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Jane Kelly. Don’t go down in the woods today, Health and Safety are having a picnic

Jane Kelly

Thinking of putting a sausage or two on your grill? Stop! Planning to leave your house and venture to a shopping centre or worse, a railway station? Stop! Is your young son heading off somewhere with his sports bag? For God’s sake stop him! We are living in a world of risk so looming that it can no longer be tolerated.

The week began with the dismal tidings that one of our great sports, rugby football, is under attack. One aptly named, well nearly, Allyson Pollock, ‘Professor of Public   Health Research & Policy,’ opined on R4 that boys over the age of eleven, who are allowed to play adult style rugby including scrums, must be prevented from doing so in future. She wants them to play the tag game like smaller lads.

She had no figures to say just how many boys have been turned into paraplegics since the game began in 1823, but she is a leader of the modern Puritan vanguard and doesn’t need facts. She simply said that accidents, ‘MIGHT’ happen. No one can argue with that. She cited an act passed by the UN in 1989, on the rights of the child, to suggest that boys going out to play rough games were victims of nothing less than child abuse.

I was brave enough to set out yesterday for the particularly dangerous city of London, using our rail network, planning to visit Ealing followed by Hampton Wick. This was not an easy route; in fact a pony and trap would have been quicker and more fun. Squashed into four carriages, even on a train journeying on to Manchester through the Midlands, we passengers, or rather ‘customers’ were subject to constant delays. I missed all my connections and arrived at my destination in danger of a stroke brought on by fury-induced high blood-pressure.

On my way home again, tired and cold, at Reading station, now very large and new looking, I found an electronic board telling me the next train for Oxford was half an hour away, one of the slow stopping kind. There was no railway official to ask for better news. I’d hardly seen a railway employee on any station all day, which you might think is not too good for passenger safety.

A passing cleaner suggested that I go up the new, especially slow moving escalator, installed to stop people being overcome by the effects of speed, cross the station and ask at the information desk. Very grumpily I did all that. A youngish man with a wet looking perm and pierced ears, lounging back in his swivel chair, not a safe looking seat at all, told me that there was in fact a fast train to Oxford, on the other side of the station, in five minutes time. He repeated this in an unpleasant tone of voice, making it clear that he thought I was feeble minded, or rather I should say, subject to learning difficulties. I dashed for it, got there and waited. It was late. I felt my blood-pressure rising again.

But it’s not that kind of danger that the people who run our great rail companies and our moral lives worry about. After we’d all been made late and kept waiting, I joined hundreds of ‘customers’ rushing for their correct platforms, desperate for information which wasn’t available, as they did so passing endless notices on walls and stairways, ordering us not to rush.

These signs, mostly in calming yellow paint, were surely thought up by the kind of people who have no more irony in them than the average station cat. There were diagrams showing foolishly hasty people hurtling down stair cases head first. Some even worse clots were shown plunging down between train and track.

There was often a very big, yawing maw there, it must in fact be very dangerous for an old or infirm person to negotiate a modern railway station. But never mind that, all the train doors now lock automatically 18 seconds before the train finally moves off, to make sure no intrepid loon tries to makes a last minute dash to squeeze on. That kind of folly disappeared with the old Route Master and is now outlawed by the successful Jihad against risk.

I was glad to get home and close the door on the dangerous world. I passed an idle hour on line, looking for a gas cooker from John Lewis. Safer than going out to the shop, although as there is only very basic information given, a little like railway stations, I took care to read the reviews of one Zanussi model I fancied. It was then I realised how pervasive the cult of H & S is in every area of our lives. The beleaguered customer wrote:

‘There are too many ‘safety features’ whose sole purpose seems to be protecting, not the user from harm, but the company from law-suits. For instance, the oven shelves have ridiculously large barriers at the back, severely limiting the shelf positions. Every previous oven offered use of the whole oven with flexibility. There has never been a problem because I simply DON’T push things beyond the back!’

‘The grill pan is too large to line with foil (unless most of it is wasted). Who would not want to throw away foil instead of struggling to scrape off burned fat? I suspect it is this large so it is securely held in one of the (again, limiting) positions. Has everyone who has used the easily removable kind been living on borrowed time? If they were so dangerous, why weren’t they corrected years ago?’

‘When grilling sausages and beef burgers, we like to close the top oven door to keep the heat in. This grill cuts out if the door is closed. Why can’t the grill be like the oven? Aren’t they both burning gas in the same open flames? Someone, somewhere decided it might be a hazard, so we all have to suffer the consequences of their over-anxiousness. But the biggest problem is that the oven keeps cutting out. It lights OK, and we check that it is still lit as we close the door. But 5, 10 or 20 minutes later, it just decides to stop working. We know not to leave a chip pan unattended, but now we cannot leave oven chips unattended either! When the rest of the meal is ready, we discover our oven has turned itself off without notice. Surely, they could have provided a beep or something to announce that the oven has cut out, presumably ‘for our own safety.’

This poor customer had only just realised that she is living in a world where she will be protected from cradle to grave, not by a generous, benevolent state, but by manufacturers and privatised industries, who are terrified of being sued. In our consumerist society public safety is a commodity like any other saleable item. It’s all about money.

Allyson Pollock herself recently tweeted: ‘Children and parents carry risks and costs of injuries hence govt has a duty to protect and prevent injuries.’

Of course there are those who genuinely believe in H & S as a moral force. For many right thinking people, usually of the left, good Guardian readers, this is about living in not only a safer, but more obviously pious place. They may often seem a bit faceless, but Allyson Pollock is on line, as is Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions, currently trying to change the law to make it a serious criminal offence to post rude photos of a previous lover on line. This is a victimless crime, provoked by the person originally taking the big risk of posting the lewd photos of themselves to another in the first place, but this new culture of safety is led by people who strangely love victim-hood.

Ms Pollock is fully backed in her campaign. Her web pages states:
‘ Over 70 academics, doctors, and public health professionals have sent an open letter to ministers, chief medical officers, and children’s commissioners to request a ban of the collision elements of rugby within British school systems, so that children play touch and non-contact rugby.’

Many of these caring souls are women who do not like boys playing rough games whether on the sports field or in the House of Commons. Some may suspect that they don’t like male things much at all, even boyish banter and unsafe jokes.

Ms Pollock and Ms Saunders’ words point to a very unbrave, feminised new world, where no consumer is allowed to take a risk in case it costs somebody money somewhere down the line, but more importantly a place where cautious women in sensible shoes may step out without fear of any unexpected fun and games.

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