My son’s primary school is a wonderful institution, but I must admit I am beside myself with rage that it was closed again yesterday, after a few flurries of snow. And I am much calmer about it than some other parents, whose jobs and lives are less flexible than mine.
What is galling about this is the way the public sector under New Labour has come to treat us. A £50 fine per day if our child doesn’t attend school for what they consider an adequate reason. A £100 fine if we don’t get our tax return in on time. Fines for bin abuse – is there such a term? – and goodness knows what else.
Yet the moment there is a small amount of discomfort or risk, in this case of slipping over – or of the school not having the requisite number of staff – and the public sector abandons their responsibilities entirely.
I am aware also that the school was not actually being lazy, in this case – though I can think of local institutions where there is really no other explanation. They were responding to the limitations in their public liability insurance policies. In fact, what has been happening is not so much that people are becoming more risk averse – as politicians will endlessly tell you – it is that insurers are forcing their clients to become so. The health and safety industry – a huge and labyrinthine priesthood – is now, in effect, the cheerleader for the insurance industry.
This is a central political issue, or it ought to be. At stake is the way we live our lives, and whether the public sector can succeed in sloughing off their own risks onto us. We are witnessing, not the elimination of risk (that’s impossible), but the privatisation of it. And if we don’t want our institutions to become meaningless empty shells, we need to do something about it.