Britain's frozen ... by our terror of ambulance-chasing lawyers
It wasn’t snow or ice that paralysed much of Britain during the past few days. It was lawyers. A great swirling storm of ambulance-chasers long ago descended on this country, blanketing common sense under a thick layer of solidified, litigious drivel.
I strongly suspect it was a terror of litigation that caused me to be trapped pointlessly for ages in an immobilised train on Thursday morning and then forced me into a huge diversion to get to work four hours late. At one point, as I rambled round Southern England in rattling carriages, I wondered if I might have to go through the Channel Tunnel to get to my desk.
I had assumed that some astonishing unexpected weather bomb had caused my problems. But when I looked into it, I found that a few miserable deposits of snow and ice on the platforms of Paddington Station in London had led to the closure, for several hours, of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Western Railway system.
How Brunel, that mighty engineer, who never saw an obstacle without wanting to overcome it, would have snorted with derision. I later checked with the Met Office, and they said the weather stations in Central London had reported no significant snowfall on the night before.
When I put this to Network Rail, they sent me a long statement repeatedly claiming they had faced ‘extreme conditions’ and offering this excuse:
‘The station was not temporarily closed because of snow. It was temporarily closed because a combination of snow, strong wind and freezing temperature created sheet ice on the platforms and areas of the concourse creating an unacceptable risk to station users, particularly passengers disembarking trains.’ They sent me pictures, showing a few pitiful patches of snow, as if these were evidence of a major crisis. I am not convinced. I think they are evidence of a fear of litigation.
As for ‘extreme conditions’, what can they mean? Those of us old enough to remember the genuinely devastating winter of 1962-3 know what cold weather can do here. Then, there was a 36-hour blizzard right across the country, with 80mph winds creating 20ft snowdrifts.
The upper reaches of the Thames froze solid enough for a car to be driven across the river at Oxford. Even the salt sea froze four miles out from Dunkirk and a mile out from Herne Bay in Kent. The snow lay without a break for two months.
In the North of Scotland, temperatures got below zero Fahrenheit, what we would have called 35 degrees of frost (minus 19.4 on the boring, crude Celsius scale), which is really cold.
That was a crisis. This isn’t. But a terrible fear of being sued has turned it into one, helped by the intolerant and stupid Green Dogma which has closed and demolished most of our perfectly serviceable coal-fired power stations and brought us close to a totally needless gas shortage. Count yourselves lucky we still have some coal generation left, or there would have been serious shutdowns last week.
Many will have jeered at a school head who told his pupils not to touch the snow. But I sympathise with him. Ges Smith, from the Jo Richardson Community School in East London, flatly blamed the fear of lawsuits for his attitude. He told scoffing TV presenters reminiscing about their snowballing days: ‘What you didn’t operate in is a society where the first thing that happens is a parent on the phone to a company to make that claim, and I’m responsible.’
He is perfectly right, forced to be a ninny by a reasonable fear of the courts, imposed on him by insurers.
The NHS is near-crippled each year by compensation claims worth about £1.5billion that it can’t afford to fight, from lawyers on the make who are even allowed to advertise in hospital casualty waiting areas.
I just wish more people would say so. It was a stupid, predictably disastrous legal change. It transformed us in 25 years from being a robust, risk-taking adult society into a cringing, risk-averse health and safety despotism, where you close an entire railway in case someone slips on the snow and sues you.
For the record, this has nothing to do with Human Rights. It was done by a Tory government, which in 1995 triggered the Conditional Fee Agreements Regulations. Thanks again, John Major. It may have been hoping to save a bit off the Legal Aid budget. But the net cost to the country has been vastly greater.
So, in the end, it’s not the wrong kind of snow, or the wrong kind of wind. It’s the wrong kind of law. You could call it Storm Major, since it is probably the biggest single monument of his wretched government.