A new and aggressive business has emerged in recent years – the business of stoking compensation culture hysteria. We see evidence of it in the press and, more worryingly, in government policy-making fuelled by a hatred of lawyers. It reminds me of the ‘PC gone mad’ hysteria that was so lively in the 1990s and still rears its unlovely head now and again. Like most hysterias, neither of these – the PC gone mad and the compensation culture – is rooted in an evidence base. Why, then, do they have such hold on the public, and political, imagination?
One example is a report published last year by the Centre for Policy Studies, a thinktank that describes its aim as advocating ‘a distinctive case for smaller, less intrusive government, with greater freedom and responsibility for individuals, families, business and the voluntary sector’. The Social Cost of Litigation by Frank Furedi examines two areas, health care and education, and argues that the fear of litigation is affecting the way professionals practice and, as a consequence, producing damaging outcomes.
In particular, Furedi focuses on what he calls ‘demand for recompense for accidents’ – presumably accidents which, in the good old days, would have been chalked up to experience, with no one to blame. Rising compensation levels, he suggests, lead people to make financial claims against public bodies, and the fear of such claims makes professionals risk averse, which in turn ‘erodes professional autonomy, stifles innovation, leads to defensive practices in both hospitals and schools and encourages greater bureaucracy’.
Anecdote as evidence
The paper has so many holes ripe for picking that it’s difficult to choose which to write about. To call this report an ‘investigation’ into litigation in education and health care is farcical. First and foremost, it refers to new research – but what this ‘research’ amounts to is a series of anecdotes with unidentified individuals who seem to have have been selected on the basis of sharing the hysteria brief of the author.
This evidence includes, for example, an account by an unnamed headteacher of the damaging effect of a parent asking questions: every time the school gets a request for a copy of policies and risk assessments, it’s a week’s work to fulfil the request. The question crying out to be asked is – how can it take that much time, unless you don’t already have policies in place and have to write them from scratch?
It is a truism that one person’s bureaucracy is another’s transparency, or accountability – but possibly a truism unfamiliar to this headteacher.
I can do anecdote, too. I mediated a disability discrimination claim brought against a private nursery by parents of a toddler with autism. The boy had been excluded from his nursery for biting another child. The nursery had struggled to balance his needs with its duty of care to staff and other children. In six months there had only been this one recorded incident. The nursery staff claimed he had been biting them many times in that period. There were no records of this, nor any records of what steps had been taken to address his behaviour. A child who could not speak and who in frustration used biting as a means of communication was labeled bad and excluded. Only by starting a legal challenge could the parents get the head of the nursery to agree to meet in a mediation and discuss what impact this had on them as a family. What came out of it was a clear way forward in terms of improving the procedures for logging incidents and enhanced training for staff – and yes, financial redress, but in this case it was in the form of fundraising for an autism charity.
I agree wholeheartedly with Furedi’s statement that ‘…we need to challenge the expectation that professional best practice in the public sector should be measured by the absence of complaints or litigation’. But this is followed by the rather chilling statement: ‘A genuine return to respecting the principles of professional judgement would have a humanising effect on public services.’ In other words, let’s turn the clock back to when people respected doctors and teachers and didn’t ask questions or make demands. Doctor, after all, knows best.
There is more than cosy nostalgia at work here. It is essentially an attack on access to justice, an attack on rights – the extension, awareness and enforcement of rights. Furedi writes that ‘professional autonomy is being increasingly challenged by its confrontation with an agenda of consumer rights’. Nothing says more than his use of the word ‘agenda’, a term laden with disgust and dismissal.
The source of ‘evidence’ on the rising culture of naming, blaming and claiming in education are articles from the Telegraph and the Daily Mail on outrageous sums awarded for ridiculous injuries. For more robust evidence, see the speech given in March this year by the Master of the Rolls, Lord Dyson (“Compensation Culture: Fact or Fantasy?“). He shatters myths around court decisions that gave rise to hysteria in the popular press, and he concludes that there have been no developments in substantive law encouraging a compensation culture.
