Last week was the 20th anniversary of the Wapping dispute and, although the Eighties weren’t so long ago, the pictures of pickets taking on a management which had outmanoeuvred them feel as if they’re from another age. After the collapse of robust trade unionism, employees don’t fight in the streets any more but in the courts, the last arena where they can meet business on equal terms. Across the developed world, many powerful people don’t like them fighting at all and are trying to load the law against them.
Throughout his career, George W Bush has campaigned for ‘tort reform,’ a euphemism for making it harder for the sick and put-upon to claim damages. Britain is going the same way. In the Eighties, business persuaded the Thatcher government to make it ever more difficult for employees to strike. Mission accomplished, it is now pushing the Blair government to make it ever more difficult for employees to sue.
Ministers held the latest in a series of meetings last Friday about how to tackle ‘the compensation culture’. Much of their discussion may well have been sensible; we already know they want to get ambulance-chasing solicitors out of hospitals and allow teachers to take pupils on school trips without brokering a deal at Lloyds.
But the real pressure ministers are bending before doesn’t come from schools and hospitals but from the insurance industry which wants to stop claims for compensation for personal injuries at work reaching the courts. The strange thing is that it can’t produce a shred of evidence to support its allegation that American-style sharp practice is rife in Britain.
Check out the stories about grasping workers milking the system that take up so much space in the media and nine times out of 10 you will find they’re tosh. For instance, there was a fuss last month about Gavin Bassie, a fireman who was invalided out of the service after slipping on a dusty floor during a PE session.
The Merseyside Fire Authority had to pay £100,000 in compensation for his badly torn knee ligaments and a similar amount in costs. After the hearing, managers said the spectre of litigation was now so chilling it had forced them to ban officers from running in fitness classes.
It sounded an outrageous state of affairs until you learned that Bassie originally offered to settle for £40,000, not a huge sum for a man whose career was over. The insurers dragged out the case and the Court of Appeal punished them for it. All the judges asked the authority to do was to make sure the floors were swept. Bassie’s employers diverted attention from a humiliating defeat by shouting that political correctness had gone mad – yet again – and pretending that the law was making them end essential fitness training.
Government figures back up the case studies. They show that the number of workplace accident claims fell by 20 per cent between 2000 and 2004. Solicitors have all kinds of explanations for the collapse in litigation. Maybe employers are frightened about being sued and are taking care to ensure that industrial chemicals don’t slowly poison cleaners. (And if this were true, would it be so terrible?) Perhaps the picture isn’t rosy, and injured workers aren’t being compensated because the decline of the unions has left them with no one to turn to.
Yet the fact remains that the number of personal injury cases has plummeted. Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, knows it. A year ago, he was pooh-poohing the stories about thieving opportunists bringing British business to its knees.
His line changed in the autumn. The media had created the false ‘perception’ of a compensation culture, he said, and the government must act to combat this phantom menace.
This makes no sense at all. His lordship is in the ridiculous position of a man who assures his wife he’s not having an affair by promising to give up his mistress. He is determined to tackle a problem that doesn’t exist, and the sly way the insurance industry wants him to do it is going to put many injured people at a huge disadvantage.
The Association of British Insurers is calling for lawyers to be pushed out of 90 per cent of personal-injuries cases. Not their own lawyers, mind you – they will still be working to batter claims down – but the claimants’ solicitors. When they are gone, the insurers promise us a new system in the mould of the Child Support Agency with fixed tariffs for injuries.
The problem is that insurers cause most of the delays. They prolong cases in the hope people will give up and settle for less than they are entitled to. They also know that the more unresolved claims there are the higher the premium they can charge employers.
Tom Jones, from trade union law firm Thompsons, tells me he has never had a client the insurers haven’t tried to stitch up. He doesn’t blame them – it’s their duty to hang on to as much money as possible – but he is genuinely worried that honourable solicitors who have fought on behalf of men coughing up their guts because of asbestosis are going to be put out of business by a Labour government.
The battle of Wapping may be a 20th-century curiosity, but do not think for a moment that very highly paid men and women aren’t still striving to ensure that big boys always outmanoeuvre the little people.
Fascists are on the march again
It is impossible to write anything about Jews these days without being accused of being an anti-semite or a Zionist imperialist. I think I’ll take the coward’s course and look at what the victorious Islamists of Hamas think of Freemasons instead.
It was Masons, not Jews, who were the target of the original conspiracy theory of the far right. What would end up as fascism began as a reaction against the American and French revolutions. The counter-revolutionaries had to explain why people were proclaiming heretical ideas about the rights of man. They couldn’t admit that the French and Americans were embracing Enlightenment values of their own free will. There had to be a conspiracy. Europe’s Jews were in the ghetto in the 1790s, and it was preposterous to pretend that they were secret rulers of the world. So the far right decided that the conspirators were the Freemasons.
Hitler banned Freemasonry and General Franco executed thousands of Spanish Masons. You get an idea of how thoroughly the ideas of the European reaction have penetrated the Middle East when you look at the loathing of Masons on the Arab far Right.
Article 22 of Hamas’s covenant says of the Jews: ‘They were behind the French Revolution, the communist revolution and most of the revolutions we heard and hear about, here and there. With their money, they formed secret societies, such as Freemasons, Rotary Clubs, the Lions and others in different parts of the world for the purpose of sabotaging societies.’
I know Iraqis who had to run for their lives when Saddam Hussein accused them of being part of a Masonic plot. Last year, the Telegraph reported that Ahmad Thomson, a Muslim lawyer who advises the Prime Minister on community relations, had declared that a ‘sinister’ group of Jews and Freemasons was behind the invasion of Iraq.
Everything from the ravings of the Iranian leadership to the genocide in Darfur makes a little more sense if you grasp that parts of the poor world have taken up the insane theories of European fascism. And as Europeans ought to know by now, you need to be very worried when the men who spout them get into power.
No stone left unturned
I’m not being sarcastic when I say that one of the pleasures of being a journalist are the letters and emails I receive from readers. They make you reconsider prejudices and confront issues you had complacently ignored.
The exceptions are the ravings of conspiracy theorists. The sinister forces behind their plots vary – Freemasons and the Jews, reptilian aliens, the Bilderberg Group and the Illuminati – but on one point they are unanimous: the intelligence services are in league with their persecutors and are tapping their phones and opening their mail.
Dear God, but what have our chaps in Moscow done? Did they stop to think of the consequences of making stones in the park objects of suspicion? From now on, newsrooms will be getting letters in green ink from paranoiacs claiming that MI6 has turned their rockeries against them.