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November 26, 2010

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Brickbats and bouquets for Lord Young review in House of Lords debate

The only antidote to those who would “assert petty authority” or “take extreme views” in relation to health and safety provision is common sense, Lord Young has told the House of Lords.

Speaking during a three-and-a-half hour debate in the House yesterday (25 November) on his report Common sense, common safety, the former advisor on health and safety to the Government (he stepped down last week in the wake of comments he made in his other capacity as ‘enterprise tsar’) said: “There have been few criticisms of my report – save perhaps from a small minority of personal-injury lawyers!”

While the majority of the 22 peers who spoke during the debate did welcome the report – particularly the emphasis on cracking down on ‘no win, no fee’ lawyers and claims management firms – there was also a good deal of dissent on some of the report’s recommendations.

Most scathing in his contribution was RoSPA president, Lord Jordan of Bourneville, who said the report was “rushed” and seemed to be “more about pleasing the tabloids than a well-researched and sober assessment of the changing nature of threats to life and limb in this country”.

The Labour peer continued: “There is a misplaced emphasis in the report on the compensation culture that undermines the importance of health and safety and belittles what this country has achieved to make it a safer place to work. The tireless work put in by management, workers and unions must be applauded.”

Lord Jordan went on to criticise the report’s “lack of professionalism” – in terms of its reliance on “hearsay evidence and anecdotes”; the “lack of understanding” displayed by the “crude division” of workplaces into high and low-risk; and the “lack of balance” in failing to get across the message that there is still much more to do on health and safety.

He also slammed the Government’s decision to cut the HSE’s budget by 35 per cent, saying it is “as incomprehensible as it is dangerous”.

Former health and safety minister, Lord McKenzie of Luton, also expressed his disappointment in the report, which, he said, “makes no recommendations on issues such as enforcement, prevention, or, indeed, direct responsibilities”. He lamented its lack of focus on health issues and the easing off on “low-risk” workplaces, saying: “Of course the same health and safety laws do not apply to all workplaces, but the general health and safety law that does apply to all is designed to be proportionate to the varying risks.

“We can support improved ways of helping businesses to understand the identification, management and control of risk but not any moves to remove them from the requirement to risk assess. Periodic checklists may help, but they must not just engender an unthinking tick-box approach.”

Lord McKenzie concluded by quoting IOSH, which has said: “For every silly health and safety news story there are countless unreported stories of untimely death, terrible injury, or debilitating disease. This is the reality of health and safety going wrong.”

Lord Brougham and Vaux, president of the National Health and Safety Groups Council and honorary vice-president of IOSH, also spoke on behalf of the Institution, saying: “It is not before time that we have a national debate on health and safety to help to clear the confusion and the negativity surrounding this profession and to restore its good name as a foundation block for a successful and confident society.

“IOSH would like the public focus to be on the serious issues of preventing injury, illness and death through work activities, rather than the trivial nonsense we read about all too often in some sections of the media.”

The Conservative peer also voiced IOSH’s concern over whether the drive to cut red tape “will also mean a cut in standards in health and safety”, reminding the House that “in the weeks and months ahead, the welfare of workers is on the line”. In this time of austerity, when the Government is looking to cut costs, and entrepreneurs are setting up the new businesses of tomorrow, “has it ever been more critical to protect people at work?” he asked.

While most of the speakers focused on Lord Young’s recommendations in relation to the “compensation culture” many of them also welcomed the emphasis on accrediting those who work in the health and safety sector. Lord Sugar, in his trademark, no-nonsense way, drew laughter from the peers by pointing out that “as there is no mandatory qualification for health and safety consultants, any of your lordships could become one”.

He continued: “The advice they give in many cases is just common sense but companies, despite the existence of excellent sources of information like Business Link, continue to employ these so-called experts to give advice, and, in many cases there is an overkill scenario in order to justify high charges.”

Lord Bhattacharyya blamed the low opinion of health and safety among small businesses on their fear of being sued and consequent reliance on “a small army of consultants who have little interest in making the regulations understandable”.

He explained: “The more confusion there is in the interpretation of regulations, the greater is the need for consultancy. It’s nothing more than a gravy train. The solution is clarity and simplicity – not fewer rules. We need to ensure that independent consultants offer good, straightforward advice.”

Baroness Rita Donaghy, who authored last year’s seminal report on health and safety in the construction industry, One death is too many, drew a distinction between paid consultants and the “hundreds of thousands of union health and safety reps who have kept workplaces safe over the years – the unpaid volunteers who keep our thoughtlessness and carelessness in check”.

In terms of accrediting paid consultants, Baroness Donaghy sounded a note of caution: “While I was preparing my report, I met 175 representatives of organisations with interests in construction. Many had long and honourable traditions of health and safety, and, dare I say it, entrenched, which makes progress slow and difficult. The possession of a common accreditation, or a common core of agreed standards, which might be more achievable, does not guarantee proportionality. Indeed, proportionality is unlikely to be achieved when there is money to be made. There are too many seagulls around this particular liner.”

In his concluding remarks, Lord Young said he “failed to recognise” some of the more damning descriptions of his report, and expressed his gratitude to those speakers who had fully endorsed it. One of these, Labour Independent peer, Lord Rooker, warned that now Lord Young is no longer spearheading the drive, his report is likely to “gather dust”.

He warned: “Nothing will happen unless somebody with get-up-and-go is charged with dealing with it. I say to the prime minister that letting Lord Young go is a sign of weakness. My central plea is that someone should be put in charge of ensuring that the report is implemented, because that is the desire of everybody.”

The Cabinet Office confirmed to SHP that Lord Young has stepped down from this role but that the Government remains “fully committed to his agenda and has agreed to all his recommendations”.

A transcript of the full House of Lords debate can be found here.


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