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December 1, 2009

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Cameron blames health and safety for people’s frustration with politics

David Cameron has pledged to lay siege to the burden of excessive

health and safety rules and regulations, and rationalise the laws

surrounding compensation.

In a major speech delivered today (1 December) at Policy Exchange – a centre-right political think tank – the Conservative leader outlined his party’s approach to what he described as “the great knot of rules, regulations, expectations and fears that I would call the over-the-top health and safety culture”.

Cameron, who caused outrage among some quarters of the health and safety profession last year, when he suggested that health and safety was to blame for a “broken society”, explicitly declared that health and safety legislation in Britain has a “long, and at times very noble history”.

However, he countered this by announcing that “something has gone seriously wrong with the spirit of health and safety in the past decade”, and pointed to decisions where children have been made to wear goggles by their headteachers to play conkers and trainee hairdressers have been prevented from using scissors in the classroom.

He continued: “The growth of the excessive health and safety culture has also had a significant impact on our politics, by eroding accountability in our democracy. That’s because many of these decisions about new rules are taken by remote, unelected bodies, which feel little pressure to answer for their actions.

“I’m sure the rise of this over-the-top health and safety culture is one of the reasons why people feel so angry and frustrated with politics in our country today.”

In describing the causes of this culture, Cameron pointed to “the volume of bureaucratic rules that have been imported from Brussels, which we seem to gold-plate” and suggested that a third of 202 statutory instruments or regulations enforced by the HSE have been passed since Labour came to power.

He did, however, acknowledge that the biggest problem is the way health and safety rules are interpreted and applied, and attacked the commercialisation of lawyers’ incentives to generate litigation and the growth of ‘ambulance-chasing’.

Said Cameron: “Businesses, organisations and individuals operate under the shadow of the worst-case scenario. The more vulnerable they feel, the more cautiously they act – and the more stringent their health and safety processes become. The thicker the handbooks, the longer and more tedious the training days, the sillier the rules.”

He promised to reduce the burden and impact of health and safety legislation but to do so “responsibly, fairly and soberly”, accepting that there were situations where health and safety rules were entirely appropriate. To this end, Lord David Young has been given the task of undertaking an extensive review of health and safety, which will explore the working of the HSE, the nature of our health and safety laws, litigation, and the insurance industry.

Regarding specific changes the Conservatives would make to the law, Cameron said they would amend how s2 of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act applies to the Police, to ensure that “when they are at work, exercising their role as constables, the risk to the public is prioritised above the risk to individual officers”. The Tories would also look to revisit aspects of the Working Time Directive, so that junior doctors are allowed to work more hours.

He also asked whether a Civil Liability Act might be necessary to enshrine in law where the liability for negligence lies.

Summing up, Cameron said: “For every piece of health and safety legislation, we need to ask whether it fulfils a useful purpose – and if not, it must go. And we must bring some common sense to the laws surrounding compensation.

“I want people to know that with the Conservatives, government will let you get on with your life without unnecessary rules and regulations.”

Reacting to Cameron’s speech, the TUC urged political parties not to undermine “the consensus over health and safety” in the run-up to the general election.

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber commented: “The idea that employers are being over-zealous in their application of health and safety regulation is simply not true. The reality is exactly the opposite – last year 246,000 people were injured at work. Neither does the UK have an excess of regulation – there were more than twice as many health and safety regulations and laws 35 years ago than there are now. Today’s safety laws are generally simpler and easier to understand.”

Alan Ritchie, general secretary of construction union UCATT, also hit out at the speech: “The Conservatives most not play politics with the safety of workers in their quest for votes. By trivialising the issue of safety the Conservatives are deflecting attention away from reality. Many workers, especially construction workers, are regularly placed in danger because there are simply too few inspections and too little enforcement activity on construction sites.”
He added: “The hard truth is that in the overwhelming majority of construction fatalities management failure caused or contributed to a worker’s death. Yet only around 30 per cent of deaths resulted in a conviction.”

But Andrew New, product development manager at St John Ambulance, welcomed the debate Cameron has opened. He said: “As it stands at the moment, there is a great deal of confusion about the regulations and all of us working in health and safety need to do more to make clear how they should be interpreted.

“Organisations want to do the right thing, but don’t always know how. Somehow common sense gets lost, and we end up with the stories we all see about ‘health and safety gone mad’.

Do you agree with the Conservatives’ approach? View the full speech below and let us know your thoughts by using the comment box below.


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