The grave risk of using common sense

If I had been asked to come down on one side or the other about the recent protest by public sector workers I would have said I was against it. It’s not that I believe our working class shouldn’t have a decent pension or that it’s alright for them to be exploited or that they shouldn’t have the right to strike. It’s just that I’m uncomfortable with people withdrawing labour as a means to getting what they want – especially when the adverse affects usually land in the lap of uninvolved innocents such as schoolkids, the less able or the put-upon travelling public. Now, I should be clear that I have great respect for a host of low-paid workers in health-care, the police and fire and rescue whose dedication is beyond question and I’m pleased that this is being recognised by the Government; I’m referring here to the vast majority who choose a life in the public sector because it provides cover from the cold winter winds and the pain of the real world. Working in the public sector lets a huge number of people cruise along without really having to own responsibility and, the crux of the matter, it provides them with a pretty good pension just for staying the course. And if you’re unaccountable you can’t be responsible, can you? But it’s that reward at the end – or the thought that it might be in danger after a career spent discussing initiatives or attending committee meetings – that was the sensitive nerve tweaked by union leaders to encourage the workers to rise up and reclaim the streets.

I can appreciate that the shock of being woken from your bureaucratic slumber to be told you have to increase your pension contribution and can’t retire as early as you’d planned is pretty unpalatable but although we saw lots of placards criticising the Government I didn’t see one that said ‘…and bring the 20% of salary you contribute to our pensions into line with 5% the private sector gets!’ No; for the most part people were on the streets because they wanted their benefits, not more personal responsibility for funding their golden years.

I’ve spent my working life in the private sector but that has often involved working for clients in the public sector. In doing so I’ve rubbed shoulders, so to speak, with a great many of our now-troubled public servants and understanding the mindset that I frequently encountered continues to elude me. Perhaps that’s because I’ve always found the culture of playing the long game whilst avoiding responsibility something of a contradiction. What it has done is left me with an impression that our public sector can be a closeted world where conclusions are drawn and decisions made in a manner that is at once self-justifying and mystifying. If the Government’s austerity measures have sent shock waves through this hitherto unaccountable and cosy world then I, for one, am pleased to see the process start.

I live in a pleasant and attractive part of England but just up the road we are experiencing the consequences of an eye-watering example of the kind of nonsensical thinking that seems to emerge from the collective mind of the public sector far too often. It involves Health and Safety but, regrettably, not much Common Sense. We’ve had an incident in the graveyard. Apparently, a lady who was attending a grave used a headstone to support herself as she stood up and it tipped over, hurting her leg. Not seriously or even badly, just enough for her to suffer some distress. Alarm bells rang at the Town Council offices and, I suspect, an emergency committee meeting will have been convened to decide on the appropriate response. The committee meeting, especially in its unscheduled, ad hoc emergency form, is the lifeblood of public service, where planned committee meetings fill your schedule and your life. Successful officers list the committees they’ve served on or chaired as proof that their career amounted to more than merely showing up every day. If you’ve ever attended one of these gatherings you’ll know that it would have started with a safety assessment covering the use of the chairs and tables or the flip-chart, perhaps even the window blinds if it was particularly sunny that day, together with a briefing that located fire escapes. Several people would have arrived late, clutching variously files, papers, plastic cups of tea or water bottles. [I’ve experienced meetings in a local authority where attendees arrived carrying cups of soup!] There would be many utterances of self-importance that said ‘I’m really too busy to attend this but I’m too important to not be here’. The chairman – this being the officer who is probably the only one in the room with the authority to actually make an executive decision and therefore ensure that any agreed action is actually implemented –  apologies for the limited time that he or she can give the meeting because there is a ‘ways and means’ committee to attend or, given the time of year, a ‘Christmas Lights’ meeting. So the discussion will probably have concluded leaderless after lengthy, unstructured deliberation.

Cynical, I know, but I’m certain that such a meeting took place and equally certain that it ran its erratic course because a decision was reached and it was acted upon. They didn’t close the graveyard; they didn’t post warning notices or fence off dangerous areas; they didn’t try to stop people leaning on headstones. Nope, the combined cerebral power of the gathering came up with this; push over the headstones before any fall on someone else. And here’s why I know there wasn’t a chairman in attendance at that point because that wasn’t all they decided. There was clearly a discussion about whether or not all the headstones were in danger of toppling over [there are more than a thousand in the churchyard] so a test was devised – a ‘topple test’ – to find out where the danger lay. It was decided that each headstone would be subjected to a 16Kg weight being pushed against it and those showing signs of tipping over would be helped on their way. A team was dispatched and, as I write this, over two hundred headstones have been pushed over. The Town Clerk, who may have been reclaiming the streets during the protests, found time to be quoted as saying, We had arranged to do this over the coming months but because of an incident that happened and the bad weather, we’re addressing it as a matter of urgency. It’s now a matter of priority for us to make sure that it is accident-free. We understand this is an extremely sensitive issue and may cause some distress to families. However, to ensure we comply with complex health and safety regulations, it is essential this action is taken’. Remember my mentioning responsibility above? It appears that no one can be identified who actually devised the ‘test’ so we don’t know why 16Kg [and not, say, 25Kg or maybe 5Kg] was selected and no one knows why so many headstones are suddenly in danger of being pushed over when flowers are laid against them. In another gem of local authority insight, however, the Town Clerk said that the headstones failing the test are not set as deeply in the ground as the ones that pass the test. He gave that a lot of thought, didn’t he?

I’m past the point where I think too deeply about how these imbeciles spend our council tax as it keeps me awake at night but the local press have asked how much this nonsense will cost. Ah, the Council doesn’t know but we, the taxpayers they serve, shouldn’t worry – the cost of rectifying headstones that have been pushed over but which might not have fallen of their own accord for the next fifty years will be passed on to the bereaved families. And if they don’t pay up the headstones will stay on the ground. Cue further stories about elderly, impecunious widows and graves with no surviving family members.

Just as an aside, our local authority used part of an increase in the council tax a few years back to fill a gap in their pension fund. Now, let’s reclaim the streets!