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  • Writer's pictureRobert Spicer

Health and Safety attacked

Cameron attacks Britain’s ‘health and safety culture’ but raises more questions than answers

Last week at a conference for business owners, David Cameron launched an attack on the ‘monster’ that is health and safety law; warning that it was stifling business growth and contributing to the slow economic development. Continuing his onslaught, the prime minster suggested that local authorities needed a ‘slap’ to force them into more effective cooperation with business.

He also admitted that he was wrong about something. Was it the admission that the austere measures enforced upon us weren’t working? Was it the admission that his approach to the Eurozone crisis was an error in judgment? Or maybe it was the fact that referring to Ed Balls’ “enthusiasm” in the House of Commons in the following terms was wrong; “the endless, ceaseless banter, it’s like having someone with Tourette’s permanently sitting opposite you.”

No no, the penetrating mistake for which Cameron finally held his hands up was actually nothing as headline-grabbing – the national insurance holiday for new businesses outside of the South-east didn’t actually create any new jobs. Quelle surprise. Everybody, well everybody that wasn’t educated in Eton and has job security (probably) until 2015, knows that there are no new jobs. Anywhere. Crikey, most people are having a hard enough time trying to hold on to the one they’ve got.

Cameron has sought to rectify his mistake at not providing businesses with opportunity for growth by announcing that;

“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… I think that will take a lot of fear out of the health and safety monster and make sure that businesses feel they can get on, they can plan, they can invest, they can grow without feeling they are going to be strangled by red tape and health and safety regulation.” (London Evening Standard)

Unfortunately, this statement only reinforces the view that there is a real gap in our PM’s knowledge. One supposes he is trying to engage with his electorate, the “Common people”. Complaints over health and safety law restricting events are well-known, and they’re perpetuated by both workers and the media. Thus by attacking the monster of health and safety in order to encourage growth, on the surface, is a good plan.

However, quite simply, his approach to condemning health and safety law completely undermines the policy reasons for having it and worse, not only does Cameron subscribe to the myth that health and safety law strangles growth, he is perpetuating it.

There are a few points that everyone in this discussion should know:

  • There is no “health and safety culture”. There is a fear of litigation for failing to comply with health and safety. The two are quite different.

  • This culture is analogous to another myth – compensation culture. It is a phrase frequently used, but again, it does not exist. Researchers in to the compensation culture, in their 2006-2007 report to the House of Commons, recognised that the true problem is excessive risk aversion and not a repeated desire to sue.

  • It is not the principle of the law that is to blame – it is the interpretation of it. If interpretation is failing, one looks to the drafting of the offending item. One does not remove it completely.

Health and safety rules and regulations are perhaps the most important body of law in the UK. By requiring risks to be identified, it STOPS INJURY AND DEATH. That means that health and safety law SAVES LIVES. It does not just, like most other areas of law, punish those who caused injury or death after the event. Murder, for example, is “the unlawful killing of a human being in the Queen’s peace, with malice aforethought.” The law on murder doesn’t stop the killing; it punishes not prevents. In health and safety law crimes and civil wrongs are committed on the possibility of causing injury. Why, therefore, does Mr Cameron refer to this important body of law as the enemy? Why is he, weirdly, using violent metaphors to define law that is the most protective of them all? Is it to be that Common person and engage with people? Or more sinisterly, does he actually believe that businesses and his “Big Society” would be better off without it?

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