Nudging in the wrong direction: The government’s anti-regulatory agenda
I am a great believer in legislation. I think that strong regulation, properly enforced, is key to protecting the vulnerable.
This government however has a clear anti-regulatory agenda, believing that there is too much and it can be a “burden on business”. That is why they have set up responsibility deals rather that passed laws on things issues such as nutrition, alcohol and workplace health. They have also triumphed guidance rather than legislation on a range of issues from countryside protection to banking to stress. They claim you have to nudge people into changing behaviour rather than force them through legislation.
It is rather ironic therefore that we are now getting new laws based on “nudging” people – perhaps it should be called nudgleslation. The most obvious example is of course the new Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill, which, according to Chris Grayling, will “counteract the growing perception that people risk being successfully sued if they do something for the common good”. So it is clearly aimed at countering perceptions. The official purpose of the Bill is to “Create peace of mind by assuring those who are acting of the benefit of society…..” In fact as the TUC has pointed out in the past, it will not actually change the law. Which is rather odd for a piece of legislation. It will simply tell courts that they need to consider factors which they already generally have to take into account anyway.
It is not the only piece of legislation aimed at challenging perceptions. The proposal to exempt most self-employed people from the Health and Safety at Work Act is apparently intended to “help reduce the perception that health and safety law is inappropriately applied”. Of course in this case the law will be changed, and quite dangerously so.
So we now have a new phenomenon of an anti-regulatory government proposing legislation which is aimed not at increasing protection or preventing harm, or even having any positive practical outcome, but simply with the intention of addressing “perceptions”, “creating peace of mind” and “reassuring” people”. This is complete nonsense.
I don’t dispute that there is a problem with people’s perception about both injury claims in the courts and of health and safety laws. These perceptions have come about partly because the Government has been telling people that we have a problem with a compensation culture and that our health and safety culture is out of control. For the past four years Ministers have stood on public platforms and claimed that the law is stopping “have-a-go heroes”, based on the occasional sensationalist and incorrect press reports, yet they have failed to come up with one concrete example where courts have refused compensation because someone was acting for the benefit of society.
Now, having helped promote these myths and misconceptions they are inventing laws to deal with a problem which does not actually exist except in people’s heads and even then is only there because they put it there.
Well I have a better idea. Rather than waste parliamentary time with headline-grabbing laws that have no real purpose apart from myth-busting, why do ministers not try making some statements defending the right of people to claim damages if they are injured and to protection at work. That would be something really radical.