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March 16, 2010

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Tories resolute on inspections overhaul

The Conservatives have attracted the wrath of unions by vowing, if elected, to push ahead with contentious plans to allow ‘low-risk’ companies to self-regulate on health and safety issues.

The party has pledged to sweep away what it describes as Labour’s “bureaucratic inspection regime” and replace “regulator-run public teams of inspectors with a model closer to financial controls and audits”.

Outlined in a policy paper entitled Regulation In The Post-Bureaucratic Age, published late last year, the Tories’ are envisaging that certain ‘low-risk’ companies could arrange their own ‘independent’ audits and, if they pass, allow them to refuse HSE inspectors access to their sites.

The controversial model could involve firms employing professionally-qualified experts in regulatory areas such as health and safety, in much the same way as accountants are employed to ensure that correct internal processes and controls are in place, and that reported results are reliable.

The paper goes on to explain: “An external member of the same profession would be paid to audit them in the same way as a company’s financial accounts, and to issue an audit opinion that they are satisfactory. This could be filed with the regulator (like filing annual accounts at Companies House).”

In an interview last week with Construction News, shadow business minister John Penrose confirmed that the plans would be taken forward if the party gains power at the forthcoming election.

He told the magazine that the HSE would have the responsibility of deciding the criteria for a company to be deemed ‘low risk’, and insisted the watchdog would still have the power to inspect in the event of an “emergency”.

Explaining some of the auditing issues surrounding the scheme, he said: “We will need to make sure we have enough highly-qualified auditors, and to ensure they are of the right standard. What we will need to do is decide what qualifications you have got to have to be approved, and ensure they are suitable to do this kind of work. If it doesn’t add up then we will need to make sure more people are trained.”

But Prospect, the union that represents HSE inspectors, is concerned that the importance placed on ensuring the calibre of any independent consultants is likely to result in inspectors being targeted to fill these positions, thereby stripping the HSE of its expertise, trained at the public expense.

The union also believes the proposals will not only jeopardise safety but actually increase the burden on business. Its HSE branch chair Neil Hope-Collins said: “These proposals will open the floodgates for an army of private consultants, trained at public expense, to be unleashed without ministerial accountability on British industry.

“They will be free to charge business a fortune for advice that would constitute an inferior service to that currently provided for free by HSE. My members struggle to see how this reduces the burden on business, or saves public money in any way whatsoever.”

Prospect negotiator, Mike Macdonald added: “Occupational health and safety law is not black and white. The experience of our members shows that someone without statutory responsibility is more inclined to err on the side of greater controls just to make sure. This is because they are trying to second-guess an inspector’s judgement of legal compliance and therefore are likely to impose a greater burden on the business.”

Construction union UCATT also lambasted the proposals. General secretary Alan Ritchie fumed: “The ignorance and the stupidity of the Conservatives is staggering. Safety on construction sites, where many different companies are working at any one time, can change rapidly.

“Under these plans if workers or members of the public had safety concerns, the HSE would be prevented from acting until an accident occurred. The HSE’s role should be primarily about preventing accidents before they occur.”

IOSH also believes the plan would be a “retrograde step”. John Lacey, chair of its Construction Group, said the plans seem to be based on “two big misconceptions: firstly, that the HSE doesn’t take a risk-based approach to inspection now, which of course it does; and secondly, that audits are ‘safety guarantees’, which of course they aren’t!”

He said the plan for a ‘one-off’ compliance check for businesses wouldn’t ensure they had continual good standards, adding: “They could be compliant one day and then not a few days later; or indeed, compliant on those sites sampled, but not on others.”

Mr Penrose said in the interview he is keen to reassure critics that “we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t think it would improve standards”, and emphasised that the plans would allow the HSE to focus its resources on the most risky companies.

But Mr Ritchie retorted: “Construction deaths are all-too frequent and they occur on sites run by both large and small companies. To ban inspections on sites run by some companies is not going to make the industry safer.”

The HSE declined to comment, saying it is not its place to give views on potential government policy.

To view what some SHP readers think of the proposal, see our earlier story, ‘Tories could ban intrusive inspections’.

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