EU Referendum

UK politics: the law is the law


Our honourable and esteemed Members of Parliament have for many years laboured under the delusion that they produce laws. For sure they may, with the assistance of their clerks and printers, churn out pieces of paper with words on them. Those may bear impressive titles, like "Act of Parliament", or "Statutory Instrument", but they are not laws.

Some people – too many – take these pieces of paper seriously. "The law is the law and must be obeyed," they parrot, especially when it comes to things like speed limits and other irritations.

Down at the cutting face, though, that never used to be the case. As a young public health inspector, working for a large city local authority – one of a large team - there was only one law: my law. On my patch, a small slice of the Council area, I made the law. Furthermore, I was policeman, judge, jury and executioner. In truth, there was only one primary law: "Don't mess with North".

That one superior law, however, did not stop me or my fellow inspectors making subsidiary laws, each to apply in our own patches – "districts" we called them – as occasion demanded.

At times, our law-making was quite prodigious, aided considerably by a highly reputable firm of law stationers. At a not insubstantial cost to our employer, and thus the good ratepayers for whom we toiled, this long-established company produced for us pads of extremely impressive forms. These were "Notices" – always with a capital.

With space at the top to type in the name of our employer, each proclaimed in bold capitals, "Take Notice" adding, "… that the aforementioned local authority does hereby require you …". There was space for the recipient's address, and then a large space in which we could insert our specific "requirements". The Notice was finished by the addition of a date by which said "requirements" should be completed, with the usual signature block and all the rest.

If anyone ever asked by what authority we issued such edicts – and very few did – we would tell them they stemmed from the Local Authority (Consolidated Powers) Act 1938. This Act was later amended and updated to become the "73 Act", to reflect local government reorganisation. Do not bother to look it up on Google though. It does not exist. It never existed. In the office, the "Notice" was known by its short title: "Section 3 of the 1938 Bluff Act".

Most times, it worked. For a whole variety of minor aggravations, where a request or a friendly warning had been disregarded, out came the "big stick". People usually came into line. Some had smart lawyers and refused to comply. We had our ways of dealing with that.

One such came about in an unusual way – even for us. There was this restaurant, a small one in the university area. Dirty, it was – very dirty – and I wanted to close it down. The law – the stuff which came from Westminster – allowed me to do that, but I had to serve the official closure notice on the owner of the premises, otherwise it was not valid.

This business, however, was not operated by the owner, but a tenant. He would not enlighten me as to who the owner was. That presented a problem: through some peculiar defect in the law (since remedied), I had no statutory power to demand that information. So off went a Section 3 Notice to the "occupier", demanding the owner's name and address. This one did have a smart lawyer. I got a tart letter back by return, refusing the information.

I did have the option of prosecuting the restaurant operator, for offences under the food hygiene laws. But that was a mug's game. When I say "one" in respect of the restaurant operator, the operation was owned by a syndicate. This was the immigrant fraternity and they often played that game. You would set up the prosecution and they would dissolve the syndicate, close the premises for half a day, reform the syndicate – same people, different order on the documents – and re-commence trading. Back to square one.

Okaaaay. So I went back and did a reinspection – a thorough one, in the middle of their lunch trade, their busiest and most profitable time. And when I say thorough, I meanthorough. To do that, of course, I needed to remove all the kit from the cupboards, all the food from the shelves, all the contents of the refrigerators, the cutlery from the drawers, the crockery, Uncle Tom Cobbley and all. How else could I inspect them? Out it all came, tossed none too gently into the centre of the kitchen floor, conveniently visible from the dining area.

Offering them friendly "advice" on how to clean up the mess, I left them to it, only to return the next day, and the next, and the next … On my day off, a fellow inspector helped me out and, just in case they thought they would get a break over the weekend, I did a Saturday evening inspection. It really was quite amazing how quickly they came into line. The restaurant is still there, trading under the same name. It's quite a nice little operation now.

As for the "real" law – the stuff from Westminster - that was optional. If we said it was law, it was law. If we said it wasn't, it was ignored.

Take the "nail brush law". The Food Hygiene Regulations required of every wash basin in every food premises that they were equipped with soap, towel and nail brush. A boffin in the public health labs had done some work on nail brushes though. He had found that, in the warm atmosphere of a kitchen, after a few uses, the germ growth was so horrendous that you had to nail them down to stop them going walkies. That's why we called them nail brushes.

Thus, the word went out to discourage their use. If we saw them, we binned them and told people accordingly. Never mind the law – our job was public health, to protect the public.

