The end of risk

Swaths of regulation and an industry of "fear entrepreneurs" have fuelled a climate of timidity abou

This island was once populated by an upbeat, outgoing sort of race - the kind who rallied together in adversity, bailed out each other's houses in times of flood, and popped round to neighbours with a casserole if someone sprained an ankle and couldn't cook. Nowadays, it is more than likely that people would be too busy investigating which authority to sue for the unexpected rainfall, and the victim of an injured ankle would be too absorbed with putting together a personal injury claim to eat a donated dinner.

Since the mid-1990s we have created an entire industry of "fear entrepreneurs" - lobby groups, campaigners, regulators and inspectors - whose livelihoods depend on fuelling concern about the dangers of everyday life.

We probably would not want to return to the days when we were so cavalier about risk that we thought nothing of trying out a smallpox vaccine on unsuspecting milkmaids. However, this collective timidity is now so serious that it is posing a threat to our willingness to take on almost any sort of challenge. We are bound up in a risk-reducing bureaucracy that threatens our commercial competitiveness in world markets.

A growing anxiety about what one might call the dangers of fearfulness has led Gordon Brown to ask the government's Better Regulation Commission (BRC) to produce a document presenting a "fully and more rounded presentation of public risk" as soon as possible.

It is not clear whether anyone has dared to ask him exactly what he means, but the raw material he wants built on is a BRC report called Risk, Responsibility and Regulation: Whose Risk Is It Anyway?, produced last autumn.

The report warned that concern about risk in all aspects of life, and the ensuing plethora of bureaucratic regulation, were endangering Britain's economic performance. It is not a redundant concern. The US is the only country in the world that shares our risk paranoia, and last year another report, com missioned by Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, warned that the city's pre-eminence as a financial centre was under threat from too many directives and risk "regs".

It remains to be seen if the BRC - which moved in June from the Cabinet Office to the new Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, will get something done about whose risk belongs where. Last year, there were 33 acts of parliament and more than 1,000 new regulations aimed at reducing various forms of risk. The BRC announced a target for government departments and agencies alone to cut 500 regulations that would reduce administrative costs by £2bn.

The commission's report called for Whitehall training schemes for the management and communication of risk, warning that fear of being blamed haunts ministers and civil servants, driving them to legislate even when an obvious practical solution is staring them in the face.

At the time, the BRC chairman, Rick Haythornthwaite, declared that our national resilience, self-reliance and spirit of adventure were being destroyed by a pervasive cultural demand for the elimination of all risk. He announced that the BRC was to produce red-tape reduction proposals for private industry, which could save further billions.

Haythornthwaite, who is also a managing director of the investment management company Star Capital Partners, says that Gordon Brown's new injunction will mean the existing BRC work plan will have to be put on hold.

Others are doubtful that anything much will happen at all. "There have been loads of these reports in recent years," says Paul Sanderson, a senior fellow at the University of Cambridge Centre for Business Research. "The government message is: 'Learn to love risk - we can't protect you from everything for ever,' but there is not much evidence so far of any change in practice." Nonetheless, he himself is organising an academic conference in September, optimistically entitled "The End of Zero Risk Regulation". The intention is to propagate the message that elimination of risk is not only undesirable, but unattainable.

Elsewhere, the aspiration to zero risk is being positively encouraged. The laudable intentions of the BRC are already being undermined by a proposal from the erstwhile Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA, now the Ministry of Justice), which says it would be better if more people could get compensation for personal injury claims. Consultation ended on 13 July on "streamlining" new arrangements for such insurance claims, removing, in many cases, the need for legal representation. It is predicted that under the new rules the number of compensation payouts will increase by 40 per cent.

Critics argue that the proposals will mean that the concept of an accident will finally vanish from our collective consciousness. If you fall over on a pavement made slippery by dead leaves, then someone should have swept it. If you fall off a cliff, someone should have checked you by putting up a notice warning that it is too far to jump.

The damaging knock-on effect of this mindset will inev itably be a reluctance to take on life's big risks and challenges. Andrew Caplan is on a Law Society working party discussing the implications of the DCA proposal, which is being pursued by the new Ministry of Justice. "A huge number of personal injury claims put through by trade unions never see the light of day because they are filtered out as invalid," he said. "Most of them would only be worth a few thousand anyway, so it will be cheaper for insurance companies to pay rather than contest them. But it is sending totally the wrong message."

