The risk free myth

The twentieth anniversary of the miners' strike has brought back to our television screens those vivid images of the miners confronting the long lines of police hidden behind helmets and riot shields. What has not so far been told is the risk taken during those stressful days by Colin Sampson, West Yorkshire's then Chief Constable. Sampson prided himself on the quality of the relationship between police and public on his patch and was deeply distressed by the clear deterioration of that relationship as the confrontation between miners and police become ever more intense.

He took two drastic operational decisions. First, he forbade the deployment in West Yorkshire of police from "the Met" in London, believing that they lacked both the skills and the sympathy to relate to the miners, and, second, he abandoned the use of helmets and shields, which he saw as provocative and depersonalising. He told me that when he informed his frontline officers of this decision they were horrified but that he insisted that the risk was worth taking. It worked, police and pickets were able to communicate, the atmosphere improved, and as a result in West Yorkshire we avoided the worst of the violence and the long term bitterness.

Significantly these were decisions within the Chief Constable's authority. I wonder whether the police authority, with its elected Councillors in a majority, would have felt as able to take the risk. Increasingly society wants safety and security and its elected representatives reflect this feeling, often keeping well below the parapet when decisions go badly wrong.

We have just had the report of the inquiry into the sad case of Victoria Climbié who was neglected, abused and murdered by her guardians, despite the contact the family had with the local social services. As with most such cases, it was noticeable that when the awful truth had to be faced, it was the Director of Social Services who took the brunt of the media's attention rather than his political employer - the councillor chairing the relevant committee.

Policy decisions on children at risk are agonising. There is a perfectly correct professional preference for maintaining children in their family home, as opposed to removing a child into care; all the research leans towards the benefits of this, and every local authority social services committee will reflect it, but it is rarely a clear cut objective decision. In every case it is a question of individual judgement, balancing the risks against the benefits, and the professionals implement as best they can, with all the resources and experience available, the committee's and the council's policy.

Sadly, there will be the occasional case that goes dreadfully wrong and, quite properly, there will be a public inquiry to establish the facts, to determine what went wrong, and to seek to improve future care. But, however appalling a case such as Victoria Climbié's, the answer is not to play safe and to retreat into taking all children at risk into care. It now seems alarmingly clear that the parents in a number of cases of allegedly widespread child abuse in particular communities were falsely accused, as it also appears were some of the children's home officers convicted in North Wales. A mature society has to face up to the consequences of human fallibility. Risk is part and parcel of a democratic society.

It arises, for instance, in relation to mental health patients in the community. In fact, it was such a case that first made me grapple with the politics of risk. In 1984 I was a member of the House of Commons Select Committee that was looking into issues relating to adult mental health and mental handicap. We were in Boston taking evidence from the head of the Massachusetts Institute of Mental Health. He told us that he had that day re-admitted a young teacher who had one or two dangerous episodes a year. He said that she was a brilliant teacher who, when stable, made a big contribution to her college, but that there was a latent risk. He then looked at the group of MPs and said, "it's your decision, you, the politicians. I can sedate her permanently if you want to avoid all risk, but if that's what you decide you will lose a remarkable communicator for many months of every year." He made a considerable impression on the committee.

There is one part of the United Kingdom where the politicians have faced up to the risks inherent in making progress. In Northern Ireland the price of the Good Friday agreement was the release of many prisoners convicted of often indescribable violence. These men are now back in the community. A few are actively working for peace. Some have fled and adopted new identities but on balance the risk was worth taking. There is a peace of sorts, precarious certainly but more difficult to overturn with every week that passes.

If the extreme circumstances of Northern Ireland can produce such open political risk taking, surely it can happen elsewhere and on more issues. The lack of public debate on risk is yet another example of today's lack of serious political activity and of the need for information and public discussion. It is high time the politicians took off their safety helmets and dropped their riot shields.

8 March 2004