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JP Floru: State queues? Privatise the lot!

By JP Floru.

When the state runs a queue, it goes wrong - and queues are inherent to state monopolies. It’s not just the Border Agency at Heathrow – have you been in a post office queue recently? And have you ever been in the queue to enter Parliament? I used to work for an MP, and whenever we organised an event which was open to the public we had to tell people to arrive 45 minutes in advance “to be on the safe side”. 

The advantage of a long queue is that you have a long time to observe the behaviour of the state employees busying themselves in not coping with customers. The slow motion movements. The chatting with colleagues. The usual unfriendliness to queuers. The stickling for details and procedure. The eyes averted from the long, long queue. The non-plussed, business-as-usual look on the civil servants' faces. The sudden disappearances of staff for three, five, ten minutes at a time. The endless tidying of desks before the next queuer is called.

Why are state queues so slow? Because inefficiency and waste comes with state monopolies. You, the customer, matter for nothing. Whether the staff perform is irrelevant. They receive a state salary – probably for life. Because it is a monopoly, you have no alternative, you cannot choose the more efficient point of entry; there is only one way in. Interestingly, post office queues are shorter at post office branches which are run privately.

Perhaps the most important reason why the state can’t cope with queues is that staff have an incentive not to cope. How else can they legitimise their staffing levels? It was telling that the immediate explanation for excessive border control queues was that there were staff shortages. The unions said so, and promised us even longer queues.

The blame cannot just be aimed at the ground staff though. In the state command economy, all echelons of bureaucracy and their political masters are usually found wanting. What to think of the Border Agency agreeing ridiculously lenient targets with Heathrow Airport? 25 minutes for UK and EU passport holders, and 45 minutes for all others, is “deemed acceptable”. But even that is too strict for the state monopoly, as the Border Agency missed the target for Europeans on 4 out of 15 days with passengers waiting for up to 45 minutes; and for non-Europeans on 13 days out of 15 (!) with some waiting up to 90 minutes.

What to think of Brian Moore, the head of the UK Border Force, who, when asked about the possibility of four hour queues during the Olympics, replied “So be it”? Will he be fired for that statement?

And our politicians? When is the Transport Secretary finally going to reduce the current excessive security checks at British airports? A wide range of voices have been complaining about these for ages; apparently to no avail. The “better safe than sorry” logic is the logic of the madhouse as it can legitimise any harassment, any delay, any cost, and any taking away of civil liberties. Safety should always be proportional – if it isn’t, terrorism wins.

And some, of course, blamed the weather for the state queues.

Perhaps it’s time for a bit less “Keep Calm and Carry On”, and a bit more “Take Action and Privatise The Lot”.


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