Why everyday life is tied up in red tape
The proliferation of rules and regulations on everything from leafleting to looking after kids exposes how much the state distrusts us.
On 21 October, Manifesto Club director Josie Appleton took part in a debate titled ‘Risk, regulation and red tape’, at the Battle of Ideas in London. An edited version of her opening comments is published below.
As part of the Manifesto Club’s campaign against leafleting bans in the UK, I met an animal-rights campaigner in Swindon who had been running the same stall in the same position for 30 years. As not many people run the same stall in the same place for 30 years, her experience provides a good barometer of the changing state of regulation in the UK.
For 20 of those years running the stall, she did not encounter any regulation at all. And then about 10 years ago, the police started coming up to her saying that her posters were very distressing, that she needed to tone them down, and that they should only feature fluffy bunnies. About seven years ago, the council also started to intervene, telling her she needed a license to take collections from people. Five years ago, the council announced that she now needed a license to hand out leaflets. And then about three years ago, council officials said that they needed to risk assess her stall every month.
I think the experiences of this campaigner offer us a revealing snapshot of the extent to which everyday life has been regulated in the UK. Contemporary regulation of this type is very different to the forms of regulation associated with classic social protections: no seven-year-old chimney sweeps, essential protections in the workplace and that kind of thing. The regulation of everyday life is very different in nature to those forms of protection, and also to what capitalist regulation was about – easing up social life and enabling things to work better.
As part of the Manifesto Club’s work, I also read a lot of child-protection policy documents. They are often hundreds of pages long, yet I have never seen a proposal that would prevent a paedophile from getting access to children. Instead, there are all sorts of rules – rules about how you transport children to football matches, rules about how you take photographs, rules about late pick-up policies for when the parents don’t turn up on time to take their kids home from some activity or other. So there is this morass of bureaucracy, yet there’s not one identifiable useful functional element within it. What you have then really are rules for the sake of rules.
People can’t understand the reams of bureaucracy that regulate everyday life. This bureaucratic edifice seems very much set against what people are trying to do, be it run a kids’ football team or run a political stall in a town centre. People trying to do things in their neighbourhoods just encounter this weight of paper, this obstacle, for which they can see no practical purpose.
Now, I think the proliferation of rules and regulations has nothing to do with regulating risky situations. Rather, they are proliferating because unregulated life itself is now seen as a risk.
For instance, I am always shocked by the number of things councils describe as potentially criminal. I’ve heard them talk about lost-cat posters as a magnet for crime. I’ve heard a chief police officer describe live music as potentially criminal because it brings strangers into a particular area. It’s as if spontaneous life is seen as latently criminal, paedophilic or terroristic.
This worldview has nothing to do with any actual danger. The lady with her animal-rights stall was not presenting some sort of fire hazard, or posing some sort of physical threat. The determination to restrict her ability to run a stall derives instead from officialdom’s view of freedom and its unrealistic worship of bureaucracy. So, for example, anyone who has been through a Criminal Records Bureau check is de facto safe to be in contact with children and anyone who has not is de facto a risk.
Little wonder that people who are awaiting their CRB checks to come through are treated as pariahs. I encountered one headmaster who was prevented from entering his own school because his CRB check had not yet come through. Consequently, he had to enter through the school’s back entrance and was prohibited from talking to any children. Once the check came through, of course, he was deemed a safe person, he could be trusted, etc.
This is a fetishisation of bureaucracy. You’ve got the check, you’ve got the bit of paper, you have the child-protection code. Then you are de facto safe. And if you haven’t, if you used your own initiative to set up an after-school sports club, or you just put something together with your friends, then it’s de facto dangerous.
And it is not just officialdom that fetishises bureaucracy. One of the things UK education secretary Michael Gove did upon taking up his current role was actually to cut down the regulation of school trips document from 150 pages to eight pages. Yet the response from teachers’ unions was that this was terribly negligent thing to do, presumably because those 142 pages provide safety through sheer weight of paper. Those 142 pages were essential to the safety of children on school trips, and without them, teachers would be left naked, and without guidance. So I think there’s an unrealistic fetishisation of bureaucracy.
In any other historical period, your view on regulation would have been a question of whether it is useful or a question of what social interest it serves. So certain people would have been for certain regulations of the workplace, according to which social interest they supported. Today things are very different. When new regulations are proposed now, you can be against regulation as a point of principle. And, just as importantly, you can be for an unregulated life.
Josie Appleton is director of the Manifesto Club civil liberties group.