UK Constitutional Law Association

affiliated to the International Association of Constitutional Law

Andrew Le Sueur: On queuing and queue jumping

Along with moaning about the weather, queuing is generally regarded as part and parcel of life in Britain. Next month’s Olympics look set to provide ample opportunities for both in London. At least there are now fewer bendy buses: my experience of the No 25 was that their multiple exists/entrances caused a breakdown of social conventions about whose turn it was to get on first, even among those of us who believe that queuing is fair.

Queuing is a fact of life in various public law settings. Queues can be a highly potent element in public and political accountability systems, performing roles as triggers and yardsticks. Recently, unacceptable waiting times at the UK Border control points at Heathrow led to questions in Parliament, extensive discussion in the news media, tweets from Joan Collins to the Home Secretary, and hopefully some action in the beleaguered Border Agency. Queuing also provides an accountability measure for access to NHS accident and emergency treatment: a couple of weeks ago, the King’s Fund reported a 26 per cent increase in the number of patients – that’s over 250,000 –waiting more than four hours in A&E (though the good news was that the NHS met its target to discharge 95 per cent of patients within four hours).

Queuing can also be valuable in other ways. I have heard it said that a benefit of the antiquated division system in the UK Parliament (where MPs and peers vote by leaving the chamber and queue to move through the “ayes” and “noes” lobbies) is preferable to electronic voting at seats because it provides opportunities for legislators to have quick words with each other, helpful in the day-to-day conduct of political business.

The question that is troubling me is: in what circumstances is it acceptable for someone to jump a queue in a public law context?  I have in mind situations where a public authority has an effective monopoly on the provision of a service or the right to regulate. Border control, issuing passports, and the determination of planning permission are examples. (In Britain, there are many situations where a relatively wealthy and well-informed person may choose to avoid a queue by seeking an alternative to government service provision in the market place – for instance, private health care instead of the NHS or arbitration instead of the courts ­– but that is a rather different situation to the one I have in mind).

As with so much in life, money (for those who have it) provides one set of possible options for queue mitigation.

A person queuing could try to flash the cash: to pay a public official to be allowed to move forward, out of one’s normal turn. In some jurisdictions, a payment to officials to have a decision made, or one’s case move forward in a court docket, is unexceptional. By most international comparisons, payments of this sort are thankfully uncommon in Britain. A tactic of offering a public law decision-maker a wodge of £20 notes in a brown envelop or an invitation to an exclusive golf-club followed by a slap-up lunch and a trip to a lap dancing club, if detected, will bring the Bribery Act 2010 into play, with criminal consequences. So, to state the obvious, corrupt practices are not acceptable ways of jumping a queue.

Payments to avoid or reduce queuing time in some situations are, however, lawful. Well-heeled travellers with business or first class tickets are welcomed at a “fast track” queue for UK Border control at several major British airports. The even-better-heeled may shell out for a “concierge service”, with an escort from the plane to a private and presumably very queue-less lounge for processing by a UK Border officer. These practices feel wrong to me (and I say that as a frequent flyer who sometimes pays over the odds to turn left when I get on a plane). Even if I were sure that airlines and concierge services paid a handsome fee to the UK Border Agency to recoup the costs of officials, plus more, it would still feel wrong.

In chapter 1 of his new book, The Moral Limits of Markets: What Money Can’t Buy (which I’m currently reading), Michael Sandel seems to strike a phlegmatic tone. The demise of the queue for those who are willing and able to pay, he writes, “at airports and amusements parks, at Shakespeare festivals and congressional hearings, in call centers and doctors’ offices, on freeways and in national parks – are recent developments, scarcely imaginable three decades ago. The demise of the queue in these domains may seem a quaint concern”.

As public lawyers, I think we should apply particular kinds of distinctions to queues, and take a principled approach to when queue jumping can and cannot legitimately take place. To my mind, buying a right to speedier decision-making by officers of the state at the UK Border at an airport is not the same as buying a Fastrack ticket for Alton Towers. Two features of the border control scenario should make us reluctant to allow preferential treatment to be bought and sold. One is that border control is a core activity of the state. The second is that it entangles (and I put it no higher than that) human rights: the corralling of passengers is a denial of liberty for governmental purposes, even if it does not register on the ECHR article 5 Richter scale; and the right to return to one’s country is also, for many passengers, in issue. The first come, first served fairness principle that underpins queuing ought to be main consideration, though other factors such as the desirability of showing special concern for frail, elderly or disabled people might also be included in a new one-size-fits-all egalitarian regime. So I’ve come to the conclusion that supermodels, sports stars, pop singers I haven’t heard of and some I have, captains of industry and the odd university vice-chancellor should queue shoulder to shoulder with everyone else. Speedier and more private decisions should not be bought and sold by the state.

