions like this are normally bracketed as being part of the ‘nanny state’, but that’s a misnomer. These are snapshots of a bully state in action. It rumbles away, mostly out of sight, not perpetrating any vast single injustice but, little by little, treading on the toes of people who would be better left to get on with their lives as they see fit. It is petty and vindictive, and it is gradually changing our relationship with the law. A society in which contact with officialdom routinely involves decent people having to cough up financial penalties for minor infractions, often accompanied with a high-handed attitude towards such ‘offenders’, is not likely to rush to co-operate with officialdom in future – it becomes cheaper and easier to keep your head down and hope not to be noticed.
It’s striking that each of these examples comes from excessively strict enforcement by councils. We’re told that local government is understaffed, its resources for essential functions stretched beyond breaking point. If so, how come a range of authorities can find the time and money to have people wandering the streets in search of petty offences to punish? At best this is waste, at worst it is revenue-farming, regardless of whether it serves the public interest. If they redeployed their resources to address real needs – social care for the elderly and child protection, for example – and left more people to get on with their lives, they might find it improves not only their cash situation but also their relationship with their residents.