This time last year I was busy editing The Bully State: The End of Tolerance, Brian Monteith's entertaining but depressing picture of modern day Britain. Any hopes that the bully state would disappear under the new Government disappeared when I read that a woman, an elderly widow of 75, had been "threatened with £2,500 fine for dropping cigarette ash". Full story HERE.
According to the Daily Telegraph:
Sheila Martin, 70, was smoking at a bus stop when a warden pounced and handed her the £75 fixed penalty for littering. However she has refused to pay – and could now face a £2,500 penalty.
Mrs Martin, from Oldbury, West Mids, was hit with the original fine by the Sandwell Council warden while at the bus stop on May 25.
She said: "I still can't believe what happened. I was just sat at a bus stop quietly enjoying my cigarette and from nowhere a warden appeared and accused me of littering.
"I couldn't believe it, I was only smoking a cigarette. It is one of the few things I have left that I can afford to buy myself. I can't work out why the council would be so vindictive over such a petty matter. I'm so upset and angry."
I'm not suggesting that we should tolerate litter but even a £75 fine seems excessive in this instance. Cigarette ash is not, by any definition, litter. And even if the fine was for dropping a cigarette butt, surely a quiet word would have been sufficient? But no, wardens have to justify their existence and it wouldn't surprise me if they have targets to meet.
(A police officer wrote to the Motoring section of the Telegraph some time ago and explained that, in his area, you are less likely to get caught for speeding or other motoring offences in the latter part of the month because once police officers have met their monthly targets they tend to be less vigilant.)
Of course you could argue that what happens in Oldbury has nothing to do with central government, but I disagree. The previous government tacitly encouraged the bully state mentality that Brian writes about in his book and it is something that the new Government must get to grips with.
If we want officials to use a bit more common sense and compassion when dealing with relatively minor offences, the message has to come from the very top. If wheel clampers are to be banned from operating on private land (note the word "private"), I don't think it is unreasonable to expect the authorities to adopt a less heavy-handed approach in public areas too.
PS. I have just Googled The Bully State and it is currently available from Amazon for £85.61 (new) or £77.35 (used). See HERE. The recommended retail price is £6.99 and I should know - I've got a box of them (the last remaining copies) in my study at home!
Update: Anna Raccoon has more on the Sheila Martin story HERE.