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May 21, 2008

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Tories pledge HSWA revision to combat ‘over-cautious’ policing

The Conservatives want to revise the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 to ensure that the Police prioritise the risk to public safety above the risk to individual officers. Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, outlined the Tories’ intention, should they come into power, to amend section 2 of the HSWA in relation to police operations, as a response to what the party sees as a rise in overly-cautious, defensive policing, which is putting the public at greater risk.

On 15 May, Davis unveiled a dossier of cases where, in the party’s view, health and safety had prevented police from taking certain actions to protect the public. “Too often right-minded officers are weighed down by the suffocating swelter of form-filling, box-ticking and bureaucracy,” he said. “Red tape and regulation are holding the police back. This has fed a health and safety culture that makes the Police less healthy, and the public less safe.”

Of the examples he cited, the most high-profile occurred in June 2003, when a High Court judge criticised the HSE for prosecuting the then Metropolitan Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, and his predecessor Lord Condon, for the death of one employee and injuries to another, after two separate incidents in which these officers pursued criminals across roofs.

Davis concluded: “This nonsense has got to stop. . .Labour has undermined the heroism that has traditionally defined the Police. A Conservative government would restore it.”

Paul Lewis, secretary of health and safety at the Police Federation, accused the Conservatives of opportunist electioneering. “We are totally opposed to any movement on the HSWA,” he told SHP. “The examples the Conservatives have used are down to poor management rather than health and safety legislation. Health and safety does not stop policing being delivered to our communities.”

Instead, he accused the Tories of latching onto the growing number of myths blaming health and safety for risk-aversion, which have been spread by “speculative politicians and press media looking for a story”, before adding that the real key to help officers respond to emergency situations lay in more training.

Richard Jones, IOSH’s policy and technical director, echoed this, saying: “Countless risk-based decisions have been successfully made in such situations over the years and have largely gone unnoticed and unsung. I don’t think the few isolated incidents that we’ve heard about in the media recently are symptomatic of a general problem that warrants changing the HSWA.”

A spokesperson for the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) told SHP that it did not see common-sense health and safety risk assessment as a hindrance to effective policing, but has called for a debate on whether a change in the law is needed.

“[T]he HSWA was arguably developed for a different purpose to which it has now been applied,” she explained. “If urgent, real-time cases have to be approached in the same way as pre-planned operations, we would be worried about risk aversion in commanders, and the cultural and operational impact on commanders’ confidence.”

Reacting to the Tories’ pledge, a Home Office spokesperson conceded: “We are aware of the issues around the way health and safety legislation has been applied to police officers. The Home Office, with ACPO and the National Policing Improvement Agency, is working closely with the HSE to examine how health and safety duties can be met in operational situations.”

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