The Furedi report argues that claims ‘inexorably’ lead to a diminishing of the public services and decline in the quality of education. Tell that to the young people with special educational needs who have had to fight for inclusion in mainstream schools. Those with behavioural difficulties face a constant struggle against being labeled bad. A survey conducted by the National Autistic Society (NAS) found that some 21% of children with autism are excluded, permanently or otherwise, from both mainstream and special schools, the most common reason given being that the school was unable to cope with the child.
Others find that without legal challenges, schools and local authorities won’t make the physical changes needed so that children with mobility impairments or cerebral palsy can attend mainstream schools. Let’s follow Furedi’s lead and use anecdote here – but from a named individual who went public with his struggle. In April 2010 Jonathan Bartley, a parent of a child with cerebral palsy, confronted David Cameron about his claim that there has been a ‘bias towards inclusion’:
‘We personally had to battle for two years to get our son into our local school, which his two sisters attend. It cost us thousands of pounds to go to a tribunal, which we then won. The local authority then said they would appeal against the decision to the high court. At that point, the secretary of state intervened, and paid for some modifications to the school. Samuel now attends the school.’
Instead of discouraging challenges, we need instead to encourage smarter complaining and better handling of complaints. Late settlements by local authorities is a constant problem with the SEN and disability tribunal. Whether it’s a tactic or it merely reflects departments under pressure, such settlements have a disproportionate cost for both parents and local authorities. The latter is, as Furedi would be the first to point out, public money being misused.
‘This is the perverse outcome of the modern fantasy of redress through litigation: every time we bring a claim against our health or education services, we are in effect suing ourselves. And every time we are encouraged to ‘name, blame and claim’ as an act of responsible citizenship, to stop other people sharing our bad experiences, we end up contributing to the worsening of these very services.
Where’s the evidence for that? This confused argument – that public services suffer when public bodies pay financial redress – has no foundation. The former Parliamentary Ombudsman Ann Abraham was straightforward in her condemnation of such an outdated approach: ‘Much work still remains to be done on the issue of financial redress. I’m still bewildered by the different attitudes to redress across the public sector: from local government where it appears to be understood and accepted; to central government where it is accepted – but somewhat grudgingly much of the time; to the NHS where it feels like pulling teeth… .’
Complaints aren’t the enemy
An interview with Furedi allowed him to elaborate on his views:
“In conversation, Furedi is steadfast: ‘There shouldn’t be compensation claims for financial reward in the public sector. It is a completely irrational process because who pays for it? It is not the nurse or the teacher or the doctor who is found liable. No, it’s the taxpayer, the public purse – that is what pays for it. It leads to an irrational use of resources. People talk about the postcode lottery. This is even worse because resources are distributed according to whether you have a good lawyer or a bad one.’ “
What better argument for encouraging a culture where complaints are welcomed and efforts are made not just to resolve the individual grievance (which, yes, sometimes requires financial redress) but also to learn from complaints and improve? One way to do this, and to save public money in the bargain, is to encourage earlier use of mediation – independent, rights-based mediation to help resolve the complaint and identify what needs to change.
Where a complaint has no merit, mediation offers a cost-effective way to identify what has led to it – a misguided sense of justice, an unreasonable demand for cash, or – far more likely, in my experience – a breakdown of trust and communication. Trust is rightly cited by Furedi as a key issue – but trust isn’t earned by virtue of a degree certificate on display in the headteacher’s office.
The report suggests that it’s misguided to think that complaints foster greater accountability. Why? It argues that the institutionalisation of a culture of complaint has caused a rise in complaints. How do we know that complaints aren’t on the rise because of a decline in services or, more optimistically, a sign of progress and greater awareness? Show me the evidence.
 Barnard et al, Inclusion and autism: Is it working? (NAS, 2000).
