Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Britain's "Elf n' Safety" madness

Widow Mavis Field was intending to trim the grass around her first husband's grave when she received a terrible shock. As she approached the grave in Worksop, Notts, she could see it had been speared by a long wooden stake. Its carved headstone had been strapped by heavy-duty bindings and a garish, yellow sticker slapped alongside. 'WARNING!' it read. 'This Memorial is Unsafe. Should not be tampered with. Essential maintenance required.'

Retired driving instructor Mrs Field, who 'shed a tear or two' that day, is one of thousands of bereaved Britons trampled underfoot by our increasingly controversial Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Her husband's grave had been 'tampered with' (to use their own terminology) by the local council on HSE advice about safety in municipal graveyards. The Worksop cemetery now looks like something from a Dracula film, row upon row of tombstones desecrated by stakes.

I came across Mrs Field while making a Panorama documentary about our health and safety culture - a culture some people say has gone mad. Is this accusation fair? Or is health and safety an important guard against the industrial deaths which once blighted Britain?

If you read the parliamentary debates which preceded the 1974 Health And Safety At Work Act that led to the creation of the HSE, you will find MPs were concerned mainly with heavy industry such as mining and pharmaceuticals. One phrase is repeated. Safety measures should be introduced, it says, where 'reasonably practicable'. But is that caveat of practicability still being observed by today's growing cadre of well-paid health and safety consultants?

We looked at some of the notorious Press stories about health and safety. Not all of these turned out to be true, but there was nothing fictitious about cemeteries such as the one at Worksop, where tombstones were 'topple-tested' by dropping a heavy weight on them and seeing if they moved. Those which so much as wobbled under the 'topple-tester' were staked, strapped, sometimes completely flattened. The HSE has since withdrawn its original advice on graveyard hazards, but that hasn't stopped councils persisting with the practice. Panorama found that councils have spent at least £2.5 million on ' toppletesting' graves to see if they are safe.

'There are people who have had to pay over £1,000 to fix headstones that had nothing whatsoever wrong with them,' said Worksop's Labour MP, John Mann. 'This is a job creation scheme, totally unnecessary.' When we put that to the local authority, the councillor in charge came up with the line: 'We didn't have the luxury of adopting a commonsense way of doing it.' He argued that 'the guidelines' offered no room for leeway.

I pointed out that the HSE guidelines had been withdrawn. 'You're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't,' he murmured - proof that once a safety guideline is issued, it tends to stay issued.

Former Times editor Sir Simon Jenkins is chairman of the National Trust, whose parks and country houses demand a forest of safety signs. 'Victims of an accident nowadays have it somehow hard-wired into them that someone must be at fault,' Sir Simon told us. 'They've got used to the thought that there might be some money in it. The combination of fault, blame and money is toxic.'

Sir Simon first realised something was awry when his local Guy Fawkes night party in North London was banned. 'They said you can't have bonfires, people might immolate themselves. I just thought, this is spoiling public life as we know it. 'I'm entirely in favour of safety. It is silly to say that people should take terrible risks. But the concept of common sense has vanished.' He added that there is 'now a large cohort of people whose job it is to go around over-assessing risk. They will always say, oh, if you spend enough money frequently on me, I'll get you permission to have your event.'

This is something we have encountered at our tiny village church in Herefordshire. Diocesan safety 'experts' have demanded we erect safety railings both outside the church and leading from the altar down two steps to the nave. A 17th-century rood screen may have to have a modern handle drilled into its flank. Our church has stood for hundreds of years and there is no record of a single worshipper being injured in a post-communion wine stupor. The cost of the recommended work? Some £1,000. Madness.

Even when accidents do occur, the concept of an 'act of God' seems no longer to exist. Perhaps this is because secularism is fashionable among bureaucrats or maybe it is the inevitable dynamics of a system in which no one - certainly no leading politician - is prepared to argue that risk is desirable.

Individuals often want to drive faster or climb higher, but officialdom recoils from risk, seeing only problems. Officialdom feels it is in loco parentis of everyone, including adults.

Petty health and safety rulings also bring into disrepute the name of necessary safety measures. At major construction sites, heavy equipment and long drops make precautions vital. Six people a month still die on building sites.

I interviewed Barbara and Bernard Burke, whose son Steven, a 17-year-old karate champion, fell to his death while working in a 60ft-high sewage tank. The Burkes know, to their cost, that health and safety on some sites is not everything it could be. Union leader Alan Ritchie pointed out that his industry has the highest number of deaths, yet in recent years the HSE has failed to maintain the numbers of its inspection teams.

Has the HSE instead concentrated too much on less urgent concerns such as noise regulations? Two years ago 175 men received industrial benefit payments for work-related deafness - in jobs such as mining and energy supply. Not one of them worked in the music business. Nonetheless, new rules on average maximum decibel counts (85 decibels - roughly the level of a loud conversation) have been introduced by the HSE for our theatres and musical venues.