This approach – of deprecating paid-for queue jumping for core state activities affecting human rights and fundamental freedoms – is not confined to the UK Border control. I’d argue that the three-tier passport renewal service (standard £77, fast track £112 and premium £129) also falls foul of the rule I’m advocating. With their newfound freedoms under the Localism Act 2011, it should not surprise us if paid-for queue jumping crops up in an increasingly wide range of situations in regulation and service provision by local authorities; and the need for other cash-strapped public authorities to “do more, with less” will see the phenomenon of paid-for queue jumping mushroom. What next: VIP lanes in polling stations on election days?

As the Prime Minister tells us, there are some situations in which “we are all in this together”.

Andrew Le Sueur is co-convenor of the UK Constitutional Law Group.

About UKCLA

The United Kingdom Constitutional Law Association (UKCLA) is the UK’s national body of constitutional law scholars affiliated to the International Association of Constitutional Law. Its object is to ‘encourage and promote the advancement of knowledge relating to United Kingdom constitutional law (broadly defined) and the study of constitutions generally’.

6 comments on “Andrew Le Sueur: On queuing and queue jumping

  1. Waldron-fan
    June 14, 2012

    Very interesting, and invites further comparisons with other fields & times. But is state monopoly of service/regulation such an important factor? It is hard to object to fast-track company registration, which is a state monopoly. Like health (or education), housing is a non-monopoly. Traditionally teen mums & immigrants are accused of jumping social housing queues. But concerns are also raised by suggestions of allowing queue-jumping by better-off applicants, as a way of creating socially mixed communities instead of sink estates.

    Border control is a monopoly (and a core function affecting basic rights), but it is an odd case, possibly needing a distinction between nationals & non-nationals. Early UK immigration controls only applied to steerage, now there is a public funds test and £1 million gets Tier 1 Investor Migrant entry for a non-national. So being rich can qualify non-nationals for entry in the first place, and quick processing just seems to follow suit. But it feels more wrong for wealth to matter in re-admitting nationals (though even they face the habitual residence test if claiming benefits). Perhaps it is also easier to object to fast-track passport fees than to fast-track visa fees, on the same distinction.

    The sharpest concerns are raised by Sandel’s mention of Congressional hearings, and the spectre of VIP voting lanes. It does not seem as useful to classify them as monopolies. As with non-national immigration, property used to be a qualification to vote – but now we would reject that (and object to payments for dinner with the PM). Perhaps the issue in both border controls & voting is really more about those public law functions that involve your recognition by the State as an equal citizen (not just the State dealing with your fundamental rights), which is undermined if richer citizens can pay for quicker recognition. That might also be why fast-track planning permission fees might seem less objectionable (and why health, housing & education are more likely to divide opinion on political lines).

  2. jakey
    June 14, 2012

    I think you must mean “well-heeled”, not “well-healed”; unless you mean to point out that the wealthy also get better medical treatment than the rest of us.

  3. Ieronimos Bikakis
    June 16, 2012

    On a lighter tone, perversely, those better off who can afford queue jumping in the aforementioned state functions, are some of those who “enjoy” queuing in hype fast food restaurants popping up in London lately. http://www.meatliquor.com and http://www.polpo.co.uk just to name two.

    • Ieronimos Bikakis
      June 16, 2012

      Failed to mention that those restaurants operate on a no-reservations basis!

  4. Andrew Cormie
    October 6, 2014

    I believe that those who choose not to pay for such schemes are being illegally wronged by having to suffer delays that they would not suffer had these fast track payment schemes not existed.

    I quote from “Law Made Simple” by Colin F. Padfield, LLB, DPA(Lond) “As a general rule, where one person suffers unlawful harm or damage at the hands of another, an action in tort for that damage or injury arises.”

    It is surely indisputable that persons waiting for anything who are delayed due to others paying to be served first do suffer harm.

    Can I expect our legal system to agree with me that all such payment to jump the queue schemes must be decreed illegal, and that persons delayed by such schemes can sue the organisation that runs the scheme for compensation for damages applied to them?

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This entry was posted on June 14, 2012 by in Human rights, UK government and tagged , , , .
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