When Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, privatising and de-regulating everything in sight, the capital held its breath...

When Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, privatising and de-regulating everything in sight, the capital held its breath as London?s taxis came under the spotlight. ?They wouldn?t dare,? we whispered. ?Would they? Surely they can see that the black cabs are about the only thing in London that works?? I?m not sure whether the Government eventually saw sense (unlikely), ran out of time or simply forgot, but I was reminded of the incident by the news that an outfit calling itself Ethical Audit had issued a critical report about the RNLI.

I have been unable to find out much about this organisation except that it hails from Hove, has an answering machine and seeks to ?investigate and report on selected public bodies that are responsible for public or charitable assets?. No doubt it means well. It can perhaps be forgiven for imagining that an institution so august, so well established and so woven into the fabric of British life as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution was in some way a public body that needed to be called to account.

But as we all know, the RNLI receives no public money: everything it does is funded by donations and legacies from individuals. It is of course a charity, pure and simple, but a charity run with the kind of efficiency and effectiveness that you?d expect from the Royal Navy ? and, ironically, with far more modern and state-of-the-art equipment than our hapless armed forces. It runs a modern fleet of awesomely capable and phenomenally expensive rescue boats of its own design, which are on call 24 hours a day in all weathers. It is one of the jewels in the crown of British life and, like London?s taxi service, it is held around the world in the highest esteem.

No system is perfect, of course. You still have to beg to be taken south of the river, and if you really want to appreciate the excellence of the RNLI you need to be far out at sea, wet, cold and frightened.