Monday, 29 August 2011

The Absurdities of the Health and Safety Debate

You don’t have to be a tabloid reader to get in a lather at the mere mention of the words “health and safety”...but it certainly helps.
For years now, the populist press have regaled us with tales as comical as restaurants refusing to hand out post-meal toothpicks to their diners, the calling off of Gloucestershire’s wonderfully English cheese rolling race, and most recently, Butlins banning ‘intentional bumping’ on the dodgems.
Some of these, and others, have made it into this week’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) top 10 “bizarre bans,” gleefully picked up and redistributed by Chris Grayling, the employment minister. And to think he almost became home secretary.
Never mind a slow news day, these are the kind of stories that you’d expect to read about on a no news day. Yet, the tabloids have gorged on them with a sense of delight and excitement at another chance to expose meddling bureaucrats and society’s lack of ‘common sense.’
But, bewilderment, at the papers, would be a better response. Whipping the public up into a frenzy seems to be the only reason the tabloids exist anymore.
Devoting such a disproportionate amount of time to something which, if we’re honest, wouldn’t make it into anyone’s top 100 list (let alone top 10) of “most important issues facing Britain” in 2011.
Therefore, why does it dominate so many newspaper column inches, and provoke such hostility, such irrationality?
One theory, a rather plausible one in my view, points to papers such as the Daily Mail and their never-ending crusade to romanticise a Britain we could once cherish and be proud of, but has now been hijacked by pernicious forces, determined to wreck what was once great about this island:
a traditional, nostalgic aspect of British life is threatened by modern, mindless bureaucracy.”
It also feeds in to right wing loathing and mistrust of the all-pervasive ‘nanny state,’ sticking its nose in where it’s not wanted.
Last year’s appointment of Lord Young, charged with carrying out a review of it in law and practice, shows how health and safety has been catapulted from tabloid fodder to direct government intervention, with the Prime Minister personally taking an interest. The recommendations were published last October.
But, beyond the clamour to rage against interfering ‘jobsworths’ and ‘overzealous’ officials, this overshadows the very real progress that health and safety regulations have made in the workplace.
The HSE credits the Health and Safety at Work Act with an 84% reduction in employee fatalities between 1974 and 2010, as well as a 75% fall in non-fatal injuries.
A change in patterns of employment has also helped in bringing down fatal injuries as people have moved from manufacturing and heavy work industries to areas of work with lower risk. The types of injuries and illnesses people pick up has therefore evolved: stress and back complaints, for example, have become more commonplace.
Nevertheless, the TUC reports that there are still as many as 20,000 deaths a year caused by work.
Last year Left Foot Forward, a political blog, reported that only a fraction of deaths and workplace injuries ever came to the attention of the HSE, with it now only investigating a third of safety offences compared to over a decade ago. And, the results of deregulation legislation had ‘emasculated’ the organisation, meaning that: “a business can now expect to be visited once every 38 years.”
All of this will soon be made worse by, you guessed it, government cuts. A 35% cut to its budget will mean HSE inspections being reduced by a further third, despite the fact that a review of worldwide evidence by Dr Courtney Davis of Sussex University found that
inspection plus enforcement are associated with a decline in injury rates of 22% for the following three years.”
The danger with parts of the media’s obsession with the trivial and the farcical is that the whole health and safety industry suffers. Constantly attacked and undermined make it a ripe target for cuts. After all, who’s going to object to taking on an organisation that spoils peoples’ fun for a living?
According to the TUC’s Brendan Barber, Lord Young’s report did nothing to dispel the “myths and preconceptions surrounding health and safety.” Instead it uncritically accepted them, whilst neglecting to offer, “a single proposal that will reduce the high levels of workplace death, injuries and illness.”
Thus, a wasted opportunity. This, together with the ‘bizarre bans’ list, must be music to tabloid ears, safe in the knowledge that they can continue to unearth ever wackier and outlandish examples of ‘health and safety gone mad.”

