In The Interests Of....

I'm just back from London which, for the first time, felt like a city slightly paranoid, unhappy and joyless. Everything, it seems, has been prohibited, regulated or become subject to fines for violation. In particular, the Health and Safety legislation seems to be the shibboleth of the killjoys who once universally worked as park attendants. Now that we no longer have park attendants, they work in airport concourses, tube stations, museums, shopping malls and restaurants.

Perhaps a competition to find the most absurd activity proscribed by the catch-all of "well, it's 'elf and safety, innit?" would be in order? I'll offer one:

In the interests of Health and Safety, please do not remove cutlery from the restaurant.

-- Natural History Museum

Perhaps the "Don't steal the cutlery" sign had lost its impact?

Twice I was asked - nay, told - to stop some activity with my daughter April on the basis that I was supposedly endangering her Health and Safety. Once, I flagrantly disregarded her wellbeing by letting her ride on the luggage cart at Heathrow airport. They've had some 'nasty' accidents down there, apparently. The same activity seemed to be perfectly acceptable at Glasgow Airport, which is also run by BAA. Maybe Londoners aren't used to seeing wheeled vehicles move overground at more than 2.5mph?

Another time, I risked her decapitation (or something) by carrying her through Victoria tube station on my shoulders, since they have low-hanging signs in that station. I think what I resented most in that little exchange was the implication that I either hadn't noticed that the signs were low or simply didn't care. Perhaps the zig-zagging path I was taking around the signs might have made it obvious? No, the poor child has to rely on Underground staff to keep her safe, since her father is such a feckless idiot. Come on - it's not as if I was running down a wet escalator backwards with her standing on my head. I was just trying to keep her out of the way of the flying laptops whose bottom corners, for her, are perfectly positioned at face level.

Health and Safety legislation, as with any legislation that involves a large staff to police its enforcement, is suffering from mission creep. We've been through thirty years of mission creep on race relations legislation and, unless we change something, the next ten to fifteen years will probably see Health and Safety plumb the same depths.

I am no longer clear on the precise definition of "racism". Over my lifetime the definition has broadened to include more behaviours and broader classes of victim. The problem is that "racism" will never be solved, in part because too many public sector jobs depend on its continued existence. It will be perpetually redefined. Look at soccer: racism was once obvious, when fans threw bananas onto the pitch at black players. I recall seeing this happen with my own eyes when Mark Walters was one of the first black players to sign for Glasgow Rangers. Then, later, it was a problem that black players were booed for anything at all. Again, I recall being at games where black players were jeered for things like diving or bad tackles, only to read about supposed "racist chanting" at matches in the papers the next day. Now, it's racist that there aren't "enough" Asians playing professional football, that there aren't "enough" black managers or "enough" chief executives from the correct racial groups. For some definition of "enough" in such vanishingly small sample sizes. See how it goes?

Similarly, the concept of "bullying" in schools has seen the same kind of definition-spread. When I was a kid, being bullied meant things like a hearty beating after school each day, or being lifted up spread-eagled, charged the length of the playground and having your testicles smashed into a drainpipe. Today it includes things like the fact that someone won't Bluetooth their custom ringtone to you in the playground.

Health and Safety law, once designed to prevent children being sent up chimneys or men being sent to crawl three miles to a coal face, has become a handy lever to stop people being, well, annoying or inconvenient to those providing them a service:

  • In the interests of Health and Safety, please do not remove the cutlery.
  • In the interests of health and safety please do not allow your children to play with the rope barrier.
  • In the interests of Health and Safety, please do not sit on the floor.

Please don't go here. Please don't do that. Please don't leave your stuff here. Please don't walk like that. Please don't ride your bike. Please don't use those kids' shoes with the wheels on them. Don't skateboard. Don't run. Don't put your rubbish here. Don't cross the road there. Don't use your phone while climbing the stairs. Watch you don't slip. Don't leave your bag. Don't pack a razor. Don't fly with a big shampoo bottle.

Look out kid

It's somethin' you did

God knows when

But you're doin' it again