 From “The role of the independent scrutineer: ensuring effective accountability”, Ann Abraham’s Annual Lecture to the Centre for Public Scrutiny, Feb 2005.
One in five of us has a disability.
This might not come as a surprise in light of the very successful Paralympic games, which put disability at centre stage. But will this visibility last? Two years ago, as planning for the Games was in full swing, the UK government issued a Legacy Promise for Disabled People, setting out its commitment to bringing a shift in the way society views disability and to doing away with the obstacles that prevent people with disabilities from being fully included in all parts of society.
One aspect of this Legacy Promise is a commitment to improve accessibility of public transport. Gaps between the high-level commitment and the reality on the ground is an issue covered elsewhere in the article “Mind the Gap: What we’ve learned from the Paralympics” written with my colleague David Hilton.
Another aim of this Legacy Promise is to promote to business the benefits of attracting customers with disabilities. As with the ‘Pink pound’ campaign, making a business case for better access to goods and services for disabled people is considered to be more effective than threats and sanctions for breaching equalities legislation. Research conducted in 2010 found that one of the main barriers for small businesses was not knowing how to boost sales by attracting disabled customers.
So I welcome a new booklet produced for small businesses called Growing Your Customer Base to Include Disabled People. Published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, together with the Employer’s Fourm on Disability and the Office for Disability Issues (ODI), the booklet [http://odi.dwp.gov.uk/docs/idp/Growing-your-customer-base-to-include-disabled-people.pdf] provides clear and useful guidance on attracting and retaining customers by improving access to services.
It’s mostly parenthood and apple pie stuff – uncontroversial, unthreatening, even comforting in its common-sense approach. The problem is businesses need to know that even when it isn’t easy to improve access, it’s still the law. And that even with the best intentions, there will always disagreements over what is meant by reasonable adjustments and how far businesses need to go to ensure their services are accessible.
It’s unfortunate that at the same time we’re looking to see evidence of a legacy from the Games, we’ve seen a loss of the specialised service that helped businesses and disabled people resolve such disagreements. The Disability Conciliation Service was set up in 2002 by the Disability Rights Commission, and in the merging of the equalities commissions it transformed into the Equalities Mediation Service. Over the past ten years it has handled hundreds of discrimination cases and helped businesses and their customers to achieve long-lasting changes to the benefit of both. The government stripped the Equality and Human Rights Commission of its power to fund the service and refer cases to it. This sent a strong and unwelcome message – that it isn’t society’s responsibility to promote inclusion, and that disputes over accessibility are no different from disputes over building repairs or neighbour problems.
But these are different, and disputes over access aren’t a problem just for the one in five of us with a disability. We are all disadvantaged if we fail to live up to the promise of inclusion. It isn’t just good business, it’s our business.
I’m a mediator, but I’m not neutral.
That’s a strange thing for a mediator to say. Let me explain. When I mediate a case, I promise to be impartial and fair and not to take sides or prejudge the outcome. But I won’t promise that I will be neutral. Neutral sounds to me as if I have no values and no views – as if I’m a statue or made of wood. I think most people would rather have a mediator who is human.
And in some of the mediations I do, I have a duty to remind parties of their rights and responsibilities set out in legislation or codes of practice. When I mediate an alleged claim of discrimination, I don’t take a view on who is right and who is wrong, but I am avowedly anti-discrimination – definitely not a neutral stance. Like most of the parties I work with, I am keen to promote greater equality in our society.
I also think most people would rather have a mediator who believes that mediation is just one way to resolve disputes. It’s not right for every situation, and it should never be compulsory. I am strongly opposed to any government initiative that seeks to drive people into mediation aganst their will. It’s a useful tool, and it should be affordable and accessible, and people should have the information they need about it – but they should always have a choice.
I consider mediation to be an important part of access to justice, but just one part of it, and I am passionate about helping individuals to make informed decisions about issues that affect their everyday life and our wider society.