Last week in my role as local Councillor I knocked on a door. I was conducting my Street Surgery which sees myself and a team of four knock on about a hundred doors each week to see how we, as Lib Dem Councillors, can help. Better than a draughty community-centre any day!
Anyway, at one door I spoke to a young-ish woman who told me very clearly that she plans to set up a self-help group for young people with mental health issues and COULD I HELP? Delighted I said of course, I had a locality budget and could help with room hires, leaflets and general promotion. Great she said, that's all that would be needed as she'd do it all voluntarily.
Fantastic, I thought, as I walked away with her contact details.
But when I got home I realised I had spoken too soon. Because what I hadn't considered was the bureaucratic bindweed we, as a society, now choose to wrap around ourselves to protect ourselves against the risk of this woman being either a thief or an exploiter.
First of all, I can't give an individual money - not even a few quid, not even if I act personally as guarantor if it all goes wrong. She has to open a bank account (tried to do this recently??) for the group and preferably register the organisation. Secondly, therefore, I have to find an intermediary organisation. They, in turn, need to insure the activity so they are not liable and the woman herself would need to be trained in their procedures and vetted using a CRB check.
If this woman is still up for this after all this palaver I will be surprised. I hope she is - but will understand if she isn't. When I started Speaking Up, you just didn't need any of this stuff to just do things. I could put together groups without any of this stuff in place.
It seems that in the 15 years since I set up Speaking Up we have moved from being country that said "You know what - we trust and admire people like you enough to give you the benefit of the doubt - at least at first when you're trying to get going" to "We assume that anyone is capable of the vilest crimes and therefore we will treat everyone at every stage as though this is possible - and live with the risks that this approach itself creates".
And that risk is that "social capital" - the vital elixir of trust, participation, civic goodwill and contribution is extinguished at source. Where the effort to close down risk also closes down possibility.
Now, is that, on balance, a good thing, or a bad thing? I know where I stand.