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February 03, 2010

Theodore Dalrymple gets a parking ticket - and ponders how a state can remain adept at revenue extraction when it is so incompetent at everything else

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Theodore Dalrymple is not best pleased to be given a parking fine.

The alacrity, efficiency and speed with which monies are collected from certain members of the public are in stark contrast with the incompetence, inefficiency, and waste with which the ends for which the monies are supposedly collected are pursued. In short, the British public administration is a Moloch whose appetite grows with the feeding, and whose only real purpose is to feed itself. Existence and expansion is its very raison d'etre.

Recently I parked on a dark and rainy night in an unfamiliar road for twenty minutes. There was only one other car parked within a hundred yards. By the time of my return to the car, a fixed penalty charge ticket had been stuck on my windscreen.

It was true that I had inadvertently parked in an area of residents' parking only. I had therefore nothing to complain of, having carelessly forgotten just how regulated everything has become and that one must assume that what one wishes to do is forbidden until proven otherwise. And, in fact, I accept in general that the regulation of parking in overcrowded places is necessary, for otherwise residents might not be able to park anywhere near their homes.

However, there was something almost indecent in the haste with which I received the ticket, by comparison with what would have happened, say, if my car had been broken into and I had reported it to the police. There is no revenue to be had from policemen on the beat.

I have observed this haste in imposing fines twice before. Once I stopped outside a hotel at which I was going to stay, to take in my luggage (the nearest available parking place being several hundred yards off). I received a ticket within two minutes, while I was at the hotel reception, and when I protested - the officer was perfectly aware that I was parking only to unload, for the door of my car was open and I had stopped in a way, by no means obstructive to others, which made it perfectly clear I had no intention of staying long - I was told that I ought to have had my warning lights flashing. That was the proper procedure for unloading, according to regulations.

Were these regulations national or local, I asked? They were local, he replied. In other words, the visitor is expected to familiarise himself with local regulations (several pages long) wherever he goes. Common sense and discretion are of no avail. These are expected neither of the citizen nor, above all, of the official who applies the rules au pied de la lettre - when the rules provide an opportunity for raising funds, that is.

I had another very similar experience to the one above.

An excellent insight into the nature and purpose of parking enforcement is available on the following website. The writer shadowed an ill-paid parking attendant who in 4 hours of an 8 hour working day earned less than £30 and raised £550 in revenue to be divided between the council and the private contractor who employed him.

In not a single case of the 11 tickets issued (five to police vehicles, one to a Royal Mail vehicle and one to a British Telecom vehicle, which had a correctly-displayed emergency vehicle sign but which has its wheels very slightly on the pavement, and was therefor "done" for "obstruction", though the vehicle quite obviously obstructed no one) was the recipient inconveniencing anyone seriously: practically all the tickets were issued on technicalities. One was issued to a car with a Manchester disabled badge, that had overstayed the length of time allowed in the borough in which the owner parked, but which would have been perfectly all right in Manchester. He, too, was supposed to know the regulations, not merely from region to region, or county to county, but from borough to borough.

The parking attendants (now called civil enforcement officers and provided with baseball caps, as if to emphasise just how far the British are now but trailer-trash Americans) have minimum targets to achieve, with bonuses as the carrot to performance. It is openly acknowledged within the organisation that employs them that revenue-collection is the primary goal.

One would have no cause for complaint or grounds for suspicion if other and more important aspects of the rules were applied with similar rigour and efficiency, but of course this is not so. I know from experience, for example, how difficult it can be to get the police even to record a crime, let alone get them to do anything about it. This difficulty occurs not merely with trivial offences, but with serious ones, up to and including arson and attempted murder. My working-class patients used to tell me regularly that the police refused to entertain their complaints that their houses had been burgled. This, of course, was only natural: the police have the task not of reducing crime, but
of reducing the crime figures, and by far the easiest and most efficient way of doing that is to manipulate them.

Once, called to a police station to examine a person under arrest to determine whether he was fit to be detained and interviewed, my car was broken into while parked immediately outside the police station. When I informed the police of this (to me) surprising occurrence, they replied with perfect equanimity,

I expect that's the Smiths at number 22, they're always breaking into our cars.
The street in which I received a fine was, like so many streets in Britain, filthy with litter. Of course, the council is not responsible
for the behaviour of the residents and visitors: but it is a fact that if streets are not cleaned properly, many more people soil them because there is not much point in refraining from doing so. Some of the litter in the street had clearly been there a long time. But this is of no concern by comparison with revenue-collection.

The disparity between the bullying nature of officialdom and its manner of revenue extraction (or what in other contexts would be called extortion) from the population, on the one hand, and the very poor return the population gets for its money, on the other, creates a state of mind that oscillates between sullen resentment and pig-headed rebellion, not necessarily against well-chosen targets.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor. He is the author of the author of Junk Medicine: Doctors, Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy and In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas.


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"There is no revenue to be had from policemen on the beat... "


"...I know from experience, for example, how difficult it can be to get the police even to record a crime, let alone get them to do anything about it."


