Playing to the Gallery?

Playing to the Gallery?

Is it me, or are the radical reforms to health and safety proving to be all smoke and mirrors?

Way back in June 2010, when the coalition was newly formed, David Cameron appointed Lord Young of Graffham to conduct a review of health and safety law and practice. The Young report was published later that year. It was wide-ranging, though whether it was fully comprehensive and evidence-based is a matter of opinion.

Lord Young was very clear in focusing his attention on the issue of the compensation culture, stating that fear of litigation (and the associated costs) was a major driver in many risk-averse decisions taken by business, schools and other organisations. He also stated that much of the fear was caused by a perception that litigation is easy and that a claimant will always win.

“…I believe that a ‘compensation culture’ driven by litigation is at the heart of the problems that so beset health and safety today.”

Foreword to the Young report

Lord Young wasn’t telling those in power anything that they didn’t know already. A report by the Better Regulation Task Force (an independent government advisory group) called Better Routes to Redress said much the same thing in 2004:

“It is this perception that causes the real problem: the fear of litigation impacts on behaviour and imposes burdens on organisations trying to handle claims. The judicial process is very good at sorting the wheat from the chaff, but all claims must still be assessed in the early stages. Redress for a genuine claimant is hampered by the spurious claims arising from the perception of a compensation culture. The compensation culture is a myth; but the cost of this belief is very real.”

Foreword to Better Routes to Redress

Following on from Lord Young’s report came the Löfstedt report, with a far narrower remit; health and safety regulation and Approved Codes of Practice. This report was far more evidence-based and made a series of practical recommendations. Whether you believe that all of the recommendations are completely justified and sound is, again, a matter of opinion.

Professor Löfstedt was of the view that there are no major problems with the legislative framework as it stands:

“I have concluded that, in general, there is no case for radically altering current health and safety legislation. The regulations place responsibilities primarily on those who create the risks, recognising that they are best placed to decide how to control them and allowing them to do so in a proportionate manner. There is a view across the board that the existing regulatory requirements are broadly right, and that regulation has a role to play in preventing injury and ill health in the workplace. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that proportionate risk management can make good business sense.”

Foreword to the Löfstedt Report

Many of his recommendations will take significant work (mostly by or involving the HSE) to implement. Professor Löfstedt was at pains to point out that resources would be an issue if his demanding deadlines were to be met.

But even when all of the Löfstedt recommendations have been implemented there will be little change for most businesses, organisations or the men and women working in them. Many of the regulatory changes involve consolidating or revoking out-of-date or sector specific regulations. The exemption for the self-employed will make little or no practical difference to most self-employed workers (who don’t bother anyway). In short, I can’t see that it will make much difference for most of us.

Because Löfstedt’s focus was on the regulations, many of the recommendations do little or nothing to address the cultural problems that were identified by the Young and BRTF reports.

Maybe I’m getting cynical in my old age, but I can’t help but think that the Löfstedt report (however well prepared) is simply an example of politicians playing to the gallery. Health and safety law will always be there in some way, shape or form and organisations just have to accept this fact. Just like tax, accounts, consumer protection, employment law, etc.

But if you Google (other search engines are available) “David Cameron and health and safety” you might get the impression that the Prime Minister is abolishing the lot:

“I don’t think there is any one single way you can cut back the health and safety monster…You have got to look at the quantity of rules, and we are cutting them back. You have got to look at the way they are enforced, and we are making sure that is more reasonable.”

Guardian online, 5th January 2012

“So one of the Coalition’s New Year resolutions is this: kill off the health and safety culture for good. I want 2012 to go down in history not just as Olympics year or Diamond Jubilee year, but the year we banished a lot of this pointless time-wasting from the economy and British life once and for all.”

London Evening Standard, 5th January 2012

Perhaps the PM has recognised that kicking health and safety is popular. Perhaps he is discovering that tackling the compensation culture, with the well-heeled self-interest groups that this might inconvenience, is difficult. Perhaps he has discovered that chucking a shed-load of work at the HSE (who can’t say no) is an easier option.

For the HSE themselves, there appears to be a huge job to do following Löfstedt. But most of that work is doable. Indeed some of the things recommended were already there but perhaps not as clearly signposted as they might have been. For example, I can’t be the only person to have noticed that the HSE are attempting to raise the profile of their myth-buster webpages. Anyone who visits the HSE website will know that the myth-busters have been there for years.

My worry is not that the HSE have a difficult task ahead of them, or that they might have to change or revoke some regulations. My worry is that the PM fails to show true leadership and a clear vision in tackling the key issue identified by Lord Young and others. He may instead continue to deliver mixed messages and perpetuate the very myths and nonsense that have got us here in the first place.

For example, it’s a shame he hadn’t looked at the myth-buster site before he went off on one of his anti-health and safety rants:

“Talk of health and safety can too often sound farcical or marginal. People think of children being given goggles to play conkers, or trainee hairdressers being banned from using scissors.”

London Evening Standard, 5th January 2012

Judith Hackitt’s eyes must have rolled skywards at that one.

My message to the PM is pretty simple: stop playing to the gallery. Give a more truthful view of the reports that your advisors have given you. Start talking about the real successes of health and safety regulation in the UK over the years. We have arguably the best health and safety standards in Europe and many nations around the world envy those standards and seek to replicate them.

In your foreword to Lord Young’s report you state:

“A damaging compensation culture has arisen, as if people can absolve themselves from any personal responsibility for their own actions, with the spectre of lawyers only too willing to pounce with a claim for damages on the slightest pretext.”

Until you tackle the perception that this is the case, nothing will change.