Ross Clark

We have become a nation of shysters

Labour has such a blind spot for business that it cannot distinguish between honest enterprises and near-criminal scams like car-clamping, says Ross Clark

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Power cuts and uncollected rubbish form most people’s memories of the economic debacle that was the 1970s. But for me, a quite different story sums up the lack of business sense that distinguished the British at the time. My mother had gone into a village shop in Kent to buy some bacon, which the affable shoplady found some pretext to give to her for free. While she was there another customer came in and tried to buy a tin-opener. ‘Oh, you don’t want one of them, they’re rubbish,’ said the shoplady, scathingly. ‘Why don’t you borrow mine? If you go upstairs it’s in my kitchen drawer. But do please shut the kitchen door when you go out.’

I do wonder whether she ever took a penny. Of course, Britain is not like that any more. Mrs Thatcher instilled in us an entrepreneurial spirit. Now, we all watch The Apprentice and want to make a million by the time we are 30. Our dusty nationalised industries have gone, replaced by thrusting businesses which actually make a profit. We have got some of the world’s leading software-designers, fashion houses, bespoke engineering manufacturers, green technology companies, telecommunications businesses, derivative salesmen, car-clamping firms, property investment scams...

You will detect the pattern. The great revival of enterprise in Britain has not been wholly for the good. For every honest entrepreneur out to make a fortune by providing a useful service valued by his customers there is someone else trying to fleece you. Maybe the ratio is not quite 50-50, but as the credit crunch leads to the unwinding of increasing numbers of dodgy businesses, the more one asks just what our economy has been built on during the boom years.

It is hard now to remember the days when Englishmen venturing on holiday to the Med had to be warned to watch out for conmen. The inference being that they wouldn’t have encountered dishonest tradesmen at home, and so would not recognise a charlatan. Now we have become the nation of spivs and shysters ourselves. At least in Italy they don’t close down the railway ticket offices so that the inspectors can pounce on you when you find it impossible to buy a ticket. It isn’t Spanish airlines that charge you £40 to check-in or £120 if you want to check a second bag into the hold. Admittedly, I’ve never tried to open a bank account in Greece, but I suspect they are not quite so brazen there about enticing you with teasing introductory interest rates — only to slash them without telling you a few weeks later.

This Labour government has become an even greater friend of shysters than its earlier Harold Wilson manifestation. Labour has such a blind spot regarding business that it simply cannot distinguish between where business ends and racketeering begins. It is as if the whole world of profit-seeking is so foreign to Gordon Brown and his companions that they have been unable to recognise the concept of making an honest buck.

This certainly applied to the banks, where Mr Brown was bamboozled by the money cascading into his Treasury. His government, let us never forget, took a 40 per cent cut in all the bonuses paid: the greed of the financiers themselves was matched by a greed, by government, for the tax haul. This was a no-questions-asked kind of greed, where Mr Brown did not wonder whether money was being made by fair or foul means, as long as it paid for his public services.

It is the same with other money-grabbing businesses. We are an over-regulated country in many respects, yet the law is astonishingly liberal when it comes to a scam such as car-clamping. Actually, make that England: the Scottish courts ruled car-clamping to be extortion in the early 1990s. In England, meanwhile, the government has protected the clamping industry as it might in the old days have done the coal industry or the steel industry. It is six years since the government first promised action against car-clampers who were stinging motorists for hundreds of pounds for parking on private wasteland, or in some cases for parking slightly outside the designated painted lines in ‘free’ car parks. Yet the racket gets worse.

What the government did to ‘reform’ the law on car-clampers was to instigate a racket of its own: the Security Industry Authority (SIA) and its licensing scheme. Anyone working as a clamper, nightclub bouncer or private security guard must now pay nearly £400 for 20 hours training followed by the issue of a licence on laminated paper. Yet if you think this means you won’t come face to face with a thug blocking you into a car park and demanding several hundred pounds for releasing your car from a clamp, forget it.

The SIA makes it perfectly clear that a criminal conviction is no bar to being awarded a licence: in fact, anyone with convictions for ‘common assault and battery’ or ‘culpable or reckless injury’ is assured that they are eligible for a licence. Unbelievably, the government even co-operates with bullying clamping firms by providing names and addresses from the DVLA database. The obvious solution — instigating a cap on the fees and charges which clampers can levy — never seems to occur.

Take another racket that the government endorses: park homes. When Mrs Thatcher set out to instil a more entrepreneurial spirit in the British 30 years ago, it is hard to imagine that it was to encourage the activities of people like John and Simey Doherty. Two years ago the two brothers bought themselves an estate of park homes in Barnt Green, Worcestershire — after setting light to a couple of caravans in order to persuade the existing owner of the site to award a hefty price reduction. As soon as they had control of the site they embarked on a programme of intimidating the mainly elderly residents.

On park home sites, residents own their homes but rent a pitch from the site-owner. However, they may not sell their homes without the site owner first approving the new buyers — a rule which the Dohertys and many other park home owners have been ruthless in exploiting. Soon after taking over the site the brothers started intimidating residents into selling their homes — which should have been worth up to £75,000 — for as little as £1 each.

While the Dohertys were eventually prosecuted after a police inspection and jailed under common law offences, there is no regulation which will prevent them coming out of jail and buying another park home site. Moreover, there is nothing to prevent other park home site-owners from similarly making the lives of their residents a misery. As with wheel-clampers, the truly shocking thing is that the government has already supposedly reformed the law regarding park homes — but has failed to make any useful reform whatsoever.

There have, of course, always been scams and conmen. But it is hard to remember a time when they prospered quite as they are doing now. To adapt that old 1970s saying, would the last honest tradesman to leave the country please turn out the lights — if he can avoid being hit with a large disconnection fee and low-user charge.