The wise man in the storm prays to God, not for safety from danger, but deliverance from fear. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
I quote from a petition on the Downing Street website:
A 79-year-old disabled lady in the rural village of Urchfont, Wiltshire, has spent the last 8 years tending lovingly to a very small 'triangle' of land at the entrance to the village, including funding the plants from her own pension. She has now been told by council bureaucrats that she must stop unless she gets a licence, wears a fluorescent jacket, carries and places 3 signs in the road, and has a permanent lookout with her. Failing this, the plot will be tarmaced. Officialdom gone mad.
I urge you to sign the petition. Click here and you will find yourself speaking directly to Gordon Brown (almost).
This story is just one of many. Here are some more examples of officials bringing in rules or acting restrictively in the name of health and safety:
- Sarah Thompson of Keele University has conducted a survey of schools to identify activities which have been banned for fear of the children hurting themselves. These include playing conkers, football in the playground, and skipping.
- According to The Times, 7600 trees have been felled in the past 5 years for safety reasons in two London boroughs (with few replacements planted). Other authorities which are cutting down trees in large numbers include Manchester and Edinburgh.
- Local authorities are becoming increasingly concerned about their liability in the event of food poisoning when school groups provide food at functions, and are therefore restricting their freedom to do so. Village fetes run the same risk.
- Tesco prevented a clown from performing an act with balloons because a very small number of children are allergic to latex.
Why should the other 99% suffer
Let's examine that last example in a bit more detail. The incidence of latex allergy in the population is 1%. This is comparable with peanut allergy (no-one has yet suggested that peanuts should be banned but you never know…) The effect of both allergies is serious; it can be devastating and sometimes fatal. But this does not mean that the other 99% of the population should suffer.
The right strategies would be using appropriate warnings to enable sufferers to avoid risk and teaching the best methods of handling a reaction. Life is not fair and spreading disadvantage as widely as possible is not a sensible or a sustainable approach.
These examples of over-reaction to perceived risk are in the public domain. I would now like to focus on a largely-unknown instance of the unintended consequences of the spread of health and safety regulations. It should warm the hearts of many a die-hard Tory.
My father-in-law was chairman of a boy's club which specialised in adventure training. More important, it specialised in providing boys who had fallen foul of the law (often boys from Borstal institutions) with the opportunity to participate in adventure activities. These deliberately placed them in scary situations which they needed courage, stamina and self-discipline to overcome. They were well supervised and none of them came to harm apart from scratches and bruises.
The founder of the club was an ex-military man, a sergeant-major, and his adventure centre provided a brick in the wall which held back the tide of what would now be called anti-social behaviour. And it worked. An amazingly large proportion of the boys and young men who came to him from Borstal turned their lives around after the experience and "went straight". Overcoming scary situations, achieving physical goals, had given them confidence and self-respect for the first time in their lives.
All this came to an end in 1993 when four teenagers died in a kayaking expedition off the coast near Lyme Regis. In this case, the company organising the trip had failed in its responsibilities. Its managing director was convicted of manslaughter, thereby proving that the legislation in place was sufficient.
The accident did not merit further legislation (proper implementation was enough). But after the tragedy, all adventure centres came under the scrutiny of health and safety. My father-in-law's club had no choice but to stop taking boys who were in danger of going off the rails. Instead, it changed into the equivalent of a leisure centre.
The founder of the club, the ex-sergeant-major, died recently. The congregation at his funeral was enormous, with people standing in massed ranks in the car park. Many of these mourners were men who had benefited from the opportunity to participate in his scheme, to test their mettle and go on to lead productive lives. We can only guess at the number of crimes committed because no more boys and young men are given the same opportunity.
My point is this: everything we do carries a risk. Some of us will always be willing to take risks in order to lead richer lives. But none of us can do anything that does not carry some kind of risk. And avoiding risk carries a price. Without going out of our way to do anything unusual, we run the risk of being accidentally hurt:
- On the road: 271,000 people were injured in road accidents in 2005 (88% suffered minor injuries, 29,000 were seriously injured, and 3200 were killed).
- At work: 328,000 injuries occurred at work in 2005 (91% were relatively minor and resulted in less than three days off work, 28,600 were major injuries, and 212 were fatal).
- At home: there were 2,701,000 reported accidents at home in 2002 (the latest year for which figures are available), almost half of which were caused by falls. In 2004, there were approximately 3900 accidental deaths at home, again mainly caused by falls.
It would, of course, be much better if these accidents did not occur. Most wouldn't if we stayed in bed all day (and the 90,000 accidents a year caused by "acute over-exertion" would certainly be avoided). But I think you will agree with me that life would greatly impoverished.
Whenever we restrict what we do to reduce the risk of coming a cropper, we pay a price. And sometimes this price is too high. We must find a way of achieving a balance between the fearful, who encourage the extension of safety restrictions (for our own good they say), and those of us who are more adventurous and realistic about the dangers of life.
Evidence and hard facts
And I have an idea.
Before enacting rules that stop pensioners from making a garden for the pleasure of others, or prevent ex-soldiers from running courses to test the mettle of young men at risk of going off the rails, or stop clowns from twisting balloons into interesting shapes to entertain children, or insist that boys play conkers wearing goggles, or forbid girls skipping, health and safety officers and insurance companies should be required to submit proposals to an Ofcom-type regulator (Of-free?).
They should support them with evidence, with hard facts, to put their proposed restrictions into context. For example, officials should enumerate how many injuries and deaths they expect to prevent, and over what period of time, by cutting down trees in our city streets. The debate about each and every restriction would then be out in the open and the officials might think twice about some of their sillier ideas.
At the same time, in another example, insurance companies should enumerate how many accidental damage claims would be avoided by pushing up premiums to a level that make the cost of organising village fetes impractical.
If you have ever bought an airline ticket, or travelled by train, or hired a car, you will have agreed to forego rights and protections which you might have expected the supplier to provide. And you have to sign a release form every time you have a medical procedure.
There is no reason why we should not be willing to take similar risks when walking down the street. As Donald Rumsfeld said (sometimes you are right even if you are wrong), "stuff happens". A council's obligation should be limited to situations where it is negligent or has failed in its statutory obligations. It should not be obliged to have an officer standing by in case someone slips on a leaf that has fallen off a tree or is banged on the head by a conker.
This whole area needs a serious rethink. There should be a limit on the extent to which the excuse of protecting our safety is used to restrict our freedom.
Sign the petition here. You have until the 13th September.