Lord Young = old approach to OHS

Reviews of OHS legislation by governments are usually keenly anticipated as they mostly occur once a system is broken.  But there seems to be considerable trepidation with the plan announced on 14 June 2010, by the Prime Minister, David Cameron.

Cameron has appointed Lord Young to undertake an extensive review of OHS.  According to the Prime minister’s media statement:

“The rise of the compensation culture over the last ten years is a real concern, as is the way health and safety rules are sometimes applied.

We need a sensible new approach that makes clear these laws are intended to protect people, not overwhelm businesses with red tape.”

Lord Young has a lot of work to do in building bridges after his disastrous appearance at the 2010 conference of the Institute of Occupational Safety & Health (IOSH) in April 2010.  It’s not quite like putting Lord John Browne in charge of a petrol station but….

Brendan Barber, General Secretary of the Trade Union Congress, has questioned the understanding of worker issues that the review will apply but also stated:

‘We are also surprised the Government is addressing the ‘compensation culture’ again as successive reports show there is no such thing and claims have been falling over the past ten years.”

Barber misses the broader point by only looking at workers’ compensation.  In David Cameron’s speech on OHS in December 2009, he stated his “conservative approach”:

“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.”

It is suggested that he was considering the issue of public liability, claims against local government and other areas that have coverage of safety risks.

The Independent ran an article on 15 June 2010 consisting principally of interviews with safety experts.  The article stressed that OHS legislation and enforcement has made substantial gains and that hysteria and myths have been investigated and largely proved false.

It is rare for a conservative government to instigate a review of OHS that progresses the discipline.   Lord Robens‘ review was established in 1969 under a Labour Government and the legislation stemming from the review was worked on by the conservative government of Edward Heath.  Conservative Australian politician, Prime Minister John Howard, in the 1996 budget cut $A18 million from the National OHS Commission budget rendering the organisation to be a minor player in OHS enforcement for over a decade.

The biggest concern in the new UK review seems to be the leadership of Lord Young.  His comment included in the Prime Minister’s media statement is ominous but will resonate with the conservative electorate:

“Health and safety regulation is essential in many industries but may well have been applied too generally and have become an unnecessary burden on firms, but also community organisations and public services.

I hope my review will reintroduce an element of common sense and focus the regulation where it is most needed. We need a system that is proportionate and not bureaucratic.”

The mention of “common sense” is of great concern.

Safety organisations such as IOSH may be the best chance for Lord Young to expand his understanding of occupational safety as it is unlikely he will be anything more than polite to the TUC.  Lord Young would do well by inviting OHS legislative experts from Canada, New Zealand and Australia to have input into the review as, in many ways, these countries have progressed OHS law far from the strong UK base set down by Robens last century.

This antipodean approach would have been more palatable to the UK conservatives than dealing with the European Union OHS representatives.  It is unlikely that Lord Young would consider the European approach to OHS as compatible with his “common sense”.

David Cameron would have been more politically astute if he had followed the recent Australian inquiry, which reflected the Robens’ model, and established a tripartite panel instead of  going solely for Lord Young.  Even with Lord Young as the chair, the inclusion of a unionist and a safety professional would have reduced the sting somewhat and provided the final report with a possibly warmer response.

Kevin Jones

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