Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The problem starts at home

Recently, we have posted two stories, exploring the phenomenon of the "regulatory mindset" (here and here), where we see the common skein that binds Whitehall and Brussels is the belief that there is no problem so big or so small that it cannot be solved by making yet another law.

To that extent, we aver, leaving the EU would not make that much difference for, as long as this mindset prevailed in Whitehall, our own legislators are just as capable of passing their own inane laws making our lives misery as those in Brussels.

For every law, however, there must also be the process of enforcement, without which any law is meaningless. It is also the case that, to an extent, a poor law can be improved by good enforcement and, vice versa: the intents of a good law can be undermined by bad or inadequate enforcement. And, of course, a bad law can be made even worse by clumsy or over-zealous enforcement.

It is in this latter area that the UK seems to excel. No EU law, it seems – whether it is slaughterhouse rules or financial regulations – is so bad that our gifted enforcement officials cannot make it inestimably worse.

Therein lies a major problem for Eurosceptics in that many of the more damaging effects of EU law that we have followed over the years have arisen not from the law, per se, but from the irrational and over-zealous enforcement by British officials. But the further, more fundamental problem is that these officials do not need EU law in order to make our lives misery. They are equally adept at applying their own brand of insanity to British laws.

That much is evidenced by a report in today’s Telegraph which recounts how a Rotherham couple have been issued with a £50 spot fine "in a dawn swoop" by council wardens for scattering winter feed for wild birds.

As if that was not bad enough, it seems that the couple, George and Janine Cooper were secretly filmed for four days by council officials as they made their "seed run" around their village of Kiveton Park, near Rotherham, South Yorks.

They were, according to the Telegraph, "shocked when two wardens appeared from the shadows and gave them the £50 fixed penalty notice for dropping litter. The wardens said that CCTV cameras had been tracking their movements for days."

In defence of the council action, a spokesman says: "Obviously we want people to be responsible and not put down too much food so that it piles up and may become a health hazard," while Rotherham's environmental enforcement officer, Richard Brammall, said the council had received a series of complaints from people in recent months about problems caused by a large number of birds. He added: "The problem was traced to a couple who were dumping large amounts of bread. They were asked to stop but the food kept on appearing."

You can actually see that there might be a germ of a problem here and it is more than possible that the newspaper has not told the whole story. But one cannot but marvel at the totally disproportionate use of resources and the cack-handness of officials in dealing with this issue – an example of what Booker and I came to call "the sledgehammer to miss the nut".

It is precisely this sort of thing that gives one the general impression that the system is spiralling out of control. We could add many other examples but one of the classics is the "reign of terror" being conducted by councils over parking, in an often illegal manner, against which Neil Herron is doing such sturdy battle.

While we all rail against the depredations of parking wardens, however, the greater complaint is the mad way the law is being applied (or not). Compare and contrast two situations.

One the one hand, I was told by a mini-cab driver that he had been issued a ticket when he stopped by the roadside to look at a map for directions. On the other, is a situation from my own experience. We live in a cul-de-sac which leads directly on to the main road, at the brow of a hill, alongside the flank of a tall building. When driving out, visibility is difficult at the best of times but, when vehicles park on the road right up to the junction, in defiance of the Highway Code, we are blind. You just have to nose out, very cautiously, and hope for the best.

Realising the danger, we wrote to the police, asking them to control the parking. We went to see them and even turned up at one of these ghastly "community meetings". No action was taken and, sure enough, a local health visitor, unaware of the hazard, was badly injured and her car written off when she tried what we have to do every day. And still no action.

Therein is encapsulated the wider problem, of which the EU is part, but in many people's eyes, only a very small part. It is hardly surprising that Euroscepticism has not set the nation alight, when there are so many other issues to be concerned about. To succeed, the Eurosceptic movement is somehow going to have to link all these issues together, making it clear that the EU is not the problem, but a symptom of a broader problem which is largely created by mad legislators with their equally mad officials.

In other words, the problem starts at home – as does the solution.


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