Health and Safety

Last week I had the privilege of hearing President Obama address both Houses of Parliament in the ancient splendour of Westminster Hall.

Just before the President arrived, we had to endure an excruciating 'health and safety' style announcement by some official.

It was hardly in keeping with the ceremonial atmosphere of the occasion.  Somehow, they managed to conduct the trial of King Charles I in the Hall without this nonsense.

The MPs and Peers present work in this building, which is within a secure area.  We know where the exits are, and it had occurred to us to stand when the President arrived.  Even if it hadn't, instructions were in the programme guide.

That such bureaucratic drivel has permeated even a State occasion speaks volumes for how an over-zealous culture of warnings and announcements has afflicted life today.

Recently I walked on Clymping beach where signs informed us that climbing on rocks could be dangerous.  At the weekend I attended a village run where large notices prohibited the wearing of MP3 players.

I suppose the organisers feared being sued if a runner was injured.  And that's the problem - a whole industry has grown up around the 'compensation culture' in civil law.

In 2009 over 800,000 compensation claims were made in the UK.  TV adverts  and texts sent to mobile phones encourage people to claim.  Never mind how trivial the case - someone must be to blame and someone can be sued.

The Government is currently consulting on the first major overhaul of civil law for fifteen years, including a proposal to tackle the ‘no win, no fee'  arrangements which have undoubtedly fuelled the compensation culture.

I was recently emailed by a constituent who works in personal injury law but who privately supports these reforms.  He pointed out to me that a constant stream of small claims for car-related injuries like whiplash has driven up everybody's insurance premiums.

His concern is that the winners in these deals have not been victims - the injured party in a whiplash case might receive £1,500 in compensation but their lawyers will get £4,500 in costs.

In his report on health and safety last year, Lord Young of Graffham, who lives in West Sussex, identified these cases as part of the corrosive ‘compensation culture' that has developed.

As the Prime Minister said at the time: "Good health and safety is vitally important.  But all too often good, straightforward legislation designed to protect people from major hazards has been extended inappropriately to cover every walk of life, no matter how low risk."

We need sensible changes to the law but also changes to culture and a more proportionate attitude to risk.

And if no-one else will start a campaign against ludicrous and unnecessary public announcements, I will.  Let's start with those infuriating and repetitive announcements on trains.  If anyone has other examples, I'd gladly hear them.

Christopher N Howarth