If you’re onto a good thing, why rock the boat? That’s what I would like to ask the ‘unnamed client’ of the law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner.
According to City AM:
THE GOVERNMENT may be forced to scrap VAT on ebooks if a legal challenge from a London law firm is successful.
BLP, acting on behalf of an unnamed client, is challenging HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) over its decision to charge the standard 20 per cent rate of VAT on ebooks while printed books do not have the tax applied.
Alan Sinyor, head of VAT at BLP, said that ebooks and print books should qualify for “fiscal neutrality on the grounds that they are the same from the perspective of meeting the customer’s needs”.
If the case before the UK tribunal is successful, HMRC may have to remove VAT on ebooks, which could have a knock-on effect of reducing their price.
Yep, it could. Is it likely, in the current climate? Or is it more likely that VAT will be applied to printed books?
In other news, while driving back from dropping the kids off at school this morning, I tuned in to Radio 5 Live’s Phone in with Nicky Campbell, where the Howard League for Letting People Off was leading a chorus of astonishment that the police are actually arresting schoolchildren for being ‘naughty’. Leaving aside two big and unanswered questions – define ‘naughty’, and explain what you’re supposed to do with knife-wielding five-year-olds in an era when pretty much all punishment has been abolished by people exactly like the Howard League* – it’s certainly true that in some lamentable cases the cops have been wrongly criminalising kids for ages. As PC Copperfield explained some time ago, much of it is about ‘using young people as statistics-fodder’:
PLUS ÇA CHANGE, PLUS C’EST LA MEME CHOSE
IF YOU HAD BOUGHT the first edition of this book, then round about here you would have been reading a (probably) rather confusing explanation of a thing called ‘administrative detections’. This was a complicated bureaucratic scam by which we ‘solved’ trivial crimes. We’re talking crimes so trivial – a bit of name-calling in the playground, a cup of water thrown over someone, a two-fingered salute – that people didn’t actually want to go to court about them, they just wanted to get the matter off their chests. For many modern Britons, the police now provide that outlet, where once a long walk or an adult conversation might have done the trick.
The system of administrative detections has recently been done away with, perhaps after this book found its way to the Home Office, but it’s worth explaining what it was for three reasons – first, because other parts of the book refer to the system; second, to show how things have changed; and third, because these things are cyclical and by the time you actually read this administrative detections will probably be back in vogue.
Let’s say there’s been a bit of mobile phone text abuse going on between a couple of schoolkids – Wayne and his half-brother’s ex-girlfriend’s new partner’s ex, Tracey. Wayne has snt a nsty txt to Tracey so her mum has phoned the police about it; under our system of ‘Ethical Crime Recording’ (see below), it’s therefore officially a crime and we need to sort it out.
We used to ‘solve’ these sorts of ‘crimes’ like this:
First, we’d visit Tracey, the IP. She doesn’t want Wayne prosecuting – it’ll cause all sorts of grief back at school and by next week they’ll be best mates anyway. But if we leave it at that we’ve got a big, fat, unsolved crime sitting there in the middle of our figures, and that’s no good for anyone (certainly not for promotion-hungry police chiefs and politicians hoping to get re-elected).
So we’d reassure her that we only wanted to clear it up for the figures, we wouldn’t take Wayne to court or even caution him, and could she just make a statement? Usually, she’d agree.
Then we’d visit Wayne, the offender. We’d reassure him, too, that the matter would never go to court, and on that basis he’d agree to be interviewed. During the interview, he’d admit that, yes, he had sent a mildly abusive message to Tracey.
Then, by a process of office-based smoke, mirrors and Biros, we would fill out a few forms, staple the whole lot together and send it off to be ‘audited’ by the ‘crime audit’ department.
No-one would ever go to court – indeed, no-one would ever even be cautioned – but… hey presto! The offence would be filed as ‘detected’.
Statistically, it would then show up in our figures as a detected crime, balancing out all those tricky undetected burglary dwellings, muggings and genuine assaults.
Even better, during the interview we’d get Wayne to reveal that he had himself received offensive texts from Tracey. So we’d nip back round to her place and go through the whole process again, only this time she would be the offender and he would be the complainant. That makes two detected crimes!
If we could get them to agree to a ripped shirt or a damaged satchel in a bit of playground argy-bargy at the same time, that – a criminal damage – would be three!
