Speeches recovered from the Conservative party’s online archive More…

Oliver Letwin: Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

Shadow Chancellor Oliver Letwin argues that our obsession with minimising rsik is turning us into a cowardly society

"Every year the city of Pamplona holds its famous bull run.

Thousands of people sprint through the streets, chased by six angry bulls.

It is, of course, very dangerous - both for the runners, of whom thirteen have been killed since 1926, and for the bulls, all of whom end up in the bull ring.

That such an event could take place in this country is unthinkable, not just because of the cruelty to animals, but also because the British state would never allow human beings to submit themselves voluntarily to such a risk.

Far from allowing bulls to chase people through a city, the British authorities have done their level best to stop people chasing cheeses down a hillside, as the good folk of Gloucestershire have done every year since time immemorial.

I am delighted that the cheese rollers of Cooper's Hill have seen off the regulators and saved their humane and only slightly dangerous sport for future generations, but others have not been so lucky.

For instance, a charity pancake race in Devon was cancelled earlier this year after the insurance costs more than tripled from £75 to £280.

Fortunately, the resulting publicity brought an offer of cheaper insurance, but only on the condition that the number of competitors and spectators were strictly limited.

I'm sure we can all sleep soundly in our beds tonight knowing that this is not a country where one can toss a pancake with impunity.

These things matter, not just because of the killjoy threat to local traditions, but because they are symptomatic of a much wider and deeper malaise: like a runaway wheel of double gloucester, our fear of risk is out of control.

Our obsession with risk-minimisation is imposing terrible risks on society.

When cheese rollers and pancake racers are grounded it is a shame, but when charitable work is derailed by excessive regulation this is an attack on the most vulnerable people in our communities.

In July, members of a local Women's Institute in Essex were banned from baking cakes for elderly patients.

As a spokesperson for the local Primary Care Trust explained "we have to adhere to strict hygiene criteria and without inspecting the kitchens of WI members who prepare the cakes we cannot eliminate all potential risks."

As it turned out, the Trust found that it could, after all, live with the "potential risks" posed by uninspected Victoria sponges and reversed its decision.

In most cases of regulatory excess there is no happy ending.

In fact, no entertainment value at all. Just the same old story of grinding bureaucracy.

Thus you won't have heard of the after-school club in Kent that faces closure because it is too popular.

Set up by families who can't afford the fees charged elsewhere, the club has gone from strength to strength.

Unfortunately, its success has brought it within the regulatory orbit of Ofsted, and volunteers can't cope with the increased demand for paperwork.

If the club closes, the children will play on the streets instead, which Ofsted doesn't regulate.

Nor will you have heard of the group providing riding for the disabled in one of the villages in my West Dorset constituency.

No more socially beneficial activity could be conceived. For the physically disabled children, this is in many cases the first time that they have a real sense of control over another living being - and, for many of them, it is also an invaluable aid to the development of posture and hence physical control.

The service is provided wholly voluntarily. But it is now at risk because of the blanket of well intentioned risk-minimising regulation that affects everything from how the children can be put on their mounts to how they can be prevented from falling off.

When the horse jolts in a way that might frighten the child, the adults are not even allowed to lift the child away from the horse for fear of intimate contact.

The volunteers, who give their time for this admirable cause without the slightest hope of reward, are now monitored and inspected and bureaucratised in a way more appropriate for dangerous monopolists with ambitions to make millions by cornering markets and exploiting vulnerable customers.

No good deed goes unpunished. And that is just as true of the public sector, where the obsession with risk is undermining our public services:

In June, two women died after a shooting at a family barbecue.

Neighbours desperately tried to give first aid, while phoning the police to assure them that the gunman had fled the scene.

Nevertheless, it was an hour before paramedics were allowed to enter the premises. As the local MP said afterwards:

"Individually, police officers are fantastic, brave people, and so are the paramedics. But when they have to leave people dying because of a Health and Safety Act policy, they must be starting to wonder where things are going."

In February, Britain's second biggest teaching union, the NASUWT, advised its members to stop taking children on school trips because, they say, "society no longer appears to accept the concept of a genuine accident".

When a head teacher has to consult over two hundred pages of guidance before organising a school trip, one can see what they mean.

The level of compensation claims made against the public sector is another indication that the idea of an accident is fast disappearing.

For instance, in 1990 the NHS paid out £53 million to claimants, by last year this had risen to £477 million - with cases amounting to a further £5 billion in the pipeline.

