You can’t trust the disabled. A lot of them are faking it. In the last year, there were 16,535 blue badges and 21,000 free bus passes cancelled by local councils, due to fraudulent use. Bloody disabled. They’re having a laugh.
Imagine you were a local council. Don’t be squeamish. You can be a Tory one, if you like, from somewhere nice. Anyway, you’re this council, or a bit of it, and you have your suspicions that somebody is using a blue badge who shouldn’t be. Some young bloke, say, who got it off his Gran and now uses it, allegedly, to park each day outside his office. Sounds trivial, I know, but there’s only so many disabled bays around, and every time a boy racer parks in one, a genuinely disabled person — there must be some — can’t. So being a council, you ought to do something about it. But what?
You can’t just take the badge away. After all, you’ve got no proof. Maybe you just had a tip-off, or maybe a traffic warden thought he saw something but wasn’t sure. You could send the traffic warden back there, to hang around until he returns, but the very presence of a traffic warden probably means he won’t. So the sensible thing would be for the traffic warden to a) hide, or b) take off his uniform. So that’s probably what you’d do. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is covert surveillance, otherwise known as an operation authorised by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000), otherwise known as RIPA, otherwise known as ‘TOWN COUNCIL STASI USES TERROR LEGISLATION TO SPY ON GRANNIES!!’ in every newspaper, always.
Our new coalition government has promised to curb use of RIPA powers by councils, unless they are required for ‘serious crime’. I think it was in the Queen’s Speech. I wouldn’t mind this so much, if I could see any evidence at all that they had the faintest idea what they were talking about. I only do by chance. Knowledge, for a journalist, is a curious thing. Sometimes it swoops up on you almost by accident. An assignment here, an article there, and suddenly you know more about something than the people who go on about it all the time. And they’re wrong. Totally wrong. Don’t fear the RIPA.
I first looked into this sort of thing a couple of years ago. I’m not sure what sparked it. I’d been watching a lot of The Wire. There were stories around about local councils spying on parents trying to sneak their kids into the wrong schools, or on people with noisy dogs, and I thought that this would be a chance to report on something hilarious. Council officials being all Inspector Clouseau. That sort of thing. Only I started looking into it and meeting people, and that isn’t what I found at all.
I sat in a flat in Northumberland while Noise Abatement officers set up a recording device in the flat of a couple who had been complaining about their neighbour’s all-night parties for almost a year. I met an Environmental Protection officer who had used a variety of techniques, including proper, old-fashioned, collar-up following, in order to help prosecute a gang who made their living out of dumping trash in beauty spots. I met CCTV operators who had saved the lives of drunks and foiled muggings, and I met traffic officials who explained to me exactly how you go about kitting out a car with a hidden camera. (‘You hide it,’ they said, ‘under a cushion.’)
I found, to summarise, nothing that was bad or scary, and much that makes lives palpably better. Minor offence? Minor to whom? Dog-fouling only seems minor if you aren’t the one stepping in it, outside your own front door, every morning. Noise complaints only seem minor if you haven’t been awake for a year. Bins are only minor if your street isn’t clogged with filth.
Most of all, though, I found that RIPA — invoked for serious crime in 2000, extended to cover councils by David Blunkett in 2003, and the subject of near-hysteria ever since — didn’t actually give anybody any new powers to do anything. It was nothing new. I might say that again loudly, because it’s important. IT WAS NOTHING NEW. No. It just obliged people who were already doing exactly what they are doing now to write it down. So it’s not as though council officers had never used cover methods (wearing a hat, say) to observe vandals, cheats and benefit frauds before. All that changed was that they just had to get permission from their boss and keep a record. And this is a bad thing? This is what we’re so keen to scrap?
Well, maybe we are. Maybe we reckon that a citizen should only be investigated by police, even if the police reckon they already have enough to do. Maybe we reckon that the need for even the most loose, woolly, frankly ignorant interpretation of the term ‘civil liberties’ should, indeed, trump a council’s ability to combat fraud. I mean, fine, if that’s what you want. Genuine disabled person who can’t park? Council tax payer, paying extra because the person next door pretends to live alone and doesn’t? Kids can’t get into the right school, while others cheat and swing it? Rubbish getting dumped in the front garden? Feet covered in poo? Well, screw you. That’s just the price of not living in STASI BRITAIN.
And maybe it’s a price worth paying. But if we’re going to ban the use of RIPA, let’s at least be entirely clear on what we’re banning. That’s all I ask. I’m quite looking forward to my disabled badge, actually. Camden parking is a nightmare.
Can we do something about the linen suit? I accept it’s probably drizzling and minus five out there again by now, but at the time of writing it’s been hot for a while. Women can wear anything these days. Shorts, a big shirt, a boob-tube and a belt; whatever, office or not. Men don’t have many options. The consensus seems to be that we ought to just wear our normal clothes and sweat like cheese. And it’s not nice.
Linen. It’s the only way. Although, unless one is actually on holiday, actually in Italy, society forbids it. Beige linen, and you’re made to feel like Bertie Wooster. Grey or black linen, and it’s all a bit Yentob. British popular consciousness needs to change, and we must all lead by example. You go first.
Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 29, 2010