Any civilised society feels a collective wave of grief at the news of the death of a child. When that child has died from something as apparently innocuous as a piece of popcorn, our sense of tragedy is compounded. When we are in the presence of a family whose sense of loss we know to be overpowering, we can feel a correspondingly overwhelming urge to make things right again. To try to offer the bereaved the consolation that, while their own child may no longer be with them, at least no one else will suffer like they have.
This is the position that Dr Brian Farrell – the coroner who has called for the Irish Health and Safety Executive to ban popcorn from all pre-schools – found himself in. It is the position that lawmakers and politicians find themselves in, especially when the media or campaigners call for a response to such tragic events. “Something must be done,” the cry goes out. “This must never happen again.” It is a position that all too often leads to bad laws, wasted money and a breakdown of common sense.
We in the UK have seen this happen taken in the wake of a number of recent tragedies. We saw it after the deaths of four young people in a canoeing tragedy at Lyme Bay in 1993. The resulting licensing regime was so stringent that, according to lawyer Julian Fulbrook in his book Outdoor Activities, Negligence and the Law, it was only matched by those in four other industries: explosives, asbestos removal, off-shore oil production, and nuclear power. We saw it after Soham, when two girls were murdered by a school caretaker. At one point, the subsequent vetting system was going to require over nine million people to register on a database – a third of the working population. Both the adventure activities licensing system and the vetting bureaucracy are now set to be scaled back, in an admission that the official reactions at the time were excessive.
This is not to say that we should never introduce bans, or review procedures, or draw up new laws, or hold inquiries in the wake of tragic incidents. Coroners’ inquests, legal cases and reviews have in the past led to measures that have kept us safer. When deciding how best to respond, the key is to take a thoughtful, measured approach.
How do we do this? The answer is that we need to look beyond the emotions that arise in the aftermath of a single tragedy, and examine the wider picture. To think about how our proposals match up to the reality of the risks in children’s lives. To weigh up possible side-effects alongside a realistic assessment of impact. To think carefully about the costs, and to ask ourselves whether we are really making the best use of our time and money. In this instance, I doubt very much that the proposals being put forward by Dr Farrell would be considered to be proportionate or well thought-through.
To say all this is not to be callous, or heartless. In the rich nations, our children are arguably safer than at any time in history. Nonetheless our world is not entirely without danger. In our efforts to keep children reasonably safe, it is crucial that we learn the lessons of previous events that, while tragic, were also extremely rare. As I wrote in my book No Fear, “If we were always required to see the world through the eyes of the most unlucky, then we would always choose zero risk.”
Thanks to Alec Duncan at Childs Play Music for bringing this case to my attention.