But, goodness me, many of them do their best to convince us they are.
I refer to the legions of petty officials now given the right to impose fixed penalties on members of the public.
I must try to be fair. There are probably many of these officials who exercise their discretion sensibly and humanely. The traffic warden who decides not to give a ticket to the mother who gets back to her car two minutes late because her small child fell and injured himself is hardly likely to feature in the newspapers. One must hope that the majority of traffic wardens, faced with that sort of thing, would not issue a ticket. But, sadly, we know that quite a few would, with an infuriating feeling of moral superiority, have no hesitation in writing the ticket.
But my particular complaint today is not about traffic wardens. I am just getting very fed up with the endless stories of local authority “enforcement officers” who dish out £80 fines to people who have either not littered or who have plainly only done so inadvertently.
Today’s story really takes the biscuit. A 65 year old woman bought one of those enormous coffees which American chains sell (the smallest is about three times the size any sane Englishman could ever want). She couldn’t finish it. She thought it would be anti-social to put the container, half full of coffee, into the bin. So, very decently, she decided to pour what remained of the coffee down a drain and then put the container into the bin. Having carried out that act of good citizenship, the woman started to walk away. But she didn’t get far. She was accosted by no fewer than three Ealing Borough Council enforcement officers. They, after, no doubt, telling her she was a disgrace and a menace to society, issued her with an £80 fine for littering. That was because she had put a “pollutant” down a drain (I wonder how they dispose of unwanted coffee and tea when at home – obviously not by pouring it down the sink).
What happened next? The woman exercised her right to appeal to a slightly less petty official in Ealing Borough Council. He or she could see no merit in the appeal at all. £80 is £80. It would come in useful. The appeal was dismissed. It was at that stage that the woman went to her local newspaper. The story appeared. Lo and behold, Ealing Council suddenly changed its mind and waived the fine, though it wasn’t prepared to go as far as to apologise for its appallingly unjust behaviour.
Then there was the chap who ate an orange (I think this was in Greenwich). He peeled it. He placed the peel in a bin. Unbeknown to him, however, a tiny bit of the peel fell outside the bin. An enforcement officer pounced. The man had dropped litter. He turned back, saw the tiny piece of peel, picked it up and put it in the bin. That wasn’t good enough. An £80 fine was issued. The appeal to the council, inevitably since these fines provide important funds to local authorities, failed. But the man thought it (as it plainly was) a matter of principle. He took it to court where, not surprisingly, justice prevailed and the council lost.
I particularly liked the story of the public-spirited woman who planted some bulbs under a tree. You’ve guessed it, the enforcement officer said she was guilty of littering. “That’ll be £80 please” (actually I don’t suppose “please” featured). Yet again, the council sought to uphold the fine, but eventually gave in as a result of adverse publicity.
These stories appear week after week. And we ought to be extremely cross about them. Instead, I fear, we shrug our shoulders and just say, “ah well, that’s the way we live now”.
It is bad enough, of course, that these petty officials abuse their power, sometimes, I accept, because of terminal stupidity rather than malice. What is far more disturbing is that their employers, elected councils, can see nothing wrong with such abuse of power. This is not a party political point. I am sure that just as many Conservative as Labour and Liberal Democrat councils take the view that fixed penalties are just a form of tax and that justice should play no part in their imposition. Perhaps the time has come to revert to councillors being independent, actually representing their electors, rather than party hacks who think they are just there to do what the officers tell them to do.