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Are you being served?

Having been in France for the last couple of weeks, I noticed just how some overzealous bureaucrats can, overnight, destroy the whole structure and well-being of a thriving industry.

Being in France, the land of notable cuisine, we decided that instead of indulging my talents in the kitchen, we would eat out. So we found the local eating house, covered in ivy and oozing Gallic charm, and were ushered to a table in the corner. To our amazement, the place was empty.

Then the waiter approached us and informed us that it was an independent restaurant and not one of the big chains and that it operated for the benefit of the customers and not the company it belonged to.

We pointed out that we just wanted to eat and asked for the menu and the wine list. But when these appeared, the waiter clung on to them like a limpet. “I must inform you gentlemen,” he intoned, “that I need to know a little of your background before I can assess your individual needs to ensure that the meal we provide is for your benefit.”

He said this was the requirement imposed by the new self-regulatory organisation, the Personal Ingestion Authority, which was, in fact, only reflecting the step-change in the service industry as imposed on it by the Government under the Secure Ingestion Bureau.

“But we only want a meal,” we insisted. He shrugged in that resigned Gallic way and disappeared, returning a few moments later with a form which he asked us to sign. This was to indicate that we did not wish to give our personal details and waived our rights with regard to getting best advice with regard to the meal which best suited our needs.

As it was the only restaurant in the village and we were starving, we signed. He handed over the menus and the wine list When we started to order, he interrupted us and pointed out that, if we had the first course as requested, the risk from heart disease was increased, of which he was obliged to warn us under the Act.

Warning duly given, we signed a form to show that we understood the risk that the cholesterol level could go up as well as down.

We then had a further problem as we wanted to transfer half the meal to each other, to sample more of the delicious items on the menu. This, we were informed, required further forms to be filled in as the transfer of meals was not considered to be in the best interests of some customers and a number of restaurants were having trouble getting professional indemnity insurance due to the huge amount of meal transfer arrangements that had taken place in the past.

“But we only want something to eat,” we insisted. He shrugged his shoulders.

After taking our order, he returned with the wine. However, prior to opening the bottle, he insisted in presenting us with a person-specific bill which showed the mark-up of each item we had ordered and the amount the waiter was paid for taking our order.

He started to explain that the amount shown on the person-specific bill included payments towards the running of the restaurant the charges by the regulatory authority, the auditor and maintaining the Fr100,000 capital-adequacy requirement.

When we asked him why this was necessary, he pointed out that some unprincipled waiters had in the past pushed courses that were not in the best interests of the customer but paid a high mark-up to boost their own income.

He then pointed out that there would be a delay before the meal could be served to allow us to change our minds if we wanted. “We only want to eat,” we yelled. He shrugged his shoulders.

After much form-filling, we ate and drank. Then came the bill. As we went to pay, we were asked to identify the source of the cash we were handing over as part of the crackdown on money laundering.

As you can imagine, we now understood why the restaurant was empty. All we had wanted was a meal.

As we left, we reflected just how good it was not to be involved in an industry that was dominated by bureaucrats, so that the very act of selling was so restricted that it took away the entrepreneurial skills that had been the foundations of the City of London as a financial centre and Edinburgh as an insurance centre and, as a consequence, had resulted in a major employer, capital generator, profit contributor, while at the same time providing the population with good solid protection products and investments which provided safety and security, now and throughout life.

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