Every new agency, every new initiative that is set up increases the distrust that we feel for the State
Camilla Cavendish, The Times page 27, 12th June 2008
Why don’t we lock up the Cabinet for 42 days? That would stop them spending our money. I was talking to an education spokeswoman last week about the decline in the rigour of GCSEs. She replied, as if it answered the question, that Ofqual had just been set up to monitor exams. What’s happened to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, I asked. It used to do that. The QCA’s still there, she said. I felt like handing myself in to Oftrolley.
It’s not just the cash. Every new agency, every new initiative, nudges down the ratio of normal citizens to busybodies. Britain is starting to feel like a nation of traffic wardens. The mentality of officialdom is increasingly malevolent.
A week ago a senior businessman whom I know was shocked to be treated like a criminal by British Transport Police at the Gare du Nord in Paris. Clutching a business-class Eurostar ticket but unable to find the right queue, he ducked under a barrier. The CCTV chirruped. “Sit down!” screamed a policeman. “Give me your passport!” My friend tried to explain. No one listened. “You have no right!” shouted a hatchet-faced woman, also British, in an unreadable uniform.
Five minutes later the officer returned, all smiles. My friend’s knighthood had done the trick. But, as he says, it shouldn’t have. Such people should never be so rude to any taxpayer who pays their salaries.
I agree, having recently been humiliated by a screeching official at Victoria station. Taller than me, he called for “back-up” on his walkie-talkie because I, with my two small children and our heavy bag, was “obstructing” an empty walkway. We were there because my husband had gone to buy tickets for a train that we were going to miss after Screecher Man had refused our pleas to let us pay on board.
It was his cold hatred that unnerved me, and the acute pleasure he took in making us miss our train. We weren’t trying to slip unnoticed across an international border. We were catching the 14.32 to Sutton.
We have become objects of suspicion to institutions that used to make us feel secure: banks, councils, the police. In turn, we distrust them.
A report by Harriet Sergeant for Civitas describes the recent jump in complaints by law-abiding people against the police. A 19″year old student was arrested and detained for five hours for holding a Tube lift door open with his foot A man was nicked for pulling over to answer a phone call. Each example sounds silly, tabloid. But there are too many -to ignore. Surrey Police’s recent decision to abandon box-ticking is a measure of their concern about the corrosion of their relationship with the public.
A year ago a respected group of midwives, obstetricians and researchers called the Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services wrote to the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson. Their letter said that “there is now no health professional, or official help line that parents feel they can safely ask for help”: They described people who avoid health visitors, because they see them as “health police”. They told of mothers with postnatal depression who will not go to the doctor for fear of alerting social services. They said that an incr~asing number of children are taught at home because “the educational system is now seen as part of the surveillance process”. Their letter made 15 points, many devastating.
Did Sir Liam question such alarming evidence? Did he ask for more detail? Did he launch an inquiry into whether the joining up of childrens’ services is breaking trust between parents and professionals?
No. He thanked them for the letter -two months later. He said that he shared many of their concerns. And he said how lucky they were that the Department for Children. Schools and Families had been set up.
That was Standard Reply I: “Not my responsibility.” Standard Reply 2 is: “Thanks for your letter, but things are getting better: let me tell you about them at length, even though they don’t relate to your concern.” I don’t know if there is an SR3, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to get any sense out of Whitehall.
Many of us hav~ complained about the lack of “joined-up government”. Now we are seeing the disadvantages of read-across. The Children’s Database, which will contain the personal details of every child. is justified on the grounds that it will make children safer. An absurd claim, given the number of people who will be able to use it at will. Who will be responsible for inputting information on “difficulties in the parents’ relationship”, and “ways in which the family’s income is used”?
The latest proposal by Home Office officials, to hold every telephone call and e-mail in the UK,described as a “crucial tool” for protecting national security and preventing crime, is wholly disproportionate.
Each new measure is justified in the same way -you have nothing to fear if you have done nothing wrong, But that is no longer true. We have everything to fear from a State that has lost all sense of proportion. In a free society, rights and laws protect people from the government. In a tyranny, rights and laws protect government from the people. Often, the first thing I’ve seen when visiting tyrannies are unpleasant and swaggering officials trying to impound my passport. I don’t want to see them at the Eurostar.
What irks me most is that “they” don’t know us, only our data. Getting to see my GP requires tenacious redialling and extended grovelling. An appointment lasts seven minutes. But the practice regularly writes to query my children’s vaccinations. They seem unable to accept that these are done by my father-in-law. That doesn’t fit their box.
One day, I fear, they11 compare notes with Victoria station Screecher Man: “Subversive … wild-eyed … suspiciously large handbag.” If “incitement to hatred by officials” becomes an offence, I’ll be first to go down. Let’s not get that far.