Caplan has reason to be bitter about personal injury claims. He has seen at first hand the results of the compensation culture in his role as legal adviser to the Scout Association. He says there is a steady year-on-year increase in claims and a fall-off in adult volunteer helpers because of the extraordinary attitude of parents. His most memorable recent battles include a couple who sued because their nine-year-old was not allowed to ring home at 3am when he was homesick during a one-night camping expedition. The boy continued to attend Cub Scouts meetings even as his parents continued their legal action.

Others such as Martin Bare, president of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, say the compensation culture is an inevitable consequence of the abolition of legal aid and the passing of the burden to insurance companies, with claims-management companies constantly touting for potential litigants and a slice of the payout. "The intention is to give more people access to justice, but I'm not convinced this change will really make the system any more workable," Bare says.

There is undoubtedly real anxiety about the consequences of the prevailing social attitude to risk. A parliamentary group on adventure and recreation has been established, as has a campaign for adventure training, and there are many other efforts to promote the benefits of challenge. A national kite mark system called Go4It, promoted by the Heads, Teachers and Industry (HTI) organisation, is being launched in schools nationwide next term; the aim is to reward those seen as most willing to offer pupils physical and psychological challenges. "We want to tackle the change from a can-do society into a can't-do one," says Anne Evans, the HTI chief executive, who is herself a former comprehensive school head teacher.

She faces an uphill struggle. Risk aversion is a recent social phenomenon, but it is now all-pervasive. The rot set in seriously only as recently as 1993, following the drowning of four teenagers on a badly organised canoeing expedition in Lyme Bay, Dorset, in March that year. The tragedy led to the creation of a sweeping new law and a licensing system for activity centres. About half of the 1,500 similar organisations operating in the early 1990s disappeared because they were unable to meet the stringent requirements. There is now a shortage of such facilities for eager children, arguably contributing to our spiralling childhood obesity rates.

Meanwhile, opinion polls consistently show that people who want risk regulated out of their lives as far as possible are equally balanced against those who kick against such regulation. Others manage to hold both opinions simultaneously.

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University and a leading commentator on the nature of attitudes to risk, says widespread concern about subjects such as climate change and fears about the future of mankind feed into a general pessimism. No senior politician will take the risk of publicly allying him or herself with the pro-risk campaigners, for fear of being blamed for the next disaster.

He ascribes the creation of phantom risk to the absence of real danger or adversity in our lives. "Safety has become a commodity which has a value of its own," he says. "It is not something you discover through trial and error: it is something you hold on to and do not change. I think that attitude will change only when there is a genuine external threat, like a war or a really serious disaster."

And that is something really worth worrying about.

Risk cases that have entertained us

An injured commuter called Brian Piccolo could win up to £1.5m in compensation after he slipped on a stray petal outside a florist’s shop at Marylebone Station. A high court judge ruled on 17 July that staff should have cleaned up outside the shop.

In April, a primary school teacher was awarded £12,958 out of court after falling off

a toilet seat. The woman dislocated her hip after toppling off the bowl, intended for use only by children under the age of 11.

In 1999, a family in Upper Mayfield, Derbyshire, sued the people who had sold them a 250-year-old cottage because, they said, the sellers failed to disclose that it was haunted. A county court judge threw out the claim.

A man won a £200 claim against a doctor he said had given him a cold. Trevor Perry, who got the sniffles after seeing Helen Young for a check-up, said she must have made him ill, as he’d not been in contact with anyone else. A judge reversed the verdict in 2002.

A deputy head teacher in Bristol sued her former school for £1m after it failed to replace a chair that made flatulent noises whenever she moved. Sue Storer, 48, claimed it was a “regular joke”, part of a catalogue of sexist behaviour that had undermined her position. She lost her case in 2006.

A binman made a claim against his local council after being “startled” by a dead badger that fell out of a rubbish bag . . .

Research by Marika Mathieu

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Brown v Cameron. Game over?

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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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