Jane Devine: Government needs to let us be

Picture: Getty
Picture: Getty
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THERE is an emphasis from government at the moment to encourage people to do things for themselves and to help their neighbours, family and friends.

In these times of austerity and cuts to public services, of course, it is in government’s interests for us to do things for ourselves. We are encouraged to be “self-starters”, “empowered community members” and “grass roots organisers”. Government want us to be “partners” to “co-produce” policy and to move away from being passive recipients of services.

But there is a danger in government trying to direct communities to operate in such ways. Creating a caring, sharing society that looks to the state as a last resort is not something that can be done through legislation, nor can it be encouraged from political arenas, because when the state starts to get involved, there are rules and regulations and “a right way” to do things, and that’s just not how communities operate.

Here are two examples. Having recently moved house, I realised I had too much furniture for the new place. So I contacted a well-known charity and arranged for them to come and pick up an Ikea bed frame. This was a free donation. They came, saw the bed was from Ikea and said they couldn’t take it.

Apparently, for the vulnerable people they take the furniture to, it is too tricky to put together. The other option, of course, would be that the charity themselves put the bed together, but they can’t, because of, wait for it, “insurance”. If they build it and then it collapses, causing the recipient to injure themselves, the charity could be sued. Apparently.

Then there’s the snow. A kind person with his own quad bike (and attached shovel) offered to clear the snow from the narrow paths and double parked streets in the village where I used to live. He was prevented from doing so because of “insurance”. The council asked him not to do it until he had been assessed as being competent and could be properly insured: a time-consuming and costly process.

So, on the one hand we’re asking people to be community spirited: don’t rely on the council to clear your roads, or provide you with furniture; and on the other we’re saying you can’t donate or assist unless you comply with complex regulations and, of course, are properly insured against being sued.

We’ve arrived in this situation because government got involved in the first place. State involvement has led to a climate of suspicion and fear of litigation which in turn paralyses people into inactivity.

Do we really want to get ourselves into a situation where our first reaction to seeing a person in need is not to help them, but to wonder first if we are allowed to?

The truth is that state-organised, controlled or directed activity is the antithesis of community enterprise and neighbourly endeavours. Government needs to back off and just let people get on, the way they always used to.