Ah, dear sir, I fear you are mistaken on both counts, as my cousin can well attest. Driving home one night after rather a bad day, she had the misfortune to be flagged down by our dashing boys in blue. She was informed that she had committed an offence.


She enquired as to the nature of her crime. The policeman eyed her number-plate.


Was it broken? Some of the letters snapped off, maybe? No.


Obscured, perhaps? Covered with something --- grime, or paint? No, all clean and shiny, just like the much-loved mini to which it was attached.


Ah, but it was personalised: so maybe it was rendered in some unreadable typeface --- German gothic, perhaps? Alas, no --- just your bog-standard number-plate font.


The offence, she was solemnly informed, lay in the spacing between two of the letters: the manufacturer from whom she had bought her personalised plates had supplied her with a plate in which the "5" of "M5 ARAH" (if memory serves) was slightly closer to the "A" than to the "M". Her registration number was fine --- but the spacing of the "5" simply would not do.


So what course of action did our bobbies elect to take? Something reasonable, surely, showing patent good sense and helping to build "community relations" (which our Chief Constable would have us believe is of inestimable importance to her and her colleagues). But, then on the other hand, policemen are only human and maybe they too had had a bit of a bad day, in which case, they might opt for something more brusque: perhaps they'd tell my cousin to get it sorted PDQ, and bring the new plates to the station for inspection within three days --- or else...


Nah.


They stuck her there and then for sixty quid --- luvvly jubbly (as they no doubt say on such occasions).


So you see, doctor, that the police do record crimes (even without prompting from the public), and they do act swiftly and punitively, and there is revenue to be had from policemen on the beat (on the beat in a vehicle, that is).


My retired father spends hours killing time in the café at the local supermarket (I've often pondered why; a mineral deficiency, perhaps). There, he and the fellow with the triple heart bypass observe the local fauna going about their shopping. (As far as I can tell, it's something akin to whale-watching, wherein the specimens of greatest girth are greeted with murmurs of excitement from the spectators.) Anyway, I digress...


He maintains that he sees more police in said supermarket than he does anywhere else on his travels around the town (where any police presence is generally confined to the warm interior of a vehicle): there may be yobs out a-yobbing, but as long as they're not doing it in Morrisons, there's little fear they'll get nicked. Crime's rife in the area, naturally.


Surely even Offenbach's bold gendarmes would have more professional pride than the modern British bobby.

Posted by: W. Smith at February 4, 2010 01:37 PM
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"... baseball caps, as if to emphasise just how far the British are now but trailer-trash Americans..."

My dear sir, I must object strenuously. Only when those baseball caps are worn backwards will your observation become true.

As an aside, is baseball now a big draw in the UK?

"... divided between the council and the private contractor who employed him."

It seems odd that private contractors should be dealing with infractions of the law. But I do remember reading some time ago that councils have hired hoodies to look into people's wheelie-bins to make sure that the rubbish-sorting was correctly done.

I suppose, though, that that's life in Formerly Great Britain.

Posted by: ZZMike at February 7, 2010 12:35 AM
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You broke the law (as you acknowledge) and got caught. Your sampling bias prevents you listing the hundreds of times you have also broken the law and not been caught.

Forgive me if that was a hasty assumption - perhaps you really are the UK's least fortunate lawbreaker and have been booked for 100% of your offences.

But I doubt it.

Posted by: Alex at February 7, 2010 07:32 PM
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ZZ Mike

"Formerly Great Britain"

Wonderful phrasesmithery! That will travel well (with your permission and due accreditation - of course).

Posted by: Frank P at February 27, 2010 01:32 AM
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Mr. Dalrymple, my city has done away with individual parking meters. You have to walk to a central payment box, as much as 50 yards away, insert cash or card, the machine prints a ticket for you to display on the dashboard, walk back to the car, and then experience the pain when you see that the parking ninja has already slapped a fine on your windshield.

Posted by: Fozzy at March 4, 2010 09:05 PM
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I queried my council on the matter of blatant revenue extraction versus (in)adequate protection of ratepayers against criminality, after the third parking ticket in a matter of months (on no occasion was I blocking the road / entrance / exit and so on. The piece I wrote was as follows.

Hello.

