Expert View: We can't judge risk through emotion and politics

The 'precautionary principle' can override science and common sense
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In May 2005, Tony Blair gave a speech on risk in a seminar at the Institute for Public Policy Research. While his words received little attention at the time, a critical letter from the Financial Services Authority to No 10 brought a small storm. And elsewhere, in the inner circles of government, the speech resounded - so much so that a multitude of inquiries and risk papers are now being launched and drafted across Whitehall, one of them led by the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs.

Many of us pay little attention to what the Lords are up to but that would be a mistake this time, as the committee is chaired by Lord Wakeham (once on the board of Enron), and among the participating members are two former chancellors (Lord Lamont and Lord Lawson). The aim of the inquiry is to shed light on the Government's policy for the management of risk.

The discussions to date have been wide-ranging, oscillating between how human life is valued, the role of the media and how the European Commission affects UK policymaking on risk.

A key issue, and one they still appear to be wrestling with, is the so-called "precautionary principle" and whether this tool should be used to deal with risk issues that are unknown or poorly understood.

The precautionary principle is difficult to define; there have been 19 formulations of it. But the one quoted the most is the 1992 Rio Declaration, which says: "Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation."

On the face of it, most of us would support this principle. We would rather be safe than sorry and, yes, most of us would be happy to have certain chemical substances banned if these could have profound health effects on our children.

The problem is, of course, that in many cases the principle becomes a law unto itself, and emotion and politics override science and common sense.

One misuse of the precautionary principle, for example, was the European Commission's decision to ban the importation of ground nuts on the basis that these contained the carcinogen aflatoxin and could therefore cause liver cancer.

What the European Commission failed to mention, unfortunately, was the existence of scientific studies showing that eating ground nuts increased the rate of liver cancer by one death per 100 million people.

Why is all this of interest to our committee of peers? Let's use an example. The statistics are unclear, but up to 50 per cent of all food and environmental regulations in the UK are in some shape or form based on a European directive or regulation, and the costs of some of these rules for the British economy can be high.

Yet historically, senior UK policymakers have been notably absent from the discussions in Brussels, where regulations are planned and discussed.

One could at least hope that the members of the House of Lords committee come up with a number of sensible recommendations. They may wish to consider the following three.

First, there should be an increased emphasis on regulations being risk- and science-based.

Second, if we are using the precautionary principle as some form of regulatory framework then, in agreement with the European Commission's own so-called "Communication" on the subject, it needs to have an underlying scientific rationale or be an element of a risk assessment, rather than a law unto itself.

Third, there should be some form of requirement that senior civil servants involved with regulatory issues spend time in Brussels, helping their colleagues in the European Commission on the crafting of draft directives.

The deadline for calls for evidence is tomorrow, so put your bowl of cereal to one side and get out your laptop.

Prof Ragnar Lofstedt is director of King's Centre for Risk Management, King's College London