Last year the government asked Ragnar Lofsted to review Health and Safety regulation in the UK. This is always tricky. It can be the kiss of death to any career aspirations if you say the wrong thing. But, like any good researcher he figured he would gather some data first. After all, who could argue with the evidence? I’m sure that’s how the Iraq inquiry started.
In this and subsequent blogs, I thought I’d review some of his points and findings. It’s over a 100 pages long and there are no pictures. Though there are a few bar charts and tables. Ragner makes a very good point right at the beginning. It’s a point that rings true and most have recognised from all the silly stories on health and safety that have lead to excessive application.
The point is that H&S regulation in the UK is not fundamentally flawed or excessive. Yes, of course everyone can point to isolated examples of poor, duplicative or excessive, meaningless regulation. But , it tends to be the interpretation and application that can be excessive and wrong. This causes businesses to feel that they have to do far more than was ever intended. It causes some to feel swamped under a weight of regulation, and especially the fear of civil action. Points similar to this were made by Dave Young in his report out last year too.
The general movement of UK regulations from prescriptive to goal setting (though in reality always a mixture) has always been difficult. On the one hand, it offers flexibility and allows proportionate, risk-based responses. On the other hand, it means that the adequacy of some measures is a cause for argument. That is, it can be difficult to be certain that you have done enough or what is considered reasonable. But that is unfortunately what life is like. The regulations are underpinned by codes of practice and guidance which offer practical advice; but these cannot consider every eventuality and, in some cases, become out of date. They have been accused of being too technical too – but to be much use, surely some of them need to be?
Ragner points out depressingly that, though we may aspire to change some of the dysfunctional legislation, in practice we cannot do so very easily. Some of the confusion in legislation is of our own making – duplication, poor wording, lots of bits spread over many different pieces of legislation etc. Some of this can be helped by consolidation. But much of what we have stems directly from the UK’s membership of the EU. Short of an invasion, we have to move through the democratic process of influencing the parliament and council of the EU – that means long and lavish lunches. And, unless you have been on another planet, they are rather concerned about other matters, such as economic stability of its members.
In terms of enforcement, Ragner recommends that HSE essentially becomes responsible for enforcing most things, instead of the local authorities (i.e. councils). Yes, that could make it more consistent but HSE already faces a resourcing issue.
The government has issued a response to Ragner’s report – responding to each recommendation. Overall, it seems behind the recommendations, at least their objectives. They have committed to a timetable of reforms as a result, just to demonstrate…er…their commitment.