Chris Grayling is Lord Chancellor, Secretary of State for Justice, and MP for Epsom and Ewell.
The civil service has a wonderful habit of giving acronyms to everything. One morning, as I walked over to my desk in the Department of Work and Pensions a couple of years ago, my Private Secretary told me that she was arranging a meeting about “SARAH.” And so the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill gained its nickname.
SARAH has taken a while to bring to the fore, and she is now getting ready for her debut in the world. She began her life in a discussion between Oliver Letwin and myself during the Red Tape Challenge on health and safety when I was Employment Minister. She’s been a while in the making but, now that I am Justice Secretary, in the Department responsible for the legislation, and she is becoming a reality, I hope that she will finally slay much of the “elf and safety” and jobsworth culture that holds back so much of our society.
The idea is a very simple one.
All too often people who are doing the right thing in our society feel constrained by the fear that they are the ones who will end up facing a lawsuit for negligence.
Take the responsible employer who puts in place proper training for staff, who has sensible safety procedures, and tries to do the right thing. And then someone injures themselves doing something stupid or something that no reasonable person would ever have expected to be a risk. Common sense says that the law should not simply penalise the employer for what has gone wrong.
Or the member of our emergency services who feels that they can’t come to the rescue of someone in difficulty because of the fear that they will end up in trouble for breaching health and safety rules.
Or the person who holds back from sweeping the snow off the pavement outside their house because they are afraid that someone will then slip on the ice and sue them.
Of course courts do apply common sense, and very often throw out the most absurd cases. But that’s not before the individuals involved have been through incredible stresses and strains when they think they have just done the right thing.
We need a system that is rooted in common sense. Of course those who are negligent, or who act in a way that is foolish or reckless should be able to be punished by the law. But those who are trying to do the right thing should believe that the law will be on their side.
And that is precisely what SARAH will do. The best way to describe the proposed Bill is that it will serve as a signpost from Parliament to the Courts. It will set out very simple protections for those people who act in the interests of society, responsibly or heroically. It will say to the Courts that we want their decisions clearly to take into account whether people have been trying to do the right thing or not. And in particular we want the Bill to serve as a deterrent to jobsworths trying to punish people for doing so.
A handful of simple clauses, but what we hope will be a powerful message about how we want the law to be applied. Judicial discretion will of course remain, but it will be exercised in these cases against the background of a clear message from Parliament.
I want the Good Samaritan who comes to someone’s aid, the small business employer who is doing their best, the person trying to do something positive for their community, all to feel that the country and the system is on their side. Time and again we see stories of a jobsworth culture or a legalistic culture that seems to stop common sense in its tracks.
I hope SARAH will start to sort that out.