Given such liabilities, one begins to understand the compulsive caution spreading through our schools, hospitals and police forces - and, for that matter, through society as a whole.

We will pay a price for this obsession with risk-minimisation and for the "reckless caution" it engenders.

Our children will pay a price if we keep them indoors for fear of what might happen outdoors.

Inert and antiseptic, modern childhood is becoming a breeding ground for obesity and allergy; efforts to keep children wrapped in cotton wool to avoid risk is a certain recipe for long-term damage.

Of course, I should point out that any talk of wrapping people in cotton wool is purely metaphorical, and in no way constitutes any recommendation that you should try this at home.

Indeed, you should always heed the safety warnings clearly printed on various cotton wool products, which include, in at least one case, and I kid you not, notice of the terrifying possibility that small pieces of cottonseed may lurk within.

Our society's overwhelming imperative is safety first.

Baldwin's application of the safety first principle to the policy of appeasement is an extreme example of the dangers that face us in the future when we refuse to engage with risk in the present.

In the 1930s we failed to face up to one enormous external threat.

Today, the threats we fail to face up to are legion, but in most cases small enough to be part of our everyday lives.

Journey into fear

How have made this journey into fear?

Fundamentally the problem is one of success; as the big risks (such as hunger, disease, world war and death) recede from our lives, though not alas from the lives of all human beings on the planet, the small risks seem more important.

Things that would not trouble sub-saharan Africans for an instant, frighten us.

Though we have agriculture, industry, science, medicine, the market and the state to thank for our physical safety and comfort, we don't thank them.

We take our security for granted, come to regard it as our right, and blame the same forces of progress for any setback, however small.

Sections of the media, always ready to appeal to the instinct to make others responsible for our misfortunes, serve as the cheerleaders of the blame culture - by pointing the finger.

Media pressure induces paranoia in politicians who are often amongst the first to be pointed at, and who therefore protect themselves by introducing regulations as if risk could be abolished by law.

Regulation which is, in theory, about the minimisation of risk, in practice is all too often about transferring the responsibility for risk.

The speed restrictions that followed the Hatfield crash may well have minimised the risks of rail travel, but they also pushed commuters out of the trains and into their cars, thereby increasing the risks of road travel.

In this case, the risk was passed to a sphere where responsibility is not readily apportioned, and certainly not apportioned to ministers.

As regulation becomes increasingly complex and extensive, it becomes increasingly difficult to comply with. Practitioners therefore become more vulnerable to legal action.

There are those who claim that there is no problem, that the compensation culture is a myth, but as David Davies pointed out a few days ago they are wrong.

Selectively, they point to the recent fall in registered accident cases.

What they don't point out is that just 3% of liability disputes are settled in court. Or that, according to the Institute of Actuaries, the annual compensation bill now stands £10 billion a year and is increasing every year by 15%.

Or that claims against all public services have more than doubled since 1997.

But the real proof that the compensation culture is real lies in the rocketing cost of liability insurance.

Employer's liability insurance premiums increased by 50% in 2002 alone - reflecting a three fold increase in paid claims in the previous six years.

The last resort is disengagement - withdrawal from activities where the cost of compliance and insurance becomes unbearable.

The Government may believe there is no problem, but when volunteer numbers decline to record lows, that is a problem.

When millions of children never have the chance to go on a school trip, that is a problem.

When business fears to come forward with new ideas for health and education, that is a problem.

When civil society falters, that just leaves the state - which can fix the regulations to suit itself, and, if it still gets sued, can call on the taxpayer to pick up the bill.

In other words, regulation of risk does not only expand the state by generating bureaucracy. It also drives active citizens and creative markets out of the picture.

If you believe, as I believe, in a smaller state and bigger people, that is a problem.

Living with risk

What is the solution?

A couple of weeks ago, my colleague, Stephen O'Brien, announced a number of specific policy proposals on EU regulation.

A few days ago, my colleague, David Davies, made some practical proposals about ways of containing the compensation culture.

Even more recently, Michael Howard set out the problems we face from political correctness in our public services. Teachers, doctors, nurses, the police - people who came into public service to cure the sick, teach children and protect the public - have become mere instruments of Whitehall, no longer able to exercise common sense or judgement when carrying out their jobs.

He gave some clues as to as to how we propose to deal with the increasing and often unnecessary interference of the law in the lives of sensible and decent people, which at the same time often fails to protect those people from attacks levelled against them by those who are much less responsible.

