Nanny state’ Britain is killing common sense

Type: Think Pieces Written by Dr Eamonn Butler | Monday 16 March 2009

Dr Eamonn Butler wonders how we got ourselves in to this compensation culture. He points out that, fear of being sued, regulators have created a bubble to ensure there is no need to be compensated.

Regulators may have our best interests at heart but whatever happened to looking out for yourself?

Thank goodness. At last we live in a world committed to saving workers from industrial injuries. Like deafness resulting from working in noisy factories. The 2005 Control of Noise at Work regulations promised just that.

Trouble is, the crowd noise at Old Trafford quite often exceeds the regulations' 90-decibel limit. So Sir Alex's boys ought to be wearing earmuffs. And when the London Philharmonic strikes up the 1812 Overture, they should do the same.

But regulators are reasonable people, and have given the arts and entertainment sectors two years' grace to solve their problem. Their problem? It's the regulators' problem. When bureaucrats in Whitehall dream up general rules that are just daft in particular circumstances, they should say sorry, and end the damage there and then.

The rules may be simple but simple rules don’t fit a complicated world

But they don't. The Care Standards Act 2000 forced the closure of hundreds of care homes whose layout doesn't match their pedantic standards. So if your granny's room is only 14.0 square metres instead of the 14.1 specified, she'll have to move - or go back to an NHS ward where she has no room at all.

The Childcare Act 2006 makes nursery providers sign up for a 148-page book of 'education' guidelines. All the staff need criminal record checks, of course - you can't just leave your kids with people you trust. Student flats are now scarcer and costlier because landlords now have to fill out a 32-page form and cough up a £1,000 registration fee. Many find it easier not to bother.

How did we get into this mess? Our government authorities aren't bad people. They want us to be safe. And they try to make the rules simple. But simple rules don't fit a complicated world.

They also fear that they will be sued when accidents happen. You'd think firefighters would be pretty nifty with ladders, but they're not allowed to use your stepladder to fit a fire alarm in your flat. That contravenes the working at height regulations. Don't even suggest that they stand on a chair. So just put the alarm back in its box and hope you don't have a fire.

But of course it's us, the taxpayers, who have to pay for the compensation culture. Our education authorities shell out £2m a year in accident claims - like the £5,000 pay-out to a kid whose finger was hit by a cricket ball, £13,000 to one who tripped up, and even £6,000 to one who was injured while breaking into the school one night. And that's chicken feed compared to the £600m paid out by the NHS in negligence claims.

It seems we all thing we have a right to act stupidly, while others bear the cost. A caretaker sued his school for £50,000 because he fell off a stepladder - although he'd been using stepladders for 30 years and had been given safety training. Whatever happened to looking out for yourself?

The determination not to be sued means that public bodies have no concept of what constitutes a reasonable risk these days. So the organisers of a Christmas party in Embsay village hall were told they needed a full risk assessment, and nut allergy warnings on the mince pies. Schools have banned playground football. Clowns in Zippo's circus couldn't use trumpets in a three-minute sketch because they'd need a music licence. Manchester taxi drivers cancelled their annual outing for needy kids because each cab would need a risk assessment, each child would have to be accompanied by an adult, and each adult would need a six-week criminal record check.

So in the cause of trying to make our lives 100 per cent safe, the regulators reduce our amenity, kill off village life, encourage us to take silly risks, and rob our kids of their childhood. Frankly, it's the regulators who should be wearing earmuffs, because the rest of us should be shouting abuse at them as loudly as we can.