Given that the modern British police service is judged almost entirely by Soviet-style figures – Crime down by two per cent! Detections up by seven per cent! – administrative detections were a work of no little genius. They allowed us to report to the Home Office that we were solving lots of things – and, in a manner of speaking, it was even true!
We just crossed our fingers and hoped that nobody noticed that the crimes we were solving were fairly trivial*.
Of course, there was a downside, apart from the fact that it was all a bit of a fiddle on the taxpayer.
It took as much time and work – and sometimes even more – to ‘solve’ a playground hair-pulling in this way as it does to get a burglar to court. We’d have to visit people, take statements, speak to classmates, interview the offender (having waited for appropriate adults and possibly solicitors and even translators to attend the police station), fill in forms, get the adults to sign other forms, complete a crime report and update the victim before it was all done and dusted. It could take a day or more to sort out.
This meant we were so tied up in investigating spats between Newtown’s children for the sake of administrative detections that we couldn’t do much about real crime.
I mentioned this paperwork contrivance in passing in the first edition, and we were immediately bombarded with requests for interviews from the media.
Surely, they all said, you must be making this up?
The whole issue of the mad bureaucracy which is strangling our police was even raised in the House of Commons, in a question to our esteemed ex-Police Minister, Mr Tony McNumpty MP.
In response, Mr McNumpty said this: ‘Of course, we need the balance between paperwork and bureaucracy, and proper policing. Along with ACPO and the Police Federation, we are trying to ensure that that balance is maintained and to enhance the modernisation that has already taken place. However, the Hon. Gentleman is living in cloud-cuckoo-land if he thinks that that is all that happens in policing – and I would not believe PC David Copperfield either, because that is more of a fiction than Dickens.’
Read into that what you will, but perhaps Mr McNumpty and his colleagues were alarmed by the publicity. A few months later they announced – quietly – that administrative detections were being dropped.
That presents issues of its own, of course.
Firstly, what shall I put in this book in the place where administrative detections were discussed? But, perhaps more importantly, what will be the effect on the average bobby and on crime-fighting generally?
It’s early days, but it’s looking like it will still involve lots of ballpoint pens and plenty of frustrated victims.
People haven’t stopped reporting trivial crimes, you see. And under another key concept in our vast criminal justice bureaucracy – that of ‘Ethical Crime Recording’ – we are duty-bound to investigate all allegations and treat them equally.
Often, as I’ve said, the caller doesn’t actually want us to do anything about the offence, other than ‘have a word with’ whoever they think is responsible.
Sadly, for statistical purposes, we don’t regard ‘having a word with someone’ as a successful outcome to a criminal investigation, irrespective of what the victim and his family want**.
So we now have to solve these crimes properly – by ‘sanctioned detections’ (where the offender is brought to court or given a police caution).
In the case of Wayne and Tracey above, we’d now have to arrest Wayne, drag him down to the police station and go through the whole rigmarole in order to ‘get the detection’. All for Home Office figures.
We can only speculate as to the effect this (often) gross over-reaction has on the ongoing relationship between the texter and the textee (not to mention the texter’s relationship with us, the police).
As for the paperwork, well, it takes just as long. The bureaucracy of the administrative detection has been replaced with the bureaucracy of the unwanted sanctioned detection.
Tony McNumpty and his friends at the Home Office missed a golden opportunity to do something about our form-filling, everything-in-triplicate, fax-it-over-to-me system.
When they did away with administrative detections, they ought to have said this: ‘We know that most bobbies are half-sensible people. Moreover, we recognise that they are the people ‘on the ground’ dealing with crime and criminals. We accept that they are quite able to distinguish between a nasty domestic assault and a bit of handbags between two kids. We’ll give them the discretion to write off the minor stuff, and just have a word with the parties. That will free them up more to work on the nasty stuff.’
Of course, the history of modern British policing is littered with missed opportunities, wrong-headed initiatives and politically correct rubbish, so they didn’t.
McNumpty may or may not go down in history as a giant of law and order. I know what Sir Robert Peel would have made of the whole thing, though. It’s all there in the last of his nine principles: ‘The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.’
Using young people as statistics-fodder, and often giving them criminal records, just so that we can mislead the public about how effective we are is plain wrong. Individual police officers are the ones speaking to the victims and their families, and for that reason they should have at least some discretion about the best way to proceed with an investigation.
*The paranoid among us begin to wonder whether the whole circular nonsense is a job creation scheme for bureaucrats and quangorities.