In the coming weeks, we shall be bringing forward further specific proposals to rein back regulation and state bureaucracy.

But on this occasion I want to take a different approach.

I have argued that regulations designed to minimise risk are often misguided because they fail to achieve their purpose.

But, today, that is not my point.

My point is that the purpose itself is misguided - because life is all about risk.

It is a risk to fall in love, to get married, to have children; to lend a hand, to have a go or to make a difference.

None of these things can ever be without risk.

Neither can starting a business, or changing a career, or making an investment.

Swimming the Channel is a risk. Climbing Everest is risk. Flying to the moon is a risk.

Whether fighting injustice, fighting a fire or fighting for your country, risk cannot be avoided.

There is nothing new or untested, brave or heroic that is not a risk.

The call to minimise risk is a call to minimise love, trust, faith, hope, enterprise, compassion, and courage.

The call to minimise risk is a call to minimise everything that makes life worth living.

The call to minimise risk is a call for a cowardly society.

Is that what we really want?

A society that it stays at home, plays it safe, passes by on the other side?

If that isn't what we want, then we're moving in the wrong direction.

Of course, we haven't yet gone all the way.

Britain is still a place where grown-ups can take some risks.

But, beware, risk minimisation isn't a one-off event, it is a process.

In this speech, I have cited contemporary examples of regulation that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.

Where will we be a generation hence?

If we do not change direction we will by then be further down the road towards a cowardly society.

And we will not succeed in reversing direction unless we take a completely different attitude to risk.

I am not saying that we should ignore risk altogether.

On the contrary we need to stare it in the face, get the measure of it and decide for ourselves what to do about it.

Cowardice and recklessness are opposite extremes.

One turns away from risk, the other closes its eyes to risk.

Between cowardice and recklessness lies a golden mean: courage, an attitude which faces up to risk, eyes wide open.

Not necessarily the grand courage of the war hero, but the everyday courage that we all need to make the most of life.

Each of us is different, able to take on a different amount of risk in different areas.

Society should help people make the decisions that are right for them.

To some extent, making the courageous choices that steer between cowardice and recklessness is a matter of having reliable information.

To some extent, it is a matter of wisdom.

Neither the information nor the wisdom can be provided by the state.

But the state does have a role, which is to ensure transparency and to protect society against those risks whose extremity and unpredictability overwhelm the capabilities, the information and the wisdom that may reasonably be expected of the individual.

It is entirely reasonable to say that anyone who chooses to take part in the Pamplona bull run does so at their own risk - not least because the risks are entirely obvious and avoidable.

If, however, the city fathers were to allow the release of bulls into a busy market place, a very different sort of bull run would ensue, where the risks would be neither predictable nor avoidable. That is the sort of risk which the state should seek to minimise.

Motorists take on considerable risks when they venture on to our public highways.

If risk on the roads were to be minimised, then the private car would be banned.

Of course, no government would dare do that. Not yet, anyway.

For now, common sense prevails, and drivers are allowed to run considerable risks in order to get on with their lives.

What the state does - and rightly does - is to set a framework within which the risks of road travel can be reasonably anticipated.

The law ensures we can drive on a motorway in the reasonable expectation that we won't face another vehicle heading in the opposite direction at 150 miles an hour.

The law enables the driver to manage risk by keeping risk generally manageable.

That is the model we need to apply more generally.

Conclusion

If we are to have a courageous society rather than a cowardly society, we need to abandon the rhetoric of risk minimisation and adopt instead the attitude of accepting and managing risk.

We have to adopt the principle that the state will arrange for people to be alerted to risks which they could not otherwise reasonably be expected to predict, and for people to be protected - to a sensible degree - from risks which they could not otherwise reasonably be expected to manage; but, also, that the state will not seek to minimise (let alone remove) risks that any person with common sense could reasonably be expected to predict and manage.

In short, we need to ensure that, in dealing with risks, the state will recognise the risk of being too risk-averse.

The recent state of the Diana Fountain serves as a stark warning.

Just as we removed the water from that fountain, a state that seeks to remove every risk will end up by removing all the bubbling dynamism of which society is capable.

If the state seeks to remove every risk, then, in place of that bubbling dynamism, we will have a dried out, lifeless reminder of what might have been.

Let us change course now before it is too late."

Keyboard shortcuts

j previous speech k next speech