Those who want to help in warzones are being hamstrung by health and safety restrictions
Sunday November 11, 2007
Today we will remember the dead of previous conflicts, but I wonder how many will remember that the current fighting in Afghanistan is the fiercest since the Second World War. The casualties suffered by the Royal Anglians illustrate the brutality – nine dead and 57 wounded from a regiment of 600. When they came home last month, the Ministry of Defence praised them for ‘taking the fight to the Taliban’ and no one can doubt their valour. However, when the MoD continued that by ‘pushing the enemy from the Afghan heartlands they allowed much needed reconstruction and development to take place’, it may have been making a mistake.
The Taliban is being beaten on the battlefield, but while losing militarily it may be winning politically with the help of the strangest ally in the history of warfare: health and safety regulations.
Anecdotes abound of how fear of breaching the Foreign Office and Department of International Development’s ‘duty of care’ is making reconstruction next to impossible. A colonel in the Territorial Army seconded to the Foreign Office could only work in Helmand with security guards charging $5,000 a day. He didn’t want them because, as a soldier, he could look after himself. But the FO insisted and burnt money that could have been better spent on relief workers.
I was told about a finance officer whose job it was to decide how much compensation to give Afghans whose homes or livestock were destroyed in the fighting. Recognising that it was vital to win the approval of the civilian population, she asked to be moved closer to the front line. On no account could she take that risk, she was told. We have a duty of care, you cannot jeopardise your safety, even if you want to and even if you would do your job better if you did.
One officer told me that on many days, you could count the number of British reconstruction workers working in Helmand on the fingers of one hand.
‘The problem comes in the field when risk-avoidance becomes the primary mission and is given priority over the achievement of the actual mission,’ he said. ‘Big bases like Kandahar are filled with thousands of military and civilian personnel who will never meet an Afghan, apart from contract workers employed around the base. I can understand why this has happened – our leadership has identified our inability to accept more than a handful of casualties as a national characteristic. Unfortunately, the insurgents have come to the same conclusion and can keep us bottled up by just the threat of a car bomb or a rocket attack.
‘I can’t quite see how we are going to help the Afghans rebuild their country if we don’t begin changing our risk-adverse culture. People like the Pashto find our behaviour craven and despise us for it.’
The rules for civilians contained in the MoD’s guide ‘Preparing to Visit an Operational Theatre’ support his account. ‘The primary consideration is risk,’ it declares on the opening page. ‘The MoD does everything possible to mitigate risk to civilians who enter an operational theatre, but if it deems that risk unacceptable, it will not allow staff to go to individual locations or will consider withdrawing them altogether.’
There follows a long description of a course at a Nottingham centre that civilians visiting a war zone must undertake. It ends with the lawyerly requirement that they must sign ‘a declaration that they have understood the risk assessment’, presumably so it can be produced in court in the event of litigation.
Everyone who reads the papers knows that health and safety has become to today’s conservatives what ‘political correctness’ was to their predecessors. Where once there were false stories of councils brainwashing children to sing ‘Baa-baa green sheep’, now there are equally bogus accounts of the Health and Safety Executive forcing trapeze artists to wear hard hats or banning employees from putting up Christmas decorations in the office.
As with the complaints about political correctness, there’s no understanding of the good reasons behind regulation, in this case the one million employees injured every year and 25,000 forced to retire because of injury or illness brought on by their work.
But just as the saloon bar cracks about ‘the PC brigade’ contained a kernel of truth because the speech codes of universities and the public sector did stifle sceptical questioning and robust debate, so there is a point behind the attacks on the health and safety police – although most conservatives can’t grasp it.
When regulations designed to protect people on building sites and assembly lines are made universal, old virtues of service, self-sacrifice and heroism are transformed into vices, which the government must suppress or face punishment in the courts.
Last month, the Greater Manchester Police not only stood by but praised two community support officers who refused to follow anglers into a pond to attempt to rescue a 10-year-old boy. The force’s assistant chief constable said he would not encourage any police officer to jump into water and thanked his men for ‘acting correctly’. In the new dispensation, volunteer police officers aren’t expected to be braver than members of the public or as brave as members of the public, but less brave – more cowardly.
The use of health and safety legislation to prosecute the Metropolitan Police for the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes not only trivialised his death – if the killing of an innocent man is a crime, it should be murder or manslaughter – but raised the prospect that officers who back off from a suspected suicide bomber will be applauded for letting concern for regulations intended for workplaces trump fears of an atrocity.
The stories coming out of Afghanistan are not tales of cowardice. On the contrary, brave men and women want to help Afghans. They realise that developing the country is as important as defeating the Taliban in battle. They are ready to serve, but their superiors are too frightened to let them do it.