Thursday, 7 July 2011

Health and Safety

One challenge facing the government is how to restore a culture where people are prepared to take more responsibility for themselves and their communities. Last week, Michael Gove made an excellent step forward by slashing health and safety guidance for schools from some 150 pages to just eight pages.

Adventure and learning by your mistakes is a crucial part of growing up but, in recent years, there has been an appalling growth of petty, back covering process and paperwork which has stifled personal initiative and undermined the values which make a civilised society.

Last week, I met a constituent who tried to organise a charity event by getting everyone in the village to open their gardens to people from the neighbourhood for a fee that went to charity. He was told by his insurance company that he wasn't covered for doing such a low risk good turn for society and so the event was put in jeopardy.

I have come across numerous events this summer where organisers have bemoaned the growth of ludicrous rules regarding road closures and the like which have hindered their communities. Camborne Chamber of Commerce is currently in a dispute with Cornwall Council over so called “bunting regulations” - petty rules which require a risk management assessment to be carried out before bunting can be put up for special occasions.

Last summer, the King’s Troop, were granted "freedom of the town" by Camborne Town Council during their visit to Cornwall and a ceremony was planned where the cavalry would parade through the town. In an ironic twist, safety concerns meant that freedom of the town was limited to a tiny stretch of Trelowarren Street at which point they had to turn around and go back.

A key driver of this risk averse culture has been the growth of sham litigation. Lawyers offering “no win, no fee” services have created a whole industry. Solicitors can even buy insurance so that if they lose a case, the defendant’s legal costs are covered. They can afford this because they take a big cut when they do win. The result is that people can sue at no risk to their own pocket and that is wrong. That is why the government also unveiled plans last week to crack down on this iniquitous compensation culture.

But another reason this risk averse culture has grown is that governments, local authorities and, to some extent, the public have failed to recognise the value of risk. Risk taking is an essential flip side to the pursuit of excellence. Successful business people take risks all the time. Life itself is a bit of a risk. I am not saying we should abolish health and safety regulation altogether – dangerous industries like farming and construction definitely need protection. But it needs to be proportionate. Surely we can take a chance on a bit of bunting?

George Eustice can be contacted at george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or on 020 72197032.