Mind you, the law is the law … On the few occasions that we prosecuted food operations – and it was invariably the last resort, sometimes after years of warnings – we did everything to make them stick. While you could get them for dirty floors walls and ceilings, they only had four walls, and one each ceiling and floor – six offences. Add two or three missing nail brushes and that nicely padded out the charge sheet. It was only a few hundred quid extra fine, but it added to the pain.

Eventually, they did change the law. But not before we had a prosecution and got the Mags to impose maximum fines for some missing brushes. It was quite fun telling the punter that, had he been a few weeks later, he would have got away with it.

Prosecutions, though, were only for the small guys. They got hurt, and if that was our intention – then hurt there must be. There is no point in pussy-footing about. If the guy is a public menace and won't listen, then you have to take him out.

Corporates, though – they were different. You could take them to court. A gang of my fellow inspectors, in different local authorities, tried it. The corporates would put up their smart lawyers, forcing us to match them out of our budget with expensive barristers. Even if you got top whack on fines – and £20,000 was a big fine in those days – they would shrug, sign off a corporate cheque and walk out of the court smiling. They paid their lawyers more. 

I had one on my patch – a big-name branded hotel and restaurant, dead smart and stuck-up. It was a pain. They knew exactly how far they could go. Not good, but not bad enough to make a prosecution stick. You'd send them a Notice - a proper one - requiring works. They would do some of them.

A small independent – they would do the work straight away. Some of them had to struggle to afford it, but two or three visits later and you could sign them off. Not this lot. It took as many as ten or twelve visits to cajole them into completing the works, by which time you were back on a new inspection cycle, starting all over again.

They were messing me about. They knew it. I knew it. They thought they knew the law and they did – Westminster law. But they didn't know my law. The only law you don't break: "don't mess with North". I did the rope trick. This was not the Indian rope trick. Just rope – give them enough rope and they'll hang themselves. Instead of the three-month cycle, I left it six months in the hope that they would get complacent in my absence and get bad enough to nick.

You can't do that these days, incidentally. Inspection cycles are set by EU law, and if you miss one, there is holy war. But that's another story.

On the appointed day, I went into the kitchen. It wasn't good, but not as bad as I had hoped for. Fortunately, the Gods were smiling on me that day. Unbeknown to the chef, the walk-in cold store had broken down overnight. Stacked with meat and other perishables, they had gone off. As I approached the store, I could smell it.

Food in a commercial food premises, unless it is specifically marked to the contrary and segregated, is deemed food "exposed for sale". And "exposing" rotting food for sale is an offence. By this time the meat was rotting – high as a kite.

Furthermore, if such food was present – unfit food – I had the power to seize it and take it before the Mags to get it condemned. That was Westminster law and I was quite happy to use it when it suited me. The hotel management offered to "surrender" the food, but I wasn't having that. This had to hurt. I was going to make it so, in a way they would not forget.

Our department had its own collection truck. We offered a service to local food producers, taking away their waste, disposing of it under supervision to stop foraging in the tips. It had painted on the side, in very large, prominent letters, "condemned food".

I got on the 'phone and whistled up the truck. But, instead of parking it discretely round the back, I put it in the front. We parked it in the guest drop-off bay right opposite the front door. Then I got my lads, two of them, kitted up in white coats, hats, boots – all the gear – to go through reception, through the ever-so posh restaurant and into the kitchen by the waiters' door. By then, it was lunch time. The place was full of diners, the expense account crowd and all the rest.

At our leisure, we carried the trays of rotting meat, one at a time, through the crowded restaurant, through reception and into the truck, in full sight of the diners. It took us a long time to finish the job.

To cut a long story short – there was much more merriment before we had finished - I met the operations director of the hotel some long time later. By then, I had changed sides and was working for the company. He told me I had shaved 20 percent off the turnover of the hotel that month, and it had taken over a year to recover. In fact, by the time the word got out, it never really did recover. The company eventually sold the hotel. But, I never had any more bother with it. They learned about North's law the hard way.

That, also – with the others – was an example of result-based regulation. The name of the game was to keep operations safe. We did what it takes to keep them that way and protect the public. We were good at it, and the law – Westminster law – was only one very small part of our toolkit.

In its own way – using a similar approach – that is what the Bank of England used to do in order to keep the financial system sound. I know this as I have spoken to some "old timers". The businesses and the objectives might have been different. But I recognised the techniques and strategies. More to the point, I recognised the philosophy. It was the same.

And if it sounds like we were a law unto ourselves, we weren't really. The punters just had to believe that. There were all sorts of checks and balances to make sure we didn't go off the rails and get too big for our boots. They didn't always work, and the system was far from perfect. But it was much, much better that what we have now.