It’s health-and-safety gone mainstream!

British officials love to laugh at mad bans on conkers and snowfights, yet they continue to institutionalise a cult of caution.

Frank Furedi

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Topics Politics

Not for the first time, the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has issued a statement which refuses to take any responsibility for diminishing children’s opportunities to enjoy the experience of risk-taking. The head of the executive, Judith Hackitt, has come out fighting against ‘misguided jobsworths’ and bureaucrats who apparently ‘use health-and-safety as a convenient excuse [to] disguise their real motives’.

Many commentators have welcomed Hackitt’s statement as a long overdue recognition that our terrible addiction to the rituals of safety has deprived children of the freedom of the outdoors. Hackitt’s acceptance of the fact that risk aversion has a destructive impact on childhood indicates how hard it is, even for her organisation, to deny the consequences of the culture of health-and-safety. However, let’s remember that the HSE has always sought to deny, despite the evidence, that it bears any responsibility for the implementation of bureaucratic rules that stifle children’s lives.

For over five years, the HSE has run a campaign designed to distance itself from various examples of ‘health-and-safety gone mad’ that have featured in the media and have been condemned by much of the public. Since 2007, it has run a ‘Myth of the month’ campaign, which aims to show that attempts to link the latest over-the-top risk-averse action to the HSE is wrongheaded. So in September 2007, the ‘Myth of the month’ was: ‘Kids must wear goggles to play conkers.’ In June 2010 it was: ‘Health-and-safety risks stop children playing “pin the tail on the donkey”.’ Throughout 2009, virtually every monthly myth published and mocked by the HSE dealt with another ridiculous intrusion into children’s lives.

The aim of the ‘Myth of the month’ campaign is to show that HSE also recognises that that the micro-management of children’s lives has gone too far and to underline its claim that it has nothing to do with these ridiculous acts. In one sense the HSE and Judith Hackitt are right to point out that often it is litigation-averse local authorities and unimaginative educationalists who are directly responsible for banning pancake-making or a snowball fight. However, the HSE is responsible for institutionalising the obsessive culture of safety which underpins British society’s estrangement from the idea of risk-taking.

The HSE is in the business of rule-making in relation to risk. And when you have this culture of looking for new problems to regulate, it is easy to move beyond sensible safety measures into the realm of the absurd. I still remember when, four years ago, I was told that health-and-safety rules prevented me from shifting a small filing cabinet from one part of my office to another. A week later I discovered that such practice was the norm within the HSE itself. According to a report, HSE employees were also banned from moving furniture in case it compromised their safety. And just in case anyone misunderstood this rule, a sign on the wall in the HSE office stated: ‘Do not lift tables or chairs without giving 48 hours’ notice to HSE management.’

The HSE is not an innocent bystander to the explosion of regulations that has engulfed children’s lives. However, nor is it the principal driver of the policing of childhood. Rather, the regime of child protection is underpinned by a powerful consensus around a culture of precaution. That is why periodic outcries and backlashes against the bubble-wrapping of children’s lives can quickly give way to yet another wave of risk-averse practices.

We need action, not words

It is important to note that it is now routine for officials periodically to decry the culture of risk-aversion surrounding children’s activities. National newspapers regularly run stories criticising the stupidity of schools that ban conker games in the playground. Commentators frequently discuss the problems caused to children by the decline in outdoor play. And the phrase ‘health and safety’ is often used as a pejorative shorthand for stupid rules that prevent people from doing what they should, or want, to do.

In 2006, the first report of the government’s Better Regulation Commission called for a more sensible approach to managing risk, including a recognition that risk can sometimes be beneficial. And the HSE has launched campaigns against petty health-and-safety concerns, under the banner ‘Get A Life’. In 2007, Ed Balls, then the Labour secretary of state for children, schools and families, made the headlines by advocating conker games and the need for children to learn about risk through unsupervised play. Launching the government consultation document ‘Staying Safe’, which aimed to ‘strike the right balance between protecting children while allowing them to learn and explore new situations safely’, Balls argued that we want our children ‘to be protected from harm and abuse’, but ‘this does not mean we should wrap them in cotton wool’. He added: ‘Childhood is a time for learning and exploring.’

In January 2008, then prime minister Gordon Brown set up a new watchdog, the Risk and Regulation Advisory Council, with the aim of developing ‘a better approach to the understanding and management of public risk’. This was widely hailed as an attempt by the government to untie some of the red tape – or, in the words of one news headline, ‘Brown vows to fight nanny state culture that bans hanging baskets and conkers’. Launching the Conservative Party’s ‘Childhood Review’ in February 2008, party leader David Cameron spoke of ‘the risk-averse health-and-safety culture which, at times, has poisoned the relationship between adults and children’.

Unfortunately, however, despite a growing awareness of the problems caused by risk-avoidance, it still remains a central message in policy and culture. Ed Balls’ ‘Staying Safe’ consultation began with the admonition: ‘Keeping children and young people safe is a top priority.’ And if safety is flagged up as a top priority, then the space allocated to healthy risk-taking is likely to be rather narrow and discrete. More importantly, the idea that children’s safety is itself a quasi-moral value has become deeply culturally ingrained, with the result that adults obsessively evaluate their children’s activities with reference to the levels of risk involved. The sacralisation of safety encourages an absolutist standard of child protection. It also encourages the expansion of the meaning of safety, which in turn reduces any tolerance for children enjoying unregulated experiences.

The backlash against ‘health-and-safety gone mad’ contains some spirited insights, and there have been thoughtful suggestions from some quarters about how policymakers might go about supporting a culture of healthy risk-taking. Ultimately, however, this backlash is unlikely to alter the premise of existing policy. Why? Because there are powerful cultural forces that counteract common sense on this subject. ‘Better safe than sorry’ has become the fundamental principle of public life. And once a preoccupation with safety has been made routine and banal, no area of human endeavour can be immune from its influence.

That is why, last week, British teaching unions criticised the Lib-Con coalition’s education secretary, Michael Gove, after he unveiled plans to make school trips easier through reducing the amount of paperwork required. The National Union of Teachers was horrified by the idea that the Department of Education had reduced the 150 pages of guidelines to just eight. It suggested that the reduction in paperwork represented a diminishing of ‘best practice’ and that life without a very thick rulebook ‘could lead to a lot more accidents’. The NUT’s complacent response – ‘we live by best practice’ – is symptomatic of a general tendency to perceive children taking risks as a problem rather than as an opportunity for cultivating a spirit of independence.

Reducing guidelines to eight pages is a step in the right direction. Now the challenge facing society is to understand that helping children to become independent and resilient, and allowing them to develop for themselves a sense of responsibility, will make them far more secure than any bureaucratic attempts to immunise them from risk. The best contribution that the HSE could make to this project is by replacing its ‘Myth of the month’ campaign with a monthly chucking out of a rule that stifles life and adventure for children.

Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum in August 2011. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here.

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