This article was first published by Left Foot Forward on Monday 29 August 2011

Friday, 19 August 2011

The Cost of Train Travel

We’ve got to get people off our trains and into their cars. Nobody’s exact words, but they may as well be. The rail industry, firmly backed by successive governments, seem hell bent on seeing how far they can put up fares and get away with it.
This week commuters were met with the wearingly familiar news that rail tickets will rise by an average of 8% from next January. On top of the increases from last year, and the year before, and all the years before that.
With a 60% rise in passenger numbers since privatisation, rail travel has never been more popular. This has resulted in state subsidies ballooning from a pre-privatisation high of £1.5 billion, to just over £4 billion a year since 2006, but with an assumed acceptance that it should now be the passenger who foots a greater proportion of the bill, rather than the taxpayer.
Hence, since 2007 ministers decided on a reduction in train subsidies with the passenger being asked to eventually shoulder 75% of the costs, moving away from the 50-50 split with the taxpayer, as has previously been the case.
But, according to Passenger Focus, an independent transport watchdog, ministers would be wise to avoid such an intended shift, proposed at the height of the economic boom, and coming just before the credit crunch and then recession:
this policy was born in very different economic times. Passengers cannot be expected to continue paying above-inflation fare increases year on year.”
The same argument to justify the trebling of tuition fees can also be heard when talking about increasing rail fares: those who use the service are affluent (students are expected to earn more in their lifetime than non graduates), and in the minority (however significant a minority they may be).
Yet this view is flawed and ignores the fact a huge proportion of rail journeys are done by people commuting from the suburbs and home counties into London, partly because living in the capital has become so unaffordable. Using the car means endless traffic jams, the congestion charge, and the daily struggle to find a parking spot.
Some commuters have little choice but to take the train. So, whilst the rest of Europe gets on with expanding their high speed rail lines, reducing the need for domestic flights, and generally making peoples’ lives a lot easier, our train companies do their best to discourage travel at rush hour and make that last minute trip as expensive as possible.
All wonderfully helped by their convoluted, and quite frankly baffling, price structure, with huge peak versus off peak variations.
Beyond this, further explanations for the cost of rail travel come with the allegation a couple of years ago that the previous government put pressure on train companies hoping to secure rail franchises, to increase fares, with those who offered to lower prices losing out. Whilst in opposition, the Tories accused Labour of using
the rail franchising process to squeeze the train operators to pay the Government higher and higher franchise payments, when ministers were fully aware that this would push fares up.”
Thus, the huge cost paid to the government to run a franchise has meant that companies have had to recoup their costs somehow, the easiest way being in the form of charging passengers more to use their service.
Passenger Focus has also found that the confusing nature of purchase tickets online has also played a part in inflated prices being paid.
In 2009, Passenger Focus, released its findings from a government commissioned report into fares and ticketing (see page 15 in particular). To nobody’s surprise, Britons paid the most of all the countries surveyed, four times more in some cases, and in particular its ‘walk up’ fares, the ones you buy at the time of travel.
Yet according to the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC):
fares have risen at a significantly lower rate since privatisation than during the last 15 years of British Rail.”
Indeed, ATOC notes that because of the numerous types of tickets that are now available, the last 10 years has seen the average fare “consistently fallen below the headline increases in fares, as passengers have increasingly switched to buying cheaper fares, such as Advance tickets.”
This of course will resonate most with that ultra-organised traveller, who has little need for flexibility, and a desire to travel sometime between 10am-3.30pm, ideally avoiding London. Needless to say, this is not how many of us lead our lives. 
If you compare this to a country like Belgium for example, this level of planning is unnecessary. The peak and off peak ticket is unheard of. You pay the same whether you book your ticket weeks in advance, or on the day. In fact, when you buy your ticket, you are able to travel on any train you like, and sit wherever you like. If you work for the public sector, season tickets are heavily subsidised.
One of the problems is that the railways can be firmly placed in the ‘unsexy’ box when we think of all things political. Discussions about fare increases and over-crowding tend to be fleeting, provoking outrage and newspaper columns one day, but then almost as quickly forgotten about the next. They just don’t generate the level of debate that issues such as crime or immigration do.
In fact, they don’t really create much debate at all, being an issue that meets with broad support from all the main political parties, and an area where the public’s views are routinely ignored. I can’t remember an election campaign where public transport has ever been mentioned.
Our fragmented, over-priced railways, where the interests of private shareholders come before passengers, will ensure that we revisit these same arguments again soon.
Meanwhile, somebody is now paying even more for their season ticket, so that they can stand in an overcrowded train, where the windows don’t open, but where they can still get some work done, if only they manage to balance their laptop on the head of the passenger sitting below them

This article was first published by Left Foot Forward on Friday 19 August 2011

Thursday, 11 August 2011

The England Riots

They have rioted, trashed, looted, burnt and brought havoc to our cities’ streets. They have intimidated and terrified local residents. They have also attacked my liberal sensibilities. How do you watch and read about the scenes over the last few days without feeling nothing short of utter revulsion and anger towards the perpetrators?

How do you watch masked and unmasked youths (and adults in some cases) taunting the police, brazenly raiding shops and then casually walking off, cradling the stolen goods, in full view of the authorities and the media, and not scream at the TV, at your computer screens, hoping someone grabs one of them and does their very worst?
I have felt all of these things as events have unfolded since Saturday's unrest in Tottenham, which now seems an age ago. Liberal sensibilities indeed. 
And I make no apologies. I believe they are a perfectly natural and emotional response to what has taken place. How can you feel anything but enormous sympathy for local people who have been made homeless, or those who have seen their businesses and livelihoods destroyed?
The kind of people interviewed on TV, many of them second or third generation immigrants, who talk about coming to this country, opening up a shop, doing 14 hour days, 7 days a week, only to see everything they have worked for so cruelly taken away.
Predictably, we have the divide between those who just want to condemn outright, and then punish all those behind these riots, and those (currently a small minority if comment pieces and blogs are anything to go by) who want us to look past the usual hyperbole and outrage and start addressing the reasons behind such behaviour.