Musicians call it an artistic intrusion. Arts administrators say it could mean turning down the volume when audiences actively want a noisy night out. Again, how can this make sense? Does it really serve the life-and-death work of industrial safety?

There are warning signs everywhere on our streets today. It's a surprise we don't have a nervous breakdown just going to the shops. The very multiplicity of signs reduces their potency. And the same is surely true of the whole health and safety culture. The more we are lectured about questionable hazards, the less we will listen to genuinely important safety advice.

Some farmers are driven to their wits' end by health and safety paperwork. We spoke to an arable farmer in East Anglia who said his paperwork had increased fivefold in the past 10 years. Scared of retributions, the farmer remained anonymous. It was the same with a small builder in Herefordshire. He receives so many health and safety leaflets from various arms of government that he is simply unable to find time to read them all, let alone remember and enact them on site every day. This builder, who has not had a serious accident in more than a decade as an employer, would not let us film his face because he did not want the HSE or other safety inspectors 'coming after' him.

The demands on small business are time consuming and expensive. Employees who use ladders in their work are subject to the 'working at height' directive, a document which left Brussels at a few pages but mushroomed to 27 pages by the time Whitehall had finished with it. Ladder awareness training courses are now recommended by the HSE. In the spirit of inquiry, I attended a day-long course in Hornchurch, Essex. That'll be £230, thank you, for learning how to recognise a ladder, climb a ladder, store a ladder and, most important, condemn an unsafe ladder (good news for the ladder industry, at least). Ladders must have their movements and daily checks recorded. This means more pieces of paper, more risk assessments, yet more expense for the employer.

The enterprising fellow who ran the course could have talked about ladders for a week. Gripped as he was by safety mania, mind you, he managed to bump his head on the ceiling at one point. As we left, he waved us off while sucking deep on a cigarette. So much for the 'health' part of 'health and safety'!

The health and safety boom could result in people not bothering to buy insurance. According to Dominic Clayden, claims director at Norwich Union insurance: 'The cost of insurance will go up and ultimately, as we've seen with motor insurance, some people potentially are priced out of the market and will choose not to insure.' He criticised ' ambulance chasers' from the margins of the legal world - the 'claims farmers' who encourage people to sue under no-win, no-fee arrangements introduced in 1999.

For every 60p Norwich Union pays to an injured person, it pays 40p to lawyers. In smaller value claims, it is 'pretty common' to see more going to the lawyer than to the injured person. When Mr Clayden talks to European insurers about British no-win, no-fee rules, 'they think it is mad, they laugh at me'.

The current health and safety mania is surely one farce we could do without. Safety at work has a legitimate role. Industrial deaths must be kept to a minimum. But there's a deal to be done here. Unless we resist pointless meddling, unless we start taking more responsibility for ourselves, safety will become a joke. A truly dangerous joke.


JFK Democrats no more

by Jeff Jacoby

ARE HUMAN RIGHTS still a Democratic priority? To Democrats of a certain age, such a question might seem incomprehensible. After all, it was a Democrat, John F. Kennedy, whose inaugural address proclaimed "to friend and foe alike" that Americans would resist "the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed." It was another Democrat, Jimmy Carter, who made support for human rights an explicit foreign-policy concern, declaring at his inauguration: "Because we are free we can never be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere." It was Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Representative Charles Vanik -- Democrats both -- whose landmark Jackson-Vanik amendment helped win freedom for tens of thousands of Soviet dissidents and refuseniks.

But somewhere along the way, Democratic priorities seem to have changed.

For example: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could have used her recent trip to China to vigorously defend human rights -- to make it clear to those who rule the world's largest dictatorship that the new administration in Washington cares about the liberty and dignity of China's people. Instead, she more or less announced in advance that talking to Beijing about human rights was pointless, since "we pretty much know what they're going to say." Besides, she told reporters, human rights must not "interfere" with more important issues, such as the global economic crisis or climate change.

China got the message. As Clinton arrived in Beijing, dozens of pro-democracy dissidents were placed under virtual house arrest. True to her word, the secretary of state made no fuss about the regime's brutality.

Not long thereafter, the White House picked Charles Freeman, a longtime Beijing sycophant, to head the National Intelligence Council. In 1989, Freeman had defended the Tiananmen Square massacre, publicly regretting only that Chinese authorities didn't crack down even sooner. (He later withdrew his name from consideration for the intelligence post.)

To be sure, the US-Chinese relationship has never turned solely on human rights. But Democrats have certainly traveled quite a distance since the days when Bill Clinton was blasting the first President Bush for "coddling aging rulers with undisguised contempt for democracy and human rights."

