David Cameron, the leader of England’s Conservative Party, has spoken about the health and safety culture that he says is restricting personal and business options in England.
In the full speech, Cameron clearly outlines an ideological agenda but it is a mistake to see this as an attack on the OHS regulator. Below is an edited summary of the most relevant bits of his speech:
“In almost every area, the Conservative Party aims to remove the obstacles that prevent people from making their own decisions.
That’s why we plan a radical redistribution of power, giving control over education, housing and policing to local people.
…there is a growing sense that too many areas of our life are governed by petty rules, regulations and tick box bureaucracy that flies in the face of common sense, undermines discretion and prevents us from getting on with our lives.
We see it in our police force,… our prisons, …our schools, [and] our hospitals
[the the over-the-top health and safety culture] is… infuriating. It … stifles judgement and discretion……is a straitjacket on personal initiative and responsibility……and is a big barrier to the creation of the big society.
…something has gone seriously wrong with the spirit of health and safety in the past decade.
…it is clear that what began as a noble intention to protect people from harm has mutated into a stultifying blanket of bureaucracy, suspicion and fear that has saturated our country…
How has this over-the-top health and safety culture become embedded in our national way of life? [emphasis added]
- [European] bureaucratic rules
- The Labour Government
But the biggest cause of this excessive health and safety culture is the way these rules have been interpreted and used.
What is more the problem is the perception we have allowed to develop that in Britain today, behind every accident there is someone who is personally culpable……someone who must pay.
[It is encouraged by]
- adverts on television
- the commercialising of lawyers’ incentives to generate litigation
- the rising premiums and concerns of the insurance industry.
- high-profile claims and pay-outs.
This has all helped to create a legal hypersensitivity to risk, accident and injury. And this has had a direct knock-on effect on the health and safety culture.
So it is not just the regulations from Brussels, or even the distrustful, interfering government that has created this culture, or the insurance industry, ……it is that everyone’s so worried about being sued that they invent lots of their own rules on top of the regulations that already exist.
… perhaps the most damaging consequences of this excessive health and safety culture have occurred in our society.
… the health and safety culture actively undermines responsibility.
First, establish clear and specific principles about when health and safety legislation is appropriate, and when it is not, so we can evaluate whether existing or future legislation is necessary.
Second, we will propose practical changes in the law to both help bring an end to the culture of excessive litigation while at the same time giving legal safeguards to those who need them most.
HEALTH AND SAFETY CHANGES
there are three particular scenarios where this is the case.
The first is when consumers have a lack of information, or are unable to understand technical information, about a product or a service they are purchasing.
The second situation in which official action on health and safety is appropriate is where there is an imbalance of power.
The third situation in which there is a case for health and safety oversight is when someone might have a clear motive – normally profit – to put someone else in danger.
That’s because keeping people safe is often more expensive than exposing them to risk.
I have asked Lord Young to lead an extensive review on this subject for the Conservative Party. He has a track record of deregulation and cutting bureaucracy. He also has experience in the legal profession and will judge these issues with the care and attention they deserve. And he will look at everything from the working of the Health and Safety Executive, to the nature of our health and safety laws, litigation and the insurance industry.
There are some specific questions I have asked David Young to investigate urgently.
The first question is: how can we best protect what are effectively ‘Good Samaritans’?
In Australia, concern about the effect of increasing payouts for medical negligence led to a full review of civil liability. Its final report concluded that when an individual is acting in good faith – as a Good Samaritan – and takes reasonable actions to help someone, then they should not be found negligent.
Second, can we help alleviate some of health and safety oversight that currently burdens small, local and voluntary organisations?
Third, do we need a Civil Liability Act?
I know the over-the-top health and safety culture that has grown in our country in recent years provokes a lot of understandable anger. But anger itself is not solution. Instead we need a forensic examination of what has gone wrong and the steps we need to take to put it right.”
Cameron’s speech has some valid points even if the ideological path that he has followed to get here may be unpalatable.
What separates this from a Jeremy Clarkson rant is that he is not targeting any one particular bureaucracy or social group. He acknowledges that there are a range of social factors that have, over time, created what he believes is an “over-the-top health and safety culture”. Cameron may have chosen extremes to illustrate his points but most OHS professionals would not be averse to a review of OHS laws particularly if such a review included other social structures that make their lives difficult but over which they have no influence.
Along the way, the chance for the political boot up the jaxy of the regulators and the unions, and those dreadful Europeans, will be irresistable for the Conservatives, but if planned for occupational health and safety may salvage some useful tools.
It must be remembered that the Conservatives are not in power in England but even from here in Australia, the Prime Minister Gordon Brown looks like a dead man walking.
Some commentators have already responded to the “outrageous” suggestions in Cameron’s speech. More union response similar to this from Grahame Smith, General Secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, can be expected.
“The families of the tens of thousands of workers who have been killed and maimed at work will find these comments deeply offensive. David Cameron has sent a chilling message to the working people in the UK that any future Conservative Government will attack the health and safety laws that trade unions have spent decades fighting for.
“This is not about draconian legislation. This is about the failure, or unwillingness, of employers, community groups and others to grasp the very basics of our health and safety system.
“We have witnessed what poor regulation has done for our finance sector and the economy. We do not want to see this attack on health and safety legislation having a similar catastrophic effect on human lives. Our economy will recover. Individuals killed at work and their families never recover from the consequence of poor health and safety regulation.
“We would say to David Cameron if you want to learn about the true consequences of health and safety failures read Hazards Magazine and come to Scotland and meet families who have lost loved ones due to health and safety failures by employers. Don’t subscribe to the trivial nonsense which is churned out by sections of the media.”
Smith is correct to remind Cameron to not rely on the media from which to develop policies, particularly the English print media. Smith comparison of OHS legislation to financial market regulation is also valid. Legislation should never be used as a blanket control mechanism but requires targeting.
Another union, Prospect, had this to say
On behalf of 1,650 HSE inspectors, scientists and other specialists, Prospect negotiator Mike Macdonald said: “There is a world of difference between petty bureaucracy enacted under the label of health and safety and HSE regulation designed to prevent deaths in the workplace.
“Measures aimed at preventing death and injury at work run the risk of being overshadowed by inappropriate obsessions by local authorities with minor issues that are often an excuse for withdrawing services on the grounds of cost. Given the importance of health and safety to the British economy and UK businesses we would welcome any changes that boost workers’ safety as well as business competitiveness.
“But confusing the two continues to perpetuate a negative image of health and safety regulation and masks the bigger picture: as the figures for 2007/08 show 32,810 employees were exposed to fatal and major injuries at work.”
If (when) the Conservatives come to power in England, Cameron and Lord Young will need to structure an inquiry that is inclusive and designed to be constructive. Many people will approach such an inquiry with decades of suspicion and many memories of despair and disappointment. In many ways the laws require a rationalisation, not a revolution and this is what Cameron needs to “sell” as he gets ready for the next election, due in the first half of 2010.