Some have argued that it is authoritarian to blame the consumerist-I want it quick and I want it now and I don’t want to have to work for it-culture, or to blame our soft criminal justice system which fails to penalise persistent offenders.
Yet there are many people who subscribe to this position who will take issue with this label and say they are anything but.
As always the issue of parenting, or lack of, crops up. Whilst watching the scenes on TV you could have been forgiven for asking yourself whether these kids’ parents knew, or even cared, where their children were.
Debates over the quality of modern day parenting have been raging for years, so much so that something that was first mentioned during Labour’s time in office, was mooted once again, with the release of a report last year by the former Labour minister, Frank Field, and his suggestions that all new parents should have to take parenting classes.
The notion of the absent father is also nothing new, with various commentators wondering whether the enormous number of single parent families in areas such as Tottenham can be explained as a factor.
This is particularly the case in the Afro-Caribbean community, with previous government ministers blaming it in helping to fuel gang crime, and even Barack Obama, before he became president, using a Father’s Day speech to be critical of dads who abrogated their responsibilities.
Many will call for prison sentences for each and every protagonist, but with reoffending rates at 74% for young offenders only a year after leaving prison, this merely papers over the cracks, keeps the populist media happy and works as a very short term solution.
The obvious disregard the youths have for the police highlights the lack of respect for authority that many, not just on the right, lament. The sight of them openly mocking the police, whilst at times seeming able to loot with impunity, is one of the things that will justifiably have had people fuming.
If their parents can’t control them, and the police won’t intervene, what does this say about the kind of society we live in?
This brings us to old-fashioned (which doesn’t necessarily mean bad) calls for a return to community peer pressure, or (god help me) a taste of The Big Society. A return to an age where people could be publically shamed or reprimanded without fear of recourse. Try and do something like that now and you’ll probably be on the end of a barrage of verbal abuse or even worse, whilst people around you, rather than supporting you, will twitch awkwardly and look the other way.
But, this is the kind of thing that seems long gone, unless you’re this brave woman, filmed having a go at a group of rioters in Hackney.
Before we address the ‘why’ questions, it is also not beyond the realms of possibility that all we witnessed were a bunch of opportunistic thugs, indulging in a spot of late afternoon/evening copycat criminal activity. Nothing more, nothing less.
Groups of fearless teenagers breaking into shops and stealing because they could, knowing that if they ever went up before the courts, they’d either get a slap on the wrist in the form of light community service or a fine, which they couldn’t afford to pay, anyway.
And you know what, these arguments seem pretty plausible to me. You can blame government cuts, poverty, deprivation and alienation all you want, but sometimes the simple explanation might be the best. They wanted a night out rioting, the notoriety, and the chance to get on YouTube.
The trouble is this only gets you so far. Once all of this has blown over, we really have got to deal with some rather important issues.
Camila Batmanghelidjh, who has spent well over a decade dealing with thousands of the same kind of young people who have caused mayhem on our streets, speaks of "parallel antisocial communities with different rules,” and a survival of the fittest ‘subculture.’
In opposition, Iain Duncan Smith spent time looking into the reasons behind such things as educational failure and unemployment in certain communities up and down the country. He pointed to the almost doubling of the prison population as evidence that the government had failed to "tackle the social breakdown within which crime thrives."
Time and again our politicians have sought to tackle the causes of crime, but at the first mutterings from the right wing press, have reverted to type, and promised to build more prisons and called for tougher sentencing.
Prophetically, one government cut that was predicted to have disastrous consequences, were the ones to youth services. Last year, Sir Paul Ennals, the head of the National Children’s Bureau’ charity, warned of the possibility of social unrest, believing it could mean "young people become progressively disengaged from their own communities."
Whether this can be partly blamed on the disturbances is hard to prove. But, the more activities that exist to keep our hyperactive young occupied can only be a positive thing.
We are regularly told that our young are miserable, poorly educated and feel neglected. Report after report suggests that society has been ignoring all the warning signs and has instead concentrated on getting richer, whilst the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ has widened to record levels.  
Whether you agree with some of these explanations or not doesn’t really matter. Events are still raw – this may go on for a few days yet – and the public will clearly not be ready to listen to the ‘why’ arguments. Heck, my Facebook page and tweets have been filled with all manner of rantings and ravings against the rioters.
But, the need to start to look at the bigger picture must happen soon, and it is this belief that I guess makes me a liberal.

This article was first published by Left Foot Forward on Thursday 11 August 2011