Friday, June 17, 2005

Warning - this article may contain nuts

Despite the incessant rain, apparently the summer has begun in the UK and Ireland. People are flocking to the stores to rekindle their passion for the braai, or barbecue, as it is known in northern climes. Recently, I decided to join them and bought a new braai. It came wrapped in plastic with a cardboard picture on the front of the self-same braai garnished with some sizzling steaks. Below the picture was a range of warnings. The first stated that the plastic wrapping should be disposed of carefully, as it may be dangerous to children: fair enough. But underneath, a further message read: “Warning – food not included”. How many people have actually returned the braai to the shop complaining the steaks on the picture were absent from the package?

This is an excellent, albeit idiotic, demonstration of what is known as the compensation culture. If a warning or disclaimer is not present on a product then all sorts of legal avenues for compensation are left wide open. Many fear that a US-style litigation system, where you can sue for just about anything, is developing in Europe.

But this is a complicated issue. The British government’s Better Regulation Task Force feels that the notion of a compensation culture in the UK is a myth. The UK is nowhere close to the US, and accident claims for injuries, for example, are dropping rather than increasing. Some companies have an interest in increasing the hype around the so-called compensation culture, as it can potentially discourage claims. Some may even try to use it as an excuse to weasel out of paying genuine claims. Ambulance-chasing lawyers operating on a “no win, no fee” basis and attracting clients through adverts offering easy money can be equally dubious.

So, like most things, a balance is needed. We need to accept that the idea of suing for minor mishaps can reach the level of the absurd if not regulated. Tony Blair, in a recent speech in which he attacked the compensation culture, cited the example of a local council removing its hanging flower baskets from a street because of fears they could fall on someone’s head.

At the same time, compensation cannot be dismissed as a dirty issue. In South Africa, Paula Howell, of Pretoria’s Legal Resources Centre, has commented in the Business Report Online that possibly tens of thousands of compensation claims from the Workmen’s Compensation Fund cannot be final-ised because employers have not completed the correct forms. Avoiding responsibility in this way is as problematic as making a spurious compensation claim. The law can force people to take responsibility for protecting workers and take to task those who make overstated compensation claims. But the law is a blunt instrument. At the end of the day, the issue boils down to personal responsibility and fairness. Putting workers or consumers in a situation where they may be in danger implies accountability from those placing them at risk. Equally, expecting companies to fork out if you do something stupid or exaggerate injury is hardly reasonable. Warnings on packaging can be useful; take, for example, health warnings on cigarette packs. A few more warnings in South Africa may not go amiss, such as cautioning people of the dangers of carrying workers on the back of open vehicles or overcrowding taxis. But let’s not go overboard. As I fired up my new braai this weekend, opened a beer and a bag of peanuts, then came the clincher: “Warning – this product may contain nuts!”

Copyright Brandon Hamber, June 2005. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 10 June 2005.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Political Apologies and Reparations Website

A new website has been launched focusing on political apologies, which those responsible for the site at Wilfrid Laurier University, define broadly as apologies by a political or social entity (governments, religious organizations, or other bodies) for events that have harmed identifiable groups. To visit this interesting site click here.

Political Apologies and Reparations Website

A new website has been launched focusing on political apologies, which those responsible for the site at Wilfrid Laurier University, define broadly as apologies by a political or social entity (governments, religious organizations, or other bodies) for events that have harmed identifiable groups. To visit this interesting site click here.

Thursday, June 2, 2005

Phoney Tony gets his knuckles rapped

Australian golfer Greg Norman is quoted as saying, “It’s not the victories that count to me. It’s the quality of how you deliver your losses and the quality of how you deliver your victories”. For Tony Blair, whose Labour Party won the May 2005 election in the UK, the quality of the victory was dismal. Granted, Blair won a historic third term and is the only UK prime minister since the war, with Margaret Thatcher, to have triumphed in three successive general elections. But his majority of 161 seats was cut dramatically to 67; less than half of what it was in the landslide victories of 1997 and 2001. More alarming for Blair is that his party now has the lowest share of the vote for a UK ruling party in modern times. Due to the “first past the post” electoral system, Labour holds 55% of the seats in parliament. However, it has only 35% of the share of the vote, with the Conservatives holding 32% and the Liberal Democrats 22%. So, although Blair won the election, the electorate has rapped his knuckles. Blair acknowledges that Iraq was ‘deeply divisive’, and commentators put it and the lack of trust in Blair generally at the core of the slump in the Labour vote. A recent Populus poll found that close to half of the public who claim to have once trusted Blair feel this has now been lost. It is no wonder that taunting names such as B-Liar and Phoney Tony have stuck in the public consciousness.

But will Blair go? No one really knows. There are strong calls for him to hand over to Gordon Brown, his most likely successor, sooner rather than later. Blair insists he will see out his term of office and is already trying to rush legislation through on controversial issues ranging from immigration control to identity cards. Blair is obviously a fighter, but he is also driven by concerns about his own legacy. This is partly what drove him into his fated relationship with George W Bush. I think he rather fancied the idea of waging a Churchillian-style global war and writing his name indelibly into the history books. His ambitions got the better of him.

For Africa, however, there may be a silver lining in Blair’s gradual demise. If I am correct and Blair worries not only about his current reputation but how history will write about him, he will have to do something spectacular before he leaves office to set the record straight. In that regard, he will have his eye keenly on his forthcoming role as chair of the G8. In a perverse way, coupled with growing pressure from campaigns such as Make Poverty History, perhaps he will choose the current context to make a move on African debt relief. Not only will this balance his blunders in Iraq and increase his international standing, at least in his mind, he will also steal the thunder from Brown, who has championed the Africa debt issue. So, as Blair scrambles to save his tarnished image, now is the time for antidebt campaigners to turn up the heat. Who knows, for some of the wrong reasons (and hopefully some right ones too), maybe Blair is ready to agree to sweeping debt relief following the G8 Summit in July. Like Blair’s election, the quality of such a victory may not be entirely satisfying for antidebt campaigners, but this will be of little concern if its impact makes a real difference in Africa.

Copyright Brandon Hamber, May 2005. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 27 May 2005.