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Sunday 30 September 2007

Officious legalities tick all wrong boxes

Let's kill all the lawyers, a sensible person once said, and that may be the answer in a world gone mad, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

Just thought I'd remind you that the world is mad. On Monday, I rang British Inland Revenue to explain why a payment would be a few days late.

"I just have to ask you some security questions," said the young woman, and -- I have to admit -- the fact that she sounded young filled me with dread: older bureaucrats have normally not had all their brains drilled out of their heads in the box-ticking training courses. They even occasionally use their commonsense.

So I answered questions about my reference number and my postcode and my phone number and my date of birth and so on and at the end she said, "I can't talk to you. You failed a question."

"Which question?" I asked.

"I can't tell you," she answered.

"You might have misheard my answer," I suggested. "Can't we try again?" And then, as I looked at their tax demand, I spotted the problem. "Ah, I have it," I said. "I told you I didn't have a middle name, which is technically correct, but my income tax is in the name of Ruth Dudley Edwards rather than, as I thought, Ruth Edwards. So that's the reason for the misunderstanding."

"Doesn't matter," she said. "I still can't talk to you. You failed a question." At which stage I raised my voice and pointed out that I didn't want any bloody information from her, I was merely trying to give some to her. So, eventually, grudgingly, she agreed to put something on the file.

On Tuesday, at Belfast City airport, a very young security person went through my small overnight bag and investigated my modest toilet bag containing toothpaste and a few items of the lipstick and eyeshadow variety.

Now I'm aware that people like him -- though they know perfectly well that potential suicide bombers are likely to be (mostly) dusky young men -- are terrified of being accused of discrimination and sued or sacked, so they target ageing white women to prove they are neither ageist, racist nor sexist.

Still, this chap really was a lulu. He removed three items at random and told me to retrace my steps to the concourse, get a plastic bag and put the items in it.

"Fine," I said affably, for I know better than to annoy security persons, and ultimately I passed through the screening with the same items I started with, though now in two containers rather than three. Don't ask me why.

Owing to cancelled planes, I had to leave and come back through security again, where I encountered the same young man. I removed my coat, my jacket and my shoes, which went through the machine along with my bag.

"Show me your identification," he said. Now all he had left me with was a short-sleeved black dress and black stockings.

"But you've taken everything from me," I said. "Where could I store my identification?" Not having a polite answer to that, with a haughty gesture, he waved me through the scanner.

When I rang my friend Nina in London to tell her I would be very late for our lunch date, she told me it was just as well. Every lunchtime last week, she had to drive miles to her granddaughter's school to put two drops of antibiotic on the nine-year-old's infected ear, since the teachers are forbidden from doing it. "But surely she's old enough to do it herself?" I said.

"Of course, she is," said Nina. "But she's not allowed take the bottle to school."

It is that kind of madness that -- despite the presence of two of the cheap police assistants known as community support officers -- had a 10-year-old boy in Manchester recently drown in a pool into which he had jumped to save his eight-year-old sister. Two sexagenarian civilians had waded in and rescued the girl, but the boy had disappeared. The officers radioed for help and did nothing else, but they received praise from their superiors, who explained that it "would have been inappropriate for PCSOs to enter the pond. They are not trained in water rescue".

Why is Western society so risk-averse, we cry? Why have officials no initiative? Usually we blame the compensation culture. So what can we do about it? I can think of only one answer. "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers," said a sensible person in a Shakespeare's Henry VI Part II. Sorry, legal guys and gals, I know some of you are decent and delightful people, but you are proliferating like mayfly, you're ruining our lives and mass extermination may be the only way way out.

I'm sure Bertie would agree.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards