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February 02, 2006

A Duty of Care: Labour and the Failure of Responsible Government

Posted by Jeremy Black

A prime responsibility of government is its duty of care towards its subjects. This government - along with many past governments - has failed in this duty of care, argues Prof. Jeremy Black. For the government has over-reacted - often in response to tabloid headlines - to relatively trivial risks, but has been lackadaisical in its assessment and public acknowledgement of much more serious risks. A prime example of the latter is its commitment to increase the deployment of British forces in Afghanistan without adequate public debate. The views expressed in this article are those of Prof. Jeremy Black, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

A common theme in the news recently has been that of a failure of care on the part of the government, one that provides a focus for a more generalised sense of mismanagement if not incompetence. This failure of care is ironic given this government's tendency to present itself as a caring administration, but it reflects, in part, the contrasts between sentiment, activity and achievement, and, in part, the difficulty in moving between care as a generalised goal and care as a more specific responsibility.

The most prominent failure is apparently that over educational safety - or, at least, the ability to rescue people from their collective anxieties. In part, this is a matter of the government's own doing or one that it has itself exacerbated. Periodic panics about public behaviour - with the misdeeds of individuals used to stigmatise whole groups - have been exploited to advance the cause of regulation, particularly by Labour, although not only by them. The ban on handguns is a good instance (for the record I did not own one, nor a shotgun).

Where the duty of care appears lacking is in a failure to ascertain and explain degrees of risk. This is at once an aspect of governmental incompetence, but also part of a more general inability to distinguish policy presentation from the periodic panics of the tabloid press. As the latter draws, indeed preys, on a wider unwillingness to assess risk, it is unhelpful for government to contribute to this problem.

A more specific instance of a failure in duty of care occurs with the deployment of British forces to Afghanistan. One of the prime responsibilities of government is that of military command, for it entails ordering people to risk their lives. The applicability or otherwise of the Iraq policy has been much discussed, but far less attention has been devoted to the Afghanistan commitment even though the risks are greater and the desired outcome even less certain. Parameters for judging success or failure have not been clearly established, and, judging from serving officers I have discussed the matter with, there is a sense of considerable foreboding about likely risks within at least part of the military combined with a considerable degree of anger toward the government for failing to limit commitments. The Conservatives have not been particularly conspicuous in raising the issue of national interest with reference to Afghanistan and, indeed, likely casualties; but this is as part of a more general failure to address the question of national interest.

More widely, the foreign policy of the Blair government in recent years has put strains on the relationship between government and the military, and on that between Parliament and Whitehall, and has sapped public faith in governmental assurances, specifically in regard to the use of intelligence material. It has also created strains in Anglo-American relations.

These strains are unwelcome and they underline the wider failure of due care on the part of this government. This failure was all too evident before the last two elections, which raises interesting questions about the effectiveness of opposition.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, forthcoming).


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The public debate that is lacking is not the government's fault. It is the duty of the electorate to discuss these things among themselves and then elect a government to carry out those wishes. The government does not have a 'duty of care' towards me. I employ the government and I have a duty to use my vote wisely. Reagan said (something very like) 'we are a people with a government, not the other way round'. Prof Black is one of those more modern people who believes a government owns us and should care for us like a parent. He seems to need the security of someone or something to blame for things he doesn't like.

Posted by: simon at February 3, 2006 09:59 AM
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