The justice secretary, Chris Grayling, has proposed a new bill, the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill, to curb what he called "the elf and safety culture" that can discourage people from volunteering.
The bill, which Grayling has nicknamed "Sarah", would, he said, release people who are "doing the right thing in our society" from feeling constrained by the fear of facing a lawsuit for negligence. Writing a blog on the website ConservativeHome yesterday, he said: "We need a system that is rooted in common sense. Of course those who are negligent, or who act in a way that is foolish or reckless, should be able to be punished by the law. But those who are trying to do the right thing should believe that the law will be on their side.
"And that is precisely what Sarah will do. The best way to describe the proposed bill is that it will serve as a signpost from parliament to the courts. It will set out very simple protections for those people who act in the interests of society, responsibly or heroically. It will say to the courts that we want their decisions clearly to take into account whether people have been trying to do the right thing or not. And in particular we want the bill to serve as a deterrent to jobsworths trying to punish people for doing so."
He added that judicial discretion would remain if the bill was passed, but it would be exercised against "the background of a clear message from parliament". Examples of who the bill would protect include those doing something for the benefit of society such as volunteering, running an event or a trip, or clearing snow. They would also be covered if they were taking action in an emergency situation or in a generally responsible way and something went wrong.
The proposal has been welcomed by Justin Davis Smith, executive director for volunteering and development at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, who said that the organisation received a lot of calls from charities and individual volunteers about risk and liability.
"The chances of any action being taken against them are very low, but there is clearly a great concern about risk," he said. "As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Volunteers’ Week, anything that can be done to break down barriers to people getting involved in their communities is very welcome. We’re in touch with the Ministry of Justice and will feed in NCVO members’ experiences and concerns. We look forward to seeing the legislation in place and making the spirit of its message clear to all."