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Regulation keeps us in the light, but in the dark there must be compassion

The terrible case of the death of Alison Hume makes clear the tension between regulation which protects us from harm and compassion which reminds us why we have the regulation in the first place.

I would be the first person to jump to the defence of ‘health and safety’. The much-maligned concept is being used as a trojan horse for attacking all sorts of regulation in society which is there to protect us from unreasonable harm. Not having poison poured into your drinking water? Health and safety gone mad. I’m equally quick to defend the public sector on the basis of the issues it faces over litigation – it is  very often the people quickest to complain about what they see as a ‘nanny state’ attitude who are the first to be enraged if they feel any occurrence has worked against them personally and the most certain that they are due personal compensation. So ‘it’s ridiculous they can’t play football in the playground’ until their child gets a nasty cut at which point they come tearing in demanding to be paid.

Regulation, health and safety and the need to protect the population is an issue the left must champion at all times. Likewise, making sure that people understand the link between their personal expectations of the public sector and the implications of those expectations is something that we must do. But we will do well to recognise where there is a genuine problem with a risk averse society.

The terrible Alison Hume case is one such genuine case. Mrs Hume was the woman who fell down the mineshaft and died because of hours of hesitation from there rescue services. I again would be the first to defend a decision which was about protecting the life of individual fire officers. I would also be ready to accept that sometimes the eagerness of someone to help is not an indication of that therefore being a good idea. But everything about this case screams out with a kind of inhumanity which is simply not compatible with the very ethos of health and safety – which, after all, is there to protect human life.

It seems clear that in this case the need to save a life should have meant that the sensible plans of committed fire officers should have been heeded. If an assessment was to be made that it wasn’t safe, it should have been made immediately and only on the basis that there was an alternative being put in place. And while all that concern for the potential backlash if anything went wrong was being considered, that so little concern for poor Mrs Hume lying in pain, freezing cold and presumably petrified at the bottom of a dark mineshaft is simply wrong.

It would be outrageous if this horrible incident was used as a battering ram to attack the many essential and important protections that are offered by regulation. But on the left we need to think about this case in two terms. Firstly, we need to think exactly about the many precautions (some legal) which are taken to make sure one grieving family does not become two or three grieving families. But we must also realise that it is not possible to achieve a caring and protected society through regulation alone. There will always be – must always be – a tension between safety and human compassion. We need to stop well-meaning public officials being unnecessarily reckless with their own lives (or worse still to feel pressured into taking excessive risks). But if that comes at the price of removing their ability to make decisions with human empathy, nobody wins.

There has been some debate about the question of ‘left’ and ‘morality’. Sometimes the left has felt that morality is some kind of biblical construct. Often those not of the left question whether morality is even compatible with left-wing doctrine. But since the politics of the left can only be placed in the politics of compassion and a sense of fairness (and an anger at injustice), it is impossible to create a left politics which does not contain the tension between compassion and regulation. It would be very unwise for us to seek to resolve that tension by forgetting the humanity.

Robin McAlpine