Closer to home, President Obama last week relaxed US policy toward Cuba, making it easier for Cuban-Americans to travel and send money to relatives living there. The president's order was titled "Promoting Democracy and Human Rights in Cuba," but in fact it said nothing at all about democracy and human rights in Cuba. Nowhere did it mention the Communist tyranny of the last 50 years -- there was nothing about the denial of free speech; the abuse and murder of political dissidents; the persecution of journalists, librarians, and human-rights activists; the relentless surveillance and secret police; the regime's stranglehold on property and employment.

This time, at least, Hillary Clinton didn't give human rights the brush-off. "We would like to see Cuba open up its society, release political prisoners, open up to outside opinions and media," she said on Thursday.

By contrast, when a delegation of congressional Democrats returned from a trip to Cuba a few days earlier, it was to gush about how "very engaging" Fidel and Raul Castro are, and to insist that improvement in human rights not be made a condition of better relations with Washington.

Thus at a press conference on April 7, Illinois Representative Bobby Rush extolled Raul Castro -- a man with the blood of hundreds on his hands -- for his "sense of humor" and the way he "laughed at himself" and how "down-to-earth" and "kind" he was. Why, said Rush, being with Castro was "almost like visiting an old friend." When a reporter asked about Cuba's human rights record, Rush snapped that he was engaging in a "double standard" and called it "good business sense" not to let human rights get in the way of increased trade.

Another member of the delegation, Cleveland congresswoman Marcia Fudge, went even further, resolutely defending the Castro brothers' right to "run a nation the way they believe is best." After all, she said, "there is no one way that people should live." But Fudge was wrong -- profoundly wrong. All people should live in freedom. No one has the right to "run a nation" like a prison camp. Every human being is entitled to equal justice and the right to life. Those are core American truths -- truths most Democrats once understood in their bones. Do they still?


A lesson from India

By Nirpal Dhaliwal, in Britain

These days, I notice babies everywhere — at cinemas, in restaurants and on the high street. I even notice the paraphernalia that comes with them — the fancy pushchairs, baby outfits and such. I was recently spellbound by a dad on a bicycle towing what I can only describe as a “baby box”, a luxuriously upholstered cube on wheels, containing his cute and helmeted toddler. I have a keener eye for children than for attractive women. Aged 35, my urge for sex is giving way to the urge for the products of sex. I’m feeling broody, but broodiness is an issue men rarely discuss and have no language for.

Women always talk openly about their desire for babies, their “womb ache”, as some call it. There is no equivalent term for men. What anatomical description can we use for our longing? Referring to our “throbbing balls” doesn’t have the same ring, though balls and wombs exist for the same reason: procreation. Women have monopolised the higher ground of the reproductive discussion. Babies grow inside them; they feel every pulse and rhythm of their development and so claim an instinctive bond with their creation. By comparison, men are mere bystanders. While women talk about the desire for children in terms of nature, men talk sociologically about the “role” and “purpose” that fatherhood gives them, as if babies just provide something to do when you’re too old and fat to play five-a-side or get plastered and go on the pull.

Whenever I broach the topic of broodiness, other men patronise me, saying I’ve “gone soft”. Fathers treat me as if I’m a wet, wide-eyed pup with little idea of what I’m letting myself in for. Childless thirtysomething male friends regard the idea with contempt. “I can’t be bothered,” is a common reply when asked if they want to be fathers. There is much denial in this. One friend claimed he was glad to be childless because kids are “noisy, messy, irritating and a pain in the arse”. He said this despite the fact that he and his wife have tried, unsuccessfully, to conceive. While his wife can freely admit her pain and sadness, convention dictates that men cannot do the same. In the male lexicon, to be without children is to be free of the responsibilities and work that comes with them, which can only be a good thing. Men rarely admit their vulnerability, and broodiness is precisely that, a sense of deep personal incompletion.

I realised how bereft I am of children while spending the second half of last year in India — a country that is teeming with them. I’d watch young Indian families sitting on railway platforms, the fathers beaming as they cradled their perfectly formed, serenely quiet babies. Seeing people who earn a pittance, whose daily lives are a grinding struggle, take such genuine, uncomplicated delight in their children made me appreciate what a real and uniquely powerful experience parenthood is. It made me want to be a father.

This realisation initially made me go on a dating frenzy. In typically male fashion, I interpreted it as a sign that the good times were coming to an end and set about chasing as much tail as possible. But that wore off quickly and I’ve found myself becoming curiously indifferent to sex. When a woman comes on to me now, I wonder whether I can be bothered to wake up in another part of town without my own toothbrush rather than of how good she might be in bed. Indeed, sexy women aren’t so sexy any more: the sort of intense, imperious personality that often makes a woman a wildcat in the sack no longer excites me as I contemplate the hard work she entails. While my friends still leer at these divas as they strut through a bar, I now regard them as merely headaches in heels.

