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?

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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