Justice Secretary Chris Grayling's latest Bill has been widely panned. Photo: Getty
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Defining "acting heroically" in legal terms: Chris Grayling's Heroism Bill is a waste of time

The government has a patchy record with criminal justice bills – and the latest is no exception. The Social Action, Responsibility & Heroism Bill is attacked as a “vacuous waste of time” by the Labour party.

It was all change in the engine room at the Ministry of Justice last week, as junior ministers came and went but Captain Chris Grayling stayed on the bridge and continues steering manfully for the rocks.

His latest Justice Bill has its second reading today in the Commons. But those looking for answers to the many problems our criminal and civil justice systems face will not find them in the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill.

A cursory glance at the legal blogs and coverage shows that this Bill has been almost universally panned. Even the website ConservativeHome found space to criticise it. Last week it was slammed by the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers as potentially putting "vulnerable people at risk".

Is this indeed the case? The government admits in its "fact sheet" on the Bill that it: “would not change the overarching legal framework”. The Lord Chancellor himself calls it "a signpost from parliament to the courts".

There are only three short operative clauses to this Bill. They instruct a court considering negligence or statutory duty claims to "have regard to" whether a defendant was acting for the benefit of society, demonstrating a generally responsible approach or acting heroically.

Grayling claims the Bill will not fetter judicial discretion but that is exactly what it sets out to do. Fortunately, the Bill is so poorly drafted that it will probably fail in that aim. But it will undoubtedly spark quantities of satellite litigation as the parties seek to define "benefit of society", "a generally responsible approach" and "acting heroically".

It is also unnecessary. If it has a purpose, that was fulfilled by Section 1 of the Compensation Act 2006 which dealt with this issue with more precise language than this Bill while retaining judicial discretion. 

Let’s look at the issues the Lord Chancellor wishes to address in the Bill.

Firstly, "the person who holds back from sweeping snow off the pavement outside their house because they are afraid that someone will then slip on the ice and sue them".

There is no evidence that this is a problem. Indeed the government’s own website DirectGov.uk, used to host a section debunking the snow and ice myth. It said: Don’t believe the myths – it's unlikely you'll be sued or held legally responsible for any injuries if you have cleared the path carefully.”

Curiously this page was recently archived. 

What signal does this clause send? Parents may fear that if their child is injured on a school trip no one will be held liable as the school was acting altruistically. They may decide not to send their child on the trip.  

How does that help the school, the parent or the child?

And what about the "everyday heroes" this Bill purports to assist?

If this is intended to give the green light to anyone – trained emergency service worker or public spirited bystander –to act with less care and a feeling of impunity then it could prove dangerous. The emergency services have vast experience in how and when to intervene, so why legislate and add more confusion?

The Bill’s most contentious aim is to weaken employees’ rights in the workplace. As Grayling told the Sunday Telegraph yesterday, if "somebody has an accident at work, it’s entirely their own fault, they have got a perfectly responsible employer who has the normal health and safety procedures in place but that person does something dumb, hurts themselves and sues the employer anyway."

Of course, there would be no or a greatly reduced liability for the employer in this situation under the current law. This is another straw man.  

So, is this Bill intended as a further attack on the workers’ and trade union rights, an attempt to give the whip hand to employers, and to feather bed insurers?  No surprise there. It will likely fail in that intention also, because the law on negligence remains unaltered and the courts are now used to Grayling's legislation as press release style.

But it gives an insight into the mentality of a government that asked to judge the stronger party in workplace injury claims (down by half in the last ten years by the way) sees the employer, insured and in control of the accident site, as needing protection from the injured employee unable to earn their salary and plucking up the courage to sue their boss.

This Bill is a waste of parliamentary time, but its intention is to frustrate further the fair operation of our courts and legal system.


Andy Slaughter is shadow justice minister and Labour MP for Hammersmith

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David Osland: “Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance”

The veteran Labour activist on the release of his new pamphlet, How to Select or Reselect Your MP, which lays out the current Labour party rules for reselecting an MP.

Veteran left-wing Labour activist David Osland, a member of the national committee of the Labour Representation Committee and a former news editor of left magazine Tribune, has written a pamphlet intended for Labour members, explaining how the process of selecting Labour MPs works.

Published by Spokesman Books next week (advance copies are available at Nottingham’s Five Leaves bookshop), the short guide, entitled “How to Select or Reselect Your MP”, is entertaining and well-written, and its introduction, which goes into reasoning for selecting a new MP and some strategy, as well as its historical appendix, make it interesting reading even for those who are not members of the Labour party. Although I am a constituency Labour party secretary (writing here in an expressly personal capacity), I am still learning the Party’s complex rulebook; I passed this new guide to a local rules-boffin member, who is an avowed Owen Smith supporter, to evaluate whether its description of procedures is accurate. “It’s actually quite a useful pamphlet,” he said, although he had a few minor quibbles.

