The other weekend, I was lucky to attend the Annual Branch Conference of the Royal Life Saving Society (RLSS). The RLSS is a charity, established in 1891 to combat a high drowning toll. The techniques advocated by the Society were soon adopted by many countries and today the RLSS represents the largest single organisation dedicated to the teaching of lifesaving and the prevention of drowning.
The Society is responsible for the standards, and most of the training, of every lifeguard in Britain – both those who ensure our safety in swimming pools and those who patrol Britain’s beaches. In every county, most cities, and many towns, clubs and classes are held each week, teaching young and old, the essential skills of water safety, water rescue, and resuscitation.
Lifesaving is growing in popularity at the moment as more and more young people, especially teenagers and university students, are taking part in the competitive aspect of the sport. Lifesaving competitions are dramatic, exciting, very tough, and incredibly moving events. Some are held indoors and some on beaches and other open-water venues, including lakes and rivers.
Have you ever been on a beach, and seen the crowd that turns to watch as the inshore RIB (rigid hulled inflatable boat) powers off to recover a young child on an inflatable that has drifted off to sea? Or perhaps it was the red and yellow clad beach lifeguard running through the waves to catch the little child that got immersed as they played ball in what they (and their parents) thought was waist high water and suddenly became adult shoulder height?
If so, you’ll know how dramatic and yet how fast these rescues have to be. Well, imagine half a dozen such lifeguards racing one another to recover a casualty from the bottom of the pool, negotiating hazards as they go. You’ll soon realise what an appeal the competitive translation of these ‘skills for life’ can have!
The RLSS is not all about drama and excitement. Its volunteers also teach almost every cricket coach in basic resuscitation and first aid, accredit every swimming teacher as competent to rescue a pupil during lessons, offer every new parent free training in the skills to ‘save a baby’s life’ and, recently, hosted many evening sessions for the parents of Babies and Toddlers, again teaching them life-saving skills through a scheme sponsored by Tesco.
The RLSS, like many charities in Britain, depends on volunteers. Without volunteers, most clubs would close, many classes would stop, few lifeguards would be qualified, no swimming teacher could teach, deaths during cricket matches would increase, and the 2600 babies who choked in Britain last year would have died. Volunteers are the life blood of the RLSS.
Volunteers, of course, have ‘rights’. While they may not be paid, they deserve to be motivated in other ways, and although they often claim less than they might, they shouldn’t be unduly out-of-pocket for their efforts. They deserve respect, they deserve to be protected from risks, they deserve appropriate and relevant training. Unless they have waived the right, then they deserve privacy, and a variety of freedoms. No-one would deny this. According to the law, these people are employees and, as such, their rights are protected by a raft of legislation.
Of course, over the years a small handful of cases reach the courts, where a volunteer from somewhere across the charity sector, feels that their rights have been compromised. Although it falls behind the number of cases that are heard for paid employees, these volunteers do, from time to time, feel that they have been sufficiently badly treated that they deserve compensation through the legal system.
We are not talking of a flood (thank goodness) but there is a steady flow of cases such that, at this year’s Conference, a seminar was offered for those of us with responsibility for developing volunteers, to help us become aware of the range of legislation that we have to manage our way around. Forty or so of us, sat for a couple of hours, exploring the dark recesses of the legislation, standards, protocols, ‘best practices’, guidelines, policies, and Acts, and learned a number of multi-lettered acronyms along the way. I gave up counting, but I think it’s safe to say that there are a good couple of dozen bits of legislation that MIGHT be used to seek retribution for the victims of these abuses.
Now, I don’t want you to think that I feel workers, real workers (both voluntary and paid), don’t deserve such protection. I most firmly do feel that they deserve protection. My grandfather imbued me with a very clear sense of the rights and wrongs of labour relations and I wouldn’t dream of denying them this hard earned support.
However, I know I am not the only person to suggest that some of these quasi-protections are ineffective, inefficient, retrospective, nannying by the State. I don’t blame ‘the State’ for anything though. I think that there are two collective groups responsible for the ludicrous state of affairs by which a school needs a qualified Mountain Leader to take a bunch of kids onto the playing field for a nature walk. The first, are the self-appointed, unqualified, often untrained and unmanaged, obsessive-compulsive personalities who disorder everyone else’s life by insisting on ritualised procedures because “health and safety requires it.” The second group are the equally dysfunctional band of lawyers who will gladly lead someone up the garden path of legal redress, on the trail of some distant lucre, when realistically, what is needed is for the leaders of an organisation to see that they have failed and to put something in place as an appropriate prevention of a future case.
We have reached the point where, whether in the voluntary or paid employment sectors, leaders are afraid to lead, trustees are afraid to trust, and directors are afraid to direct, simply because of some exaggerated sense of fear that they will be prosecuted and held liable for some petty infraction of an over-sensitive individual’s rights. [Wow! I’ll start reading the Daily Express soon!]
We now face a situation where employees are bombarded with the potential for compensation, where they can engage a solicitor on a ‘no-win, no-fees’ basis, and get ‘anonymous’ support for their legal case to reach ludicrous levels of appeal. Meanwhile, companies and charities need to retain the services of lawyers and insurers to protect them from exaggerated, nefarious claims from morally-outraged, fortune hunters.
So, where is this diatribe going? Well, I was delighted to hear today that the Employment Appeal Tribunal, in a landmark decision, awarded £25k costs against a claimant in a racial discrimination case. They found that she had fabricated a ‘deliberate and cynical lie’ in claiming that she had been named a ‘black bitch’ by her managers. They also found that her claim that she was unfairly underpaid by 50p per hour was not reasonable as she had accepted her level of remuneration for months with no qualms.
I hope that it was not simply a case of personal avarice or greed that led her to this point. I hope that she has the means to pay the £25k. I hope that those stirring lawyers and benefactors seeking to prove a legal point at the expense of the individuals and organisations involved will, at least, ‘bail her out’.
Above all though, I think/I hope, that we see in this case, a small sign that society has turned a corner. That these ridiculous nerds who hide behind the facade of loosely interpreted legislation, obstructing progress, cramping exploration, denying experience, and generally forging a path towards dullness and despondency, will see that their days are numbered and a new era of vitality and excitement lie ahead!