Tall, strapping women have become strangely enticing, as I imagine the athletic children they could bear, the powerfully built son who might one day play centre-forward for England. But what attracts me most to a woman is her ability to communicate and interest me. And now that I’m actually listening to women in an effort to know rather than seduce them, I’m amazed at how few can actually do this. Women, sadly, are largely as boring and self-obsessed as men.

My broodiness has made me extremely picky. The bedpost has been adequately notched; there is nothing left to prove other than that I would make a loving and committed parent. All I can do now is wait for a woman who feels the same way about herself, with whom I can begin the mundane and magical adventure of raising a family. Fingers crossed, she’s making her way to me already.


Poverty Creates Terrorists?

“The reason the World Trade Center got hit is there's a lot of people living in abject poverty out there who don't have any hope for a better life,” bombastic CNN founder Ted Turner opined during a lecture at Brown University in 2002. As successful as Turner is as a businessman, he is foolish as a political commentator, and this statement was no exception.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, politicians, pundits and academics have sought to explain what factors create terrorists. Like Turner, many have lazily sought to tie terrorism to poverty. Though obnoxiously loud, the Ted Turners of the world can be easily ignored on such matters. But when linkage between poverty and terrorism is propounded, as it has been in one way or another, by the likes of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former President Bill Clinton and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair among many, many other influential figures, it is worthy to ponder whether such analysis could possibly have merit.

So what does the evidence say?

Several studies have been conducted both before and since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks (some better than others), which have looked at the social make-up of terrorists. In one study by Princeton-trained economist Claude Berrebi, 335 members of radical Palestinian Islamist terrorist organizations Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad were analyzed. The terrorists surveyed were mainly “shahids,” or martyrs (read murderers), over a period from 1987 to 2002. The results of his survey, and its comparison to the Palestinian population as a whole, delivered a striking indictment to the “poverty creates terrorists” crowd.

Berrebi discovered that 16 percent of the radical Islamist terrorists he surveyed could be considered poor compared to 31 percent of the male Muslim population between the ages 18 and 41 in the Palestinian territories as a whole. Thirty-three percent of the terrorists could be considered “well off” compared to only 20 percent of the Muslim male Palestinian population between 18 and 41 years of age. Additionally, while 10 percent of the terrorists were considered “very well off” according to the survey, 0 percent of Muslim Palestinian males between 18 and 41 could be considered the same. The study also indicated that the radical Islamist Palestinian terrorists were generally more highly educated than the male Muslim Palestinian population between 18 and 41.

Given the evidence, Berrebi was left to conclude, “If there is a link between income level, education and participation in terrorist activities, it is either very weak or in the opposite direction of what one intuitively might have expected.”

In another study by terrorism expert Marc Sageman, 102 Islamist radicals involved in global jihad were analyzed. Like Berrebi, Sageman could find no correlation between poverty and terrorism with only about a quarter of the jihadis he looked at able to be classified as coming from impoverished backgrounds. “[M]embers of the global Salafi jihad,” Sageman writes in his book Understanding Terror Networks, “were generally middle-class, educated young men from caring and religious families, who grew up with strong positive values of religion, spirituality and concern for their communities.”

One study of Islamist radicals in Egyptian prisons (and elsewhere) in the late 1970s by Saad Eddin Ibrahim also helps explode the poverty-produces-terrorists myth. “The typical member of the militant Islamic groups,” Ibrahim discovered, could be “described as young (early 20s), of rural or small-town background, from the middle or lower-middle class, with high achievement and motivation, upwardly mobile, with a scientific or engineering education, and from a normally cohesive family.” He went on to conclude that if the Islamist radicals he analyzed were out of the ordinary in any way, it was “because they were significantly above the average of their generation” in education, financial background and motivation.

There are other studies that further buttress the conclusions of these studies. The anecdotal evidence is also overwhelming if less statistically significant. Of course, it is well known that the leaders of these jihadi movements come from less-than-impoverished backgrounds. Osama Bin Laden comes from the extraordinarily large Bin Laden family fortune of Saudi Arabia, for instance, and Al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri is a trained doctor. But the leaders aren’t the only ones who weren’t living hand to mouth when they became radicalized.

The lead foot soldier of the 9/11 attacks was Mohammad Atta. Far from being enmeshed in poverty, he was a graduate student in Germany when he became radicalized. One of the 2005 London bombers left an estate valued over $150,000. The 2007 Glasgow terrorist attack, which fortunately only resulted in the death of one of the perpetrators, was carried out by a medical doctor and an engineer. On and on it goes.

So, no Virginia, poverty is not a primary factor in producing terrorists. It is about time we put this myth to rest once and for all.



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.


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