When it comes to delivering public policy turkeys, there are few ministers as consistently masterful as Chris Grayling. As employment minister at the DWP, he gave us the money-guzzling wonder that is the Work Programme. And as Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Injustice, he has eviscerated employment tribunals and brought the criminal justice system to the brink of collapse.
There are rumours that this glittering ministerial career may be about to come to an end. Yes, I know. Tragic. But, even if these rumours prove to be well-founded, the Cameron chop may have come too late to prevent Grayling delivering one last public policy turkey.
This particular turkey is called SARAH, and according to Grayling she’s going to ‘slay much of the ‘elf and safety’ and jobsworth culture that holds back so much of our society’. Her full name is the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill, she’s the gallinaceouslove child of Grayling and Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin, and her arrival in this world was announced by her godmother, Queen Elizabeth II.
To the bird-brained Grayling and Letwin, the idea behind SARAH is “a very simple one”. As Grayling explains in a blog post on Conservative Home:
“All too often people who are doing the right thing in our society feel constrained by the fear [sic] that they are the ones who will end up facing a lawsuit for negligence. Of course courts do apply common sense, and very often [sic] throw out the most absurd cases. But that’s not before the individuals involved have been through incredible stresses and strains when they think they have just done the right thing. Of course those who are negligent, or who act in a way that is foolish or reckless, should be punished by the law. But those who are trying to do the right thing should believe [sic] that the law will be on their side. And that is precisely what SARAH will do”.
Except that, according to Grayling himself, all that SARAH will actually do is “say to the courts that we want their decisions clearly to take into account whether people have been trying to do the right thing or not”. And of course, by the time the courts come to make such ‘common sense’ decisions, Grayling’s well-meaning defendants will have been through … incredible stresses and strains when they think they have just done the right thing.
So SARAH won’t actually change a thing. She won’t change the (actually very small) number of legal claims against charities, volunteers and ‘heroes’. She won’t reduce the “stresses and strains” allegedly experienced by those against whom claims are brought who “think they have just done the right thing” – whatever that means. And, accordingly, she won’t reduce the ‘fear’ that allegedly holds back so much of society.
Because you simply can’t legislate against irrational fear. The best you can do is try to educate the fearful, and assure them that they don’t need to be so afraid. But that requires the kind of emotional intelligence and leadership skills that were clearly out of stock when Grayling was rolling off the politico production line.
No, SARAH really is a turkey. And, as is often the way with turkeys fed on crap, her meat will be dry and disappointingly tasteless. For, as Michael Reed of the Free Representation Unit has noted, the idea that ‘it’s ok to give a shoddy service because I’m a good person doing good work’ is “noxious”.
And Grayling doesn’t even have the excuse of being a good person doing good work.
Richard Dunstan is a policy wonk who has worked for Citizens Advice, the National Audit Office, the Law Society, and Amnesty International UK.