Tying us up with even more red tape
Many hailed the UK government’s new risk advisory committee as a challenge to the ‘cotton wool culture’. It is nothing of the sort.
Last month, the British government appointed a Risk and Regulation Advisory Council (RRAC). This move is part of UK prime minister Gordon Brown’s enthralling programme designed to ensure that ‘policymaking benefited from a fuller and more rounded consideration of public risk’. He specifically wants this rounded consideration to be applied ‘even when facing pressures to react to events’ (1). What does this really mean?
Currently, it seems that every new risk that is identified, no matter how minor, has to be responded to with some new moralising campaign or draconian measure to restrict our liberties further. Even when civil liberties are not directly affected, excessive safety regulation can make normal parts of everyday life – like the humble school trip – impractical. And when government is not directly involved, companies still feel obliged to warn us about dangers that should be self-evident to any sensible person – like those coffee cups that tell us the ‘contents may be hot’.
Has Gordon Brown suddenly decided that we, the great British public, have the intelligence and wherewithal to be trusted to manage our own lives? Apparently he ‘is so concerned that the cotton-wool culture is denying people the freedom to enjoy themselves that he has asked the watchdog to report to him personally’ (2).
Media reaction was rightly somewhat sceptical that Brown might have been fortified suddenly by the spirit of Edmund Hillary reincarnated, ready to lead us into clear, clean air free from the stifling laws, regulations and red tape generated by 10 years of New Labour. As Roland White wrote in The Times (London): ‘Can the real problem be solved by a committee? No, because the real problem lies at the heart of modern politics: dividing the balance of responsibility between the individual and the state.’ (3) If Brown had really had a change of heart, he would have appointed Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson as head of his new committee to scrap unwanted safety legislation and not Rick Hawthornthwaite, geologist and private equity fund manager. After all, the financial markets have hardly covered themselves in glory when it comes to risk-taking of late.
These criticisms, however, are in danger of missing the real problem with the RRAC. It is not actually designed to liberate us from a nannying state but to find more effective ways of influencing our behaviour. It is also part of an ever-growing abdication of responsibility on the part of our political leaders. And at its heart is a real contempt for the abilities and opinions of the British public.
The RRAC came out of a report by the Better Regulation Commission (BRC) called Public Risk: the Next Frontier for Better Regulation (4). The aim of that report was to create a ‘more engaged and trusting relationship with the public around issues that have a significant day-to-day impact on lives and attitudes’. The authors admit that ‘public trust is on the wane’. To counter this they recommend a ‘move away from an approach based on trying to control people to an approach that seeks more to influence behaviours’. Rick Hawthornthwaite criticises government policy for ‘collapses in the face of a confrontational parliamentary system, the media and short-term career pressures’. He advocates ‘a more mature dialogue with the public on what really needs to be done whenever “something must be done”… offering a more responsible alternative to whatever the clamour of the crisis may be demanding’.
You don’t have to read deep to get this argument: government policy should bypass parliament and the media and go straight to the people. Not to ask us what we think – Labour is not in the business of letting us have referenda, after all – but to influence our behaviour towards pre-determined objectives. So, we can expect patronising consultations and citizen juries rather than the clamour and confrontation of real democratic debate. We can look forward to ‘the deployment of a high-calibre team to act as a “network catalyst” for high-quality, evidence-based dialogues in which all key stakeholders, internal and external, revisit issues and explore how better outcomes can be achieved’. Thank God no one has been out on the streets demanding that – it would never have fit on the placard.
A key part of the RRAC’s approach will be to work ‘with external stakeholders to help foster a more considered approach to public risk and policy making’. This is to state baldly that unelected committees can deliver more consideration than our elected representatives. Brown’s appointment of the council is nothing more than an abdication of responsibility for making policy; such authority has been gifted on our behalf to ‘external stakeholders’ who will draw up ‘simplification plans’ from forums convened as ‘action learning sets’.
As spiked has consistently observed, we live in a period where politicians, bereft of any big ideas and frustrated at their resulting inability to move people, are desperate for any means of gaining some legitimacy and getting their policies effected. This latest move is to ask risk managers and professional facilitators to do it for them.
Just as revealing as the aims and methods of the RRAC are its first targets. What are the top risks facing us that the council is going to tackle? It won’t be the threat of economic recession, the dumbing-down of education or the state of the National Health Service – it will be food and superbug scares, animal disease outbreaks, under-pensioned citizens and obesity.
The approach to obesity, for example, is not to tell us that it might be healthier for us to relax a little about what we eat, that the health scares may have gone too far, that we should be sure to trust ourselves more than the continuously contradictory science. Instead, the decision has already been made that obesity is a real issue. The only risk here is that we might not change our behaviour to suit. The role of the RRAC is to mitigate that risk. As ‘independent, external voices’, the committee can focus support around ‘clearly articulated objectives’, ‘increasing public understanding of the issues… and establishing the right context for successful implementation’. This is a spin machine. Is it a coincidence that Brown set up the RRAC just a few weeks after appointing Stephen Carter – spin supremo – to head up ‘political strategy, communications and research and his policy unit’? (5)
This behavioural approach seems to have informed the latest initiatives on obesity, like compulsory cookery classes and even paying people to lose weight. We can expect more of the same in other areas as the work of the RRAC starts to influence more and more of government policy.
The political elite seems increasingly and even bizarrely out of touch with what we think, with how we actually live our lives. At its root is a deep contempt for people: if they really thought there was too much regulation, they would scrap it and let us manage risk in our own lives. Life, if one is to live it, involves risks and choices, trade-offs and gambles. Instead we get the RRAC. As one social commentator said: ‘It is a symptom of the overweight state that administrators at the top come to rate intellectual debates about risk management higher than the gut instincts of the brave people at the bottom.’ (6)
These initiatives are nothing to do with making us any less risk-averse, with trying to reawaken a spirit of adventure. Rather this is about politicians trying to sell us policy that they are too scared to front themselves. Another risk management quango can only entrench the contemporary role of government as anti-democratic technocrats.
Angus Kennedy is a member of the organising committee of the Battle of Ideas.
The director of Taking Liberties told Brendan O’Neill that New Labour had ‘flushed liberty down the toilet’. Josie Appleton asked who killed the school trip?. Jennie Bristow revealed how we can unwrap our ‘cotton-wool’ kids. Sandy Starr bemoaned the demise of the king-size Mars bar and wondered if he really needed to be saved from himself. Or read more at spiked section Risk.
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