I have a deep-seated suspicion that issuing parking fines is much more to do with revenue extraction than enforcing genuinely reasonable rules. In this way, civil enforcement takes on the character of extortion, rather than (sensibly) ensuring that roads are clear of obstructions. The Council generates considerable income this way of course. I would not be surprised if efforts to impose parking tickets increased nationally following the Icelandic contribution to the banking crisis, given that some Councils had borrowing arrangements with these forlorn financial institutions. Well, this aside can be passed by as idle speculation on my part admittedly. But what cannot be so easily dismissed is the routine observation that in streets where parking fines are issued as voluminously as confetti, there seem to be much more pressing concerns at hand. Low-level crime for example. Scumbag kids causing a nuisance or worse. Litter and filth everywhere. Needless to say, these things concern people far more than a BT van parked for five minutes longer than is technically allowed. And what is it that anti-social behaviour, general filth, and social decay have in common? Simple. There's no money in it. That is why you are not directly, seriously, unambiguously interested in dealing with it. There are other reasons too, but the cash nexus is key in explaining the ruthless efficiency of officialdom with regard to parking offences. This does lead to a wider debate, for those with even a moderate sprinkling of intelligence. I am going to leave aside the national pastime of using the streets as a waste bucket for the moment, and consider the proposition that the state is failing in its primary duty: to protect the citizenry. If this is taken to be the state's basic duty, then several things flow from it, one being that the enforcement of parking tickets would be a much lower priority than say clearing the high street of undesirables. Life would be much harder for yobs than motorists. Yet it seems the other way round, to the point of perversion. Only today did I alight on a section of Sheffield Council's website devoted to "restorative justice". Provided that an offender (scumbag) acknowledges their wrongdoing, they are effectively excused for their conduct. No "hard coinage of punishment", for them as Winston Churchill once said. Can you imagine similar resources being provided for offending motorists? Counselling rather than fines for serial yellow line jockeys? Of course not, as this would thwart the intended goal of revenue extraction. By contrast, there is typically nothing to be gained financially, in a clear-cut fashion in stopping criminals from harming the community, nor is there much to be gotten from defending civilisation per se. The fabulously wealthy of course understand my argument implicitly. They do not live where we live. They live in gated communities. Though they have probably not read Murray or Tocqueville, something has seeped through which albeit indirectly, proves that I am right. Let me use a recent case by way of example, one which is emblematic in its character; the murder of Craig Wass. Mr Wass was allowed to be murdered by the distorted priorities at work in officialdom. He was allowed to be murdered because there was no money in either stopping Ryan Ward directly, or resolvedly protecting Mr Wass. Let us see if Wass could have been protected by the state, based on what we know about Ward. He was known to the police for violent offences at least four years before the murder in 2009. This by itself is all one needs to know to answer the question. Where violent, vile, English youth is concerned, they must be incarcerated, to satisfy the taxpayer's bottom-line - protection from those who do not respect society's laws. Alas, there is no money in it, and furthermore, the liberal-left have considerable sympathy for criminals. Likewise, the official responses are agonisingly untrue. In fact, they are reminiscent of Orwell's "Newspeak". Incredibly, a newspaper article quoted the following:

"The message from South Yorkshire Police is simple - mob behaviour, especially with violence, will not be tolerated."

But it was tolerated, for at least four years was it not? Unless my grasp of semantics is hopelessly askew, I simply do not believe or choose to accept the above sentence. In a recent discussion I had with a police officer I summarised three problems the force has. First, not enough manpower to deal with crime. Second, overbearing officialdom - too many forms and pointless procedure. Third, a completely wrongheaded philosophy. The modern police force is not designed to reduce crime. It is designed to reduce crime figures and thereby massage the back of its employer, the Government. In part, the problem is that the police force does not have the required balls it needs to deal with graduates of the crime factory that is modern day England. We want police officers of the stature, intimidation and purpose of Harry Callaghan, not lightly-framed unarmed female officers. The brief of every police force should be something like this: We are going to protect this neighbourhood. We are not going to wait for crime to happen. We are going to find out where the scumbags and villains live and get rid of them. If you mess up we will deal with you severely.

The actual brief, (unwritten of course) goes like this: We are the local police force. We collect facts and figures about offences going on in your neighbourhood. We have lots of ideas and initiatives about what to do. We have all sorts of different teams and we try to help wherever we can. We are nice people and smile a lot. We have a feature-packed website and a column in the local newpaper you might like to read. Every so often we will publish facts and figures about what we do, typically in colour, declaring that this problem is not quite as bad as it was, and this one is a little bit worse. We try to be polite to you when you ring us. Thanks.

Lest anyone think that I have a special contempt for the police force per se, I do not. The force has been bastardised by government, strained by the long-term effects of welfarism (the wellspring of much criminality is the welfare state), and has been poisoned by those who decry common-sense and reasonableness - the liberal-left, who truly hate the police of course. Returning to parking offences to compare approaches to two strands of public life, I sense that we could state this corner of officialdom's mission, in practice as follows: We are civil enforcement officers. If you park in the wrong place, or stay in the right place for too long, we will impose a heavy financial penalty on you, which you will not easily be able to avoid. We don't care if you aren't causing an impediment to the flow of traffic. We don't care if you are trying to deliver heavy goods to your business. We don't care because our goal is to forcefully extract your money.

Note how my idealised vision of the police force matches up with my perception of how parking offences are actually treated. Is this a knock-down argument establishing the truth of the matter?

-------------------------------------------------------------

The response I received was this:

"Thank you for your email entitled "Revenue extraction versus the primary duty of the state: which one receives more attention?" the contents of which have been noted."

Posted by: cybn at September 2, 2010 07:16 PM
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