Diary: David Cameron, health and safety, and that old chestnut

  • @andymcsmith

"Talk of health and safety can too often sound farcical or marginal. People think of children being given goggles to play conkers," David Cameron said yesterday, explaining that 2012 will be the year when he wages "war on the excessive health and safety culture".

This tale of goggles and conkers is an old one – seven years and three months old, to be precise. It came into being after an accident in South Tyneside in September 2004, when a boy fell from a tree while picking conkers. To prevent it happening again, the council had the branches lopped off six horse chestnut trees, setting off an outcry that the authority was spoiling a much-loved children's sport.

Into the story stepped a publicity-conscious headmaster named Shaun Halfpenny, now retired, who was then in charge of Cummersdale Primary School, in Carlisle. He told the Carlisle News and Star that he had bought two pairs of plastic goggles and was going to make children in his care wear them when playing conkers. "These days you cannot be too careful, especially when health and safety inspectors are watching," he said.

From the original story, it is quite clear that no one told Mr Halfpenny he had to provide the goggles; he was simply irritated by a fussy memo that went out, presumably because of the accident in South Tyneside, and wanted to make a point.

But the story was immediately picked up by the national press, and improved with the retelling. The Daily Express ran it on 4 October 2004, under the heading "Now children have to wear goggles to play with conkers".

In September 2007, the Health and Safety Executive posted a message on its website refuting what it described as "a truly classic myth", and pointing out that "if kids deliberately hit each other over the head with conkers, that's a discipline issue, not health and safety". The message is still on the website, and easily accessed, should anyone at 10 Downing Street be minded to check.

If Mr Cameron proposes to go to war armed with this sort of dodgy information, he is going to look sillier than Don Quixote aiming his lance at a windmill.

MP who deserves a monument

Dannie Abse, an 88-year-old Welsh poet created CBE in the New Year Honours List, is wondering why there is no monument to his older brother.

Leo Abse, who died in 2008 at the age of 91, was never cabinet minister material. He was a maverick, an eccentric even, who dressed flamboyantly and continued to cause outrage long after he had passed normal retirement age. But he was also one of the great reformers of the 20th century. In 1967, he showed extraordinary courage by successfully introducing the Bill that decriminalised homosexuality in Britain.

Dannie Abse said: "I don't know why Leo was never honoured, but there is a group of people like the Labour MP Paul Murphy and journalist Geoffrey Goodman who want some kind of monument put up to him. I think that would be very wonderful."

Ding-dong Deng: Wendi speaks out

Wendi Deng, the only member of the Murdoch clan whose reputation gained from the hacking saga, has spoken for the first time about that celebrated right-handed slap she delivered to the man who attacked her husband, Rupert, with a foam pie as he gave evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport committee last summer. "Wasn't that crazy?" Deng tells the February issue of Easy Living magazine. "It all happened so fast. I don't know what I... It was crazy, but I'm glad it's over.

"All the Chinese ministers were very proud of me, and wanted me to be a Chinese heroine. I keep getting job offers as a bodyguard! I want to stay low-key. I get so many requests for interviews to talk about what happened. I just let it pass," added Deng.

Winner should have kept his calm

The Labour MP Paul Flynn, who is researching the life of his former colleague David Taylor, tells a story that illustrates the wit and charm of Michael Winner. Winner, to his credit, helps to fund and run a charity that erects monuments for police officers killed on duty. Taylor, who was MP for North-West Leicestershire until his death two years ago, made a point of appearing at the unveiling of a monument at a service station on the M1, in his constituency, for two officers killed when their patrol car was hit by a drunk driver during a police chase.

Winner apparently did not feel he was properly informed about the ceremony and, according to Flynn: "He became abusive to David's staff. He then sent a fax to David, saying David 'had behaved with the manners of the great pig'."

As David Cameron might put it, calm down, dear!