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Beware: don’t let regulation kill responsibility

What’s happening to this country, asks Scotbuzz editor Bill Jamieson.  Have we lost our heads?

It’s not so much the economy that worries me these days – though there’s more than enough to fret about here. It’s not the deficit and debt, or the decline of the high street or the talk of more taxation. It’s the growing evidence that across many areas of public life we seem to have lost all sense of personal responsibility.

Nothing is our fault. We’re not to blame. We ticked the boxes. We hit the targets.  We consulted with the regulations and we stuck by the rules. But an avalanche of scandals in recent weeks shows us how utterly inadequate and irrelevant all this can be when no-one takes personal responsibility. And if no-one takes responsibility, all the regulation in the world won’t mean a thing.

Take the unfolding scandal of horse meat found in processed food. It has turned into a baleful game of blame shifting and pass the parcel.

The government blames the supermarkets, the retailers blame the local authorities and the food suppliers, everybody blames the Food Standards Agency and the FSA in turn says don’t blame us, we did a report three years ago. Round and round we go until in due course an official enquiry brings “closure” b y sounding those two cavernous bells of official evasion: “new regulations must be drawn up” and “lessons must be learnt”.

Even worse is the NHS Mid Staffordshire scandal where as many as 1,200 patients died because of appalling failures of care. Chilling stories have come to light of scandalous patient neglect, over-crowding, unsanitary conditions – and a culture in which patients were verbally and physically abused.

Now we learn that former hospital chief and whistle blower Gary Walker was paid £500,000 to stay quiet over concerns he expressed that the ‘target culture’ at the United Lincolnshire Hospitals trust could cost lives. He warned Sir David Nicholson, then in charge of the regional health board that had overall responsibility for the trust, about the appalling state of care at United and that it could become the next Mid Staffordshire. He was driven out of his job a year later and paid out of public funds to keep his concerns secret.

As for Nicholson, far from being held to account, he was subsequently promoted to chief executive of the NHS and has so far resolutely refused to resign.

The same absence of personal responsibility has echoed time and again through the banking and bank bonus scandals which continue to exasperate and appal.

Some bonuses have been trimmed and one or two senior executives have quit. But the bonus culture continues as if the reputational damage to our banks has nothing to do with the directors and that it was all someone else’s fault. Running through all of these is a common thread: an abandonment of personal responsibility and a belief that somehow re-organisation, or new regulation or new “procedures” will bring a miracle cure.

In truth, recurrence is inevitable unless there is a marked change in individual behaviour and a recognition of the need for individuals to act responsibly.

Each of these scandals reveals how a system or organisation can conform to existing regulation, corporate governance and “compliance” – and still fail us all.

The idea that more government regulations, mission statements and codes of conduct will on their own make us safe is one of the great shibboleths of our age. As the current edition of Money Week argues, “more likely, they’ll have the opposite effect - by making you complacent”.

The horse meat scandal speaks to a clear degree of cheating. And no matter how tight the regulations, this level of corruption and cheating is more widespread than many think.

As Bengt Saelensminde of The Right Side argues, “For many, government regulation gives a false sense of security. And I’m talking about in many areas of our lives. Health, food and of course financial sectors are all highly regulated. But the public over-relies on regulation. We’re assured that regulation means we can trust what the labels tell us.

“But we only need to look at the City to see how things have changed. ‘My word is my bond’ made the City of London a prominent centre of finance. Now, trust has been outsourced to government regulators. The biggest problem with regulation is that it fosters complacency and erodes personal responsibility.

“It’s the same with the food industry. Because of regulations and controls, we’re led to believe that everything we read on a label must be so. How many people ever stop to think about what it takes for a business to produce a 99p lasagne? 

“Sometimes it’s useful to just stand back and reflect for a while. Forget about what’s on the label and certainly forget about what government says. Because to survive in this environment, you need to be able to think for yourself and read between the lines.”

Now consumers, of course, deserve disclosure, transparency and legal protection. But that doesn’t mean that the principle of caveat emptor is suspended, any more than that further layers of NHS bureaucracy make us safe, and more than  it means that bank directors or chief executives of important public bodies are too high up the chain of responsibility to have been responsible for  wrong-doing.

They are in a position of leadership. It is their responsibility. And if no-one takes responsibility, all the regulation in the world doesn’t mean a thing. What’s wrong with us, that this simple truth needs to be so plainly stated?