Osland, who calls himself a “strong, but not uncritical” Corbyn supporter, carefully admonishes readers not to embark on a campaign of mass deselections, but to get involved and active in their local branches, and to think carefully about Labour’s election fortunes; safe seats might be better candidates for a reselection campaign than Labour marginals. After a weak performance by Owen Smith in last night’s Glasgow debate and a call for Jeremy Corbyn to toughen up against opponents by ex Norwich MP Ian Gibson, an old ally, this pamphlet – named after a 1981 work by ex-Tribune editor Chris Mullin, who would later go on to be a junior minister under Blai – seems incredibly timely.

I spoke to Osland on the telephone yesterday.

Why did you decide to put this pamphlet together now?

I think it’s certainly an idea that’s circulating in the Labour left, after the experience with Corbyn as leader, and the reaction of the right. It’s a debate that people have hinted at; people like Rhea Wolfson have said that we need to be having a conversation about it, and I’d like to kickstart that conversation here.

For me personally it’s been a lifelong fascination – I was politically formed in the early Eighties, when mandatory reselection was Bennite orthodoxy and I’ve never personally altered my belief in that. I accept that the situation has changed, so what the Labour left is calling for at the moment, so I see this as a sensible contribution to the debate.

I wonder why selection and reselection are such an important focus? One could ask, isn’t it better to meet with sitting MPs and see if one can persuade them?

I’m not calling for the “deselect this person, deselect that person” rhetoric that you sometimes see on Twitter; you shouldn’t deselect an MP purely because they disagree with Corbyn, in a fair-minded way, but it’s fair to ask what are guys who are found to be be beating their wives or crossing picket lines doing sitting as our MPs? Where Labour MPs publicly have threatened to leave the party, as some have been doing, perhaps they don’t value their Labour involvement.

So to you it’s very much not a broad tool, but a tool to be used a specific way, such as when an MP has engaged in misconduct?

I think you do have to take it case by case. It would be silly to deselect the lot, as some people argue.

In terms of bringing the party to the left, or reforming party democracy, what role do you think reselection plays?

It’s a basic matter of accountability, isn’t it? People are standing as Labour candidates – they should have the confidence and backing of their constituency parties.

Do you think what it means to be a Labour member has changed since Corbyn?

Of course the Labour party has changed in the past year, as anyone who was around in the Blair, Brown, Miliband era will tell you. It’s a completely transformed party.

Will there be a strong reaction to the release of this pamphlet from Corbyn’s opponents?

Because the main aim is to set out the rules as they stand, I don’t see how there can be – if you want to use the rules, this is how to go about it. I explicitly spelled out that it’s a level playing field – if your Corbyn supporting MP doesn’t meet the expectations of the constituency party, then she or he is just as subject to a challenge.

What do you think of the new spate of suspensions and exclusions of some people who have just joined the party, and of other people, including Ronnie Draper, the General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union, who have been around for many years?

It’s clear that the Labour party machinery is playing hardball in this election, right from the start, with the freeze date and in the way they set up the registered supporters scheme, with the £25 buy in – they’re doing everything they can to influence this election unfairly. Whether they will succeed is an open question – they will if they can get away with it.

I’ve been seeing comments on social media from people who seem quite disheartened on the Corbyn side, who feel that there’s a chance that Smith might win through a war of attrition.

Looks like a Corbyn win to me, but the gerrymandering is so extensive that a Smith win isn’t ruled out.

You’ve been in the party for quite a few years, do you think there are echoes of past events, like the push for Bennite candidates and the takeover from Foot by Kinnock?

I was around last time – it was dirty and nasty at times. Despite the narrative being put out by the Labour right that it was all about Militant bully boys and intimidation by the left, my experience as a young Bennite in Tower Hamlets Labour Party, a very old traditional right wing Labour party, the intimidation was going the other way. It was an ugly time – physical threats, people shaping up to each other at meetings. It was nasty. Its nasty in a different way now, in a social media way. Can you compare the two? Some foul things happened in that time – perhaps worse in terms of physical intimidation – but you didn’t have the social media.

There are people who say the Labour Party is poised for a split – here in Plymouth (where we don’t have a Labour MP), I’m seeing comments from both sides that emphasise that after this leadership election we need to unite to fight the Tories. What do you think will happen?

I really hope a split can be avoided, but we’re a long way down the road towards a split. The sheer extent of the bad blood – the fact that the right have been openly talking about it – a number of newspaper articles about them lining up backing from wealthy donors, operating separately as a parliamentary group, then they pretend that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and that they’re not talking about a split. Of course they are. Can we stop the kamikazes from doing what they’re plotting to do? I don’t know, I hope so.

How would we stop them?

We can’t, can we? If they have the financial backing, if they lose this leadership contest, there’s no doubt that some will try. I’m old enough to remember the launch of the SDP, let’s not rule it out happening again.

We’ve talked mostly about the membership. But is Corbynism a strategy to win elections?

With the new electoral registration rules already introduced, the coming boundary changes, and the loss of Scotland thanks to decades of New Labour neglect, it will be uphill struggle for Labour to win in 2020 or whenever the next election is, under any leadership.

I still think Corbyn is Labour’s best chance. Any form of continuity leadership from the past would see the Midlands and north fall to Ukip in the same way Scotland fell to the SNP. Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.