Lord Young’s report Common Sense and Common Safety is out. It speaks of a common sense approach to health and safety and takes the usual swings at greedy lawyers and claims management companies. Tempting as it is, I am not going to dissect the report line by line, instead I wanted to emphasise some points where Lord Young is plainly speaking sense. For my first point I draw you attention to page 19:
“The problem of the compensation culture prevalent in society is, however, one of perception rather than reality.”
And for my second, page 49 in an Appendix discussing the claim that it is the media (in part) that drives this perception:
“there is no end to the constant stream of misinformation in the media. Again and again ‘health and safety’ is blamed for a variety of decisions few of which have any basis in health and safety at all.”
Any rational human being reading and understanding that sentence has to wonder how a mature politician would react. As a quick google of the press reaction to that story, or a perusal of the Prime Minister’s foreword to the report will show, the government’s response has been… well… You decide. David Cameron says this:
“Newspapers report ever more absurd examples of senseless bureaucracy that gets in the way of people trying to do the right thing and organisations that contribute to building a bigger and stronger society.”
At no point does the PM acknowledge that these newspaper reports are, according to his adviser Lord Young, usually fallacious. Instead there has been a deliberate strategy to talk up the idea of compensation culture. The report has been widely and repeatedly trailed in the press and Mr Cameron’s comments are designed to feed the media beast with the view that the compensation culture is out of control. All this because it is perceived to be a problem. The rationale for this is that businesses and teachers and so on fear the incidence of claims and that this fear is in and of itself damaging to business and the public interest because it inhibits school trips, business efficiency and so on. The diagnosis appears to be that it is fear, not the reality of claims, that drives this problem. If this is true (and evidence is in fact rather thin on the ground on this as on most of the other points made in the report), tackling the perception is sensible. But tackling the perception by talking up the problem is surely a rather strange way of doing it. I do not much like the way personal injury claims are advertised, and there are things that need to be done to reduce the costs of these claims, but a central part of any strategy for tackling the perception of a compensation culture is to rebut the notion that there is a compensation culture. Maybe the coalition will implement some of these reforms and then begin to tell us the problem has been solved. I am distinctly nervous about the suggestion that when the police cause injury they should be exempted from investigation because they were trying to help, and it appears that teachers do not support his proposals for blanket consents regarding school activities (another point buried in the appendices). Similarly, regulating the volume of claims advertising looks like a non-starter (though perhaPs the content could be better regulated). The problem has to be put in some perspective too: it is difficult to see how personal injury adverts constitute more of a threat to our well-being than (say) food adverts aimed at children.
Access to justice is important, but so is public perception of it. That is one reason why perception of claiming is important but it is distinctly to be hoped that politicians focus on the real problems not talking up the imaginary ones. One way they do that is robustly tackling the perception problem not giving succour to it.