Prelude . . . some time about a year earlier
My phone rings. It's ten minutes before lunch. I pick it up, hoping this will be a quick one.
"Hi, this is Steve Owen," says the caller.
Oh no. "Hi, Steve." My inner phoney frantically searches for a put-off line. But Steve continues talking before anything feasible turns up.
"I found out something rather naughty about interliners the other day," he says.
"Go on," I say, hoping he won't ask me what an interliner is. I mean, I've heard of them; seen something about them in our guide book. I feel I should know. I am after all Mr Government Man for the furniture flammability regulations.
Steve talks on, about the Crib 5 test, organo-phosphates, cellulosics, thermo-plastics and the such and I make 'mmmm'ing noises, hoping he will answer whatever problem he's discovered himself and not ask me what I think.
I've met Steve several times at various workshops. He doesn't play the same social and political games as everyone else. He just says what he thinks, often followed by an awkward silence. I know he works for Intertek, one of the country's largest test laboratories. I frequently speak to people from other test houses but they don't make me feel as uncomfortable as Steve does.
He's been phoning me up quite a lot lately, always with some issue he's uncovered about the regulations. He must know that I don't really understand what he's talking about. But he still phones me. He doesn't phone my boss, for example.
I'm not quite sure what makes me say it but when I do, a deep-down fundamental part of me knows this will change the way I see this job forever. It will take me outside of the sacred safety zone of the civil servant which is constructed from the over-riding need to protect one's career first, take an interest in the actual job a very distant second.
"Steve," I say. "I'm going to come clean: I don't understand what you're talking about. Please, give it to me in idiot language."
He laughs, says, "No problem." Except there is. I still don't understand him. So I stop him again. And he simplifies it until I get it.
What I mainly get is that Steve Owen knows exactly what he's talking about.
Back to October 2013
Steve and I are sitting in a Volvo driven by our host, Jorgen. He's taking us to IKEA's research establishment in Almhult, Sweden.
Almhult is where IKEA started and its first-ever store is still standing there, albeit rather run-down. There is also an IKEA hotel in the centre of town, and an IKEA museum. On my first visit there, without Steve, Jorgen took me to the museum. I looked at some Billy bookcases from the 50s. "They look exactly the same as today's Billy bookcases," I said. Jorgen straight-faced said, "No, these are a little bigger."
On that trip, I'd been discussing with IKEA early ideas Steve and I had for a new match test. They were especially keen on changing it since they told me they had a policy of not using brominated flame retardants. These are almost impossible to avoid if you want to get cover fabrics through the match test. Because of that, in the UK IKEA had only been using cellulosic fabrics that can be fitted untreated, as long as they pass another flammability test in the Regulations which means using an interliner. Because of this, their range of fabrics is restricted in the UK.
At that stage, they had a policy of not talking about their green credentials too much, for various reasons. Jorgen told me two things on that trip to really help me see that different countries have different views on health and the environment. He said, "In the UK, you put fire safety first and live with the fact it means using flame retardants. Swedish people put the environment first, and their children's future, which means we would rather take a risk on fire safety than introduce FR pollution."
(Just a few days ago (in 2017) a report discovered that you are 64 times more likely to die from air pollution in the UK than in Sweden.)
The other thing Jorgen told me was that a best-selling children's book in Sweden that year was entitled, 'The Flame Retardant Cat'. I laughed at this but later realised it emphasised his first point. Cats, like children, are particularly vulnerable to flame retardant poisoning, given they sleep with their faces close to sofa covers and they move around near the floor which is often polluted with flame retardant dust.
In 2013, Steve has been quiet for a few minutes. Suddenly, he tells Jorgen that he's been listening to the sound of the Volvo's engine and gives a detailed analysis of what needs fixing. He also gives an estimate of the cost of the parts. In SEK. Jorgen laughs and says that his mechanic had picked up about half of Steve's diagnosis after actually examining the engine, and that he'll take it back to get the rest checked out.
We spend two days meeting all sorts of researchers, many grilling us intensely about the new match test. Steve handles the technical questions and I deal with the policy side of things. At the end of the first day, Jorgen drives us back to our hotel and says at one point, "You two make a good team."
Thinking about that later, I believe the main reason we work together so well is that we have the same approach, which is to get to the truth of the matter, no matter how uncomfortable that might be.
Our hotel is about 6 miles from IKEA, on a lake deep in a forest. The first night there, we each buy a £9 bottle of beer and later, despite the price, decide we want another. It's about 10.15. The barmaid agrees to sell us one but tells us that we will have to finish them outside, since the main building is closing. We discover later that everyone in Almhult is in bed by 9.30. There are no bars and everyone is very nice. Meanwhile, Steve and I shiver outside for a half hour or so, nursing our beers and getting to know each other.
At the end of our visit, we have a round-up meeting with Jorgen and the head of the establishment. The head says they are very impressed with our new test - "Scarily competent" are his exact words. IKEA wants to put money into researching green alternatives they believe will be possible with our test. His only concern is that Steve and I remain working on it. I explain to him that I am not getting much support from my managers at the Department. I've been getting top marks in my annual reports for some time now, and everyone agrees that I am doing work at above my grade level. But instead of promoting me in the post, they say I need to apply for a different post on promotion. This is typical Whitehall thinking, i.e. that you are supposed to specialise in policy, not specific technical expertise. This, of course, is a wonderful excuse for cocking up since you can always claim you don't know anything about technical matters.
Just before coming to Sweden, I'd had a strange meeting in BIS with someone from Better Regulation. It seems that not only is my proposed change to the Regulations by far the biggest savings the Department is likely to make for business; it's now pretty much the only one. The irony is not lost on me. BIS is full of smart, well-educated people, dedicated to helping UK businesses succeed. Ministers have been telling everyone that the government's de-regulation strategy will help them save squillions by cutting red tape. With a new election looming, those Ministers have started asking their officials exactly what savings are being made.
Which was the first time I'd even thought about savings from the new match test. My main concern was making it greener. But when we were all asked what we had up our red tapeless sleeves, I made a rough estimate that the new test would save the furniture industry around £50m per year.
Suddenly, the Department was interested.
There was only one problem. Well, two problems. First, I worked in a section in BIS that itself was something of a mystery, at least as far as being in the business department was concerned. We dealt with consumer product safety. Which is about protecting the public and not making money for business. Much later, it will occur to me that this may not be so much of a mystery. After all, where would business prefer product safety to live?
Second, as the man from Better Regulation was telling me, all those hundreds of business-focussed Departmental whizz kids didn't have anything else.
At the end of our work at IKEA's research centre, the head of the place takes us on a tour of their testing facilities. Every couple of minutes, Steve breaks off to inspect a piece of equipment or some test materials and informs our hosts that it's not been adjusted right, or they're using the wrong kind of polyurethane foam. I'm embarrassed about this but when we finish the tour, the head guy implores Steve to return and do a full audit on the place. "This is exactly what we're looking for," he says.
If only the new test was exactly what my Department is looking for. In my naivety, I had initially found it quite amusing to be the saviour of the Department while also being an outsider. Later, I realised that the worst thing you can do is mess with the system. And while coming up with a specialised new technical test that would save industry millions and improve the lives of everyone in the country might have sounded like a good idea, if it isn't going to be done within the centuries-old proper procedures and hierarchical form required by the bureaucratic monolith that is the civil service, well then, it might be better if it never happened at all.