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Julian Brazier MP: Compensation culture Vs Happy childhoods

Julian Brazier is MP for Canterbury and Whitstable and a Shadow Transport Minister.

We hear a great deal about the problems of young people and the need to discourage youngsters from joining gangs. A fortnight ago a judge set us back several years.   

Since 2004 I have campaigned to reduce the harmful effects of the compensation culture on sport, adventure training and play opportunities. Children need structured risk, which allows them – among other things - to test their own physical and mental limits. Things like scouting and canoeing, rugby and football all help. Professor Heinz Wolfe, has called it ‘Vitamin R’. Indeed, Risk is such an essential ingredient of our development, he suggests that if children and young adults don’t get it in structured ways, then they will turn to unstructured means – namely crime and antisocial behaviour.

My campaign started with a Private Members’ Bill entitled ‘The Promotion of Volunteering Bill’. Its aim was to protect the organisers and providers of sport, adventure and play opportunities from frivolous litigation. The vast majority of these activities are provided by volunteers. Indeed, there was -and is- a waiting list of some 80,000 youngsters waiting to join the Scouts and Girl Guides, unable to do so because of a shortage of volunteer instructors. A number of disastrous judgements in the courts were seriously deterring volunteers. A 2003 survey by CCPR (Central Council for Physical Recreation) found that of all the reasons given by people for not volunteering, the threat of litigation and blame culture came top. A 2006 survey by the Scouts confirmed this.

My Bill was blocked by the government but several of us set up an All Party Group on Adventure and Recreation in Society (A RISc); with help from Ian Lewis and the Campaign for Adventure we persuaded the Government to take action. The result was the 2006 Compensation Act.

So why the talk of setbacks?

The 2006 Act invited judges to consider the social desirability of activities when considering litigation against their organisers. This essentially means determining whether a decision against a sports group, volunteer or organisation might have longer term repercussions, beyond just the individuals involved. Many of us argued that the Law should compel judges to consider that impact but the government argued that that was unnecessary.

A judgement last week, sadly, has proved the Government’s stance unsound. In 2005 a family decided to hire a bouncy castle for their triplets’ tenth birthday party, to be held in their garden. A father, his son Sam (aged 11) and another child aged 15 were playing in an adjoining field. They asked if they could come over to the party and have a go on the bouncy castle. Mrs Perry, the organiser, said yes and the 15 year old boy somersaulted, struck Sam and caused serious brain damage. The injured boy’s parents then sued Mrs Perry and, astonishingly, Judge Steel found in their favour. Estimates are that compensation could reach £1million.

This ruling means that, if you allow someone to join in a physical activity on your territory and they have an accident, you are liable. It seems it doesn’t matter how foolish they are being, or how careful you have been. So you can see how potentially disastrous this case is; for example, do you have a trampoline in the garden, with neighbours’ children coming round to play? It is far from uncommon. But the same could apply to informal football, paddling pools, a farmer inviting Scouts to camp on his land, anything really. This is a very sad case for the brain-damaged child, but on the issue of fault, it should not lie with Mrs Perry but with the father who was there and who should have accepted his responsibility.

The Perry’s insurance company will most likely pay the £1million. But when insurance companies take a hit in these types of cases the result is further large increases in insurance costs for adventurous play. Some groups have already closed because of this. Yet again society suffers as good natured, honest people are put off organising worthwhile activities for youngsters.


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