Lofty Chapter 2 – You can never find evidence when you need it

In Chapter 2 of the Loftstedt report (see previous blogs), Lofty sets out his guiding principles for the review. Since he’s a professor and, unlike politicians, has a reputation to think of, he’s unashamedly abandoned to an evidence-based approach. Not all decisions need to be justified by verifiable evidence – what I decide to have for lunch is based more on whim (well, actually, on what happens to be in the cupboard). Neither is evidence the whole of decision making. Some judgement, consideration of socio-economic factors as well as any number of reasonable assumptions will also be needed.

Note that in science (or even social science) open mindedness is also important. Evidence is gathered to aid decision making rather than being gathered to support a decision that has already been made. This does not preclude the adoption of hypotheses (tentative ideas of the way things appear) – but the evidence is gathered in order to illuminate (refute or confirm). This can be a stranger to politics where sweeping statements are frequently made as if they are fact. Taxation inevitably follows.

Loftstedt duly gathered written and verbal evidence from stakeholders (this has no connection with vampires or carnivores). This is always a tricky one. You are more likely to get responses from people who have strong feelings (in this case, usually against legislation) so there is always the possibility of bias and therefore an incorrect picture of what things are really like. That said, even the biased can have a point to make. Lofty was careful to get a balanced view – at least access a wide range of stakeholder types. Importantly, he also made a handful of site visits to ‘witness the impact of regulation first hand’ and made sure that his examples were real, rather than anecdotal.

Loftstedt also reinforces his ‘guiding principle’ that regulation should be risk based (i.e. proportionate to the risk) rather than hazard based. In the modern post-Robens regulatory world, this may seem strange to have to say this – much modern regulation is risk based. But, there has been debate, especially where risk cannot be well characterised or quantified, leading to a precautionary approach based more on the intrinsic hazard. Even safety people can focus obsessively on hazards instead of risks, even when they are well characterised. In reality the risk is what counts and is what makes the hazard understandable. The identification of hazards is just a stepping stone to assessment of the risk. Indeed, in describing hazards we often also describe the risk (or at least the potential consequences) to make its relevance more obvious.

An important aspect here is holistic risk – one of the eight principles in the schedule to the management of health and safety at work regs. In focussing on a specific hazard, we can end up skewing our efforts and actions around it and ignoring the bigger picture. This again, is the law of unintended consequences. Loftstedt points out there is often a trade off here – looking at the bigger picture can sometimes afford the opportunity to lower the overall risk. Looking at risks in isolation, implementing greater measures to control a specific risk without any consideration for its wider effects, may end up driving up the overall risk. Loftstedt uses the example of actions taken after a fatal train crash whereby a seemingly reasonable temporary measure of train speed restrictions caused delays which drove commuters to their cars instead (which carries a higher risk of fatal accident).

In other words, whilst Loftstedt does not exactly say it this way, this is the critical point that risks interact. You cannot just look at each risk (or even hazard) in isolation – you modify other related risks in treating it. This is especially true when it comes to human behaviour, when sometimes the choices we make are subject to many subtle factors.

I note as well that Loftstedt is not opposed to burdens on business per se. Rather he is opposed to burdens that have little or no health and safety benefit, in terms of proportionately reducing risk. Business needs regulation but it has to count – benefiting society. I have decided that I quite like that viewpoint.