Thursday, 8 March 2012

Unreliable Rates

All injustice begins in the mind. And anomalies accustom the mind to the idea of unreason and untruth. (G.K. Chesterton)

G.K. Chesterton, in one of his essays, talks about how anomalies can often lead to injustice, to a complacency about matters that is quite happy with the status quo. He wrote:

Suppose I had by some prehistoric law the power of forcing every man in Battersea to nod his head three times before he got out of bed. The practical politicians might say that this power was a harmless anomaly; that it was not a grievance. It could do my subjects no harm; it could do me no good. The people of Battersea, they would say, might safely submit to it. But the people of Battersea could not safely submit to it, for all that.

If I had nodded their heads for them for fifty years I could cut off their heads for them at the end of it with immeasurably greater ease. For there would have permanently sunk into every man's mind the notion that it was a natural thing for me to have a fantastic and irrational power. They would have grown accustomed to insanity.

A not so harmless anomaly arose in the States recently. It began innocently enough, with Deputy Sean Power asking if the Sunday trading laws referred to the total floor area of a shop.

A word of background details - for a shop in Jersey to open on Sunday, it must have a floor area below a threshold set by the States, and if it does, it can apply for a Sunday trading license to the Constable of the Parish. There has been considerable upset about this, as the Parish requires proof of the floor area, measured out by an architect or other suitable professional person, and this naturally means the shop incurs a cost; architects are not cheap.

The Connétable of St. Clement: It is part of the law and regulations which were approved by the States last year for business premises which apply for a Sunday Trading permit. The premises are as is normally operated during the week so it is a perfectly clear part of the regulation. The whole of the premises is the one which a permit would be applied for.

So far, so clear - if a business is opened, the whole trading area has to be considered. Now here James Reed of St Ouen bowls his googley, coming right out of field:

Deputy J.G. Reed of St. Ouen: Could the Constable confirm that, indeed, all commercial businesses are charged rates on the square footage of the premises?

The Bailiff: What has rates got to do with Sunday Trading?

The Deputy of St. Ouen: It is the second part of the question that is perhaps more relevant because if businesses are required to pay rates on the square footage of their business then it makes sense if the business ensures that the square footage is properly identified so that they pay appropriate rates.

So the argument is this - the square footage of the premises is identified from the rates form. So if that comes below the threshold, then the business should be able to open on a Sunday without needing to submit any further proof; after all, completion of the rates form is a legal requirement, and like an income tax form, it is one in which it would be dishonest and illegal to complete a false return.

If I state my income on my income tax return, then that can be taken by Social Security as part of any assessment for income support; it is a document in which I sign and declare to be accurate. If I have thousands of pounds income undeclared from a property in France which I have stashed away in a French bank account, then my income tax return is inaccurate; if I am caught, I will face a heavy fine (at the very least).

Now the same is true for the rates form - I sign a declaration that it is a true and accurate listing of my property, with the appropriate details required. But here's the rub - Constable Len Norman now declares to Deputy Reed that the rates forms cannot be relied upon!

The Connétable of St. Clement: Clearly the business premises and, indeed, normal householders, have to submit their rates form, their rate returns, which indicate the square footage of the property. Unfortunately, the Deputy may remember that when we brought the regulations last year it was discovered that at least 2 business premises had underestimated on their rates return the amount of square footage of their properties so the rates returns cannot be relied on for the purposes of the Sunday Trading Law.

This was unbelievable. First James Reed comes up with a very sharp lateral thinking question about square footage on the rates returns (the man has a brain after all!). But then the Constable of St Clements tells everyone that the rates forms cannot be the basis for Sunday trading regarding area - even though they are supposed to give the floor area of businesses - because the two businesses "underestimated" the amount of square footage.

It begs the question of what controls there are to check the accuracy of the rates forms. Effectively Len Norman is saying - rates returns are too unreliable for Sunday trading laws! Is that acceptable? Surely if they are good enough to raise Parish rates on, they should be good enough for the Sunday trading laws; if they are not, then something is rotten in the state of Denmark (and probably the Parish of St Clement as well, if they just let matters drift like this).

The real fact of the matter is this: businesses which "underestimated" their area should be the exception, not the rule. The rates forms should be able to be treated as reliable. If they are not, then something is seriously wrong. That the Constable of St Clement seem quite accepting of the unreliability of the rates, and that it is an acceptable anomaly is simply not good enough.

It is unjust because it means that some businesses may casually defraud the Parish of rates, and other Parishioners must therefore pay more rates. If the Constable cannot say that the rates forms are reliable as a measure, then this position is quite indefensible!

And it is not at all unimportant, but on the contrary most important, that this course of things in politics and elsewhere should be lucid, explicable and defensible. When people have got used to unreason they can no longer be startled at injustice. When people have grown familiar with an anomaly, they are prepared to that extent for a grievance; they may think the grievance grievous, but they can no longer think it strange. (G.K. Chesterton)

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