Bureaucracy gone mad

by Hugh Cortazzi

Two policewomen with children work part time. While one is on duty, the other looks after the children of both families. When education authorities learn of this arrangement, they forbid it, as neither policewoman has a certificate allowing her to act as a child minder. Unless they have one, they are committing an offense.

A “lunch lady” at a primary school sees a girl of 7 being tied up and bullied in the playground by other children at the school. She reports the incident to the parents. The lunch lady is dismissed by the school for breach of confidentiality.

These are just two recent incidents that have aroused anger and frustration over bureaucratic rules that are applied without flexibility and common sense. But they are not unique. Because of a few cases of pedophilia and some unfortunate accidents, rules on health and safety have been tightened and extended.

Some of the new rules are probably desirable, but others are silly and unnecessary. For instance, children must not be touched by teachers or carers to forestall development of an undesirable relationship. In theory, therefore, an adult should not hold the hand of a child other than his/her own when crossing the road. On a school outing a parent assisting the teachers should not help a young child go to the toilet unless she/he is the parent of that child.

A teacher may not give a child a reassuring or consoling hug if the child is hurt or upset. The health and safety rules covering excursions and events are often seen as so stringent that they have to be canceled because the cost of insurance against accidents is too onerous for the organizers.

The current British government takes as their watchwords “change” and “reform.” Certainly there are many things that might benefit from change and reform, but not everything is awry.

Politicians too often forget the old adage “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” They pride themselves on the number of new acts of Parliament they have passed and often seem to believe that the best way to solve a problem is to pass new legislation.

As a result, a large number of new offenses have been “created” by the current British government. Ignorance is no excuse in law, but even some of the authors of new legislation seem unaware of the contents of the laws that they’ve sponsored.

In a recent case, the attorney general, the chief law officer of the Crown, was found to have employed an illegal immigrant as her housekeeper. She had to pay an administrative penalty of £5,000 because she had not kept a copy of her employee’s passport and work permit.

It emerged that while she was a minister in the Home Office, she had been responsible for overseeing the drafting and passage of new legislation that imposed obligations on employers to check the eligibility of their employees to work in the United Kingdom and to retain photocopies of the documents submitted by the employees. She probably forgot about this provision, or she may never have studied the details of the law that she had sponsored.

The Conservative opposition, when joining in the condemnation of some of these silly episodes, tends to blame the European Commission bureaucracy in Brussels for the plethora of new and unnecessary rules.

In a few cases they are right. There were some absurd rules allegedly designed to protect the single market such as those laying down the shape of bananas and carrots sold in supermarkets. But many of the silly rules resulted from the government’s own enthusiasm to rush through new legislation without adequate scrutiny.

One serious problem has been that of antisocial behavior by a minority of mostly young people. Harassment of neighbors, drunkenness, fighting and excess noise have been real problems in some areas. The government’s response has been to legislate for the application of antisocial behavior orders or ASBOS, but these do not seem to have led to any real reduction in such selfish behavior.

In a recent case a woman and her disabled daughter were so harassed by a gang of youths that the mother killed her daughter and committed suicide. The police had failed to provide the necessary support for the mother and child.

The best answer to antisocial behavior lies in improved policing, but while police numbers have increased, much police time has been wasted on bureaucratic procedures designed to prevent alleged discrimination against racial minorities. For example, when police decide to stop and search a youth for drugs or knives, they have to complete lengthy questionnaires explaining why, how and where the search was made. There has been racial bias in the police forces and this must be minimized, but political correctness sometimes seems to have gone to extremes.

Both the Labour and Conservative parties pay lip service to the need for deregulation and simplification, but it is never easy to abolish rules and procedures. There are always people who will suffer in some way or other if a rule is abolished or modified and who will fight hard to retain it.

To call for a bonfire of regulations makes a good slogan, but it seems doubtful if it will ever take place. More flexibility and more common sense in the application of the rules is the alternative. Yet, the bureaucrat who agrees to apply a rule flexibly may well fear that if an accident occurs as a result, he/she will be held to blame and suffer penalties.

If we don’t find ways around these problems, we will end up with a sclerotic administration and a system of rules that few if any fully understand — and where laws have ceased to be acceptable to the public at large. “The law,” said Mr. Bumble (in “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens) “is a ass — a idiot.”

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.