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  • Writer's pictureRobert Spicer

Health and safety law: the Cinderella of the English legal system: never more important

Health and safety law outwardly appears to be for the benefit of the working class. It has been argued that it was never properly enforced and was never intended to be. The argument goes that health and safety laws were introduced to give employees the false impression that their interests were promoted and to deflect their militancy.

In reality:

· The promoters of the early factory legislation were genuinely concerned to improve workplace conditions.

· Within the employing class, competing industrialists supported the new laws because they would increase their competitors’ costs.

· The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 was introduced against a background of pressures from the civil service to simplify the legislation, from the TUC, from public concern and from individuals such as Foot and Lord Robens.

Health and safety legislation is starved of resources for its enforcement. In 2012-2013, 706 cases were prosecuted for health and safety offences.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) receives income from a number of sources, including the proceeds of fines, sales of publications, EU and investment income, and funding from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). Its budget from the DWP however has been cut by 35 per cent. A further 9.5 per cent reduction is scheduled for the year 2014/2015. The number of HSE employees has been reduced by 6 per cent. It has been reported that deaths in the construction industry increased by 8 per cent in the year 2013-2014. A trade union spokesperson is reported to have commented that dangers in the construction industry were exacerbated by the massive cuts that the government had made to the HSE’s budget and its continued attack on safety laws and regulations.

Health and safety law and practice, however imperfect and underfunded, clearly operates to protect workers and to improve safety standards. If there were no health and safety law, could it seriously be argued that employers would voluntarily cut profits to improve safety standards?

During the Franco regime, advertisements for investments in Spain regularly appeared in the British press. These stated that one of the main advantages of investing in companies in a country with a fascist government was that there were minimal health and safety regulations and little legal employment protection.

Health and safety law is the Cinderella of the English legal system. It rarely features in law school syllabuses, is under constant attack for populist journalists and is subjected to government cuts. In reality, it is one of the few elements of English law which operates in favour of workers in relation to employers.

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