In December 2009 David Cameron made a speech in which he promised to reduce the burden of health and safety. His most heart-rending example was that of a small boy who drowned while fishing for tadpoles. As Cameron told his audience:
What’s more, the fear of transgressing all these rules causes people to stand aside when others need help.
This was most tragically illustrated in Wigan two years ago, when a ten year old drowned in a pond, having rescued his young sister, because officers were told not to intervene as they hadn’t undertaken their ‘water rescue’ health and safety training.
But was it a true story?
Cameron commissioned former Tory minister Lord Young to write a report on health and safety, which was published today. I attended the press conference at Number 10 this morning, where the peer admitted that maybe there wasn’t a massive problem with H&S. Instead his point was that there was a public perception of a problem: “Perception is reality”, he concluded. Confused? I certainly was.
Anyway, many stakeholders – including the TUC and CBI – told him that current H&S legislation was in fact fit for purpose. Young wrote: “There was an overriding opinion that the health and safety agenda had been hijacked by the tabloid press, whose reports often contributed to misinterpretation and misunderstandings by regularly exaggerating and ridiculing instances which in reality have little or nothing at all to do with health and safety.”
Lord Young even helpfully provided some examples of nonsense stories which had made it into folklore: One of them, curiously, was the pond story cited by Mr Cameron last year. The reality was as follows, he wrote:
Fishermen noticed that two children had fallen into the pond and they tried to bring the children in with their fishing tackle.They managed to drag a girl out of the pond but were unable to reach her brother. One of the fishermen tried to call 999 but was unable to get through so he called his wife. She rang the police and reported the incident.
There was some confusion over the location of the incident and this resulted in the police attending the incorrect location. At the same time Police Community Support Officers were undertaking a normal patrol when they came across the incident.They alerted police officers to the correct location.
The boy’s step-father and friend arrived at the pond just before the police officers.They immediately dived into the water and brought the child to the surface.The police officers then arrived and one of them dived into the water and helped to bring the boy onto the bank. Unfortunately by this point he had been underwater for 20 minutes.
Incidentally, the main Young recommendations involve a crackdown on adverts by no-win, no-fee lawyers and attempts to stop institutions being too risk-averse. If you think we haven’t been here before under Labour read this article: MPs seek to scrap clause in damages legislation. It’s from 2006.