It’s pantomime season here in Helmsley — Jack and the Beanstalk, seats available at all prices — but this year I’m not the dame. The ladies in charge said they wanted a wholesome family show, so that ruled out a re-appearance of the Les-Dawson-does-Dame-Edna persona I developed last year — to some acclaim from rowdier elements of the audience — as Cinderella’s ugliest sister.
The consolation for being a resting actor, however, is that I am free to devote more attention to my other role as director of the arts centre in which these extravaganzas take place. I have held this voluntary part-time job for the past 12 years, in which the centre has grown into a thriving hub of creativity. Though it runs as a charity it is also a business, turning over several thousand pounds in a good week. That gives me a very direct view of the impact of all the new regulations for which the government is castigated by the Federation of Small Businesses and the CBI.
Take, for example, the Licensing Act 2003, which has allegedly opened the floodgates to 24-hour drinking across the land. It was actually designed as an anti-red-tape measure, replacing with a single system all the paperwork and inspections previously required for separate theatre, cinema, public entertainment, alcohol and late-night café licences. But so far its effect has been to impose huge burdens of time and cost on licensees like us who have been obliged to reapply.
In the old system, we sold alcohol under a theatre licence, which was conveniently flexible without provoking any drunkenness at all — a second cup of coffee would be considered binge-drinking in our well-behaved interval crowd, and I believe I am the only person in 12 years ever to order a double scotch. Nothing needed to change, either for public order or for good administration; and arguably there is no reason why most forms of entertainment need to be licensed at all, provided there are adequate safety laws. Nevertheless one of my fellow volunteers has spent months negotiating the new licence with the local authority — and dissuading it from imposing a set of incorrect conditions that would have had the effect of stopping most of our activities for children.
Then there are the Dispute Resolution Regulations 2004, which we have had to incorporate in our employment contracts. These lay down a 13-step procedure to be followed if, God forbid, we ever have to sack someone. In summary, they say I should write to the employee describing the conduct which is unsatisfactory, then invite him to discuss it with me; after that, I should invite him to appeal against my decision; we should then meet again to discuss the appeal — making sure the timing and location of meetings are ‘reasonable’ — before I communicate my final decision. A dismissal which failed to comply with every step would automatically be deemed unfair by a tribunal, which can add compensation of up to £55,000 to any award it makes to the ex-employee. I have just watched another local charity tiptoe through this minefield in what should have been an open-and-shut case — and it was extraordinarily tiresome and stressful for everyone concerned.
I could go on to bore you with HM Revenue and Customs’ 2003 ruling on partial exemption from VAT for cultural bodies, which imposes a monthly arithmetic test the like of which I have not tackled since Maths A-level. Meanwhile, the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 looms over our scheme to extend the building, and the Arts Council has asked us to write a plan to address issues of ethnic and cultural diversity which are almost entirely absent from this part of Yorkshire.
Just occasionally a new regulation makes more sense than an old one. But the general pattern is one in which more and more hurdles are imposed on the private sector by an overweening state bureaucracy, with no sense of the cost of time and resources absorbed. In panto terms, the bean we planted in our little arts centre has grown into a splendidly healthy stalk, but the nasty giant of Whitehall keeps distracting us by forcing us to dance to his tune, and the dame of local government has her bloomers perpetually in a twist.
Gordon Brown must be a difficult man to buy presents for, but I have a helpful suggestion. I’m guessing that a Christmas gift pack of personal grooming products — medicated shampoo seems an obvious choice — would meet a gruff response. But the Chancellor really does need a makeover if he is to hold his own against sleek and youthful Commons opposition. So here’s my tip: his friends should club together to buy him a £75 gift voucher for a two-hour ‘pamper session’ at the happily named Brown Salon in Booth Street, Manchester, which I happened to pass last week. The deal includes a full facial plus a ‘lymphatic drainage massage’ which, according to salon owner Phil Lanigan, ‘releases toxins from the body by massaging in an upward movement’. To judge from his pre-Budget performance, Gordon is becoming increasingly toxic as his hopes of upward movement in Downing Street diminish. The antidote is in Phil’s skilled hands.
The Chancellor may be all the more in need of calming therapies after opening my own present to him, which is a Christmas cracker containing a dunce’s hat and a mysteriously large figure scribbled on a slip of paper. I’m guessing, again, that he likes numbers puzzles but dismisses Su Doku as being too fashionable with the bourgeoisie. My brainteaser will engage his attention in a different way by asking him to explain the significance of £1,847,653,801. For viewers at home, here’s the answer: it’s the notional loss so far caused by Brown’s bizarre decision in 1999 to sell off more than half of Britain’s gold reserves. He ordered the Bank of England to auction 395 tons of the precious metal: by 2002 it had been sold for an average of $275 an ounce. The market price has since soared above $530.
In simple terms, this wiped the best part of £2 billion off the value of our collective savings. Put another way, that’s £92 for every British household — a lot more than the cost of a family outing to the Helmsley pantomime. I can hear the Chancellor’s furious retort, spluttered through an avocado facepack, that he prudently redistributed the reserves into euros, dollars and yen and did not really lose anything at all. To which we all shout back, ‘Oh yes you did!’; and as young Cameron gets into his stride, ‘He’s behind you!’