Health and Safety Dance (Men Without Hard Hats)

Today’s Daily Mail headline truly is a perfect storm* of tabloid obnoxiousness: “Goodbye ‘elf and safety: Cameron announces review of ‘joke’ regulations and ‘compensation culture’“. “‘Elf and safety” is of course Richard Littlejohn’s catchphrase, and the fact they employ it in a front page headline I think sums up perfectly what to expect from the article (if the fact it’s in the Daily Mail wasn’t clue enough).

The former trade secretary [the ironically named Lord Young] said the once serious issue of health and safety had become a ‘music hall joke’ under Labour, with schools banning children from playing conkers, restaurants barring tooth picks and one swimming pool declaring a pair of goggles unsafe.

I wonder whether Lord Young actually said ‘schools banned children from playing conkers’ or ‘one swimming pool declared goggles unsafe’. You see, every single example of “‘elf and safety gone mad” given here is an infamous tabloid lie.

The first story – the banning of conkers – seems to be a mix up of several stories the Daily Mail or other parts of the press vigorously campaigned against, including “Killjoy officials accused of ‘nanny state’ madness as they take children’s conkers” (the actual ‘killjoy’ measures were more based on the risk of property damage from heavy spiked balls falling from 20 feet than a hatred of children) and “Pupils ordered to wear goggles to play conkers at school in ‘nanny state’ ruling” (which was a single school reacting to false rumours that conkers had been declared unsafe, bringing goggles so the children could keep playing). The only actual ban in schools I could find anywhere was a single school which had several students with severe nut allergies and therefore had to ban all nut products – including horse chestnuts – from their grounds.

The story about toothpicks (under the entirely not sensationalist headline “Toothpick Taliban“) was a classic example of the art of ‘making shit up’ – the article itself even admits deep in the text that “a Macdonald Hotels spokesman denied there was a toothpick ban, and suggested ‘there were simply none available on the night’.

The final story, the closest to truth, was about a pool that declared a single pair of glass scuba goggles unsuitable due to the shatter risk, but in that case, the pool apologised for the inconvenience and offered to talk with the owner of the goggles – an offer he apparently refused to take them up on.

Lord Young also wants to curb the compensation culture fuelled by the rapid growth in no-win, no fee agreements.

He said the NHS alone had paid out more than £8billion over the last five years in personal injury claims, of which two-thirds went to lawyers. ‘That is four or five billion pounds that could and should have gone into healthcare,’ he added.

Now, I’m not a massive fan of the ambulance chasing, high pressure litigation-sellers who take huge amounts out of the victim’s compensation, but when the trade is ethically performed, personal injury lawyers serve an important role – and of all the government departments to pick as an example of the cost of health and safety, the NHS is definitely the worst example. Clinical negligence does cost the NHS a lot of money – but not because of personal injuries claims. Clinical negligence costs the NHS money because of the cost of correcting for the damage – the lost bed-days, the extra sessions of surgery, the extra doses of medicine, the extra medical scans, the extra work doctors and nurses need to put in.

The most recent statistics I could find, from a National Audit Office report, puts the costs at £2 billion per year in treating medical accidents, and a further £1 bn per year in treating hospital acquired infections – by comparison, litigation cost £0.5 billion per year (much less than the £8 billion over 5 years given here, but even if we assume the higher figure is correct, the cost of litigation is £1.6 billion a year – only half the medical cost).

Scrapping health and safety law is unlikely to save the NHS money in the long run – the National Audit Office report linked above states that “We consider that in many circumstances the cost of intervention is likely to be far less than the cost of failing to prevent the incident” (p. 6).

I’m not going to claim that the personal injury claim industry requires no reform at all, but far from beng a money saver, a hefty restriction on legal action will not help people. No-win, no-fee can be abused, but it can also provide a vital opportunity for precisely the sort of people who are often hurt worst by poor healthcare – the poor, the disabled, the elderly and the long-term ill – is going to harm both patients and the NHS.

* I say ‘perfect storm’; to be fair, they haven’t blamed anything on immigrants.

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