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The Health And Safety Culture Is Killing Volunteeering and The Benefits Of Risk

12th February 2013

ResPublica Fellow Roger Scruton writes for Conservative Home

The Conservative Party has rightly emphasized that it is civil society, not the state, that is the source of our shared values and our public spirit. Each function that is taken over by the state ends up in the hands of the bureaucrats. And the bigger the bureaucracy the more prone it is to invasion by special interests. That, in brief, is why the private schools in this country are succeeding in their education task, while the state schools are failing. To return our institutions to civil society, to encourage the emergence of a new generation of volunteers, to liberate the charitable impulse – these are the paradigm conservative causes, and the long-term goal of all the initiatives we might take to ‘get the state off our backs’. It is not that we want the state to be weak, but that we want civil society to be strong.

There are many obstacles to this cause, including the vast number of state-dependent clients, who lobby in the name of ‘compassion’. New Labour greatly increased the number of these people, recognising that their vote would always tend in a socialist direction. But there is a more insidious obstacle, and one that is not often noticed because it seems so paradoxical to be opposed to it. The name of this obstacle is ‘health and safety’.

Civil society exists only where individuals have the courage and initiative to get things started. Sports teams, festivals, fairs and markets; shelters, dance-clubs and equestrian events; schools, colleges, scout troops and children’s outings – all these things, which are the stuff of civil society, are now tied in regulatory knots. Activities involving children have been effectively removed from the competence of ordinary unqualified people; playgrounds have been closed for fear of improbable accidents; premises where the Women’s Institute might have run a cake stall, or where teenagers could have got together for a dance, have been condemned by the health inspectors, and scarcely an activity now occurs in the countryside which does not have to be carried out in some clandestine version, for fear of the bureaucrats whose job it is to snoop on us.

The extent of health and safety regulations is now staggering. It is not the cost of them alone which should trouble us. It is their effect in confiscating one of the most important of human virtues, and one on which civil society ultimately depends – which is the virtue of risk-taking. Without this virtue there are few if any social initiatives that will be of lasting benefit. Moreover it is possible to teach enterprise to the young only through activities that also teach them to take the risk of it. By means of health and safety regulations the state gradually colonises all social activities and makes them dependent upon its permission – a permission that is less and less granted, as the bureaucrats discover new ways of amplifying their powers.

The matter is of great importance. Looking back to the England of my childhood I remember a world of hospitals that were partly run by volunteers, of home carers whom nobody paid and who had no dealings with the state, of scout troops and guides that took us on adventures from which it was not always certain that we would return. I remember volunteer groups that cleaned the verges, tidied the town hall and visited old people at Christmas. Our school was a state school, but also home to voluntary clubs and societies that met on their own terms and invited whom they chose. That world was one in which accidents occurred, and in which we often had to resolve difficult conflicts. But it was one in which we seldom had to ask permission for what we were doing, and in which charitable people did what they did because it was the right thing to do, whether it was running the cadets or the choir.

It is surely time for conservatives to wake up to the fundamental truth, that risk is a good thing, an immovable part of freedom, and also the stuff from which civil society grows. And this risk, confiscated by the state in the name of health and safety, must be returned to us, whose property it is.

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