The confused politics and policies of risk

Discussing the confusion that we have about risk in our lives, Charles Crawford touches upon health and safety, his time as an Ambassador and the recent Newtown shootings

How far must we go in auditing our safety?
Charles Crawford
On 16 December 2012 10:47

This week I gave a training presentation at a school not far from London. I was told how any such presentations were now proclaimed by the school to require a health and safety ‘risk analysis’.

An expert in such matters had recently appeared to audit the school’s approach. He had noticed that in one training session for staff aimed at encouraging creative thinking, the course participants had been using squidgy plastic balls (as squeezing balls is thought to help people relax and so create new ideas).

“Why have you not mentioned on the risk analysis form that these things might be used as weapons?” he intoned. “And why have you not noted that lights set into the ceiling could shatter and hurt people with sharp glass?”

The school at first thought that he was joking. Then to their horror they discovered that he wasn’t joking. I asked them if they had given him the only sane response, namely to tell him that they had noted on the risk analysis that a lunatic pretending to be a health and safety expert might appear, using his fetid imagination to spot all sorts of risks that needed ‘auditing’ at ruinous expense.

I had a strong dose of this rubbish as Ambassador in Belgrade in 2003 when we were renovating the Residence after years of neglect during the Milosevic period.

We wanted to remove thick layers of dark sticky polish from the original 60s woodblock floors and go for a smart, lightly varnished and modern look. We asked for this to be done along the upstairs landing. ”What if a child skids and shoots over the rails and falls down and dies?!"

We asked for the kitchen to have something other than industrial strip lighting, to make it a pleasant place to work. "What if one of the cooks is ill and cuts himself and drips infected blood into food being prepared for a member of the Royal Family?!"

Work began to replace the communist-era tin sentry box for our local Serb security team with a small brick building. I asked why the roof was such a fatuous heavy design. "It will be made of reinforced concrete. What if terrorists try to break in through the ceiling?"

In each case I pulled rank to order them to stop being ridiculous and come to a calm, elegant solution. Had I not done so, the taxpayer would have had a worse and more expensive outcome.

Where does all this derangement come from? It comes from the application of law of tort, and the increasing willingness of the courts to link negative outcomes to supposedly negligent actions even when the causal link between the two is flimsy.

We saw an echo of this problem in the tragic suicide of nurse Jacintha Saldanha over the prank telephone call from an Australian radio station. The two hapless Australians (and anyone making statements on behalf of the station) were at pains to say that her suicide was not a ‘reasonably foreseeable’ result of their actions. Hence, by implication, no legal liability for her death should fall on them.

The common law tort test of ‘reasonable foreseeability’ has the great benefit – and huge weakness – that it is open-ended. It emerged as a common sense proposition. If a reasonable person would say that any damage to others arising from your actions is foreseeable, you fairly can be held responsible for that damage if you do them.

This simple and even wise idea takes legal theorists into impenetrable arguments about causation and ‘remoteness’. How to set sane limits on what is or is not foreseeable? If a negative outcome caused by an activity is foreseeable in general terms, how to decide that all the specific bad outcome was in fact caused by that negative activity and not by something else?

We are fast moving to an insane situation that anything that can be imagined by the overheated mind of a so-called health and safety risk analysis expert is ipso facto said to be ‘reasonably foreseeable’ should some freakish accident later occur.

The underlying absurd assumption is that every accident is avoidable, and that anyone who has not taken every possible precaution must be responsible for anything that then happens under their care. Result? Soaring insurance premiums, richer lawyers, unfathomable waste of time and money.

This argument rebooted as the appalling ‘Precautionary Principle’ is also being used by different armies of socialists/collectivists eg via the BBC’s Today Programme to extend inch by inch the moral and legal scope of state control.

If anything is potentially risky, the government must ‘do something’. No limits can be placed on the state ‘doing something’. To even think in those terms is callous! Don’t we care about human life, and value it more than ugly nasty capitalist money?

Such clumsy thinking has been promulgated to the glum British public for decades. At the micro level it leads to the pollution of unlimited road-sign installation along pot-holed roads. In the middle it creates endemic health and safety PBN (plastic ball neurosis). On its most massive scale it powers the climate change industry, skewing resources on an unfeasibly large scale.

The really huge flaw in it (apart from all the obvious ones involving opportunity cost – money wasted on school health and safety plastic ball audits is not spent on education) is that it ascribes no value to the human freedom to take risks as an end in itself.

This brings us to the horrible Newtown shootings in Connecticut. Hardly have the bodies been carried from the school than the usual gun-control hubbub arises. Thus Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker.

"Whatever satisfaction gun owners take from their guns - we know for certain that there is no prudential value in them - is more important than children’s lives. Give them credit: life is making moral choices, and that’s a moral choice, clearly made."

Over at The Atlantic Jeffrey Goldberg is far more measured, and shows us the pitiably embarrassing advice used by some colleges to staff and students in case of an attack. He draws exactly the right conclusion:

"I am sympathetic to the idea of armed self-defense, because it does often work, because encouraging learned helplessness is morally corrupt, and because, however much I might wish it, the United States is not going to become Canada.

Guns are with us, whether we like it or not. Maybe this is tragic, but it is also reality. So Americans who are qualified to possess firearms shouldn’t be denied the right to participate in their own defense."

Isn’t the core point here that the great majority of Americans are ready to run the risk to themselves and their families of incredibly rare mass shootings in return for the right to own guns for recreation or self-defence purposes?

And shocking and sickening though these occasional shootings most certainly are, why is the right to make that choice and then run those risks really so objectionable?

Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter: @charlescrawford

blog comments powered by Disqus