Christmas tips on tipping for the stingiest council in the land

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The Independent Online
It's Christmas and like it or not tips are de rigueur at this time of year. Alexandra Williams investigates the dilemmas of tipping, and one employer which is putting its foot down and threatening staff with fines if they accept festive gifts.

There will be no apple for teacher this year in Swindon, nor the traditional Christmas box for bin-men.

Swindon Borough Council has been branded Scrooge as it put a blanket ban on employees, including teachers, refuse collectors and home helps, accepting Christmas gifts and tips. Employees choosing to flout the edict face fines of up to pounds 2,500.

All 7,500 employees have been sent a memo from Stephen Taylor, head of the council's legal department, alerting them to the rules.

"You will be aware that nationally there have been a number of allegations of impropriety made against public figures and public sector employees," it read. "In these circumstances it is more important than ever that all the council's staff not only act correctly but are seen to act correctly. Non-work related gifts, such as drink or hospitality, must not be accepted under any conditions."

Mike Welsh, the Swindon branch secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, was incredulous. He said: "It's a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Long may the tradition of an apple for the teacher continue."

Keith Ulyatt, spokesman for the council, said it was simply following section 117 of the 1972 Local Government Act. "It clearly states that `an officer of the local authority shall not accept any fee or award whatsoever other than his proper remuneration.'

"We don't want to be Scrooges but employees must be alerted." The word "tip" is said to stem from "To Insure Prompt", a phrase coined as a financial incentive to Victorian stagecoach drivers delivering letters. But the term is also traced to the early 17th century, when it meant "the giving of a gratuity to an inferior".

In the 1939 Greta Garbo film Ninotchka the actress attempts to point out the evils of capitalism to a porter carrying her bags with the line: "That's not business. That's social injustice." He replies: "That depends on the tip."

For the British, tipping is an awkward act at the best of times. The words `Service not included' at the foot of a bill is enough to throw some into a frenzy. Most of us are unsure on the amount to give and how to hand it over.

Does one cower inside and peep from behind the curtain to watch the milkman collect the Christmas bonus you have stuffed between the rinsed bottles? Or does one boldly hand it over?

Drusilla Beyfus, the doyenne of etiquette, has for years been advising people on how to handle fish knives and mother-in-laws and the art of giving.

"People should try to overcome their embarrassment about tipping, because it is only ever the tipper who's embarrassed, never the recipient.

"I've heard someone say they would rather die than slip a tip in their hairdresser's pocket," she said.

Many will already be salivating over the prospect of their Christmas bonus. Newspaper boys and girls can expect to make as much as pounds 150 in tips.

Tipping should strictly be reserved for personal service, advises Ms Beyfus.

"Faceless operatives are not for tipping," she said. "If your postman has to soldier up a hill to deliver your mail then certainly you should tip."

Wolfgang Winter, public relations director at the Savoy, London, suggests 10 per cent in the restaurant and pounds 1 for the doorman who conjures up a taxi.

But Ms Beyfus believes there is a strong element of hypocrisy in tipping.

"The British are extremely critical of tipping and would like to end it but we all tip like mad."